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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

11 OCTOBER, 2012

As We May Think: A 1945 Essay on Information Overload, “Curation,” and Open-Access Science


“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.”

Tim O’Reilly recently admonished that unless we embrace open access over copyright, we’ll never get science policy right. The sentiment, which I believe applies to more than science, reminded me of an eloquent 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush, then-director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, titled “As We May Think.” As the war, with its exploitation of science and technology, draws to a close, Bush turns a partly concerned, partly hopeful eye to where scientists will rediscover “objectives worthy of their best” and calls for “a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge.”

Much of what Bush discusses presages present conversations about information overload, filtering, and our restless “FOMO” — fear of missing out, for anyone who did miss out on the memetic catchphrase — amidst the incessant influx. Bush worries about the impossibility of ever completely catching up and the unfavorable signal-to-noise ratio:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month’s efforts could be produced on call. Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

More than half a century before blogging, Instagramming, tweeting, and the rest of today’s ever-lowering barriers of entry for publishing content, Bush laments the unmanageable scale of the recorded “human experience”:

The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

Marveling at the rapid rate of technological progress, which has made possible the increasingly cheap production of increasingly reliable machines, Bush makes an enormously important — and timely — point about the difference between merely compressing information to store it efficiently and actually making use of it in the way of gleaning knowledge. (This, bear in mind, despite the fact that 90% of data in the world today was created in the last two years.)

Assume a linear ratio of 100 for future use. Consider film of the same thickness as paper, although thinner film will certainly be usable. Even under these conditions there would be a total factor of 10,000 between the bulk of the ordinary record on books, and its microfilm replica. The Encyclopoedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van. Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it, and this aspect of the matter comes later. Even the modern great library is not generally consulted; it is nibbled at by a few.

To that end, I often think about the architecture of knowledge as a pyramid of sorts — at the base of it, there is all the information available to us; from it, we can generate some form of insight, which we then consolidate into knowledge; at our most optimal, at the top of the pyramid, we’re then able to glean from that knowledge some sort of wisdom about the world, and our place in it, and what matters in it and why. Bush himself notes the challenge of transmuting information into wisdom given the scale of what’s available — a scale that has grown by an incomprehensibly enormous magnitude since 1945. He stresses, as many of us believe today, that mechanization — or, algorithms in the contemporary equivalent — will never be a proper substitute for human judgment and creative thought in the filtration process:

Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record. For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.


We seem to be worse off than before — for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge. The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed. There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.


Selection, in this broad sense, is a stone adze in the hands of a cabinetmaker.

He then gets to the essence of what we talk about when we talk about “curation”:

The real heart of the matter of selection, however, goes deeper than a lag in the adoption of mechanisms by libraries, or a lack of development of devices for their use. Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

The memex

He goes on to envision something called the “memex,” a kind of personal hard drive decades before those became a common way of organizing information, emphasizing the importance of what we now call hyperlinks and metadata — information about the information, often based on associations — in making this personal library navigable and useful:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.… [A]ssociative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another, [is] the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.

He proceeds to give an example of how the memex would be used, essentially presaging hypertext, the internet, and even Wikipedia — and, perhaps more importantly, laying out a model for what excellence at the intersection of the editorial and curatorial looks like:

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

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.

Bush nails the value of what we call today, not without resistance, “information curation”:

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.

He concludes by considering the cultural value and urgency, infinitely timelier today than it was in his day, of making our civilization’s “record” — the great wealth of information about how we got to where we are — manageable, digestible, and useful in our quest for knowledge, wisdom, and growth:

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory.


The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.

Luckily, for every Sherry Turkle pushing to “terminate the process” in today’s information society, there’s a Steven Johnson cheering on its incremental improvement with a fundamental belief in its potential for wisdom and “true good.”

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27 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Timeless Lessons in Ingenuity and Entrepreneurship from the Story of Polaroid


The Apple of yore’s eye, or what modern entrepreneurs can learn from Edwin Land.

In 1942, iconic inventor and Polaroid founder Edwin Land stood up in front of his employees and boldly laid out a vision for incremental success that soon catapulted Polaroid into cultural legend status. By the 1970s, a billion Polaroid photographs were being shot every year, and Polaroid had no real competitor. Fast-forward three decades, to the era-defining surge of digital photography, and it wasn’t long before film photography in general, and Polaroid in particular, became a fringe fixation for specialty hobbyists and artists. Between 2001 and 2009, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy twice, was sold three times, eventually discontinued Polaroid film in 2008, then filed for Chapter 11 in 2012. What happened, and what does its story reveal about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the pursuit of creative vision?

That’s precisely what New York magazine senior editor Christopher Bonanos explores in Instant: The Story of Polaroid (public library) from Princeton Architectural Press — a fascinating tale of rapid rise, catastrophic collapse, and the riveting ride between the two, at once told like never before and strangely familiar in its allegorical quality. Bonanos writes:

When it introduced instant photography in the late 1940s, Polaroid the corporation followed a path that has since become familiar in Silicon Valley: Tech-genius founder has a fantastic idea and finds like0minded colleagues to develop it’ they pull a ridiculous number of all0nighters to do so, with as much passion for the problem-solving as for the product; venture capital and smart marketing follows; everyone gets rich, not not for the sake of getting rich. For a w while, the possibilities seem limitless. Then, sometimes, the MBAs come in and mess things up, or the creators find themselves in over their heads as businesspeople, and the story ends with an unpleasant thud.

