The Library of Babel
If you give a monkey a typewriter, and leave it for a million years, will it eventually bang out a word-for word copy of Shakespeare's Macbeth? From a purely mathematical point of view, the answer is yes, given either an infinite amount of time or an infinite amount of monkeys. Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinean writ- er, was inspired by this idea. He wrote a short story called “The Library of Babel”, where he imagined a vast library that would contain every possible permutation of the alphabet and some punctuation marks. In addition to almost end- less amounts of unintelligible gibberish, it would have everything ever written from Shakespeare to scientific articles- as well as everything that can possibly be written. Nothing is new; anything you come up with, no matter how random, already exists somewhere and has been there all along. Intrigued by this concept, computer programmer and author Jonathan Basile set out to create a digital version of the library. I spoke to him for the chance to find out a little more.
I think the concept of the Library is a really fascinating one, but it can be a little hard to
grasp. Can you explain what the Library of Babel is?
Sure. I first encountered the idea in a short story by Jorge Louis Borges, an Argentinean writer. The idea, as it occurs in his story, is that you have a library that would have every possible permutation of a basic character set. He described 22 letters, in addition to the space, comma and period, as being enough to express all the things that it is possible to ex- press. With every possible 410-page book, you would have a library that contained everything that had been written and everything that could be written, ranging from things we consider masterpieces, like Shakespeare, to things that we haven't discovered yet, like the cure for dis- eases. Everything like that would be there, but it would be impossible for us to find because it would be drowned out by endless amounts of texts that are completely unintelligible.
You've created a website based on the short story. How does it differ from the library described in the short story?
My goal was more or less to recreate the short story in the form of a website. I had to make some concessions to the form of the internet. The website, as it stands right now, has every possible permutation of the twenty-six lower- case letters of the English alphabet, as well as the space, comma, and period. It has every single possible page, not every single possible combination of those pages in the form of a book. I used the same proportions as Borges did, so one page of text in the library has 3200 characters, 40 lines, and 80 characters per line. So it's just a matter of making the computation happen quickly enough.
How does that work, exactly?
The number of pages that are possible to encounter on the website is greater than the number of atoms in the universe! So it would be impossible to store those on disc. The web- site actually uses a relatively simple algorithm to generate pages. Every page of text has a locating number, which is essentially the URL of that page. The locating number is the in- put of a random number generator that pro- duces the page of text that you're looking for. So every time you go to a URL you'll find the same page of text there. Right now, there's a discreet URL for every possible page of text.
So the website doesn't contain every possible book, but it contains every possible page, correct?
How many pages wouId that be?
How many books would you have if you chose to compute every possible combination of those pages?
Well, it depends on how many pages there are in a book. If you gave the proportions that Borg- es
imagined for his library, which was 410-page books, the number of books is around 101000000.
How long did it take you to create the website?
About six months altogether. I made an early version that took
about three months and the current version took about three more months.
What were some challenges you faced when working on the website?
Well, I didn't expect that it would end up working at all! I didn't know much about programming
when I started out, and most of the advice I got from people who knew more about program- ming were
things like “Why would you do that”, “That's impossible” and “You'll never be able to do it”. So I
was operating without a lot of guidance. With a combination of sticking to it and just asking for
more help when I needed it, I man- aged to ultimately get something that worked.
Did you learn anything new while you were at it?
I definitely got a more accurate sense of the magnitude of what Borges is imagining. When I started
the project I thought that you would, if you went through the pages every now and then, maybe find
a couple of words on it, but that's a very unrealistic expectation.
Are there no limits to language? Can you find anything in any language, as long as you know how to
interpret the way it's written?
There are a lot of different ways of looking at that. Borges writes that it contains every- thing
possible to express in all languages. So it is possible to translate or transliterate any text in
any language, or even treat it as a cryptographical puzzle in order to convert it into the alphabet
that the Library uses.
Has anything changed now that we have ac- cess to the things contained in the Library?
I don't think that the Library gives access to any more or less of the things that we had access to
before. It's not a functional compendium of all possible knowledge, because you find even less
typically than you would in a normal library.
What do you think the importance of the Library of Babel is?
I think it's more of an opportunity to reflect on the nature of language than it is a way to com-
pile existing data. It's not a very practical way to try to do things, like finding the cure to
diseases, but I think it's a way to think differently about the nature of language and our
relationship to it. We tend to think of language- of all the things that we say, and the things
that people say- as spontaneous ideas that we are generating out of our free will. But one of the
things this story reminds us of is that in order for ideas to be communicable at all, they have to
be able to fit a communicable form of language. So, in a certain sense, they have always existed
wherever we imagine that spontaneity and that spark of free will. What appears in our frame of
reference to be a form of invention and self-creation is actually a discovery of things that are
pre-formed and ready-made.
So anything that people say, or write, including this interview, are rearrangements of things that already exist?
That would be one way of looking at it.