Vannever Bush was a scholar involved with the invention and development of electronic digital computers. In his 1945 article “As We May Think,” he predicted that computers would allow information workers to navigate and contribute to nearly infinite information pathways. He predicted workers would use a device called a memex to navigate and create paths through the mass of information. In many ways, the World Wide Web functions as Bush’s memex; this is especially true of the web since the development and widespread adoption of web 2.0 tools and social media, through which users consume and create vast information.
The memex was perceived as a neutral technology. The adjective neutral captures the idea that the technology exerts no influence on the nature of the work completed with the machine. For Bush, consuming and creating information in the memex would be the same as consuming and creating information on print. The amount of information would change and using it would be more efficient, but the nature of the work and the nature of the workers’ understandings would be unaffected.
The devices and networks we use do treat information as neutral. From a system design perspective, the goal is to move messages quickly, reliably, and securely regardless of the contents. The message “baby is a healthy girl” that comprises 22 characters including spaces is the same as “grandmother died today” when sent as text. Each requires the same computing resources to compose transmit and receive; we will ignore the predictive algorithms that can be used to compress messages. Those messages sent between siblings, however, would produce much different responses, so the information is decidedly non-neutral to humans.
Philosophers and scholars now observe that not only information, but also technologies are not neutral. The tools we have and how we use them influence how we act, interact, and—especially with information technology—think. Neil Postman, summarized the comprehensive influences of technology on human cognition: “New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the nature of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop” (1993, 20) (emphasis in the original).
Bush, Vannevar. 1945. “As We May Think.” Atlantic Monthly 176(1): 101-108.
Postman, Neil. 1993. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.