Before there was the World Wide Web, the Internet, hypertext markup, or even a digital computer, there was Jorge Luis Borges’ idea of “forking paths.” The Argentinean writer who envisioned “a massive branching structure as a better way to organize data and to represent human experience,” was born 112 years ago today and is the subject of a special Doodle on today’s Google home page.
The Web & The Library
“The Garden of Forking Paths” is a 1941 short story penned by Borges that many view as the basis for what we know today as our digital world of hyperlinks and the World Wide Web – yes, even for the universe, but we won’t go that far here. Replace “book” with “web” in Borges’ story and you may as well be discussing a gigantic story (in the online world that mirrors ours) that can be read multiple ways in non-linear fashion, with an endless series of consequences (or destinations).
What is the web if not an always expanding invisible labyrinth that folds back on itself or an infinite maze or book, showing an “incomplete yet false” picture, as Borges wrote. Visiting a website may start you on one path, but you can easily click on one link to another website, which leads you to a link to another website, and an ever-increasing piece of the gigantic hyperlinked puzzle that is the Web library.
The Web Page & The Books
In Borges’ “The Library of Babel,” a library is filled with endless amounts of information (and the source of the famous quote, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”) but lacks any kind of organization, making the vast knowledge essentially worthless. This isn’t unlike the World Wide Web in its infancy and prior to Google’s emergence in the late 1990s.
Google’s mission, don’t forget, is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful – to bring order to the chaos with its system of ranking and retrieving search results.
Adding to this nightmare scenario in “Babel”: this library contains every book, whether it contains inaccuracies, predictions, biographies, or translations. Compare this to today’s Web, where nearly anybody can create a blog or a website and publish whatever they want, be it opinion or fact.
Borges would later explore similar territory for “The Book of Sand,” in which the idea of the infinite library is replaced with an infinite book with an infinite number of pages. Clearly, the infinite Web could be viewed as the book in question in modern times, and the pages of the book as Web pages, with no beginning or end.
Doodles & The Modern World
This Doodle continues Google’s string of logos celebrating important figures in history who have made contributions to our modern society in science and engineering. Genetics, mass transit, long distance travel, chemistry, and evolution are just a few of the other themes Google has drawn attention to via special logos in 2011.
Were it not for Borges and other visionaries such as American inventor and engineer Vannevar Bush – who predicted the arrival of the “memex,” in which an individual could store all “his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility … an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory” – perhaps American sociologist, philosopher, and pioneer of information technology Ted Nelson might have never coined the term “hypertext” in 1963 and Sir Tim Berners Lee may have never married it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain system idea to create the World Wide Web.
And you wouldn't be reading this right now.
In addition to dreaming up a futuristic information structure, Borges was a writer, poet, essayist, critic, translator, and librarian. Born in 1899, by the 1950s he was blind, but that never deterred him from writing. Borges died June 14, 1986. Wikipedia – itself a garden of forking paths – offers a detailed biography.