In reading Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think", I took particular interest in thinking about the role of the archive in advancing different types of knowledge. For Bush, knowledge of the old begets the new. If we could capture all significant work of the past and find a way to make it both accessible and simple to navigate, Bush contends, we would be able to "analyze more completely and objectively [our] present problems."
Bush's views have plenty historical precedent. Famously, in the early 18th century Newton remarked to a colleague, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Such a view intuitively holds a great deal of weight, particularly when applied to the sciences. In order to hypothesize about planetary physics, Stephen Hawking probably first needed to learn that the Sun does not, in fact, revolve around the Earth. Meanwhile, in order to make new scientific advancements, we'd expect that modern chemists would first need to understand the periodic table of the elements.
Bush takes his argument a bit further, though. He contends that the archive advances not only scientific knowledge, but knowledge in general. In this way, Bush argues that the improved archive could also elevate 'man's spirit'.
This stronger assertion has its historical roots, too. In 18th century aesthetic philosophy, for instance, a commonly held view was that in order to represent beauty in art one first needed to become an expert in understanding ancient (particularly Greek) art. For example, in his widely translated essay "Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture", Johann Winckelmann channels his inner Bush:
"I believe that the imitation of the Greeks can teach us to become knowledgeable more quickly, for it shows us on the one hand the essence of what is otherwise dispered through all of nature and, on the other, the extent to which the most perfect nature can boldly, yet wisely, rise above itself."
Reading Bush and Winckelmann leaves me wondering: how does knowledge of the past help advance knowledge (and creativity) today? In what ways is cultivating and producing knowledge in creative fields similar to that in the sciences? How does or should creativity be influenced by the archive? How much should we learn about the old in order to create a more perfect new?
Texts: Vannevar Bush (1945), "As We May Think", The Atlantic Monthly; Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1755), "Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture"