What Google promises us

An infinite library, full of everything that is, and will be. Prepare to be overwhelmed.

Published December 14, 2004 10:45PM (EST)

When I read the news that Google was initiating a drive to digitize and upload to the Internet millions upon millions of books from some of the finest research libraries in the world, my first, somewhat whimsical reaction was to recall one of my favorite stories, Jorge Luis Borges' "The Library of Babel."

The Library of Babel contains everything. Not just every book that has been written, but every book that could possibly be written. Borges says it best:

"Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books."

It may seem quixotic to see the blueprint of this library (which, in Borges' story, regularly drove men insane as they sought fruitlessly for the one true book that would explain everything) written between the lines of a Google press release. I do not mean it as a criticism of Google. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling glee at this huge step forward toward a long-held fantasy of Matrix-worshipping science-fiction junkies: Total Information Access is coming! In my lifetime! Can it be much longer before cortical shunts deliver it all straight to my brain? Yeehaw!

As an undergraduate I spent many happy hours in the stacks of the main library at the University of Michigan -- one of the first libraries to participate in Google's plan. For one paper, I unearthed translations of Maoist rants attacking the Soviet Union during the Sino-Soviet Split of the late 1950s. It titillates me no end to think that some of the dusky pamphlets that I dug up 20 years ago, which had clearly not been read by a single living soul since the day they had been tagged with their Dewey Decimal number, might soon be accessible via the wireless laptop sitting on my kitchen counter. This is a dream come true, and kudos to Google for helping make it happen on such a large scale.

But where will it end? Certainly not with the inclusion of every book in the world that already exists. On the Internet, there will also be every critique of every book, every alternative history, every conspiracy theory, and all the real facts and fake facts to back every story up. You think we suffer from information overload now? Just wait until the sum total of all human knowledge is one click away. We are doomed! In a good way!

In 1994 and 1995 I used to play a little game with the search engines of the time. Every couple of months I would repeat a search for a topic I had already conducted, just to see how much new information on that subject had been uploaded to the Web in the intervening weeks. Progress was exponential, has never stopped, and will continue. I find it inordinately satisfying, for example, to conduct the most rudimentary research for this article, and discover, of course, the full text of "The Library of Babel." Borges would be so proud.

Do we have the capacity to wrangle this Babel into submission? Probably not. I, for one, have no idea if the truth is really out there, if the one book that explains all is waiting to be written, or waiting to be found.

But maybe it has been found. For is it not the library itself? Is it not the Internet? Is it not Google?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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