On Archiving Everything: Borges, Calvino, Google

This piece was cross-posted on OWNI.eu, the European counterpart to the French investigative reporting and data journalism outfit OWNI.fr.

Today Google marks the 112th birthday of Jorge Luis Borges with this colourful sketch.

The sketch alludes to his role as Director of the Argentinian National Public Library, his architectural literature, and – not least – his recurring fantasies of the all-encompassing archive, the total library:

Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon, the secret and true nature of Rome, the encyclopedia Novalis would have constructed, my dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, the proof of Pierre Fermat’s theorem, the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, those same chapters translated into the language spoken by the Garamantes, the paradoxes Berkeley invented concerning Time but didn’t publish, Urizen’s books of iron, the premature epiphanies of Stephen Dedalus, which would be meaningless before a cycle of a thousand years, the Gnostic Gospel of Basilides, the song the sirens sang, the complete catalog of the Library, the proof of the inaccuracy of that catalog. Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings. Everything: but all the generations of mankind could pass before the dizzying shelves—shelves that obliterate the day and on which chaos lies—ever reward them with a tolerable page.

Jorge Luis Borges. “La biblioteca total” (The Total Library)
Selected Non-Fictions (New York, Viking: 1999), p. 216

Riffing off Borges’s vision, Italo Calvino later writes:

You imagine, as does everybody else for that matter, that our organization has for many years been preparing the greatest document centre ever conceived, an archive that will bring together and catalogue everything that is known about every person, animal and thing, by way of a general inventory not only of the present but of the past too, of everything that has ever been since time began, in short a general and simultaneous history of everything, or rather a catalogue of everything moment by moment. And that is indeed what we are working on and we can feel satisfied that the project is well advanced: not only have we already put the contents of the most important libraries of the world, and likewise the archives and museums and newspaper annals of every nation, on our punch cards, but also a great deal of documentation gathered ad hoc, person by person, place by place. […] What we are planning to build is a centralized archive of human kind, and we are attempting to store it in the smallest possible space, along the lines of the individual memories in our brains.

Italo Calvino, “World Memory”
Numbers in the Dark (New York, Vintage: 1995), pp. 135-136

Both writers are exploring (and satirising) the age-old dream of all the world’s knowledge presented in some valuable, useful or interesting form – whether an Alexandrian Library, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, or a comprehensive collection of artefacts, tomes, species, or specimens. Both follow in the footsteps of romantic critics of the Enlightenment and question the value of attempts to archive everything. Should we strive to save it all? If not how do we know what to throw away and what to keep? How do we arbitrate between that which is essential and that which is arbitrary? On the basis of which system of categorisation should we conceptually carve up and sample the world?

In several works Borges eschews the traditional conception of the total library (ordered, comprehensive, comprehensible), in favour of a vertigo-inducing metaphysical fantasy of an infinite sprawl. Distinct Deweyan categories are replaced with arbitrary spectra, endless meaningless permutations. Anonymous figures wander the library futilely searching for meaning and significance (“perhaps the catalog of catalogs”, perhaps only “to discover anything”). When you die you are thrown over the railings into the abyss.

In “World Memory” Calvino uses the idea of the total archive as a setting for a thriller – in which reputedly neutral practises of archival become unavoidably and necessarily subjective.

There comes a time in which a yawn, a fly in mid-air, an itch seem to be the only treasure just because we cannot use them. […]

I have to confess – I happened to conceal yawns, pimples, obscene ideas, and whistled tunes within the folds of important information.

This unavoidable subjectivity in the construction of the World Memory, which will soon be all that is left of humankind, culminates in jealousy, murder and the erasure of the subject of the story by the Director.

Archiving and helping us to make sense of everything is Google’s business. Armed with the corporate mission to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and the corporate motto “don’t be evil” the company is no stranger to legal, ethical and political debates about what we see and what we don’t, what is kept and what is discarded, what is remembered and what is forgotten, and how we find what we want in the world of the wired.

In a sense Google’s approach to meaning is uncannily like that of the later Wittgenstein: don’t look for deeper structures underlying the way we make sense of things, pay attention to the surface, to what people do and how they interact with language, with words, sentences, and signs. Don’t derive an arbitrary ontology or an abstract rule from particular cases: watch what people do, how they behave, and iterate accordingly. The success of their algorithms is predicated on the recognition that meaning is not something fixed which can be analysed and understood apart from what people do. Statistical modelling based on actual user behaviour will win out over attempting to second guess what they want with static schema. In Google’s total archive, the company don’t just retain every book, every page, every sentence, but every interaction with every item: every click, pause, foray, allusion, babble, farrago and yawn. For our cacophonies are Google’s gold.

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  1. Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    One (other) crucial difference: in the library dreams of Borges and Calvino, there are no tricksters peddling Search Engine Optimisation.

  2. Howard
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    OMG! Predication and stat models in the context of Calvino and Borges. I was thinking these exemplify what they are mocking. N-of-one science, personalized medicine, and saving our n-of-one planet depend on elaborating particulars, not p or sm. But still… The drift is good: science without semantics.

  3. Posted August 24, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Nice (and timely) post. You must have had that on the backburner for a bit 🙂 I wonder if you thought of Wikipedia at all when you were writing it. Wikipedia’s mission seems to fit the bill as well.

  4. Posted August 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t it be worth including Wikipedia in this, as a complementary cataloguing and archiving service? In any case I feel though both represent an accomplishment for humankind’s knowledge, they are just as vulnerable as the library of Alexandria. I wonder whether Calvino and Borges ever considered this.

  5. Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    @RobertSeddon that would’ve led to improved dramatic tension I reckon …

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