Library of Babel


The Library of Babel is a prescient short story by Jorge Luis Borges. A large, perhaps infinite, library that contains all books that can be written. Each book contains 410 pages, arranged in shelves in hexagonal units, and these units stack in space both horizontally and vertically; you can wander the stacks through narrow passageways and spiral staircases. The books assembled symbols, 23 letters of the alphabet, a space, a comma and a period, in all their permutations. Most books are absolute gibberish. But since the library contains every permutation of those letters, there will be a book about your life and everything that has happened and will happen. There will be a book on any conceivable topic.

Of course, having all the knowledge of the universe available does not necessarily make it accessible. And the question is not the accumulation but the navigation. There’s some speculation that we keep in memory everything we’ve ever encountered. Every passing word, phrase, spoken or written, every nuance of every experience we’ve ever felt, seen, or heard. We’ve discovered, for example, quite by accident, that electric stimulation in the temporal neocortex can spontaneously elicit memories long ago forgotten. And the memory capacity of a normal human brain is estimated at 2.5 petrabytes, or 2.5 million gigabytes. This is equivalent to about three million hours of video, or watching TV non-stop for 300 years.

So what are the best ways to navigate these spaces, not of potential but of actualized knowledge? Is it like the Library of Babel where you can’t get there from here? Do we just need to whack the right part of the brain with the appropriate juice?

Currently, it seems kind of like handing a request to one of the librarians. We have no idea whether we’re going to come back with the memory we request or even what’s going on behind the counter of the conscious mind. I think the solution may lie in better interfaces to the subconscious. But our models of science are stuck presently with even accepting consciousness exists, much less exploring its bandwidth for internal networks to deeper places of our subjective experience. And that’s what crossed my mind this fine Spring morning…