The Internet Is Forgetting

How amnesia is built into the network.

Vannevar Bush, 1935

According to apocryphal lore, the Internet was originally developed as a communication network capable of withstanding a nuclear attack. The story goes that the Internet's network topology is naturally resilient because data packets know how to route around damaged nodes. We may dispute this origin myth but as media philosopher Friedrich Kittler has pointed out, the Internet is "immunized against the bomb" at the physical level of its infrastructure, and not just at its origin. In replacing copper with fiberoptic cables, he explains, the Internet has become invulnerable to the post-nuke electromagnetic pulse. Yes, there is a strange bond between the Internet and nuclear war but the significance of this relationship has been missed by those who understand it on a strictly materialist level.

In July 1945, one month before the United States dropped atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vannevar Bush was finalizing a report for President Roosevelt. As director of the ultra-secret Office of Scientific Research and Development, Vannaevar Bush--no relation to George Bush--was one of the most powerful men in America. He oversaw the early days of the military-industrial complex, singlehandedly conscripting the nation's scientists into the war machine. His innocuously named Office of Scientific Research and Development enjoyed an unlimited wartime budget and was the brains behind the development of every major lethal technology unleashed in World War 2, including nuclear weapons. "During the development of the atomic bomb," Bush acknowledges in his memoirs, "I reported regularly to the President, told him of the schedule on the bomb, our estimates of enemy progress, the costs of the program, and so on." Now that the war was ending, the bomb about to be dropped, President Roosevelt had asked Bush to write a report on how to best return the nation's scientists to peaceful explorations.

Unlike Claude Eatherly, the pilot who went insane and repented his involvement with Hiroshima, Bush never apologized nor expressed public remorse at opening Pandora's atomic box, unleashing the fear of nuclear weapons upon the world for all eternity. Yet, it is clear that the mushroom cloud haunted Bush's memory and infected his thought. He may have been far from ground-zero but the radioactivity still mutated his mental genes/memes.

As is the story with all traumas, Bush's game of emotional whack-a-mole, disavowing guilt and suppressing remorse, merely forced his unconscious to act out in unexpected ways. In his case, it was a consuming obsession with imagining a new way of organizing knowledge. Bush wrote and rewrote an essay describing what he called the Memex, a machine he thought would finally win the war to end all wars … against stupidity.

The first formulation of the Memex was published in The Atlantic a month before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, Bush anticipated many features of the modern hypertextual Internet, and especially Wikipedia. He explained how a memory-index machine, or Memex, would one day organize knowledge based on associative links rather than subject hierarchies or keyword indexing. Many commentators have already explored the relationship between the Internet and the Memex at technological level, see for example James Nyce and Paul Kahn's authoritative From Memex To Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine. Therefore, let us leave this materialist interpretation aside. Instead, the unexplored territory is on the psycho-historical level. Treating Bush's Memex essays, he wrote at least four nearly identical drafts over two decades, as an emotional palimpsest reveals a troubling truth about the Internet.

In Bush's repeated attempts at explaining the Memex much stays the same but one significant detail slowly changes. In the first, and most widely read, iteration Bush is confident that the Memex will be a permanent memory-index and that all information added to the Memex will last forever. He is careful to play up this feature because he believes that the permanence of its memory will finally allow humans to "free their brains" from stupid thinking such as remembering facts or formulas. In fact, Bush ends the essay by making the ability to forget a central benefit of the Memex: "[Mankind] has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important." In other words, the machine remembers so that we may forget.

In Memex II, an unpublished follow-up essay Bush drafted in 1959, he revises the claim that the Memex will have a permanent memory. Like the editable record of human knowledge that he imagines, his own text is copied, chopped and seamlessly rewritten. Now, we learn that "the records in our [Memex] will be exact in detail, and will not fade, when properly protected, although they may be intentionally erased and alterations and substitutions made." (emphasis added) And in 1965, when Bush rewrote the Memex essay for a third time he was even more open about the possibility of permanently deleting memories that had been outsourced to the machine. He was not blind to the political, cultural and ethical consequences of this development. Instead he addressed these questions openly:

"For the purposes of Memex we need a readily alterable record, and we have it. But alteration of records has a sinister connotation. […] Advancing technology is making it easy to fool people. It would be well if technology also devoted itself to producing forms of records, photographic, printed, sound-recorded, which cannot be altered without detection, at least to the degree of a dollar bill. But it would be still more effective if the code of morals accepted generally rendered it a universally condemned sin to alter a record without notice that it is being done."

In interpreting the final sentence, we must keep in mind Bush's long career as the head of a secret wartime organization whose existence, mission and budget were not public knowledge. Furthermore, Bush's memoir is full of reticence, silence, ellipses, and secrets withheld. For Bush to take recourse to a "code of morals" that would "universally condemn" those who edit the record of human knowledge without notice, is a disingenuous gesture. He was surely aware, and I would argue that this was his unconscious desire, that in the interests of "State secrets" certain records would be edited without notice.

The only compelling interpretation of the flip from positioning the Memex as a machine for permanent supplementary memory to his allowance that the Memex would enable the intentional deletion of memories is that the deletion of records was the intended consequence, not the side-effect, of the Memex. Bush was obsessed with the Memex because it was a device for forgetting that which Bush wishes he could leave behind: a historical record that implicates him in overseeing the development of nuclear weapons capable of destroying the human species.

The trauma of nuclear war was never properly dealt with by the only nation to use these weapons against others, let alone by the scientists who actually devised the bombs, and this unresolved guilt has resulted in a technological imaginary that wishes to forget, desires technologies that enable painful memories to be easily forgotten. From the emerging cult of deletionists on Wikipedia to the amnesia-inducing neurological consequences of surfing the web, the ghost of Vannevar Bush continues to haunt the hypertextual Internet.

Micah White is a senior editor at Adbusters. He may be contacted at or micah (at)