Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jorge Luis Borges and the Emerging Virtual Age

Perfect memory, complete knowledge, the creation of a personal, imaginary world, the nurturing of a virtual life, and living the double life of the real and the virtual; these, the trajectory of the virtual age, are the central themes in the short stories of the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges wrote in the first half of the twentieth century. He was a literary prodigy, works of his published while he was still a child. And, perhaps because he knew that he faced the specter of blindness in mid-life due to a genetic condition, Borges read voraciously and developed a command of literature, mathematics and history in his early years.


I have already discussed one of Borges' works, Funes the Memorious, in a previous post. Funes has perfect memory, a gift on the one hand but a curse on the other, because in reflexively recalling every detail of his current and past surroundings, activities, thoughts and conversations, he cannot reason abstractly. Sartre has pointed out that the process of thought, the pathway from knowledge to meaning, requires negation, i.e., willfully ignoring some aspects and focusing on others, and this Funes cannot do. I related Funes to the end result of the virtual age, where most all of our activities – and certainly our activities within the virtual world – will be indelibly committed to the cloud.

Here I will discuss other of Borges' works of fiction with the same objective of illuminating aspects of the virtual age, two in particular:
  1. We are creating and inhabiting our own virtual world. It most immediately appears in computer games and avatars, but it also appears with a bit more subtlety through our on-line image. Our Facebook selves are not our real selves, and our Facebook friends are not really our friends. Like the sultry-voiced grandmother as a phone sex worker, as we extend further out past a small circle of real friends we are to a greater and greater extent who we wish to be or who we think others want us to be in a virtual world. (My eight year-old daughter is a twelve year-old French girl in Poptropica).
  2. We are moving toward a world where there is perfect memory and unlimited knowledge. Knowledge of the world and our history through Wikipedia, of where we are and what we are doing through social networks. If something is put into the cloud, it might well be there forever. And when we inhabit our virtual selves we capture all of our history, because all that is virtual begins in the noosphere.
A number of books have discussed the social implications of the present state of the virtual age, none better than You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, who, not just incidentally, popularized the term “virtual reality”. But a discussion of society in the virtual age requires more than a look at the world today. The term “age” suggests a longer-term process, and if it is indeed an age, we are just climbing over the cusp. The feudal age lasted from about 800AD to 1400 AD, the industrial age that started with the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s – actually glimmers of the industrial age extend back to the 1400's – has been with us for the better part of three centuries. If the virtual age really is an age of similar import, we can take the trends we see today and push them forward to an all but unimaginable extent. So rather than thinking of the virtual reality of today, think of something along the lines of Nozick's experience machine. Or, Borges' world of Tlon. And rather than thinking of the facts-at-your-fingertips of today's wikipedia, think of Borges' Aleph.

The reason to look at Borges' work in the context of the emerging virtual age is not to plot a path for the future in terms of science fiction. It is to see the implications on ourselves and society. For Borges, the intrusion of the fantastic world into the real leads to alienation; the gift of perfect memory and complete knowledge leads to stifling of our innate, human capacity for creativity.

A side benefit of using Borges' work as the substrate for this discussion is that it is a quick read. Many of the stories I will reference are ten pages or less.

Creating Our Virtual World
I will start with two short stories where Borges creates virtual worlds, where man inhabits a world of dreams and disquieting fantasy.

The Circular Ruin
The grey man kissed the mud, climbed up the bank with pushing aside (probably, without feeling) the blades which were lacerating his flesh, and crawled, nauseated and bloodstained, up to the circular enclosure crowned with a stone tiger or horse, which sometimes was the color of flame and now was that of ashes. This circle was a temple which had been devoured by ancient fires, profaned by the miasmal jungle, and whose god no longer received the homage of men. The stranger stretched himself out beneath the pedestal.

In The Circular Ruins an old man enters the ruins of an ancient temple, his goal to dream a man, to dream him in minute entirety and insert him into reality.” That is, to create his real offspring by virtual means, part by part through a painstaking process of dreams. In order to do so he himself moves further and further into this virtual world of dreams, to the point that he finally is only awake to the real world a few hours of the day. He dreams his son “entrail by entrail, feature by feature, in a thousand and one secret nights” until, finally, the dreamed one awakes.

The Dreamer is tormented by the fear that his son will discover he is nothing more than “a mere simulacrum,” and so it is with some relief, but also humiliation and terror that he discovers, some time later, that he also is an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him. As suggested by the title, there is a possibly endless recurrence of one virtual world being dreamed up within another one, each depending on the previous one for the shadow of its life. With the subjugation of the real into the virtual, The Circular Ruins depicts a gray world where there is an absence of time and of history.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) "primitive language" of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty - not even that it is false.

For the imaginary inhabitants of Tlon life is no more than a subjective projection of the mind with no material existence. Indeed, there are no nouns in Tlön's language, only impersonal verbs and adjectives. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word "moon,", but there is a verb which in English would be "to moon" or "to moonate." What we might say as "The moon rose above the river" is for them "upward behind the onstreaming it mooned." They do not conceive that the spatial persists in time. The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then of the burning field and then of the half-extinguished cigarette that produced the blaze is considered an example of association of ideas. Because reality is strictly mental, the sciences on Tlön are all subordinated to one discipline: psychology.

