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Second Seminar Session: Vannevar Bush

by on September 21, 2011

New Media Faculty Seminar in Second Life 9.21.11

This evening marked the second meeting of our in-world New Media Faculty Seminar (NMFS).  A hearty group of eleven gathered around the campfire in Second Life to discuss Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay, As We May Think.  The conversation was rich and the insights plentiful.

Our SL group hails from rich and varied academic trails….biology, biochemistry, chemistry, economics, philosophy, business, computer science, instructional technology, and American literature.  We alternate between using voice and local chat in Second Life…sometimes speaking our thoughts, sometimes writing them, often using both.  It’s an interesting flow…

Everyone seemed to enjoy reading the Bush essay. We were all taken with what a broad thinker and excellent writer he was – very interesting to note that he wrote this article to be published in a lay-audience journal (The Atlantic).  Hmmm….maybe more of today’s broad-thinking scientists should consider that model, reaching out, thoughtfully, to the general public to elevate the science discourse…. Though we all also noted the limitations of the piece – the sexism in particular was noted.

Here were a few of our favorite “nuggets”:

“Relief must be secured from laborious detailed manipulation of higher mathematics as well, if the users of it are to free their brains for something more than repetitive detailed transformations in accordance with established rules.”

“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. ”

“..our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are …..inadequate for their purpose”

That last one led us on an interesting path, discussing the ways in which our challenge with information today is more about exercising critical judgment and discerning good information from misinformation.  How to best use technology to sift though the “noise”.

We also had a meaty exchange over the potential value of studying the past.  I enjoyed reading this article to get a sense of the intellectual ancestry of the internet..where did these ideas come from.  And I found it exciting to see the grey-bearded ancestors of the hyperlink, the hashtag, the comment, and the trackback.

But for me, the golden nuggets from the essay was Vannevar’s notion of “associative trails”.

“Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him….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 where they were erected.”

Yes, yes.  The idea of capturing our “associative trails” and “sharing them” with others.  And presumably, when you look at the associative trail of another, you will also see all of their dead ends and failed attempts.  Thoughts considered, and abandoned. Connections that failed, as well as those that worked.

All in all, a very rich evening.  Thanks to everyone.  And now, onto Norbert Wiener!


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  1. rolandlegrand permalink

    “Thoughts considered, and abandoned”. And sometimes the fact they were left out there, on their own, enables the researcher to better understand that what the author deemed important. A bit like the little confusions, the seemingly irrelevant things people say during a psycho-analysis can give unexpected meaning to the big questions they’re asking.

    While reading the text together, it struck me that at times we were behaving as literary critics while reading a major text from a “hard scientist”. I love it when technology, science and literary criticism come together.

  2. Yes, I completely agree, Roland. The dead ends and leave-behinds often tell us so much! Loved your observation here that our little campfire circle felt like a group of literary critics (and in the photo, our avatars are all leaning in, intently listening to each other’s opinions). Indeed, a magical confluence of technology, science, and literary criticism. Just so.

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