The National Security Agency, which seems to have been in the news lately, is opening an enormous new facility in Utah. (The public is not invited to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.) According to reports, this facility will have the capacity to accommodate the equivalent of five quadrillion pages of data. That’s a hell of a lot of data. But I suspect that no facility, no matter how large, is equipped to store all the data that is now being churned out. Just to take one example, five quintillion bytes of data (one byte being equivalent to one letter of text) is generated every two days throughout the world, which researchers at the University of California Berkeley estimate is about equal to all the conversations that humans have had, ever.
NSA and other security agents rely on computers using a variety of algorithms (some of them designed to search for key words like ‘terrorism’) to find the hoped-for needles in the ever expanding haystack. But I suspect that technology is incapable of keeping up. The data threatens to become indigestible. As soon as you bring humans into the equation – and eventually you need analysts to assess the credibility of the information and determine whether it is actionable or not – you run the risk of errors, bad judgment and bias. And it takes time – lots of time. So analysts couldn’t get to them all; instead they put aside what used to be called “bit buckets” in the industry —electronic bits that someday would have to be sorted out…by someone. According to James Lewis, a cyberexpert quoted in The New York Times, “They park stuff in storage in the hopes that they will eventually have time to get to it,” although he admitted that “most of it sits and is never looked at by anyone.” As another expert put it: “This means that if you can’t desalinate all the seawater at once, you get to hold on to the ocean until you figure it out.”
One of the few writers who really understood this phenomenon predated the advent of the desktop computer and the Internet. I am referring to Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine poet and short story writer. Here is how his short story, “The Library of Babel,” starts out: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between … In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ... The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.” He could almost be describing the Web.
The Library, he goes on to say, exists for all eternity whereas man is “the imperfect librarian” of a universe that “can only be the work of a god.” Over the centuries explorers of The Library (no one has ever reached its limits) believe that they have discovered the rules by which it operates: “all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet.” Moreover, there do not appear to be any two books that are identical to any other. Two “incontrovertible premises” follow from these rules: the Library is total and… its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite)… including “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…”
When people realized that the Library contained all books, “the first impression was one of extravagant happiness” because they “felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon.” The universe now made sense.
This hope inspired the belief that it would be possible to unravel the fundamental mysteries of human life – “the origin of the Library and of time” – but as the years wore on, the investigators and philosophers were unable to find the hoped for solutions. Disillusionment set in. “Obviously, no one expects to discover anything” – a lesson that the NSA might want to take to heart. Hope was followed by “an excessive depression,” and yet people still couldn’t escape the feeling that they were missing something important, that the “precious books” that would reveal the truth they were seeking must exist on some shelf in some hexagon. Yet it could never be found because even if it existed, how was one to find it? But the unnamed narrator suggests that there’s a way out of this dilemma. Those people who imagine The Library to be “without limit” have forgotten that the “possible number of books does have such a limit.” The Library, he goes on, is unlimited but it is also cyclical. “If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order)” – not one universe then, but many, in other words, a multiverse.