A New Library of Babel: Borges, Fake News and Philosophy for All

Infinite Books

Arguably, all we experience of life is data. Information received through various sensors, processed first by functions within the sensors themselves, then interpreted by the mind receiving those signals. Light and dark, warm and cold, cacophonous and silent, all must be received, converted into ideas and somehow coalesce from the most basic binary codes into the broad abstract concepts which we consider foundational to the meaning of the life we are experiencing: faith, hope and love.

This, of course, is an empiricist view of life, that all we know comes from experience, and ignores the possibility there may be some innate knowing within us before we ever experience the world. My own religious beliefs would argue for the latter; my admittedly uneducated sympathies toward Kant and American transcendentalists further support this opinion. But even accepting that some data is coming in, some is preloaded (as computers come with different operating systems and sometimes bloatware), and the interpretation of all is shaped by the common structures of the mind and body, we are, here in the early decades of the 21st century, more aware of our immersion in data, our literal swimming in bytes of information flowing around us in bluetooth and wifi and cellular signals, and more compelled than ever to consider the nature of meaning, than ever before.

And yet, while the consumption of data by way of social media feeds, news alerts, and YouTube videos grows along with exponential expansion of digital processing power, the tools required to plumb meaning from all this remain undeveloped, under utilized. We don’t do enough philosophy.

Reading back the last few paragraphs, I see I’ve started out pedantic. To rephrase in the vernacular:

I’ve got all the information in the universe literally at my fingertips, but what the fuck does it all mean, and what am I supposed to do with it before I die so I can call my life meaningful?

In Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel” he imagines all the universe as an infinite library of hexagonal chambers shelved with books. What is written in these books is of infinite variety, some just sequences of repeated characters, some a “mere labyrinth of letters.”

“As is well known,” writes the narrator, an aging denizen of the library, “for one reasonable line or one straightforward note there are leagues of insensate cacophony, of verbal farragoes and incoherencies.”

This is because, philosophers of the library determine, it contains “everything which can be expressed, in all languages […] the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on this gospel, the commentary on the commentary of this gospel, the veridical account of your death, a version of each book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.”

Reddits, subreddits and turtles all the way down.

This dizzying access to information is, in the Library and in our own universe, at first a cause for elation, and subsequently, deep depression. The reasons Borges’ narrator provides apply equally to our own universe.

The elation springs from the belief that “there was no personal or universal problem whose elegant solution did not exist […] the universe was justified, the universe suddenly expanded to the limitless dimensions of hope.”

The depression results from the realization that in this infinite library, the likelihood of finding the vindication for your life, the explanation of the origin of the universe and time, are infinitely remote.

Borges’ librarians react with zealotry, superstition, violence, tribalism, and suicidal despair, to this infinite expanse of data that at once contains the essential truth of existence and forever obscures it.

Borges’ story was first published in 1941, a quaintly remote time from our perspective, but already at the end of the first period of the Modernist philosophical movement – itself a reaction to radical social and technological change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

How accelerated is that change now, how much more tangible seems Borges’ vision of the infinite, and infinitely maddening, library now?

We produce as a species 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily, according to IBM. In 2017, a data aggregation and analysis company called Domo released a report asserting “ninety percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Think of how much data flows out of your smartphone each hour, both intentionally and unwittingly, from photos, videos, tweets, emails, Facebook posts, messages, calls, location data, app performance feedback, phone operating system performance analytics.

And we as a culture, as a species, seem to be suffering from the same anxieties, magnified, as the people in Borges’ time, and as his imagined librarians. And one doesn’t need to dig deep to find broad cultural worry about the zealotry, superstition, violence, tribalism, suicidal despair the librarians suffered from.

If all versions of all information true and false exists in infinite amounts, is it all fake news? When Internet trolls can meme the most ridiculous theories into broadly accepted realities, and even your smart friends send you ridiculous, unsourced YouTube videos to back up bizarre beliefs, where do we ground our understanding of the universe? Of its meaning and our purpose in it?

Borges doesn’t provide an answer at the end of his story, other than a “hope” in which he rejoices: there is an underlying order to the disorder of the universe.

I wouldn’t presume to offer a specific answer to this anxiety of information any more than Borges did. I would, however, suggest that now more than ever it’s necessary to return to the search for that answer. That we take seriously the problems of epistemology.

And I don’t mean that our degreed academics or philosophers take it up. I mean all of us, adults and kids, working regular jobs, going to school, living in the full torrent of that data, take it up as a lifelong habit. It’s a problem at the root of the call for media literacy in the face of fake news, Russian bots, content farms, trolls, memes, hoaxes, pseudoscience, junk science, cults, and conspiracies: what is truth, and how will I know it when I see it? If we’re to service and thrive as our species evolves into the digital information age, we must do so, all, as philosophers.