The Web of Alexandria

Bret Victor / May 24, 2015

Vannevar Bush, As We May Think, 1945 --

Vannevar Bush's "library of a million volumes, compressed into one end of a desk" may sound quaint to us today. Bush naively assumed that immediate access to a million volumes would require the physical presence of those million volumes. His proposal -- a million volumes in every desk.

The web, of course, took a different approach. A million volumes, yes, but our desks remain empty. Instead, when we summon a volume, we are granted a transient and ephemeral peek at its sole instance, out there somewhere in the world, typically secured within a large institution.

Two thoughts:

It's interesting that life itself chose Bush's approach. Every cell of every organism has a full copy of the genome. That works pretty well -- DNA gets damaged, cells die, organisms die, the genome lives on. It's been working pretty well for about 4 billion years.

It's also interesting to consider how someone from Bush's time might view our situation. For someone who's thinking about a library in every desk, going on the web today might feel like visiting the Library of Alexandria. Things didn't work out so well with the Library of Alexandria.

It's not working so well today either.

We, as a species, are currently putting together a universal repository of knowledge and ideas, unprecedented in scope and scale. Which information-handling technology should we model it on? The one that's worked for 4 billion years and is responsible for our existence? Or the one that's led to the greatest intellectual tragedies in history?