Jorge Luis Borges in 1977.
Borges and the Foreseeable Future
By NOAM COHEN
Published: January 6, 2008
THE Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges might seem an unlikely candidate for Man Who Discovered the Internet. A fusty sort who from the 1930s through the 1950s spent much of his time as a chief librarian, Borges (1899-1986) valued printed books as artifacts and not just for the words they contained. He frequently set his stories in a pretechnological past and was easily enthralled by the authority of ancient texts.
Jorge Luis Borges in 1977.
Senator George Allen of Virginia on YouTube.
Yet a growing number of contemporary commentators — whether literature professors or cultural critics like Umberto Eco — have concluded that Borges uniquely, bizarrely, prefigured the World Wide Web. One recent book, “Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds” by Perla Sassón-Henry, explores the connections between the decentralized Internet of YouTube, blogs and Wikipedia — the so-called Internet 2.0 — and Borges’s stories, which “make the reader an active participant.” Ms. Sassón-Henry, an associate professor in the language studies department of the United States Naval Academy, describes Borges as “from the Old World with a futuristic vision.” Another work, a collection of essays on the topic from Bucknell University Press, has the provocative title “Cy-Borges” and is expected to appear this year.
Among the scores of Borges stories, a core group — including “Funes the Memorious,” “The Library of Babel” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” — first appeared in the United States as “Labyrinths” in the early 1960s. With their infinite libraries and unforgetting men, collaborative encyclopedias and virtual worlds conjured up from the printed page and portals that watch over the entire planet, these stories (along with a few others like “The Aleph”) have become a canon for those at the intersection of new technology and literature.
New Directions, the publisher of “Labyrinths,” reissued the collection in May, for the first time in more than 40 years. In a sign of the changing times it includes an introduction from William Gibson, the cyberpunk author. (The original, by contrast, came with a preface from André Maurois of the Académie Française.)
By 1955 Borges had lost his sight yet was appointed director of the National Library of Argentina. Assessing his predicament (the digital age predicament) of having access to so much information and so few ways to process it, Borges wrote in “Poem of the Gifts,” “No one should read self-pity or reproach into this statement of the majesty of God, who with such splendid irony granted me books and blindness at one touch.”
What follows are excerpts from prophetic Borges short stories — translated by Andrew Hurley in “Borges: Collected Fictions” (Penguin Books) — and examples of those prophesies fulfilled.
THEN “Who, singular or plural, invented Tlön? The plural is, I suppose, inevitable, since the hypothesis of a single inventor — some infinite Leibniz working in obscurity and self-effacement — has been unanimously discarded. It is conjectured that this ‘brave new world’ is the work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebrists, moralists, painters, geometers, ... guided and directed by some shadowy man of genius. There are many men adept in those diverse disciplines, but few capable of imagination — fewer still capable of subordinating imagination to a rigorous and systematic plan. The plan is so vast that the contribution of each writer is infinitesimal.” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940)
NOW Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia project that began in 2001, now has a total of more than nine million articles in more 250 languages. There are more than 75,000 “active contributors,” many of whom remain anonymous. As it grows and becomes ever more influential, its operating logic remains a mystery. A favored saying among Wikipedia’s contributors is: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”
Life Is Like A Blog
THEN “Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day. ‘I, myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began,’ he said to me. ... And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.” “Funes” (1942)
Now The path from diary to blog to the frequently updated “microblog” has now descended to “life-logging.” Not content merely to record their thoughts or even daily activities, life-loggers record and preserve everything they see, hear, say and read during the day. The world-recognized early adopter is Gordon Bell, a 73-year-old computer programmer who wears an audio recorder as well as a tiny camera that snaps a picture every 60 seconds. A 2006 profile in Fast Company described Mr. Bell as at one time being “worried about filling up his hard-drive space too quickly.” He adds a gigabyte of information a month and figures that an average 72-year-old person would require one to three terabytes, “a hefty amount of storage.”
Nothing Is Forgotten
THEN “I was struck by the thought that every word I spoke, every expression of my face or motion of my hand would endure in his implacable memory; I was rendered clumsy by the fear of making pointless gestures.” “Funes” (1942)
Now There once was a time when a poet could assert that “the revolution will not be televised.” But today, of course, even a politician’s informal meet-and-greet will be recorded for posterity. Senator George Allen of Virginia learned this in 2006 when a tape of him calling his opponent’s videographer a “macaca,” a racially tinged epithet, spread like a virus across the state and, soon, the world. He lost his re-election bid.
THEN “From those incontrovertible premises, the librarian deduced that the Library is ‘total’ ... that is, all that is able to be expressed, in every language. ... When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist.” “The Library of Babel” (1941)
Now In announcing that an ambitious international project to digitize universities’ book collections had passed the 1.5 million mark, one of its organizers, Raj Reddy, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, proclaimed in November: “This project brings us closer to the ideal of the Universal Library: making all published works available to anyone, anytime, in any language.” To others, the Internet itself is the Universal Library, where readers can search for recipes, medical treatments, barroom trivia or perhaps even Google themselves.