As We May Think

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.

The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected. —Vannevar BushAs We May Think (The Atlantic)

In a “Writing for the Internet” class, I assigned this classic essay, in which the author spun a series of fantastic ideas that imagined an information distribution network that would use the technology that was available during his day.

I have the students blog what they think about the readings before class, so I can get some sense of what to expect. For some of the students, the thing they most wanted to write about was how hard the essay was to read!

Since the class includes freshmen who may be encoutering a full-length essay for the first time, I’m sure part of their reaction simply stems from their unfamiliarity with the genre. But we’ve also just gone through some practical material on why online writing should be shorter and punchier than print, so they’re noticing the difference now when we move to the print-based genre.