Jorge Luís Borges, Infinity, and the Internet

Jorge Luís Borges, an Argentinean writer who is well known for his many short stories, some of which discuss such fantastic themes like dreams, libraries, labyrinths, god, and the less fantastic –see also, more real – like los gauchos (imagine Argentinean cowboys). Borges’s works of fiction, intertwined with the metaphysical have made him one of the most well known writers to come out of the western hemisphere during the 20st century. For the sake of this review, we will look at the relation between Borges, infinity, and the Internet. Five different short stories by Borges which relate to these ideas will all be briefly mentioned; the stories include The Aleph, The Library of Babel, The Garden of Forking Paths, Funes, the Memorious, and the Theme of the Traitor and Hero [all of which are available for free reading on the Internet at the above links].

When Borges was younger his family moved to Europe (1915-1921), where he was introduced to the avant-garde Ultraist movement in Spain. Ultraism can be described as being in opposition to everything that is thought of as Modernismo. Some have even compared it to Italian and Russian futurism, Dadaism, and French surrealism. In 1921 Borges moved back to Buenos Aires, where he started writing for and distributing avant-garde Ultraist leaning publications/texts. Often this would include him wheat pasting the texts (broadsheets) all over the walls of the city. Sadly, as Borges grew older, he drifted away and came to regret these ideas – even going as far as trying to buy all of the old texts in order to make sure they would be destroyed. So no one could ever read them again. Like the maximum ultraists of today, who are ‘waging a life-and-death war against consensus reality’, I like to think of these younger days of Borges as some of my favorite. Honestly, we all grow old – it’s just to bad some of us become grumpy old fuddy-duddies.

Oh So Borgesian…

It is thought by some that Borges was one of the first ever to write (and think) about the future of the Internet. While this may be a bit of a loaded statement, because let’s be honest – it all depends on how you interpret it, and as a fan of Borges [for the most part], I find the statement to be an intriguing one. Being that his works are fiction, he does this writing in a round-about way; in other words, these gems are hidden beneath the surface. Just to be clear from the beginning, Borges wrote the above mentioned texts during the mid 20th century before the major developments in the Internet actually got underway.

In the 1960’s with the creation of ARPANET, a project created by the government of the United States of America (USA) whose aim was to create a network to aid communication. One common myth about the Internet, was that it was created to combat / defend against catastrophe [a silent spring] during the Cold War, however this tall tale isn’t exactly true. Because, later on, using the ideas from ARPANET, the Rand Corporation started developing ideas about how to use the Internet as a weapon (nuclear fail-safe). While ARPANET can be seen as one of the original projects in developing what has come to be known as the Internet; Borges was already writing about very similar ideas – like the infinite library, or a place/object where one can go to see everything in the world.

In 1949, Borges wrote The Aleph which speaks of “the only place on earth where all places are — seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.” With the aleph, one is able to see the entire world from one place, almost exactly what computers and the Internet have become for many of us. While it is (thankfully) true, that not everything is on the Internet, ever look at where you live on Google Maps with street view before or belong to some social-networking site? When I looked up my residence in Google street view , it was kind of funny, in a very strange way – to see my family there, outside – “hey, this is our Internet fame! See how we work!”

An idea – is only as good, as it’s inspiration

Before The Aleph, Borges wrote The Library of Babel in which he states:

Infinite I have just written. I have not interpolated this adjective merely from rhetorical habit. It is not illogical, I say, to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited, postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairs and hexagons could inconceivably cease – a manifest absurdity. Those who imagined it to be limitless forget that the possible number of books is limited. I dare insinuate the following solution to this ancient problem: The Library is limitless and periodic. If an eternal voyager were to traverse it in any direction, he would find, after many centuries, that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder (which, repeated, would constitute an order: Order itself).

For Borges, the library is the universe and it is beyond count. It is composed of an indefinite number, perhaps even infinite, number of galleries. One can imagine, the Library of Babel being a place where you can find all the texts and works from the entire world – often organized in such a way, that makes it impossible to find what you are looking for. In 1894 Oscar Wilde quipped, “It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information”.

According to The Economist (Feb. 27th, 2010):

Wal-Mart, a retail giant handles more than 1m customer transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes – the equivalent of 167 times the books in America’s Library of Congress. Facebook, a social-networking website, is home to 40 billion photos. And decoding the human genome involves analyzing 3 billion base pairs – which took ten years the first time it was done, in 2003, but can now be achieved in one week.

they go on later to say:

Quantifying the amount of information that exists in the world is hard. What is clear is that there is an awful lot of it, and it is growing at a terrific rate (a compound annual 60%) that is speeding up all the time. The flood of data from sensors, computers, research labs, cameras, phones and the like surpassed the capacity of storage technologies in 2007. Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, generate 40 terabytes every second – orders of magnitude more than can be stored or analyzed. So scientists collect what they can and let the rest dissipate into the ether.

