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Standing on the shoulders of giants

Vannevar Bush published an essay in 1945, which gave birth to many of the ideas that inspired the Web.

Read time 3min 20sec

With the Worldwide Web hitting its 20th birthday last Friday, Tim Berners-Lee's was the name on everyone's lips. And why not, he was the man with the plan and part of the reason behind my Amazonian credit card bill.

But just as Isaac Newton said he only saw as far as he did because he was standing on the shoulders of giants, it's a good time to remember that the great big collaborative space that is the WWW is itself the product of many visions, not least one Vannevar Bush, whose 1945 essay: “As we may think” gave birth to many of the ideas that brought us the Web.

In the essay, published in American magazine Atlantic Monthly, Bush pondered the post-war future for scientists who had learned to collaborate and think in new ways because of the war effort.

Piling up

Having pooled previously disparate ways of thinking and working, Bush was now left wondering how scientists would ever keep pace with a growing mountain of research. In what is possibly the first modern reference to information overload, Bush wrote of the: “Increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialisation extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers - conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialisation becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.”

Berners-Lee let his creation loose on the world, with no intention of claiming ownership, royalties or patents.

Pamela Weaver, journalist, ITWeb

Looking around him at the tools available for reviewing and transmitting generations-worth of knowledge, Bush found them “totally inadequate for their purpose”, and concluded that life was simply too short for researchers to ever be able to keep abreast of the new while learning from the old.

In order to address the issue, he proposed a theoretical machine called a “memex”, which would allow users to store and access documents and information linked by associations. Sound familiar? Ted Nelson, one of the pioneers of hypertext thinks so too - he credited Bush as the inspiration behind much of his work (as do pretty much all those who contributed to what became the WWW, from mouse-inventor Doug Engelbart to JCR Licklider, who laid down the vision of networked computers with user-friendly interfaces, among other things).

Sharing is caring

Berners-Lee himself was motivated by the desire to be able to share and collaborate on ideas with other scientists and researchers. He worked on the notion of combining the concept of hypertext with the Internet, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The interesting thing about all of this in today's world of digital rights and software patents is Berners-Lee let his creation loose on the world, with no intention of claiming ownership, royalties or patents. Thanks to this, others were able to build on his ideas and give us the WWW we enjoy (and profit from) today.

Had Vannevar Bush claimed “prior art” for his ideas or Berners-Lee felt a tad greedy, we might be looking at a very different technology landscape in 2009. Most technology, whether it's a hammer with a claw attached or a nail-file-clipper combo are converged versions of several ideas. With the ongoing debate about who's using whose code and whether or not they should be paying for it, maybe it's time to take a step back and look at the mentality of the guys who got us here today. Driven by a desire to share learning and collaborate with others, they saw a bigger picture. Maybe we should do the same.

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