The Man Who Imagined the Internet

I’ve found myself drawn to science fiction lately, a genre I’ve ignored most of my life, except for movies. I’ve particularly enjoyed “The Three Body Problem” by Liu Cixin (during the Chinese Cultural Revolution it’s discovered that an alien race is headed toward Earth for reasons that only become clear later — much, much later); “Spin” by Robert Charles Wilson (one night the stars, including the sun and every satellite ever launched, fall out of the sky as a result of cosmic machinations by a benevolent alien race); and “Three Californias,” by Kim Stanley Robinson (a vision of three different futures set in Orange County, Ca — one dystopian, one status quo, and one utopian).

As a genre, I’ve found sci-fi to be a little tedious and contrived, certainly not well-written as a rule, but these three novels are standouts. They create futures that are compelling and plausible — a welcome respite to our present, which is tenuous and inscrutable. I think that’s why I find myself drawn to sci-fi these days. If I can’t figure out the present, I might as well read someone who thinks they’ve figured out the future.

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But if we can’t predict the future, we can at least imagine it, the stock-in-trade of the sci-fi genre. As I became steeped in it over the past year or so, my thoughts often turned to an old Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges was not a sci-fi writer, per se. He was more of a fabulist, or a magical realist; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance, is a direct descendant of Borges, who wrote most of his great fiction in the mid-20th century. While one of Borges’ stories appeared in the sci-fi magazine Fantastic Universe in 1960, he typically wrote of labyrinths, mirrors, mythical creatures and literature itself. He wrote in all sorts of modes, including scripts, journalism, poetry, and essays. But he was best known for his short stories, ficciones, of which his greatest, I believe, is “The Library of Babel.” It’s this story, published in 1941 and which I first read in 1970, that became my gateway into the sci-fi genre.

Sci-fi at its best can help us understand realities that are yet to be. “Fahrenheit 451,” written by Ray Bradbury in 1953, is a chilling precursor to cancel culture today. “Fall; or Dodge in Hell” by Neal Stephenson predicts that, among other things, social media feeds will become so overwhelming in the future that we’ll need personal curators. And “Golden State” is a future imagined by Ben Winters in which telling any kind of lie is a crime. The first one certainly came true and the other two certainly could.

The Library of Babel,” written 80 years ago, is dense and even nonsensical at times. But it did an amazing job at imagining what we refer to today as the Internet.

Borges probably imagined his Library something like this

Borges describes his Library as an almost-infinite range of interlocking hexagonal structures containing nearly every book ever written, all their translations, and more. The Library’s content ranges from gibberish to useful information, biographies and predictions of the future, pretty much the same scope as today’s Internet. The narrator is on a quest for “the catalog of catalogs,” surely a reference to what would eventually become something we call Google. The story goes on to describe people who came in to try and regulate the Library. It didn’t seem to go that well.

“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness,” Borges writes at one point, capturing the early euphoria of the Internet. “All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.”

The actual Internet looks something like this or . . .
. . . like this

At this point, convinced that the Library can provide secret meaning and value to individual lives if the right information is found, users — “thousands of the greedy” — went a little cuckoo. They “disputed in the narrow corridors, proffered dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts, met their death cast down in a similar fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions. Others went mad.” Does this not sound a little like the dark web of 8Chan and similar drainpipes of the Internet?

Near the end of his tale, Borges writes that “I know of districts in which the young men prostrate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher a single letter,” which, sadly, reminded me of what a second-grade teacher recently told me about her students after a year-and-a-half of remote learning over the Internet. They can read proficiently (they “kiss their pages”), she said, but when asked to explain what they’ve just read, they can’t.

Borges sees the Library not as a metaphor for the Internet, which of course didn’t exist then, but as a metaphor for the universe. “The Library is unlimited and cyclical,” he concludes. “If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.”

“The Library of Babel” doesn’t resolve, it just evolves into the “elegant hope” that for all its apparent chaos, the Library, and by inference the universe, actually reflects a higher order. It’s not exactly a prediction, more of an article of faith. I’ll take it.

Peace out.

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