I’d never heard of “text miners” until recently, but apparently there’s a National Centre of them here in London, bringing to mind ticklishly unlikely images of programmers arriving at work in hard hats or jamming a pickaxe beneath the spacebar. They’re part of the growth industry of data mining, and the fact that they exist at all is testament to a world that’s gasping beneath the weight of its own archives, however incorporeal these archives may be.
Seventy years ago the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote “The Library of Babel”, a short story about a cosmically vast library that contained all possible books — a whole universe based on the inconceivable number of permutations a length of text would allow, making possible not only all the books ever written, but all the ones that could be written. What a wonderful conceit at a time when print was still expanding, and the surfeit of magazines, supplements, fanzines and free zines that avalanched our world in the years before the web was beginning to emerge; when “records” meant cavernous filing cabinets and punch cards, deep-recess shelves and cryptic, Cabbalistic microfiches; when librarianship was still cinematic.
It was a richly imaginative idea in its day, but the metaphor of Borges’ Babel Library has, in the last decade, gained a relevance it could never hitherto possess. What expresses better our long slogs through the internet — the insipid pulse of Twittertopia, the unceasing verbal slurry of the blogosphere, and the multitude of social networks — than this Piranesian prism of senselessness: literature as chimera, jumbled apocrypha, and verbal ephemera? Borges’ Library made works of great beauty possible, but it also buried them beneath a quasi-infinity of trivia — an idea he originally explored in his essay “The Total Library”: “For every sensible line or accurate fact,” as he would have it, “there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings.”
True, the web’s not quite on the scale of the whole universe, but to us helpless human beings it may as well be: to read what is posted today around the world in just one minute would quite possibly take more than a lifetime (I say “possibly” because nobody actually knows; the web is simply too huge to be properly measured.) There are estimated, or loosely guestimated, to be 350,000,000 websites registered around the world, and like the universe itself, the whole thing’s expanding at an exponential rate. And of course, static web domains are no longer where the action is, but rather in the mighty social networks: the world’s greatest talk shop, Twitter, now oversees 340 million tweets a day. In this “Library of Babble”, can something meaningful still matter when it’s drowned out by a tide of trivia?
Borges’ Babel Library is part ghastly premonition, part seductive fantasy. Borges was able to see the poetry of a world filled with almost infinite literary possibility — how it would not just replicate the great works of civilisation, but furnish us with the ones civilisation never got around to writing. As he put it, we’d find in there “the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon… my dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934… the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, those same chapters translated into the language spoken by the Garamantes…”
Borges’ Library would not only contain a complete catalogue, but also a text detailing, point by point, every single inaccuracy and falsehood of that catalogue. And presumably there would be another detailing every single inaccuracy and falsehood of that, too — and so on, like watching a piece of controversial draft legislation make its way through Parliament, watching a retweet go viral, or a comment thread raised to the level of the cosmic. Like the web, the Babel library would be more a place of reproduction than production.
And it’s perhaps this power to give form to the hypothetical, to the stories that could be, that lends a tantalising excitement to the bagginess of the web. Fan fiction — not native to the internet, but given room to flourish by its expansive boundaries — comprises, to quote a recent Ewan Morrison article on the subject, “crossover, AU, Hentai, OoC, Uber, Mary Sue, slash fic, hate fic, anti fic and even wing fic”. Its most popular sub-genre, alternative universe, where Borgesian permutations on a text are explored at novel length, has already spawned 130,137 reworkings of the Twilight franchise alone. It may not quite be the “several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma” of Borges’ Babel Library, but it does speak of a culture increasingly interested in what could be, rather than what is written.
This is the upside to the web’s oceans of verbiage. By sheer laws of scale, there must presumably be works of genius taking shape on a server somewhere: tweets of finely crafted beauty, Shakespearean gmails, Facebook posts so sublime they effortlessly express the human condition — or at least the human condition as it was two seconds ago — beside a fun animated graphic that links to a website that sells cheap holidays. They must be there, hidden in the depths. But they’re hard to find amongst the dross.
Similarly, it’s this near-identical repetition that renders the Babel Library almost useless, and indeed even destructive, spawning superstitious creeds and desperate mystics among its users. When rare profundity is buried in almost endless trivia, the search for any meaning at all becomes maddening. But since the internet is humanly rather than randomly generated, the “tyranny of the irrelevant” we face stems from our own shortcomings as authors. Leaving aside social networks and the terabytes of Javababble they generate every day, you only need to trawl the seabed of the blogosphere to be submerged in repetition, crude cut-and-paste, inane commentary, embryonic factoids, lazy hearsay and puerile humour — all collated like a cloud of car exhaust and wafted onto the world’s computer screens.
Of course, anyone who points this out tends to come over as a cultural elitist and clog-burning Luddite who’s wandered in dressed in a smock from the late eighteenth century — and indeed, the web is replete with exceptions: we all know wonderful blogs, and wonderful online platforms for new writing. But many more lie undiscovered somewhere down in the subterranean reaches of the Google rankings, buried beneath the weight of the banal, just as the “precious books” of Borges library remain unlocated and unread. Instead we get hashed and rehashed opinion and the endless documentation of our lives (which must surely be one of the web’s evolutionary dead ends: how long can any interest be sustained in something so innately uninteresting?) Teasing out the transcendent in the banal has always been the editor’s charge, but since the blogosphere is largely a world with no editors, the banal is given free reign. Indeed, to judge by some of the celebrity bloggers of the last decade (Perez Hilton or Coco Rocha heading an illustrious list of gossip-mongerers), the banal is big business. We’re witnesses to the rise, and rise, of the seriously trivial.
But perhaps this is all simply the price we pay for powers of composition on a cosmic scale? The precious, mystic tomes of Borges’ Babel Library only exist in the context of the galaxies of gibberish that surround them: Babel could not exist without the babble. Maybe we should accept that combing the web’s intestines in search of the profound is almost as endless as scouting for apocryphal books in a universe-sized library, and make do with the tit-bits of meaning we stumble upon. Borges was gloomy about those who committed their lives to searching: his Inquisitors are crushed by the Sisyphean scale of their task. “Obviously,” he tells us, “no one expects to discover anything.” Stick with the websites we know — and besides which, perhaps a dose of the trivial does us all good now and again. It’s hard to know what Borges himself would have made of the blogosphere, of Twitter and a platform for speech given almost infinite scope, but I have a feeling he’d have probably loved it.