Vannevar Bush + Chasing New Technology

In 1945, Vannevar Bush’s watershed article, “As We May Think” was published in the Atlantic Monthly. Here he forecasts many technologies that wouldn’t show up for fifty years or more. In particular he predicts a personal device he calls the “Memex,” which would store all of an individual’s books, records and communications. It would allow the user to consult that information with “exceeding speed and flexibility.” Although his thorough description is far from the reality of today, the core idea is crystal clear: We do have personal computers and phones that not only store all of our personal information and communications, but they grant us access to more information than Bush ever imagined.

Among these technologies, Bush also foreshadows new forms of encyclopedias. One idea is based on a trails running through them. That is to say that the information is interconnected, creating pathways through the knowledge. Again, he goes on to describe this in vivid detail based on the ideas and technology available to him in 1945. What emerges is a description of the internet as we know it today – complete with the interlinking of topics and a trail of knowledge.

Are We Chasing the Thrill of New Technology?

As I design interactive systems, it’s truly fascinating to consider the history and stories of the medium we now work in. The culmination of an entire generation of progress is the technical marvel we now call the internet. And, as web designers, we have the luxury of designing inside this system. We can quite easily contain ourselves to this medium, as our entire world is wrapped up inside this single conceptual space.

What I can’t help but ponder is if we are limiting our vision. Are we but the modern equivalent to a letterpress operator? One hundred years ago this individual mastered his trade and pushed the technology to do all that they could imagine; within the bounds of the medium. But when the medium vanished, many people had to move on. This sort of transition is something we witnessed in the great print-to-web shift of the early 2000’s, as traditional print designers struggled to embrace the web. Within a single niche of the web industry we witnessed the effects of this in a very powerful way.

Later, we saw what would be the peak of Flash technology. Many a designers had their careers wrapped up in this single tech which vanished overnight, due to Apple’s decision to not support it on iOS. Many Flash developers easily moved on to new jobs, but others faced a problem as their skills were solely contained inside this one technology.

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Consider how young the web is. At some point HTML and CSS could be displaced (or replaced) by some new technology that simply works better. The reality is that we bend these two techs to do things they weren’t always designed to do. It is conceivable that a new approach emerges. Or consider the fact that tools like Macaw are generating really clean code. Isn’t it conceivable that handwritten code will be a task limited to very few people? I recall the early days of word processors around 1990. In those days we had to use special tags around things to make them bold or italics and so on (very HTML like). Eventually, visual interfaces made this a visual option and we no longer needed to see what was then considered “code.” Now, no one is very interested in how a Word document works, it just works.

This may paint a rather bleak picture, but I think there’s hope. If we shift our focus away from chasing every new technology, and instead focus on the core ideas that make for great design, I believe we can rise to any challenge. We’re uniquely suited to take on emerging tech and shift to new mediums as they arrive. This is why many interactive designers focus on things like Design Thinking or User-Centered Design. Both are models for how to think beyond the tech du jour.

I’ve experienced great relief as I shifted my focus from front end technologies to UX design methods. The way we’re coding is in a constant state of flux, but the methods and concepts undergirding UX design are decades old and much slower to evolve. Why? Because UX methods are extremely nimble and versatile.

New Technology + the Big Picture

Are you exhausted from the insurmountable mountain of new technologies and the constant feeling of being behind? Shift your focus to the big picture. Yes, it’s important to know and understand the technology, to do our best to embrace it, but let’s not miss the point: How are we approaching and solving problems? It’s likely that visionaries like Bush could transition to modern tech because of their perspective. Bush had the wisdom
to look beyond the technology of his day to see what the future holds.


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