The most obvious parallel is to Apple Computer, except that Apple’s story, so far, has a much happier ending. Both companies specialized in relentless, obsessive refinement of their technologies. Both were established close to great research universities to attract talent (Polaroid was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it drew from Harvard and MIT; Apple has Stanford and Berkeley nearby). Both fetishized superior, elegant, covetable product design. And both companies exploded in size and wealth under an in-house visionary-godhead-inventor-genius. At Apple, that man was Steve Jobs. At Polaroid, the genius domus was Edwin Herbert Land.

And, indeed, the parallels between the two visionaries are innumerable — key among them, perhaps, being the adamant belief in creative vision over consumer demand: “Marketing is what you do when your product is no good,” Land famously proclaimed, insisting that you had to give people something they didn’t know they wanted but, once they faced with it, found it irresistible; “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” Jobs famously said. Even their showmanship bore striking resemblance:

At Polaroid’s annual shareholders’ meeting, Land often got up onstage, deploying every bit of his considerable magnetism, and put the company’s net big thing through its paces, sometimes backed by a slideshow t fill in the details, other times with live music between segments. A generation later, Jobs did the same thing, in a black turtleneck and jeans. Both men were college dropouts; both became as rich as anyone could ever wish to be; and both insisted that their inventions would change the fundamental nature of human communication.

But Land was much more than a great showman — he was an extraordinary inventor. In his lifetime, he received 535 United States patents and advised several presidents, including Nixon, who once reportedly asked an aide, “How do we get more Dr. Lands?” (The irony, of course, is that “Dr.” was a cultural rather than academic honor, as Land had dropped out of Harvard.) Perhaps most noteworthy, however, was his cross-disciplinary curiosity, something both great scientists and great artists have advocated for:

[A]longside his scientific passions lay knowledge of art, music, and literature. He was a cultured person, growing even more so as he got older, and his interests filtered into the ethos of Polaroid. His company took powerful pride in its relationship to fine artists, its sponsorship of public television, even its superior graphic design. He liked people who had breadth as well as depth — chemists who were also musicians, say, or photographers who understood physics. He took very good pictures, too.

That’s particularly noteworthy as Land himself didn’t grow up in an intellectual household and was in fact known to bemoan the dearth of books in his childhood home. His intellectual path was the result of semi-serendipitous meandering: As a youngster, he stumbled upon a copy of the 1911 edition of physicist Robert W. Wood’s Physical Optics, where he became mesmerized by the polarization of light. Then, while at summer camp, he saw a demonstration of a Nicol’s prism — a clear crystal cut at such an angle as to act as a natural polarizer — and, as the saying goes, the rest was history.

Land embodied another essential quality of a true entrepreneur — the ability to spot serendipitous opportunity as it arises as a byproduct to a deliberate effort, or something once ingeniously termed “chance-opportunism” and deemed essential in scientific creativity. Bonanos writes of the science and serendipity behind Polaroid’s rise:

A polarizer is a unique type of filter, and its properties are best explained with an oversimplification that Land himself often used. Waves of light, as they come at you, vibrate in every plane, vertically, horizontally, and at all angles in between. Certain crystal structures can function as gratings, allowing through light that vibrates in just one plane. If you picture the beam of light as a handful of thrown straws, oriented in every direction, the polarizing filter is a picket fence. The only straws that come through are the ones that align with the slots between pickets. Sunlight is also polarized when it bounces off a flat, nonmetallic surface, like a lake or the roadway in front of you, causing glare. Adding a polarizing layer to sunglasses blocks light vibrating in that one plane, wiping out the glare and helping drivers see the road or fishermen spot trout beneath the surface of a stream. Photographers, too, use polarizing filters to even out lighting.


Polarizers rather than pictures would define the first two decades of Land’s intellectual life, and would establish his company and career. Instant photos were an idea that came later on, a secondary business around which his company was completely re-created.

Another seemingly radical distinction that gave Land an edge were his recruiting tactics, specifically with regards to hiring female scientists. After he became close with Clarence Kennedy, an art-history professor at Smith College, Land realized he could scout smart and creative science-inclined women in Smith’s art-history department. He would send them off for a couple semesters’ worth of science courses, producing, as Bonanos puts it, “skilled chemists who could keep up when the conversation turned from Maxwell’s equations to Renoir’s brush strokes.” Inside Polaroid, these cross-disciplinarily gifted women were referred to as Princesses.

The rest of Instant goes on to explore both the science and the cultural mythology behind Polaroid, zooming in on Land’s singular lens on entrepreneurship and extracting from it both an inspired and timeless story of ingenuity, and a cautionary tale of boom-and-bust trajectory, brimming with lessons for modern tech mavericks.

Infographic via 1,000 memories; Edwin Land portrait via History of Science

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25 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Mockup Diagram Drawings of the Interior of the Space Shuttle, 1981


“This is a start to get a ‘feeling’ for space.”

This week’s bittersweet farewell to the Space Shuttle Endeavour, on the heels of the recent farewell to Atlantis, sent me reminiscing and rummaging through the San Diego Air & Space Museum archive of public domain images, where I semi-serendipitously discovered these delicious mockup diagram drawings of the interior of the Space Shuttle circa 1981:

Celebrate the Space Shuttle’s legacy with this magnificent Sagan remix, see pioneering astronaut Sally Ride’s first-hand account of what a Space Shuttle launch is actually like, then listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson make a passionate case for why space exploration needs more, not less, support and attention than ever.

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