September 1st, 2011
What happens when the library is deserted?
Last week, Google celebrated Jorge Luis Borges’s posthumous birthday by morphing their front-page logo into a Borges-inspired doodle. This attempt to associate the Google brand with Borges, the Argentine master of magical realism who was also a librarian, is not new nor particularly surprising. In fact, practically every book about search engines inevitably includes an allusion to, or epigraph from, Borges’ short story The Library of Babel. What is surprising, however, is that this particular story has been so thoroughly misunderstood that the very forces Borges meant to warn us about are the same ones who now champion the writer.
“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries,” begins The Library of Babel. In these perhaps infinite hexagonal galleries, the narrator explains, there are shelves upon shelves of books. The physical structure of each book is identical but the content of each is unique. Some books are gibberish, others contain only a line of sense, while still others are lucid biographies of people not-yet-born. Taken together the books in the Library represent the sum total of all knowledge in all languages for all time.
It isn’t difficult to imagine why this description of the Library was quickly associated with the internet. One is reminded of the adage that monkeys typing for infinity would by chance alone create the complete works of Shakespeare. And we can imagine that there is, right now, a machine in the depths of the deep web that is spewing line after line of randomly assorted characters in the hopes of stumbling across the meaning of life. (Is this perhaps the noble philosophical purpose behind the spam bots that plague the search engines?) Which is to say that today when we think of the infinite storehouse of knowledge we do not, as Borges did, imagine a physical library but instead a virtual one, accessible through computer terminals and indexed by Google.
Borges, however, was not writing an ode to the internet nor to search engines. On the contrary, notice how the emphasis of Borges’s story is placed upon the slow decline of the searchers who scour the Library. The primary concern of Borges’s narrator is that the human searchers who live in the Library are disappearing, dying off, and going extinct. Some are slipping into madness overwhelmed by information, others distraught that they will never find the Truth are committing suicide and the narrator warns that “I suspect that the human species – the unique species – is about to be extinguished, but the Library shall endure ...” Borges glimpsed a terrible future where the Library is fully stocked with every book imaginable and yet the Library is deserted. He saw a future without searchers.
Neal Gabler, in a recent editorial in the New York Times, asserted that we are entering a “post-idea” era where big ideas are in short supply but information is abundant. “We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism,” Gabler writes. “What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it,” he warns. Implicit in Gabler’s argument is the realization that we’ve moved away from being seekers of knowledge and have now become nodes in the relay of information.
Gabler’s argument hits home when we consider Twitter. It seems clear now that all of the early critiques of Twitter – that it was for twits with little to say and for whom 140 characters is sufficient – missed a fundamental point. The significant feature of Twitter is not the size of information transmitted. (Consider that a large portion of Twitter traffic is the sending of links to content, a single tweet can therefore send someone to gigabytes of information.) What is far more significant is that to use Twitter is to surround oneself in the constant flow of information. In Twitter, rather than seeking out information, we hook ourselves up to various hashtags and users and watch the waves of links and tweets stream past us. If something piques our interest, we retweet it and send it on downstream. This emphasis on finding and sharing information through social networks – encouraged by Google, Twitter, Facebook et al – is the death of search because it de-emphasizes active seeking.
What may not be obvious at first is that the Twitter stream is not simply an information flow, it is also a way of organizing and sorting the Library. (In this respect, Twitter is a challenge to Google and it is no wonder that Google+ mimics elements of Twitter.) Hence, the popularity of using hashtags to categorize tweets so that others may find them. To organize information in this way is to leave the vast majority of the Library untouched… it is to only care for what is freshest because one has no time for seeking out what is rarest… it is to live in a world without seekers.
What Borges, a librarian writing in 1941, foresaw was that the art of searching was in decline and might one day disappear entirely. Today, we live in a post-search world and are finding out what happens to culture when the Library is deserted.