Blackspot

Post-Search Society

What happens when the library is deserted?

Last week, Google celebrated Jorge Luis Borges's posthumous birthday by morphing their front-page logo into a Borges-inspired doodle. This attempt to associate the Google brand with Borges, the Argentine master of magical realism who was also a librarian, is not new nor particularly surprising. In fact, practically every book about search engines inevitably includes an allusion to, or epigraph from, Borges’ short story The Library of Babel. What is surprising, however, is that this particular story has been so thoroughly misunderstood that the very forces Borges meant to warn us about are the same ones who now champion the writer.

"The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries," begins The Library of Babel. In these perhaps infinite hexagonal galleries, the narrator explains, there are shelves upon shelves of books. The physical structure of each book is identical but the content of each is unique. Some books are gibberish, others contain only a line of sense, while still others are lucid biographies of people not-yet-born. Taken together the books in the Library represent the sum total of all knowledge in all languages for all time.

It isn't difficult to imagine why this description of the Library was quickly associated with the internet. One is reminded of the adage that monkeys typing for infinity would by chance alone create the complete works of Shakespeare. And we can imagine that there is, right now, a machine in the depths of the deep web that is spewing line after line of randomly assorted characters in the hopes of stumbling across the meaning of life. (Is this perhaps the noble philosophical purpose behind the spam bots that plague the search engines?) Which is to say that today when we think of the infinite storehouse of knowledge we do not, as Borges did, imagine a physical library but instead a virtual one, accessible through computer terminals and indexed by Google.

Borges, however, was not writing an ode to the internet nor to search engines. On the contrary, notice how the emphasis of Borges's story is placed upon the slow decline of the searchers who scour the Library. The primary concern of Borges's narrator is that the human searchers who live in the Library are disappearing, dying off, and going extinct. Some are slipping into madness overwhelmed by information, others distraught that they will never find the Truth are committing suicide and the narrator warns that "I suspect that the human species – the unique species – is about to be extinguished, but the Library shall endure ..." Borges glimpsed a terrible future where the Library is fully stocked with every book imaginable and yet the Library is deserted. He saw a future without searchers.

Neal Gabler, in a recent editorial in the New York Times, asserted that we are entering a "post-idea" era where big ideas are in short supply but information is abundant. "We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism," Gabler writes. "What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won't be anything we won't know. But there will be no one thinking about it," he warns. Implicit in Gabler’s argument is the realization that we've moved away from being seekers of knowledge and have now become nodes in the relay of information.

Gabler's argument hits home when we consider Twitter. It seems clear now that all of the early critiques of Twitter – that it was for twits with little to say and for whom 140 characters is sufficient – missed a fundamental point. The significant feature of Twitter is not the size of information transmitted. (Consider that a large portion of Twitter traffic is the sending of links to content, a single tweet can therefore send someone to gigabytes of information.) What is far more significant is that to use Twitter is to surround oneself in the constant flow of information. In Twitter, rather than seeking out information, we hook ourselves up to various hashtags and users and watch the waves of links and tweets stream past us. If something piques our interest, we retweet it and send it on downstream. This emphasis on finding and sharing information through social networks – encouraged by Google, Twitter, Facebook et al – is the death of search because it de-emphasizes active seeking.

What may not be obvious at first is that the Twitter stream is not simply an information flow, it is also a way of organizing and sorting the Library. (In this respect, Twitter is a challenge to Google and it is no wonder that Google+ mimics elements of Twitter.) Hence, the popularity of using hashtags to categorize tweets so that others may find them. To organize information in this way is to leave the vast majority of the Library untouched... it is to only care for what is freshest because one has no time for seeking out what is rarest... it is to live in a world without seekers.

What Borges, a librarian writing in 1941, foresaw was that the art of searching was in decline and might one day disappear entirely. Today, we live in a post-search world and are finding out what happens to culture when the Library is deserted.

—Micah White, micah (at) adbusters.org

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22 comments on the article “Post-Search Society”

Displaying 1 - 10 of 22

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Ivan Maeder

Very good, have to tweet.

The Neal Gabler quote begins making a lot of sense - "... If a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention..." - but I have to think that at some level this has always happened. At *the end of history* we can't expect a Marx, but I bet twenty years ago libraries were just as empty as they are now - there were no more people searching for the Marxes than there are now.

I think more than the searcher numbers dwindling, it's the Nietzches and Marxes who's ideas are diluted. Now anyone can potentially be as big, and so nobody is...

Ivan Maeder

Very good, have to tweet.

The Neal Gabler quote begins making a lot of sense - "... If a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention..." - but I have to think that at some level this has always happened. At *the end of history* we can't expect a Marx, but I bet twenty years ago libraries were just as empty as they are now - there were no more people searching for the Marxes than there are now.

I think more than the searcher numbers dwindling, it's the Nietzches and Marxes who's ideas are diluted. Now anyone can potentially be as big, and so nobody is...

Chris English

The content of the article made me think. Now I'm going to go to the CSU library (currently under construction/expansion) and check out a book with Gabler's short story.

I was looking for something meaningful...

How fortunate.
I've been wrestling with these ideas alone, without guidance, in the dark - for some time now. Maybe Gabler will help.

Chris English

The content of the article made me think. Now I'm going to go to the CSU library (currently under construction/expansion) and check out a book with Gabler's short story.

I was looking for something meaningful...

How fortunate.
I've been wrestling with these ideas alone, without guidance, in the dark - for some time now. Maybe Gabler will help.

Anonymous

Micah White wrote something about technology that didn't suck! Wow!

If you really wanna see where the vast internet library is going, check out semantic web technologies. Some interesting stuff that may well incorporate searching in an ontological manner.

Anonymous

Micah White wrote something about technology that didn't suck! Wow!

If you really wanna see where the vast internet library is going, check out semantic web technologies. Some interesting stuff that may well incorporate searching in an ontological manner.

Anonymous

Foreword to "Amusing Ourselves to Death; Public Discourse in the age of Show Business"

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. the roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another--slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Anonymous

Foreword to "Amusing Ourselves to Death; Public Discourse in the age of Show Business"

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. the roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another--slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

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