Vandals in the Library

Three years ago a contributor to Wired magazine, E. Clare Agare, wrote a story about a glitch on the Wikipedia site. It was April 1st, 2011, and a number of articles at the online encyclopedia had spawned near-identical copies of their content, presumably the work of some hacker. The premise of the copied pages seemed to be as follows: if an encyclopedia has articles on all notable topics, couldn’t those articles be considered topics themselves? The result: seemingly redundant entries such as “The Wikipedia Article on Tigers,” which begins, “The Wikipedia article on tigers says that the tiger (Panthera tigris) is the largest cat species,” and goes on to duplicate the original text and images. Wikipedia’s editors deleted the intrusive articles but were unable to prevent them repeatedly cropping up. For a year the dummy pages proliferated, causing headaches for the staff and some minor annoyance to readers.

Cincinnati Public Library_2_3The following April 1st another iteration of the dummy pages appeared, which meant that a patron searching the topic “tiger” might run across an entry titled “The Article on the Wikipedia Article on Tigers.” Although the dummies had caused a stir in the press and so might conceivably have been treated as valid encyclopedia topics by this time, the second iteration did no more than repeat what the first had done, but at an additional remove, so that the text on tigers now read “The article on the Wikipedia article on tigers says that the tiger (Panthera tigris) is the largest cat species….” Reporting on the story again for Wired, E. Clare Agare made some headway on the hacker’s possible motives by tracing the first instance of duplicate pages to the Wikipedia article on Jorge Luis Borges. Armed with this clue, he determined that the subsequent dummy pages had started out by covering subjects often found in the Argentine author’s works, such as mirrors, libraries, mahogany, prisms, labyrinths — and tigers. Agare then made the ominous speculation that the hacker or hackers might be planning to continue adding recursive dummy entries, potentially to infinity. Given that Wikipedia comprises some 30 million articles and is the sixth-most trafficked site on the Web, an unchecked proliferation of copies could plausibly overwhelm the world’s internet servers.

In a contrarian critique of Paris’ famed Beaubourg center, with its modern museum and large open-access library, Jean Baudrillard once suggested that the masses take the building’s claims to populism and capaciousness at their word in order to bring the structure down. A critical mass of visitors (upwards of 30,000, he specifies) would be enough to make it collapse. Baudrillard complained that the Beaubourg “should have been a labyrinth, a combinatory, infinite library, an aleatory redistribution of destinies through games or lotteries — in short, the universe of Borges.” Is the Wikipedia hacker driven by similar motives? Could there be something visionary or utopic in his apparently pointless vandalism? If so, the hacker’s designs might be found in Borges’s “Library of Babel,” the story of a vast array of books that the narrator says contains “everything.”

Everything: the minutely detailed history of the clayette1future, 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 true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books. (Labyrinths, 54)

With its dizzying evocation of interpretive controversies, limitless glosses and impenetrable textual enigmas, Borges’s story is a touchstone for book lovers and epistemophiles the world over. However, Borges’s readers may misjudge the story’s narrator, who, like many of the author’s protagonists, is a veiled alter ego (Borges insisted that all his works, even the most fantastical, are autobiographical). A librarian by profession, in “The Library of Babel” Borges shows himself to be not merely a sage-like fabulist, the native denizen of a cryptographic world, but also an anxious and ambivalent reader, possibly the world’s greatest library vandal.

