Reading Response for Week Two

While reading this essay I felt as though I was reading a relic from the past, which I was I suppose since the article was written in 1945. But really that doesn’t seem that long ago. So I suppose the fact that the comical descriptions of technology seem so dated should also seem astounding, that just over half a century ago we had a process like this:

“Take the prosaic problem of the great department store. Every time a charge sale is made, there are a number of things to be done. The inventory needs to be revised, the salesman needs to be given credit for the sale, the general accounts need an entry, and, most important, the customer needs to be charged. A central records device has been developed in which much of this work is done conveniently. The salesman places on a stand the customer’s identification card, his own card, and the card taken from the article sold—all punched cards. When he pulls a lever, contacts are made through the holes, machinery at a central point makes the necessary computations and entries, and the proper receipt is printed for the salesman to pass to the customer.”

There are many things that grow exponentially, like population, but none more so than technology. I just missed the era of teaching when papers were turned in hand written. How do I know I just missed it? Because one time I had one student turn in a paper hand written. I had not even bothered to say “typed” because I thought it was a given, but sometimes freshman were still coming from high schools where papers were hand written. But that only happened once. Now, if I ask students to handwrite something its for nostalgic reasons.

The success of the movie Social Network demonstrates we are fascinated with how people come up with and execute new technologies. Something of that wonder is in my delighted laughter when I read this paragraph from the article:

“Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

Perhaps most poignant for me, though, was the context in which the article was written: now that World War II is over, what are all the scientists to do? As Bush says, technologies “have enabled [the scientist] to throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons,” and he now asks how scientists may use technology for nobler purposes. We would do well to remember this charge.