As in The Circular Ruin, Tlon invades the real world with one of fantasy. But rather than taking a dream and making it a reality, on Tlon the reality pursues and is embraced by the dream. Rather than the real being created by the virtual as occurs in the Circular Ruin, in Tlon the virtual envelopes the real. In The Circular Ruin the dreamer created a son that at least apparently was real, in Tlon there is no material at all. Their world permeates the real world, the real world is yielding, disintegrating under its influence, its fictitious past replacing real history.

Much as you could do in virtual space where you can build whatever world, on Tlon there are numerous competing schools of metaphysics: one that negates time, another that thinks all existence a dream. That is, for all of its complexity and seeming randomness, Tlon is built by man, using man's rationality and with man as its deity. Because of this, once the world became aware of Tlon – through the work of a journalist (from Tennessee!) who exhumes all forty volumes of the lost Encyclopedia of Tlon – “Manuals, anthologies, summaries, literal versions, authorized re- editions and pirated editions of the Greatest Work of Man flooded and still flood the earth.” Almost immediately, reality yields on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly. Reality is based on divine laws which we never quite grasp. Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

All things of Tlon sweep the world because "any symmetry with a semblance or order" – order which is possible in a fantasy world designed by man, but not in the unfathomable world – is preferred to the unfathomable nature of the real world. People forget their national pasts, studying Tlon history, learning Tlon languages, giving over their very existences to Tlon. Borges predicts that ultimately "English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlon."

The notion of virtual and real enter from the outset of the story: One of the heresiarchs of Uqbar, the country from which the literature of Tlon originated, had declared that mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number or men. The mirror in a virtual sense; copulation in a real sense.

Related to the theme of the intersection of the real and virtual world is that of The Double: two people entwined as if they are one person, or one person appearing as two, occurs repeatedly in Borges' fiction. The Shape of the Sword, Theme, and The Life of Tadeo Cruz are examples of a man represented in ambiguous terms. In The Shape of the Sword, the same person is the betrayer and the betrayed; in Theme the same person is a hero and a traitor; and in The Life of Tadeo Cruz two people are as if they are one in terms of their experiences and personal characteristics. Manifest in these stories is the interplay of the real and the fantasy. Can the two be kept separate, is one real and the other an illusion, if one is lost is the other lost as well? The classic Borges' treatment of the double is his very short story, Borges and I.

Borges and I
I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others', or in the tedious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him, and I moved on from the mythologies of the slums and outskirts of the city to games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now, and I shall have to think up other things. So my life is a point- counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away―and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.

I am not sure which of us it is that's writing this page.

Borges and I is the culmination of the melding of the real and the virtual, where the real selves and the virtual selves can no longer be distinguished or set apart. The narrator, the “I”, is private, and in the lexicon of the virtual age, is the real. The “I” in this story enjoys the little things – the real things – of life: coffee, maps, the charm of old typefaces. “Borges” is the public version of the self, the version that is transmittable electronically and can be molded to meet the expectations of the broad virtual audience (and "friends"), that has no connection to the substance of life, but rather exists for the view projected to others.

The private man is the man who experiences, the public man is the one who projects an image. Ultimately, it is not just, as the final sentence of the story expounds, that the “I” and the “Borges” cannot tell who is doing the writing, but that neither can lay claim to be the real person. That is taken over by the collective conscientiousness of all the readers. When the “I” dies, little memory of him will remain; it is the public “Borges” that will be recalled.

All Information does not equal All Knowledge

The Library of Babel
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―somewhere in some hexagon.
That unbridled hopefulness was succeeded, naturally enough, by a similarly disproportionate depression. The certainty that some bookshelf in some hexagon contained precious books, yet that those precious books were forever out of reach, was almost unbearable.