How does this library compare to what we know of today as the Internet? Of course, it’s enormous. But, is it something you can just dump something on, similar to a dump truck driving around a giant tube, as some have formulated? Are search engines like the aleph for browsing the tubes? Have you ever heard of a yottabyte? It has been stated that it is currently too large to imagine – but to get somewhat of an idea, as of 2010 not even all of the computer hard drives in the world combined would equal one yottabyte of data.

In another short story, Funes, the Memorious Borges writes about a person who after falling from a horse and seriously injuring himself, finds that he is able to remember everything. How do we push the limits of our mind, our imagination, and our passions? In a sense Funes’s brain becomes more computer-like with his ability to remember things, and perhaps even machine like. Or is it more human to expand upon our ability to do things we once thought impossible? Is it true that we only use around 10% of our brain? And, what if we figured out ways to use more? Would we be that much smarter? More powerful? Is that what we want? For Funes, it seems the ability to remember everything turns out to be a curse.

There is actually a condition called Hyperthymesia, with four confirmed cases in the world. It is defined as an individual who has a superior autobiographical memory. For instance, in the case of Jill Price – her memory has been characterized as “nonstop, uncontrollable, and automatic.” Supposedly, she became aware of her ability at age 8 (1974) and since 1980 can apparently recall everyday. Like Funes, Price sees this more as a curse, than something positive.

Ghost in the Shell

In one of the more well-known short stories by Borges entitled “The Garden of Forking Paths”, the comparison between the ideas within and the Internet have been made many times before. For instance when we browse the Internet there are many different paths to see and perhaps follow, leading in the end to a distinct destination (or none at all). It has been mentioned elsewhere, that Borges arguably invented the hypertext novel from this short story. Along with the fact that hypertext is one of the under lying concepts behind the World Wide Web.

What does it say about free will if we are able to choose different possibilities like this while using the Internet or in real life? In another short story by Borges entitled Theme of the Traitor and the Hero it relates a fiction of characters who are all acting out a predetermined play (in a sense). History is seen as a combination of repeating themes, which is to say there is no free will. Interestingly enough, with the further development and exploration of computer technology, some believe we have been able to study the idea of free will more closely. Obviously enough, computers are much better at processing large amounts of data, and doing millions of mathematical formulas over short periods of time. Non-linear dynamics, or the theory of chaos – seems like something Borges might have written about. But, it is in this story that we are told of us all being actors in one giant play. I’m blissfully unaware of Borges exact sentiments on this subject matter, but one can take ideas freely from what he has written.

In all, Borges wrote a lot of different texts – the majority of which are short stories. Some have even criticized him for only writing short stories, believing that it takes more from an author to compose longer novels. However, the profound themes and different subject matters in his stories seem wonderfully woven together. And honestly – after all, who doesn’t like being able to read a story in 20 minutes or so, and have it leave thoughtful ideas churning, that never seem to be at rest. Also, obviously – I have chosen certain stories over others, more fantastic ones, and as a writer it can be easy to manipulate these ideas. With that, I hope it is possible to see that I’m not trying to say Borges invented the Internet or anything of that nature. Who knows though, maybe the inventors of the Internet and all that jazz were reading Borges…

Spanish Nombres and links:

“El Aleph” – The Aleph
“La Biblioteca de Babel” – The Library of Babel
“El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan” – The Garden of Forking Paths
“Funes el Memorioso” – Funes, the Memorious
“Tema del Traidor y del Héroe.” – Theme of the Traitor and the Hero

[author’s note: this text was originally written in Spanish, and then translated back into English with a lot of tinkering, as well as a much need revision of grammar/vocabulary, thus making this text – pretty much, brand new.]

1 thought on “Jorge Luís Borges, Infinity, and the Internet”

  1. Are you there and still getting comments. I made this discovery as well. Of course Borges would say there IS no true originality and is was not an original discovery. He is my favorite writer, though I go very slowly through his work. I very much enjoy this article and have shared it to my fb page. I am designing an online American Authors course for a graduate program. I am calling it The Aleph: A Survey of American Authors and the Universal Library. I am crediting your article as a reference source. Thank you for writing it. It reached me at the perfect time.

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