Monday, September 22, 2008

O Time Your Pyramids

I pledged to Grunt after her comment in last week's post that I would lay off the pessimism long enough to talk about some of the very many inspiring examples of memory work that are to be found these days on and around the Web. But then the discussion of the contrarian view continued very productively in the comments and I thought it would be best to keep stringing these introductory posts together rather than taking a detour quite yet. Apologies and patience.

The take-home message from the Platonic half-volley was that a new memory technology - such as language, writing or the computer - displaces the modes of remembering that preceded it. And although we might take the view that the bargain involved is a good one, or even a very good one, a loss is a loss and needs to be accounted for. But there are other propositions that undercut the contemporary will to memory, and today I want to talk about one that appears initially to concede a major point, if not the whole argument, by allowing that we might one day in fact be able to remember everything - which is, arguably, what most memory technologies ultimately strive for. But then the sceptic goes on to ask: would such a thing even be desirable?

This particular counterargument hinges on two closely related questions: if you (singular) were able to remember everything, how could you then select what is important to you? And if we (plural) were able to access the totality of all possible meanings, how could we ever hope to find anything that is in fact meaningful to us? The former is the personal archive at the turn of the millennium, Bill Gates’ perfectly documented life, Gordon Bell and MyLifeBits. The latter is the sum of all knowledge - as dreamed of in the early age of print - and the projection of what the Web might soon become, the Googleian library of everything.

Jorge Luis Borges imagined this first. In two short stories, The Library of Babel and Funes, the Memorious, first published in 1941 and 1942 respectively, he conducted both thought experiments, and concluded that total recall, either in the form of an individual’s capacity to remember everything or of a truly universal library, is a most troubling gift.

Ireneo Funes, paralysed by a horse-riding accident that also gave him the ability to remember every instant of his life in the most minute detail, lives unhappy and neurotic, unable to forget himself long enough to fall asleep, and obsessing about the exactness of experience and the inexactness of language:
it was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front).
Meanwhile the Library of Babel, indefinitely, maybe infinitely vast, perplexing, lit by a light (the search engine?) that is that is ‘at the same time insufficient and incessant’, contains every possible book, and hence
everything which can be expressed, in all languages. Everything is there: the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on this gospel, the commentary on the commentary of this gospel, the veridical account of your death, a version of each book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.
which sounds exhilarating enough. But in practical terms, the chances are overwhelming that the next book you’ll pick up, and the next one after that, and so on for the rest of your life, will be a jumble of orthographic symbols that neither you nor anybody you know could make any sense of, a point illustrated by the narrator’s remark that a book very much consulted in his zone is ‘a mere labyrinth of letters, but on the next-to-the-last page, one may read O Time your pyramids’.

Once again, as in the case of Plato v. writing, we are not asked to take either of these scenarios too literally. Borges was a prodigious scholar and a keen student of the ancient arts of memory; and by the time he went on to become the director of the National Library of Argentina, his first decree certainly wasn’t to get rid of the books. Both stories are thought experiments, limit cases (although there is at least one remarkable example of a real-life Funes), whose function is to sensitise us to the limits of memory and comprehension, educate us to think of our individual and interconnected minds, of our singular and plural cultural capacity, as resources that are vast but not limitless. Armed with this understanding, we may question for instance what Jake referred to last week as ‘the warehousing model’ of storing our digitally encoded memories, choosing instead to focus on preserving the richest content along with its dynamic connections. And we may reflect on the bits of our lives that are worthy of an archive, and those that are best let go and happily forgotten.

As Katherine Hayles points out, cybernetics has educated us to think of information as a thing without a body, weight, or material dimensions, as combinations of symbols that simply exist. But it is not so, the symbols need to be encoded somewhere - in a mind, perhaps through conversation or recitation, or in a hard drive, on a page, in the vault of an ancient Egyptian pyramid. None of these material supports will last forever, all of them need to be accounted for. Developing an ecology of memory involves thinking about the value of subtraction, of economy, of sometimes talking less and writing less (says the guy who just started a blog). In this regard, Borges’ work ought to be praised also for its extraordinary, exemplary, generous parsimony. Other writers would have killed for a tenth of his ideas, and to each of them they would have devoted a trilogy. In the original Spanish, Funes and The Library of Babel run together fifteen or so pages, or a little over five thousand words. That, too, is genius.

Jorge Luis Borges. ‘Funes, the Memorius.’ In Fictions, translated by Anthony Kerrigan. London: John Calder, 1965. pp. 99-106.
‘The Library of Babel.’ In Fictions, pp. 72-80.
Both stories are available on the Web in different translations.

Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
This is one of the books I'd take to a desert island, along with How to Survive on a Desert Island.


Taramoc said...

There's no arguing that the perfect memory or total knowledge fall in the "careful what you wish for..." category.

To find a possible desirable alternative, I go back to the tools to access that knowledge. What if it was possible to access the total knowledge in a cosmic consciousness kind of way, not dissimilar to the one found in some classic Marvel Comics (I know, I know, I'm sure it had been theorized way before, but the first time I came across it was in a Silver Surfer story when I was prepubescent, so I feel obliged to quote my original source).

Whenever we want to know something, we just form a question in our head and the answer pops up. In a similar way, if we want to remember a particular episode of our life, we could think about it, and there it goes, replaying in our heads at the desired level of details.

In brief, the perfect knowledge and memory access tool. Now, I'm trying to think of possible downsides of something like that, and immediately absence of privacy comes to mind. I could know at will whatever every person ever existed did. Another could be apathy, I could just close my eyes and be endlessly entertained but whatever I choose to recall. I think that just these two are dangerous enough to offset the value of such tool.

After all, as Borges rightly points out, man is the imperfect librarian.

Giovanni said...

What if it was possible to access the total knowledge in a cosmic consciousness kind of way

That would be pure, abstract memory, no technology involved. There goes my blog! But it is a seductive notion, and one of Hayles' central points in How We Became Posthuman is precisely that variations of this hypothesis - that information exists as pattern independent of its material instantiation - have spilled from the most exreme thinking of cybernetics into the broader culture; see for instance the belief put forward by Hans Moravec and others that one day we'll be able to upload our minds onto computers.

There is a wonderful footnote in the Library of Babel that plays with that idea, describing the library's true catalogue, if such a book existed:

‘[it would be] a single volume of ordinary format, printed in nine or ten type body, and consisting of an infinite number of infinitely thin pages. […] This silky vade mecum would scarcely be handy: each apparent leaf of the book would divide into other analogous leaves. The inconceivable central leaf would have no reverse.’

Giovanni said...

A late post scriptum: with something approaching, if not overtaking, genius,
this guy
has posted a version of the Library of Babel translated from the original Spanish by babelfish. The phrase "O time your pyramids", naturally, has remained intact.