“Jorge Borges (@BabellingBorges)” by Matt Schneider

 Jorge Borges @BabellingBorges  Each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters.
Open “Jorge Borges (@BabellingBorges)” by Matt Schneider

This bot tirelessly carries out a task too large for it to complete within a human lifetime: it explores an idea posed by Jorge Luis Borges in his story “The Library of Babel” of an infinite library full of books that contain a different combination of 23 letters and punctuation marks. “Each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters” (Schneider quotes Borges in the bot’s description). With this bot, Schneider illustrates the concept of this library via Twitter’s own constraints by tweeting 140 characters randomly chosen from 23 alphabetic characters, punctuation marks, and spaces. The result is pure language noise. . . or is it?

Carefully reading this single tweet from earlier today reveals words or word-like formations within the jumble of letters, such as “keppets,” “mavox,” (or “vox), “hokoenta,” and “ted.” What these words mean, individually or collectively is beside the point. The point is that we can recognize language-like patterns in the string of random characters, much in the same way that people can see shapes in clouds, static, tea leaves, the stars, or in noise. As humans, we instinctively try to recognize patterns and seek to give them meaning (for example, see this short piece by Michael Shermer). Attributing authorship, whether human or (anthropomorphically) divine, is an important strategy because it creates intent, and creates a communication narrative through which our readerly efforts are rewarded by the reception of a message and textual pleasure. When a text is created by a human being we are willing to play along with it largely because we seek to complete the communicative act and connect with that person, even if its at a purely conceptual level. We are less inclined to do so when the text is generated by a computer program or random process, perhaps because we don’t want to connect to a machine, or a program, or the void.

Borges and @BabellingBorges both enact the concept of the eternal return which, whether you explain it mythically or physically, poses a universe (or multiverse) of infinite permutation of a finite number of elements. In other words, all texts have been written an infinite number of times, as have all the variants (including gibberish variations), and by different authors (like Don Quixote). Borges and this bot he inspired, both bring it down to human scale via the book or tweet, scaling down from physical cosmology to monkeys with typewriters, to brute-force decoding.

Of course, humans aren’t the only readers of these texts. For example, when a string of letters followed by a period followed by three letters and a space occurs Twitter interprets the text as a link, as can be seen below (thanks for the correction on this Matt).

Hmmm. It seems like computers can be programmed to recognize patterns for us. Perhaps we find a way to use digital technologies to accelerate and enhance our ability to read and read things for us, and help us recognize patterns not only in what has been written but what hasn’t but could’ve been. Who knows what new works we’ll discover and take pleasure in reading, in this library of the imagination?

Coda: Another iteration of this idea (currently not functioning) is “Tweets of Babel (@TweetsofBabel),” which also implements its results and documents the project in a website.

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