Brittanica on Microfilm vs. Wikipedia on the Web

Assume a linear ratio of 100 for future use. Consider film of the same thickness as paper, although thinner film will certainly be usable. Even under these conditions there would be a total factor of 10,000 between the bulk of the ordinary record on books, and its microfilm replica. The Encyclopoedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk.

– Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”

First of all, a tangent: It is amazing to me that as much as Vannevar Bush, in his essay “As We May Think” correctly predicted many things that do indeed exist today, but yet he doesn’t predict the practical obsolescence of microfilm.

If you mention microfilm in a crowd of librarians, you can get a lot of them groaning, me included. The film disintegrates, turns vinegary, microfilm readers break down, it’s not very user friendly, you can’t search it, and professors seem to love to assign their freshman library assignments that make them go find and use the microfilm (which then causes more film to disintegrate and more readers to break down…) Of course, if the information someone is looking for is only available on microfilm, I will of course point the person in that direction. My job – my passion – is to connect people with information, wherever that information resides. (But I have to admit to my own personal bias for information in digital form.)

Ok, tangent over.

What fascinated me about Bush’s imagined Memex device, which has as it’s legacy hypertext, personal computers, internet browsers, etc., is the idea of a personal repository of knowledge. One would purchase, say, the Encyclopedia Brittanica on microfilm, or any number of other reference books and newspapers, and dump them into the Memex. One would also dump their own knowledge, whether in writing or in speech, into the Memex. The sum total of which would be the “supplement to your memory.”


What Bush predicts – yet somehow doesn’t at the same time – is the emergence of that “free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project,” that miracle of a website, i.e. Wikipedia. Bush’s vision moves in the direction of Wikipedia, but what it is missing in order to get there is the social layer. Wikipedia is what happens when you get hundreds of thousands of individual memexes together and allow people to edit and change and contribute and augment each other’s personal knowledge and memory.

Wikipedia is an amazing achievement of human collaboration online. Other projects that have been built by online collaboration that I can think of off the top of my head are:

I’m sure there are more. My point is that the Bush’s Memex is here, for the most part. Many parts of it are and many parts of it have been made better by collaboration. So, for the lack of a better conclusion to this blog post, collaboration is a good thing, and I think it’s something that Bush missed in his otherwise fabulous essay.

Leave a Reply