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Did Vannevar Bush like politicians?

by on September 22, 2011

Vannevar Bush was a great and visionary mind as becomes impressively obvious while reading his text “As We May Think” – Atlantic Magazine, July 1945. However,  the admiration this inspires may not prevent us from discussing more problematic aspects of this text.

In his discussion of  “the manipulation of ideas and their insertion into the record”  he says:

Then, on beyond the strict logic of the mathematician, lies the application of logic in everyday affairs. We may some day click off arguments on a machine with the same assurance that we now enter sales on a cash register. But the machine of logic will not look like a cash register, even of the streamlined model.

At the end of his text there is another exaltation of logic:

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. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

So how “objective” can we be, analyzing our present problems? How logical are the conclusions? What we learn during these days of social and economic upheaval, is that logical reasoning does not lead to univocal outcomes in major discussions.

While trying to make sense of the crisis in the economy, it becomes obvious how impossible it is to reach a consensus about the causes and possible solutions.

Well informed and extremely intelligent professors are embroiled in endless discussions about key aspects of the crisis.

Maybe there is something tragically wrong with economics, but I’ve the impression that we witness an endless conversation which ends not because participants were proven wrong, but because they get tired and eventually retire and die.

Maybe this is too cynical a view, but at the very least one can say that Bush seems to underestimate in these quotes the importance of semantics, the indetermination of meaning.

Which actually could mean that he does not do justice to the complexity of politics. Could it be that he somehow supposed that once we have a smooth, almost frictionless access to the world’s knowledge, and once we can reconstruct the trails of everyone’s thinking, we can go beyond the never-ending struggle of politics and partisanship?

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One Comment
  1. Nicely said. A little dose of reality into Bush’s “clean room” optimism.

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