Borges famously said he imagined paradise as a library. In “An Autobiographical Essay” he put a more personal twist on the line, saying “If I were asked to give the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library” (The Aleph and Other Stories, 209). Calling a library an “event” in his life might have been enough to discourage Borges’s future biographers,* but Edwin Williamson’s book intrepidly braves the subject, fleshing out the desires, fears and Edwin Williamson Borges-A Lifetraumas of the writer’s upbringing, without tarrying on texts that don’t echo lived episodes. It was in his father’s library that Borges discovered some of the early influences on his literary imagination, notably authors writing in other tongues, English and French. But Williamson’s biography also shows to what extent the young Borges felt himself a rival to his father, who was a writer himself, though minor, and a picture of the literary failure Borges certainly hoped to avoid. As in the many stories of Borges’s that stage dramas of duality and rivalry, might the narrator’s solitary meditations in “The Library of Babel” be haunted by the figure of Borges’s father? This could explain the double-edged quality of the library’s portrayal. The story is, after all, rife with ambivalence: the raptures of absolute sublimity shade into the vision of an infinite prison; the delights of interpretation vie with the threat of total nonsense; lofty aspirations are brought low by the ever-present reminder of the readers’ “fecal necessities” (51). The narrator’s account is itself an ambiguous achievement; in his own estimation it amounts to a “wordy and useless epistle,” though the story’s extravagant musings justify its author’s reputation as Maestro of the modern fable. Likewise, the narrator’s attitude toward books is Janus-faced, if not deeply perverse. He doesn’t play a direct role in burning library documents, but he pointedly refuses to condemn the “senseless perdition of millions of books” at the hands of fanatics. He offers an argument “counter to general opinion”: even if so-called unique “treasures” have been lost in the purges, he says, “there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles.” This vision of simulacra without originals endeared Borges to Foucault as well as Baudrillard. And like the latter’s vision of a “hyperrealistic” Beaubourg, Borges’s library seems not so much infinitely capacious as perpetually exploding, or swelling like the universe to the point of entropy and collapse.

This past April 1st, a fourth iteration of recursive entries joined the dummy pages of some half a million Wikipedia articles. The relatively slow rate of the dummy pages’ expansion was greeted with cautious optimism by some, including Levi Stahl of the Invisible Library. Agare for his part was more circumspect, stating gnomically that the hacker is acting “as though he had all the time in the world.” And indeed, his or her work attests to a patient labor of Sisyphian proportions. Close inspection of the dummy pages shows that each one is individually crafted, rather than generated through some automatic algorithm; minor interpolations of various sorts are judiciously added to the text and in always proper grammar. Images that often serve a merely illustrative purpose in a given Wikipedia article are instead scrupulously captioned in the dummies, with the curious result, however, that the thing pictured is sometimes rendered as highly uncertain and even indeterminate. This can be seen in the latest dummy entry on “Mirrors.” Whereas Wikipedia’s illustration of a mirror is accompanied by the bland and straightforward caption “Mirror reflecting a vase,” the dummy page highlights the vagueness of that notation and implicitly critiques it by replacing the caption with one that reads: “Unattributed image of mirror in undisclosed location and unspecified time reflecting an unidentified vase of unknown, because invisible, content” (see screenshot).

Screenshot: "Dummy page" of Wikipedia article "Mirror"

Screenshot: “Dummy page” of Wikipedia article “Mirror”

The hacker’s emendation may seem to belabor the obvious with needless verbosity, though strictly speaking one can’t fault his caption for inaccuracy. But can Wikipedia survive the addition of such scrupulous qualifications? Are their potentially infinite copies a window onto the Web’s “wordy and useless” future? The latest iteration of the dummy page on “Mirrors” includes a telling quote from a poem of Borges: “you dare multiply the number of things / we are and which define our lot. After I am dead, you shall copy someone else / and then another, and another, and another….”**

* A biographical caveat: as “event” in Borges’s life, the father’s library may not be a place or an identifiable occurrence but perhaps an entirely “internal event,” to quote Jean Laplanche. Commenting on a Freudian case study, Laplanche exclaims, “What a strange history of events, in which one of the turning-points is a purely internal event!” The psychoanalyst’s point is that positivist and objective approaches to biography can only fail if they don’t try to interpret the subject’s fantasies, which, however, inevitably orbit around a perfect enigma (See Laplanche, “Interpretation between Determinism and Hermeneutics: A Restatement of the Problem,” in Essays on Otherness, p. 150).

** Borges, “Al espejo,” in La rosa profunda (Cited in Williamson, pp. 38-39).




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