Babbling Babel


A couple weeks ago, after reading an article about it, I read a compelling short story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled “The Library of Babel.”  Borges created an unnamed narrator who describes “The universe (which others call the Library)” in terms of a physical structure that contains books.  Inside the books are lines of letters.  In some books, the letters form words and make sense, but in most of the books, they don’t.  And then there are the books with unrecognizable symbols.  In just two pages, Borges haunted me and my mind with this character and this universe.

I read the story on a city bus after an exhausting day at the office.  It startled me.  Borges’ library reminded me of the internet, of Google’s desire to create an online library that contains every book ever published, and of babbling technology.  His library is no technological wonder, either.  And yet, it made me think of all the technology that we have now.  Does it truly help us communicate better or just more?

Technology sucks the time out of a writer’s life.  It’s supposed to help, of course, but for every little bit of help it provides, it consumes 100 times more in time.  Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy social networking online, reading and sending e-mails, and having instant chats with friends.  But there needs to be a boundary between work and play.  Technology blurs that boundary…quite effectively at times. And it contributes to all those books of nonsense in Borges’ story.

In the first sentence, Borges says “The universe (which others call the Library)” which then makes the title “The Universe of Babel.”  Why “Babel”?

That’s a biblical reference which has two sides to it in this context.  It refers to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.  Then it includes the Bible and its many translations and variations as one of the books in Borges’ Library.  Babel comes from the Hebrew word balal which means to confound or confuse.  In the biblical story, God looks down to earth and sees a united humanity speaking one language — he decides to confound humanity and shatters the one language into many.  Humanity scatters and speaks many languages, some with totally different alphabets.  Borges’ Library of Babel, or Universe of Babel, is the story of humanity.

Technology follows in Babel’s footsteps, I think, with the capacity to create confusion and to confound, to help humanity and to consume time.  Is technology a Library of Babel?  Or just part of the one Borges has described?  As part of the story of humanity, it must be in the Library along with everything else.

I’m still thinking about this short story, and will probably continue to think about it for a long time.  It’s the first short story by Borges that I’ve read.  I doubt it will be the last…..

It may be worth noting here that Borges was blind, and he wrote during a time of limited technology, when humanity had more time to play and to dream, and to actually have time to wonder about “meaning” and “purpose,” to read voraciously and to write wonderful, meaningful stories like this one.

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4 responses to “Babbling Babel

  1. I don’t understand your final comment about limited technology? I mean, Borges is writing about a very advanced technology: Language and the written word, which is an extremely recent invention. His narrator finds language, ultimately, to be both mystical and obscuring, enlightening and unclear—mysterious.

    As well, Borges (who went blind later in life) lived in the 20th century,a time of incredible, unbelievable scientific and technological invention. Do you mean technology only as desktop computers and iPhones? Are you not pondering meaning (about which your quote marks indicate some indifference or skepticism) on a computer, on the World Wide Web? Some have posited the Library of Babel as being an imaginative construction of indexes like the Internet. Do you think that the Internet or other technologies necessarily stifle imagination, play, and dreaming?

    • Thoughtful questions, Noah, thanks for your comment. Technology’s development only exploded on a personal level in the last two decades of the 20th century. Prior to that, people in their personal lives did not have access to computers or cell phones and all the iProducts didn’t yet exist. While I use technology myself in my personal and professional lives, I see its contribution as a two-edged sword, both positive and negative. I am not at all indifferent or skeptical to meaning on the computer or on the Web. But I do think one has to really search for it in the unfiltered flood of information, and that search can consume time that could be targeted elsewhere, e.g. introspection, dreaming, on the creative process. It takes time to create anything. So, while the internet and/or technology may not stifle imagination, play and dreaming in this case, I question the quality that it produces.

      At the time Borges (I believe he was blind most of his adult life) wrote the story, I don’t know if he even knew about the internet’s existence, if it did indeed exist. Compared with the technology that exists today, he wrote at a time of limited technology. And my point, I think, was that having limited technology can enhance creativity. There are studies occurring now about the effect technology — computers, cell phones, iProducts, etc. — has on the developing human brain and the ability to reason, solve problems and create. So far, the results have not been positive. Kids spend so much time online or on their phones (not talking, but texting) that their brains need constant stimulation. They have lost the ability to concentrate for long periods on one thought, one subject, one task. Their thought processes have been affected. So, I believe in this way technology has stifled imagination, play, dreaming as well as concentration and reasoning. What’s needed is balance and that hasn’t been achieved yet. Do I think technology needs to be eliminated? No. But I do think there is an important place in human life for silence, developing concentration, and face-to-face interactivity. And reading a real, hardcover book filled with letters that form words that make sense….(smile)

  2. I still think that you’re conflating technology with widespread personal computers. One is a subset of the other. Imagine being Jorge Luis Borges, born in 1899 and living until 1986. In that time you see the invention or development of the car, airplane, space shuttle, the Concorde, high-speed rail, cinema, television, rockets, submarines, vaccines, manned space flight, radio, telephones, satellites, the atomic bomb, the nuclear reactor, mechanized war, 2 World Wars, penny newspapers, Modernism (both literary and in the visual arts), the end of artistic Modernism, the arrival of Post-Modernism, fax machines, CNN, MTV, computers, DARPANet, antibiotics, widely distributed sulfate drugs, independence movements across the globe, man on the moon, space probes to Venus, Mars, and other celestial bodies, the birth of information theory during World War II, world-wide digitized economic trading, videotape, video games, etc. etc. He wrote about those things. In the library of Babel he was skeptical about the ability to find meaning in the technology of the library (which he rightly describes as a very sophisticated form of technological development).

