The Library of Babel and The Information Age

Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel” describes a library that contains all possible combinations of the twenty-five orthographic symbols, divided amongst an indefinite amount of hexagonal rooms. His description of this fictional stronghold of all information and of infinite gibberish has been likened to one of the modern-day Internet. Borges’ library, however, does not perfectly represent the nature of the current web, so necessarily the question is asked: what elements of the Internet does the Library of Babel reflect or not reflect? How do the books of the Library predict the nature of digital literature?

The first similarity between the Internet and the Library of Babel is the huge amount of information, some extremely useful and some absolute nonsense, that they hold. The difference between them is that modern Internet users are not lost in this world of information like the people of Babel, but rather are in control of it and can navigate it through search engines like Google. In the Library of Babel, this power would be akin to that of the Book-Man, who has examined “a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books” (116), and who can theoretically navigate and understand the structure of the library and its contents. In fact, most people almost never encounter the nonsensical or uncommon sites on the Internet, as Google search results are based so much in relevance and popularity, and because so many sites are all-inclusive sources of the information people look for. Generally, people spend their time on just a few different sites that have what they want and expect, such as Facebook, Gmail, Wikipedia, Reddit, The New York Times, etc.

The exception to this is the “deep web.” The Deep Web is a part of the World Wide Web but is not indexed by search engines, and hence is not a part of what is called the Surface Web. The Deep Web is a great deal larger than the Surface Web, and in fact most of the information on the Internet is contained in the Deep Web. Indeed, Michael K. Bergman, who coined the term, likens searching the Internet to “dragging a net across the surface of the ocean. While a great deal may be caught in the net, there is still a wealth of information that is deep, and therefore, missed.” Because search engines, or at least most common search engines, cannot access this wealth of information, it is much like the information in the Library of Babel, that is, it is unthinkably large and extremely hard to navigate. As one might expect, the Deep Web is the source of most of the Internet’s illegal content.

The Deep Web is actually only one, albeit the largest, of several inaccessible areas of the Internet. Another is darknet, which is a network through which information is moved in the form of file sharing between “friends,” and is generally unsusceptible to government interference. Similarly, it is the source of much communication related to illegal activity. Another, almost completely inaccessible area of the Internet is the dark Internet, or the dark address space, which is basically filled with dead networks that have not been integrated with the modern internet, or that are connected to computers that can no longer be reached by the Internet. These more secretive parts of the web are closer in form to the Library of Babylon, but it is unlikely that the Internet’s most useful or important content can be found there, so the dilemma of the population of the Library of Babylon being unable to find some ultimate book in the vast meaninglessness is not similar to our experience with the Deep Web. The Surface Web has everything most people want and need.

The Library of Babylon does, however, predict several interesting characteristics of Digital Literature. First of all, the nature of the Library’s books as recombinations of the twenty-five orthographic symbols is similar to the kind of appropriation and recombination that is common in the literature of, for instance, Thomas Claburn and Kenneth Goldsmith. Indeed, the fact that, at the end of the day, literature truly is only a variation of the twenty-five orthographic symbols reminds one of just how integral and common collection, recombination, and appropriation are to all literature.

Additionally, the extensiveness of the Library and the Internet’s information recalls the Douglas Huebler quotation, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” The fact that the population of the Library of Babylon dedicate their lives to exploring the vast contents of the Library reinforces the argument that there is enough to be explored in the Internet to occupy one’s time and for authors to research and play around with. This justifies Kenneth Goldsmith’s argument that he need not add to the unmanageably large wealth of literature and text that exists on the web, but can simply appropriate and recontextualize it.

Finally, one issue with digital literature that has been discussed extensively in class is the fact that it calls into question what is or is not considered literature. Because collections have been made of tweets, YouTube comments, and news reports and these are considered serious literature, it would appear that any text could be interpreted as literature or as something with artistic merit. This is similar to Borges’ observation that, though it would appear that the library is filled with content of little or no value or sense, “it includes not a single absolute piece of nonsense” (117). Rather, there is no combination of letters that “in one or more of [the Library’s] secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance,” as “those phrases, at first apparently incoherent, are undoubtedly susceptible to cryptographic or allegorical ‘reading’” (117). This describes very well the significance authors and readers give to seemingly unimportant texts. Though initially they appear unspectacular, these online texts may carry great significance for some, and can be placed in a different context and reinterpreted as significant art.

 

 

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