Trails to sleepless nights

by Yule Heibel on August 11, 2003

Via Wood’s Lot, a pointer to Aug.10’s As We May Incinerate by Jonathan Delacour. Apparently, the US is using Napalm in Iraq, although it prefers to call it Mark 77 now. Delacour picked this story up on jill/txt, by a blogger who happens to be a hypertext theorist. The result is Delacour’s amazing post, linking hypertext and napalm in an almost Borgesian way. Delacour’s posting title alludes to this title: As We May Think, a 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush, who was Director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development. In the introduction, this essay is described as a call “for a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge” in the manner of “Emerson’s famous address of 1837 on ‘The American Scholar.'” Although written in a spirit of scientific optimism, it doesn’t however go as far as today’s AI theorists might. Perhaps Bush still believed that there was something organic, not artificial (and certainly not artificially “reconstructable”), about mankind. While he didn’t seem to believe (at least not in this essay) that we can create artificial intelligence as such, he did however look forward to our creating new pathways or trails for human intelligence: “[the human mind] operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.” The human mind makes connections, in other words, which in turn makes “trails” between subjects. From this follows Bush’s next prediction: “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.” If you will, bloggers. From here on in, we get to see Jonathan Delacour make connective trails between this theorist of hypertext and napalm, for Vannevar Bush was instrumental in bringing the new discovery of napalm to the military’s attention. Delacour’s post is a garden of forking paths that leaves you wondering at every turn, at every link and every trail, “how did we get here?” Vannevar Bush knew we weren’t artificial, inorganic constructs, which is perhaps why, for years after WWII, he woke up screaming in the night. Perhaps today’s enthusiastic proponents of the inorganic mind have in store even greater horrors than napalm, atom bombs, and the proximity fuze, and know that we’ll need that artificial intelligence to sleep soundly. A follow-up reading — a book, but similar montage style — would be On the Natural History of Destruction by W.G. Sebald.

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