The integration of the various communications and information tools available in the mid-to-late 20th century has given us the Internet and the World Wide Web. This web was first conceived by Vannevar Bush, a venerable American Scientist who found himself in charge of 6 000 scientists at the end of the Second Industrial World War.
After spending 6 years working on more efficient ways of blowing other people up, Bush suggested that scientists should:
now turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge which, if properly developed, will give man access to, and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages.
It is difficult to give a firm date for the beginning of a new era. Dr Bush wrote the web into human consciousness by submitting an article to the Atlantic Monthly. Under the title of 'As You May Think', the article was published in July 1945. Dr Bush wrote:
Consider a future 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.
Dr Bush then goes on to develop the idea of linking bits and pieces of information together in 'trails of association', so that the information is not merely indexed but can be organised in a way that resembles the processes of the human mind itself.
All information workers would benefit. The historian, for example,
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.
So it is that today an interested person may link together the most ancient of texts with the latest news. Over half a century since Vannevar Bush's conception and here we sit in front of our 'memex' communicating beyond the limitations of time and space.
Dr Bush tells me that I am part of "a new profession of trail blazers" making trails through the common record and I have linked his thought - trail to mine with a 'hotlink'. We have never met in the flesh, yet our thoughts are connected as electrical energy in a matrix that spans the globe to connect the thoughts of millions of people who have lived and died.
So far there has been a lot of noise about 'internet start ups' and dot-com boom and busts. There is also a lot of discussion of technology and computers. But good information is hard to find among masses of 'I want to sell you something" pages.
Navigating around most parts of the web can leave you feeling as if you've just undergone a mental assault. Flashing lights and gimmicks urge you to 'spend money now! Click Here! Win Instantly!' and leave you grasping puffs of false promises like trying to catch a cloud.
But when the hype diminishes, the mature and experienced user sits down to answer some interesting and useful questions and hopefully, over time, learns to navigate with ease and efficiency to the information s/he needs right now; information useful and applicable in life is still the substance of our search and enterprise. Connecting people of like or mutual interest is part of the process of 'Integration', it's not really about technology. It is how and why we use it that counts.
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.
While everybody on the internet appears to be looking for something 'new', the real purpose of the web is to record the 'old'. The Gutenberg Project has been working for years to bring us the collected knowledge of recorded human culture online and free.
So the records have been 'mechanised' and we are working towards our experiment's logical conclusion.
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.
The 'connected society' has been evolving for a long time. Communication through language is the main difference between humans and other life-forms. Throughout human history 'progress' has relied on constantly improving communication systems, from Roman roads to the telegraph, the sharpened stick to the computer.
To be continued..
Phillip Charlier 1999