I was trying to remember something, so I searched for Jorge Luis Borges’s "Funes the Memorious." Google's link for the PDF read like this:
Only a small part of that address actually pointed to the URL I wanted, which was http://jamesgeorge.org/3dworlds/borges_funes.pdf. The rest of it was encoded information that told Google, as I clicked on it, the search term that brought me to the link, where the link was on the page, my own identity (and portions of my previous search history) and more. I couldn’t believe Google was spying on me so transparently! Still, there was a satisfying feeling in how well-tailored my next search results were.
I called on a friend who works with electronics. “Isn’t there something to be said for figuring this out on my own?” I asked. She told me about an article, from the July, 1945 Atlantic Monthly, about the overwhelming amount of information facing scientists. The author, eager to shift the scientific community's WWII focus on "strange destructive gadgets," talks about data being stored alphabetically and numerically: “The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association."
Then he makes a startlingly accurate prediction:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them ... The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior ... There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.
Google is trying to imitate the human mind, but instead of creating associations between memories, it creates these “trails” between bits of information. So I both am and am not like Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional protagonist, who could remember everything and therefore could not move. Instead of trying to learn and remember a bare minimum, I am able to forget what I do not need in order to learn more.
I couldn’t believe the Internet had been dreamed up nearly seventy years ago. Back then, the trails depended on near-instantaneous photography and reproducible microfilm. Not even the scientist writing in the Atlantic could have imagined the millions of screens, big and small, that quietly run our lives.
So what's next for the "enormous mass"? I almost don’t want to ask. But I take heart in another artifact: a 1970 letter from NASA’s associate director of science to a nun, explaining why some of the billions of dollars that could alleviate human suffering ought to fund research, development, and the possibility of discovery. His answer, of course, is that the greatest advances can arise from the most unlikely associations. And really, how better to encourage these advances and associations than a little searching?
image credit: kellytirman.com