The Library of Babel contains an all but countless number of books stacked within its hexagonal rooms. Each book contains four hundred ten pages, each page contains forty lines, and each line can contain eighty characters. So each book has a total of 410 · 40 · 80 = 1,312,000 characters. There are 25 characters that can be used to fill the slots, twenty-two letters along with a blank space, a period and comma. (There are no numbers nor are there capital letters). The library contains a book with every possible combination of those characters. So any history (including a detailed history of the future), description of a place or person, philosophical discourse or religious tome will exist somewhere in the library. That is, subject to the constraints on the length of the books, the library contains all knowledge. More than that, it contains all possible knowledge. There is no action, no flight of imagination that has not already been inscribed in one of the books. To have command of the library is to have the attribute of God, knowing all that has occurred and will occur, knowing what is in the hearts of all mankind.
The problem is that this knowledge is not indexed, and the vastness of the library assures that the knowledge it contains will never be accessed. For every book that has content the librarian must traverse multitudes of books, one might have the letters mcv repeated from start to finish, or another with the exact same sequence, but ending in mvv. But even a book with seemingly random letters, there will be another book that can be taken as a dictionary which, in its random language, gives meaning to those letters in such a way that the former book leaps forth with meaning. And because there are many such dictionaries, the same text, meaningless to us, can have multitudes of meanings, some of terrible significance.
But even if you find a book that made sense, and even if it seems on point, you can never know if it is fact or fiction. For each book that is in some sense true and correct, there will be innumerable others that vary ever so slightly from that correctness, or are patently false: “the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.”
It is the juxtaposition of limitless knowledge with the fruitlessness of accessing that knowledge which is the core theme of this story. Just how large this library is is all but unfathomable. Indeed, a book has been written on the mathematical features of the library. Given that each of the 1,312,000 slots can be filled in any of 25 different ways, there are 25^1,312,000, or about 10^1,834,100, distinct books in the Library. (Actually, it is even more than that, because each book has a title on its spine, and perhaps for every book, it must appear with all possible titles. But we will leave this out of the calculation, because even without it, the number of books is about as large a number as we can contextually conceive). Our known universe could not contain even a minuscule portion of the books in this library. The known universe is about 10^27 meters across. If we take the universe to be a cube 10^27 on each side, and assume we can fit a thousand books in each cubic meter, then our universe could hold 10^81 · 10^3 = 10^84 books. If we were to do that, it is 10^84 books down, another 10^1,834,016 books to go. Even if we shrink the books down to the size of a proton, 10^-15 meters across, so we could pack 10^45 books in each cubic meter, the known universe would only hold 10^126 of these books.

The frustration that there is unbounded knowledge that is out of reach breeds superstitions, even gods and religions. There is a belief in what is called the Book Man. On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books, and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god. “Many have gone in search of Him. For a hundred years, men beat every possible path― and every path in vain. How was one to locate the idolized secret hexagon that sheltered Him? Someone proposed searching by regression: To locate book A, first consult book B, which tells where book A can be found; to locate book B, first consult book C, and so on, to infinity...(In fact it can be shown that such a compendium cannot exists; the library itself is the only compendium).

Funes the Memorious
He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30,1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho. Nor were those memories simple—every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on.
No one has ever felt the heat and pressure of a reality as inexhaustible as that which battered Ireneo, day and night, in his poor South American hinterland. It was hard for him to sleep. To sleep is to take one's mind from the world; Funes, lying on his back on his cot, in the dimness of his room, could picture every crack in the wall, every molding of the precise houses that surrounded him.

Those on Tlon do not reason about reality because they do not live in the real world. In contrast, Ireneo Funes cannot reason because he is too bound up in reality; he is in incapable of breaking away from the onslaught of facts in order to think abstractly. Funes says to his interviewer, "My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap." His story is about the need to be able to forget, the paralyzing effect of perfect memory.
Except for his gift of perfect memory, Funes is frail in every dimension. Paralyzed and bedridden by the same accident that led to his indelible memory, he cannot do anything based on this gift; it remains tethered to his mental and hence virtual world. He knows everything that he has experienced, but cannot digest this knowledge. Unlike those in the Library of Babel, he is not frustrated and depressed by this disconnect between having everything at hand but in a useless form. Rather, he is the proto-web surfer, happy to frolic in the sterile virtual world, collecting and recalling facts without any further purpose. Still, he chooses to stay in a darkened room to contain the press of data on his mind. At the age of nineteen, Funes dies of pulmonary congestion, a physical mirror of his mental congestion. As far as stories about the perils of too much information go, this on ranks at the top.

The Aleph
Under the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it was spinning; then I realized that the movement was an illusion produced by the dizzying spectacles inside it. The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos.

The infinite Aleph contains within its small sphere a simultaneous vision of millions of delightful and horrible acts, all occupying the same point. Looking at it is to have a god-like vision that the narrator can only compare to the descriptions of Persian mystics, Ezekiel's flight to prophesy, and Alain de Lille's description of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. Yet the other-worldly Aleph is located in an improbably real-world setting, the basement – the nineteenth step up from the bottom of the basement, to be exact – of a condemned house in a run-down neighborhood. To gain this ineffable vision, the narrator must lie down on a tile floor in a narrow space more like a cistern than a basement, on a humble couch, in the company of a crate of empty bottles and a pile of burlap sacks. Taking one of the burlap bags as a pillow, the he stretches out, precisely situated on the couch in "something of a pit."

There are a number of points of irony in The Aleph in addition to that of finding the fantastic Aleph in such a comically real-world setting. One is that in spite of having free access to the Aleph, Carlos Argentino, the proprietor of the Aleph, still is a bad poet. (Though he does manage to be a prize winning poet). A second is that in the real world, absent the Aleph, the narrator holds to a sublime memory of dignity and beauty of his dearly departed Beatrice, but in the light of the Aleph he sees her less flattering post-mortal state of nothing but bones. The Aleph captures everything without filtering, and therefore shares the same limitations as Funes exhibits with his perfect memory. Again we come back to Sartre's notion of negation. There is no device in the Aleph for negation, and so Beatriz, who was remembered by a limited and generous memory now is also seen in the stark, present reality.

Note: I have taken from The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel for the numerical calculation of the vastness of the Library of Babel, and from Borges and His Fiction for literary interpretation of Borges's work.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this posting. I have been reading Borges and your description offers me some new ways to look at his stories.

    ReplyDelete