borges in Thylstrup 2019

ss Digitization

# 5
Lost in Mass Digitization

## The Desire and Despair of Large-Scale Collections

In 1995, founding editor of _Wired_ magazine Kevin Kelly mused upon how a
digital library would look:

> Two decades ago nonlibrarians discovered Borges’s Library in silicon
circuits of human manufacture. The poetic can imagine the countless rows of
hexagons and hallways stacked up in the Library corresponding to the
incomprehensible micro labyrinth of crystalline wires and gates stamped into a
silicon computer chip. A computer chip, blessed by the proper incantation of
software, creates Borges’s Library on command. … Pages from the books appear
on the screen one after another without delay. To search Borges’s Library of
all possible books, past, present, and future, one needs only to sit down (the
modern solution) and click the mouse.1

At the time of Kelly’s writing, book digitization on a massive scale had not
yet taken place. Building his chimerical dream around Jorge Luis Borges’s own
famous magic piece of speculation regarding the Library of Babel, Kelly not
only dreamed up a fantasy of what a digital library might be in an imaginary
dialogue with Borges; he also argued that Jorge Luis Borges’s vision had
already taken place, by grace of nonlibrarians, or—more
specifically—programmers. Specifically, Kelly mentions Karl Sims, a computer
scientist working on a supercomputer called Connection Machine 5 (you may
remember it from the set of _Jurassic Park_ ), who had created a simulated
version of Borges’s library.2

Twenty years after Kelly’s vision, a whole host of mass digitization projects
have sought more or less explicitly to fulfill Kelly’s vision. Incidentally,
Brewster Kahle, one of the lead engineers of the aforementioned Connection

ation, and the lack of economic
models for how to actually make mass digitization sustainable, why does the
common dream of mass digitization persist? As this chapter shows, the desire
for quantity, which drives mass digitization, is—much like the Borges stories
to which Kelly also refers—laced with ambivalence. On the one hand, the
quantitative aspirations are driven forth by the basic assumption that “more
is more”: more data and more cultural memory equal better industrial and
intellectual p

quality of frightening those who look upon it.”17

The intimidating nature of large collections has been a favored trope in
cultural representations. The most famous example of a gargantuan, even
insanity-inducing, library is of course Jorge Luis Borges’s tale of the
Library of Babel, the universal totality of which becomes both a monstrosity
in the characters’ lives and a source of hope, depending on their willingness
to make peace and submit themselves to the library’s infinite scale and
Kafkaesque organization.18 But Borges’s nonfiction piece from 1939, _The Total
Library,_ also serves as an elegant tale of an informational nightmare. _The
Total Library_ begins by noting that the dream of the utopia of the total
library “has certain characteristics that are easily c

o’s classic, _The Name of the Rose,_ who notes
that: “the library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world.
You enter and you do not know whether you will come out” 46; or consider the
haunting images of being lost in Jose Luis Borges’s tales about labyrinthine
libraries.47 This section therefore turns to the infrastructural space of the
labyrinth, to show that this spatial imaginary, much like the flaneur, is
loaded with cultural ambivalence, and to explore the ways in which th

age for understanding our relationship to mass
digitization projects as sites of both knowledge production and experience.
Indeed, one shadow library is even named _Aleph_ , which refers to the ancient
Hebrew letter and likely also nods at Jose Luis Borges’s labyrinthine short
story, _Aleph,_ on infinite labyrinthine architectures. Yet, what kind of
infrastructure is a labyrinth, and how does it relate to the potentials and
perils of mass digitization?

In her rich historical study of labyrinths, Pen

and cultural memory
institutions in new constellations of power and politics.

## Notes

1. Kelly 1994, p. 263. 2. Connection Machines were developed by the
supercomputer manufacturer Thinking Machines, a concept that also appeared in
Jorge Luis Borges’s _The Total Library_. 3. Brewster Kahle, “Transforming Our
Libraries from Analog to Digital: A 2020 Vision,” _Educause Review_ , March
13, 2017, from-analog-to-digital-a-20

, Culture & Society_ 23, no. 2–3 (2006), 35–40.
16. Žižek 2009, 39. 17. Voltaire, “Une grande bibliothèque a cela de bon,
qu’elle effraye celui qui la regarde,” in _Dictionaire Philosophique_ , 1786,
265. 18. In his autobiography, Borges asserted that it “was meant as a
nightmare version or magnification” of the municipal library he worked in up
until 1946. Borges describes his time at this library as “nine years of solid
unhappiness,” both because of his co-workers and the “menial” and senseless
cataloging work he performed in the small library. Interestingly, then, Borges
translated his own experience of being informationally underwhelmed into a
tale of informational exhaustion and despair. See “An Autobiographical Essay”
in _The Aleph and Other Stories_ , 1978, 243. 19. Borges 2001, 216. 20. Yeo
2003, 32. 21. Cited in Blair 2003, 11. 22. Bawden and Robinson 2009, 186. 23.
Garrett 1999. 24. Featherstone 2000, 166. 25. Thus, for instance, one
Europeana-related project with the apt acronym PATHS, argues for the need

, ‘What a man is really afraid
of is a maze without a center.’ I suppose he was thinking of a godless
universe, but I was thinking of the labyrinth without a minotaur. I mean, if
anything is terrible, it is terrible because it is meaningless.” Borges and
Dembo 1970, 319. 62. Borges actually found a certain pleasure in the lack of
order, however, noting that “I not only feel the terror … but also, well, the
pleasure you get, let’s say, from a chess puzzle or from a good detective
novel.” Ibid. 63. Serendib, also spelle

ty_ , ed. Helle Porsdam. New York: Routledge.
37. Bogost, Ian, and Nick Montfort. 2009. “Platform Studies: Frequently Asked Questions.” _Proceeding of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference_. .
38. Borges, Jorge Luis. 1978. “An Autobiographical Essay.” In _The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933–1969: Together with Commentaries and an Autobiographical Essay_. New York: E. P. Dutton.
39. Borges, Jorge Luis. 2001. “The Total Library.” In _The Total Library: Non-fiction 1922–1986_. London: Penguin.
40. Borges, Jorge Luis, and L. S. Dembo. 1970. “An Interview with Jorge Luis Borges.” _Contemporary Literature_ 11 (3): 315–325.
41. Borghi, Maurizio. 2012. “Knowledge, Information and Values in the Age of Mass Digitisation.” In _Value: Sources and Readings on a Key Concept of the Globalized World_ , ed. Ivo de Gennaro. Le


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