#142: Everything Happens So Much

My favorite Borges story—which is really just an extended thought experiment, like so many of his stories are—is “The Library of Babel,” which simply describes a library that contains every possible permutation of alphabetical characters printed in identical 410-page volumes, and therefore holds every book that could ever be written, along with a much larger volume of gibberish. One of the books Borges describes, for example, just repeats the letters “MCV” over and over again for 410 pages; another contains a random jumble of letters with the sentence “Oh time thy pyramids” suddenly appearing on the second-to-last page. As the internet has evolved, I find myself thinking about this story more and more, because the internet (and Twitter especially) has basically realized a version of the Library of Babel that is only slightly more coherent than the one Borges imagined. Have you ever thought of an obvious joke you could tweet, but instead searched for it and found that it already exists, perhaps in many different iterations? We obviously refrain from posting random text strings and there are many, many possible sequences of 280 characters that will never be tweeted, but nonetheless there is a finite number of possible tweets, and every day we get slightly closer to exhausting the possibilities.

This is all to say that originality—which was always a red herring—is an increasingly difficult illusion to preserve. Not only do we have the receipts now, but the internet constantly waves them in our faces. Instead of one hundred amateur comedians making the same basic joke in living rooms around the world, they all post it to Twitter and we can witness their sameness. As we fill the Library of Babel with all possible statements and all the drivel in between, searching and copying become more important than creating, and those are two tasks that our current digital tools are perfectly suited to perform. All of the content is out there, we just have to go find it. Hence the rapidly growing importance of memes: Instead of repeating the same joke I already know exists, I can just copy and paste it, or tweak it slightly, adding information by providing metacommentary on the meme itself. What could be more embarrassing than posting the original version of a meme once it’s transitioned into its self-referential phase? In her fantastic essay about Netflix and time, Elena Burger observes that on Twitter “we’re all accustomed to imagining every possible permutation of reaction to an idea before it's even been expressed.” This seems like our inevitable response to constant immersion in the Library of Babel: We have to imagine all possible reactions because reacting is the only move still available after we accept that originality is impossible.

When all culture is imprinted in data, furthermore, computers can easily produce it themselves. Old heads will remember the Twitter account @horse_ebooks, a Russian bot that was “part of a network of similar Twitter spam accounts which promoted e-books organized around a single theme.” The account generated pearl after pearl of seemingly tongue-in-cheek wisdom that was randomly copied from existing texts, and actually passed the Turing Test: Debates raged in 2011 about whether or not a human was secretly writing the tweets, and it eventually turned out that a human had taken over the account at some point! In his analysis of @horse_ebooks, John Herrman quotes an email from his colleague Max Read, who perfectly summarizes the account’s appeal: “It’s cool when it’s us inventing signals out of noise; it’s not cool when it’s all signal masquerading as noise.” In other words, @horse_ebooks stopped being funny when we found out a human was behind it, because we were no longer creating the meaning in the text snippets—someone else was. And this brings us back to Library of Babel: Once we realize that we’re in it, and that our beloved language becomes noise once it passes a certain threshold, then the noise itself just becomes the raw material for a new kind of signal.

A few things to share:

  • I was a guest on the Office Reset podcast, discussing the future of remote work in the pandemic era (our conversation revolved around this essay I wrote for Real Life back in April).

  • Matt Civico interviewed me for an article he wrote about how the pandemic will reshape neighborhoods and local communities, and the potential benefits of the end of commuting. I thought the final piece turned out great.

  • I published an essay this week in the FWB Discord server about art, fungibility, and the contemporary web’s commoditization of culture. It’s exclusive to that Discord so the only way to read it is by joining the FWB community, which is pretty awesome.