    I don’t know what you mean by “limited technology.” All technology is limited by capability and cost. The people of the 1300s lived with very limited technology compared to those in the 1700s, whose technological revolutions vastly improved the arts, sciences, humanities, global exploration, and so on. What was so limited about the technology of his lifetime? What important factor has been introduced that so radically alters those technologies that preceded 1986? How much more actual information is there to dig through online as opposed to a library, for instance the Library of Congress, the libraries of the University of Geneva (where he died), or the infinite Library of Babel?

    Furthermore, how is behavior the exclusive effect of technology? Children of the 1940s, ’50s, and 60s were told that television would be the great corrupter of moral and social behavior. Before then was the corrosive and despised invention of radio, before that was the telephone, before that the invention of the novel in the 16th century, and if you reach back to ancient Greece you find Socrates declaring that written language would destroy men’s minds, making them forgetful and anti-social. Each of these was speculation and forgotten soon after that new technology became commonplace.

    Studies have not established any degradation of mental proficiency by exposure to writing, novels, radio, or television. Early studies looking for an effect by the Internet have been rather unsuccessful, despite what pontificators may trumpet. You’re also not considering what affect social attitudes and norms might have on behavior. You might want to re-read Borges (who went blind in his late 50s) a little more carefully, because I really do think you’re attributing something to him with which he would not agree. I think you might also check the studies to which you alluded and their methodology. Finally, you might find these cultural contributions helpful:
    “Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us” by Adam Gopnik for the New Yorker.
    “You Are Not A Gadget,” by Jaron Lanier.
    “Is the Internet Making Us Smarter?” by Bob Garfield for On The Media,
    and the August 5, 2011 episode of On The Media.

    The Internet might encourage us to be less private or more anonymous or any number of things, but as human beings, I don’t think that it’s ever wise to predict we will stop finding value in deep, personal connections (what I think you call “meaning”) in relationships and other real world experiences. That seems essentially impossible.

    • Dear Noah,

      What do you mean with “…conflating technology”? Do you mean “to confuse”? I’m not confusing technology with widespread personal computers. I am using the term “technology” in the context of personal and business technology, i.e. personal computers, cell phones, iProducts from Apple, tablets, notebook computers, laptops, smart phones, and computer games. I know that the broader context of “technology” means everything that you list and more, but in the context of my blogpost and response to your first comment, I was referring to personal and business technology as I’ve just described.

      All the things that you listed as technological advancements in the 20th century certainly occurred but not all at once, i.e. simultaneously, and certainly not in a compressed time period of a decade or two as the personal computer evolution has. I was born in 1954. At that time, what technology my parents used on a daily basis consisted of: car, telephone (landline), radio, LP turntable (45-78-33 rpm), refrigerator, oven/stove and a huge black and white television. When I began working in 1978, manual typewriters were still common in offices and I saw the advent of electric typewriters, fax machines (very primitive, believe me), early voice mail, multi-line telephones. I saw my first personal computer in 1984 when my older brother brought his MAC home at Christmas to show it off. Since 1984, we have seen an explosion in technology centered on computers and the microprocessing chip. I believe that is the development, the chip that can be made ever smaller and faster, that was the important factor that altered technologies after 1986 — we now have computers running almost everything from cars to our household appliances.

      What I mean by limited technology: I mean that technology is limited in its scope and availability, not that the technology is limited in what it can do. In 1954, we had limited technology compared to 2012. I wrote on a manual typewriter when I began writing, now I can write on a desktop computer, laptop, notebook, tablet, and a smart phone and typewriters are considered ancient relics although still available. During Borges’ lifetime which corresponds to my father’s (1898-1986), he could write on a manual typewriter or an electric, although I believe he dictated. Regarding his blindness, I quote from Wikipedia: “With his vision beginning to fade in his early thirties and unable to support himself as a writer, Borges began a new career as a public lecturer.[Notes 1][22][23] He became an increasingly public figure, obtaining appointments as President of the Argentine Society of Writers, and as Professor of English and American Literature at the Argentine Association of English Culture. His short story “Emma Zunz” was made into a film (under the name of Días de odio, Days of Hate, directed in 1954 by the Argentine director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson).[24] Around this time, Borges also began writing screenplays.

      “By the late 1950s, he had become completely blind. In 1955, he was nominated to the directorship of the National Library. Neither the coincidence nor the irony of his blindness as a writer escaped Borges:[10]”

      The studies that I mentioned in my first reply do not conclude that behavior is the exclusive effect of technology. However, technology, i.e. the use of computers, cell phones, etc., has an affect on the development of the human brain when it is the most vulnerable, i.e. during the teen years. Human behavior has many influences, both genetic and environmental, and the effect of technology falls into the environmental category.

      From your comment: “The internet might encourage us to be less private or more anonymous or any number of things, but as human beings, I don’t think that it’s ever wise to predict we will stop finding value in deep personal connections (what I think you call “meaning”) in relationships and other real world experiences.” We agree totally here, although I wasn’t “predicting” anything. I wasn’t saying that we would stop finding value in relationships, I was saying that we are not making the time for them that we used to before the advent of the personal computer and all the technology that arose from it. And for young people, that is teens, who spend their time multi-tasking on their computers, cell phones, and iPads at the same time, their brains are experiencing over-stimulation on a grand scale, which was studied and measured for the studies I mentioned. Take away all of that, as was my experience growing up, when kids and teens played together, established relationships in person and conducted them in person (in spite of the telephone), and give them the TIME to do all that and I believe society could benefit greatly.

      You attribute conclusions and assumptions to me that I cannot find in either the blogpost or my first response to you. While this has certainly stimulated a discussion, I have definitely felt those conclusions and assumptions were imposed upon me and belong to you, not me. Borges’ short story was a launch pad for my imagination to speculate on certain ideas regarding technology and the internet. I in no way meant those imaginings and sense of wonder to be construed as conclusive.

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