"Bush Symposium - ACM <i>Interactions</i> Article"

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The Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush Symposium

The ACM Interactions Article

"50 Years After 'As We May Think': The Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush Symposium"

Authors: Rosemary Simpson, Allen Renear, Elli Mylonas, and Andries van Dam

"50 Years After 'As We May Think': The Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush Symposium" was published in the March 1996 issue of Interactions, a bimonthly publication of ACM. The following extended extract is published with the permission of ACM. The full text of the article includes diagrams that tie together the themes of the Symposium, photographs and mini-biographies of the participants, sidebars on the Bush's biography, technology used at the Symposium, and the future of hypertext.



As We May Think

Bush's Legacy in 1995




The Future


This paper gives a thematic view of the Vannevar Bush Symposium held at MIT on October 12-13, 1995 to honor the 50th anniversary of Bush's seminal paper, 'As We May Think'. It is not intended to be an exhaustive review of the speeches and panels, but rather to convey the intense intellectual and emotional quality of what was a most extraordinary event, one that was self-referential in ways unanticipated by the planners. To capture this event further, we are planning a web site that will contain extensive hypertextual written, audio, and video records.

[[This web site - Memex and Beyond - is the seed of that planned web site]]


In honor of the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush's seminal article, "As We May Think", Brown University and MIT co-sponsored The Vannevar Bush Symposium on October 12-13, 1995 at MIT The featured speakers - Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, Robert Kahn, Tim Berners-Lee, Michael Lesk, Nicholas Negroponte, Raj Reddy, Lee Sproull, and Alan Kay - are all pioneers who have shaped the legacy of Bush we are immersed in today. They also represent the major topics of "As We May Think": augmentation of human sensory and mental capabilities; information structuring, retrieval and transmission; and the synergistic interplay of technology and human enterprise. The invited audience included people from many diverse areas, literary computing to sociology to computer engineering; many of them were as well know or influential as the speakers themselves. Together the speakers and participants represented the multidisciplinary community that reflects the many lines of research and though emanating from Bush's paper.

In addition, Andy van Dam and Paul Kahn presented background and supporting information about Vannevar Bush's life and the history of attempts to transcend the linearity enforced by a paper medium. Paul Kahn, co-author of From Memex to Hypertext, presented an animated simulation of the memex created for the symposium that provided a valuable context for the speeches that followed.

The symposium was designed as a 'posthumous Festschrift' - a research symposium in honor of Bush's vision. Andy van Dam, the symposium organizer and moderator, charged the speakers to ground their talks in the intersection between their work and Bush's vision and then to look at the still unsolved problems - to, in effect, set the research agenda for the next 50 years, as the prescient Bush had for the previous 50. But these two days became - perhaps inevitably, given the speakers, the audience, and the occasion - rather more than either a Festschrift or a repositioning of a research agenda. The talks, plenary discussion, and coffee-break conversations taken together turned into a celebration of Bush's vision and its powerful influence in creating the world in which we now live and an extension of that vision into today's physical, social, and cyberspace realities.

The event was in fact an exhibition of Bush's legacy, a self-referential, interweaving (intertwingling, Ted Nelson would say) of all the themes - social, technological, and psychological - from Bush's paper. In the course of two days it became very clear how deep and ambitious - socially and culturally - Bush's most central ideas were. At every turn we were reminded that Bush was writing about how fundamentally new intellectual practices could change the entire landscape of human social life. Bush's vision was not just about hypertext, or data management, or information retrieval, let alone about microfilm or calculating machines; rather, it was about extending the power of human beings by giving them radically new ways of working together.

The goal of fundamentally changing how we work in order to address pressing human problems continued to be central throughout the development of Bush's legacy in the '60s and '70s, most obviously in the work of Engelbart, Nelson, and Kay. Its continued evidence throughout the symposium - even (perhaps most notably)_ in the presentation of Tim Berners-Lee, the youngest speaker - and the warm response of the audience made it clear that this optimistic social agenda still resonates. It seems that we are not too jaded, skeptical, or post-modern to believe, 50 years later, that technology can bring us 'a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge', one that will promote 'the application of science to the needs and desires of man' ('As We May Think').

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