A Word to the Wise

A Word to the Wise

It’s funny how our world works. If you’re not careful, you become dispensable, so we all desperately try to work towards over achieving and constantly presenting our “best selves”. Social media has made this true, ten fold. We cast a shadow of the person we want the world to perceive us as. But then you say, “I don’t use social media”. However, do you not get up each day and try to be the best version of yourself? At least, that’s what most self-help books tell you to do. Do you not purchase new clothing because it makes you feel good? For some, they truly believe that the purchasing of new attire will raise their social status and tell the world that they can not only afford this new attire, but they possess the newest fashion trend.

It was in a college English classroom where I was first asked the question and then introduced to the short story; The question and story revolved around the same idea. The question our teacher asked us was, “Who here just wants to be average?” Inevitably, in a classroom, with such a provocative question raised, we all scanned the room to observe who was daring enough to raise their hand and send a signal to their peers that they did not have the motivation to overachieve, to “make something of themself”. In the moment, we all froze and pondered the question. Many of us had either never been asked that before and therefore never invested any true thought into the matter, or we simply couldn’t comprehend what the question was truly asking. Nevertheless, I never forgot about the question, much like the protagonist in the short story “I Just Wanna Be Average” that we read immediately after this baffling question was asked.

The reason the question was so shocking was because it is something that completely goes against everything many of us are taught almost from birth. We are unwillingly born into an atmosphere of competition; An arena for the survival of the fittest. We idolize the successful and pity the poor. We are hardwired to believe that if you have not spent countless, sleepless nights bashing your head against a table trying to produce “scholarly” content, you are just trying to be average. If you have not worked towards something so hard you make yourself physically ill, you are not trying hard enough. We want to make our parents and our grandparents and our children proud. However, most importantly, we want to ensure that when we no longer walk the Earth, our names are still said aloud; we fantasize about it being said by many. But, is being average really so bad?

When Mike Rose wrote “I Just Wanna Be Average,” he was onto something. However, the short story was published in 1989 and with that being said, a lot has changed, my fear is that it has not changed for the better. With the rise of social medias, new medias and the job market diminishing, it’s a wonder how any adolescent breathes, let alone fights to be on top. Those who do not attempt to push themselves beyond their very own boundaries are labeled. The thought of an unsuccessful life is imagined as an unhappy one. Some travel the world not to put their curiosities at rest, but to demonstrate just how unaverage they are.

But who then will be content with life’s purposes that aren’t classified as “above average” purposes? What is the key? What is the secret to being content with being “just average”? What if we all realized that we are just average. The argument would be that they build monuments for those who denied the label of “average” and for those individuals who are content with the label, are forgotten. Well to paraphrase what I believe Mike Rose was attempting to propose as a conclusion: Some of us may never be more than average to the world. However, this should be the most insignificant aspect of your life. Be above average in your own mind.

The Library of Babel

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 writer, 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 endless 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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 express. 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 diseases. 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.

Q: You’ve created a website based on the short story. How does it differ from the library described in the short story?

A: 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 lowercase 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.

Q: How does that work, exactly?

A: 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 website 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 input of a random number generator that produces 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. Rig1ht now, there’s a discreet URL for every possible page of text.

Q: So the website doesn’t contain every possible book, but it contains every possible page, correct?

A: Yes.

Q: How many pages would that be?

A: About 104680.

Q: How many books would you have if you chose to compute every possible combination of those pages?

A: Well, it depends on how many pages there are in a book. If you gave the proportions that Borges imagined for his library, which was 410-page books, the number of books is around 101000000.

Q: How long did it take you to create the website?

A: About six months altogether. I made an early version that took about three months and the current version took about three more months.

Q: What were some challenges you faced when working on the website?

A: 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 programming 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 managed to ultimately get something that worked.

Q: Did you learn anything new while you were at it?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: There are a lot of different ways of looking at that. Borges writes that it contains everything 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.

Q: Has anything changed now that we have access to the things contained in the Library?

A: 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.

Q: What do you think the importance of the Library of Babel is?

A: I think it’s more of an opportunity to reflect on the nature of language than it is a way to compile 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.

Q: So anything that people say, or write, including this interview, are rearrangements of things that already exist?

A: That would be one way of looking at it.

You can explore the library on your own at www.libraryofbabel.info.