From the outset, the world wide web was designed to be a medium for collaboration and interaction: indeed, one of the main triggers for its initial development was to allow scientists to share their information and research with each other online. This line of thinking has been traced back to a historically significant essay, As We May Think, written in 1945 by Dr Vannevar Bush, the US Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (a copy of this essay is still available online). Having directed the American scientific community to support the wartime effort, he was concerned with the peacetime application of technology to more constructive means: his ideas included a (hypothetical) model for a ‘collective memory machine’. The video clip below shows an animation – itself made in 1995 – that shows how his machine, the ‘memex’, might have looked and worked: it’s hardly as coolly iconic as an iPad, but modern technology has still barely scratched the surface of some of the ideas his essay contained.
We usually accept that widespread take-up and adoption of different technologies can be unpredictable (we’re still using fax machines, for example, but the idea of micro-payments has been explored for at least 20 years with little sign of mass take-up), but the speed – or lack of it – with which we adopt them can still be surprising. Sci-fi writer William Gibson once memorably observed that “The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed”, and a look at the invention dates of many everyday items does prove his point (sms messages, 1992; digital camera, 1975; GPS, 1978; credit card, 1950; mobile phone, 1947; microwave oven, 1946; robots, 1921; radio, 1895; battery, 1800).