A labyrinth

A garden of forking paths - CC Flickr user Alphaone

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths.” The New Media Reader. By Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: MIT, 2003. 29-34. Print.

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The New Media Reader. By Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: MIT, 2003. 35-47. Print.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto.” The New Media Reader. By Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: MIT, 2003. 516-41. Print.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges is one of my favorite works of fiction.  The story describes a constant state of now, in which all things take place.  It suggests an infinite number of simultaneous nows that are taking place all around us, in which all possible scenarios are being played out to all possible ends.  Though the story was published in 1941, it’s known for being particularly poignant and telling since the advent of the Internet and computing technologies.

Online, it seems as though we have that constant state of now-ness, in which we guide our own paths, but are reminded of the millions of other users who may be taking all possible other paths.  Search engines are able to instantaneously explore all possible options for the keywords you enter, providing you with almost intelligent input for the topic you are investigating.  The idea of simultaneous and infinite forking paths is reminiscent of a webpage, on which you have options for clicking any number of links, clicking no links at all, clicking all the links, or closing it out and searching the most random thing you can think of.  This infinite series of options is represented well by the innumerable sites and pages on the internet.  There are so many destinations online that we could visit a new webpage every two seconds for a week straight and still not even see 0.1% of them.  It’s a little bit like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where you could visit a gallery every day for a week and still not see all of the 2 million artworks on display, or like New York City restaurants, in which you could eat dinner at a different place every night and literally never run out of places to try.

“As We May Think” is another favorite from this book, because it gives us a glimpse into the “future” from the 1945 perspective.  Scientists being called out of their normal professions in order to develop weapons for a war brings to mind a bleak techno-future like the one represented in the movie 9.  In the movie, a well-meaning scientist develops a machine that is meant to bring peace to the warring world.  The scientist, ironically voiced by an actor named Alan Oppeheimer (ironic because J. Robert Oppenheimer helped develop the atomic bomb), accidentally destroys humanity and all living things on the earth with his creation.  The only things left on the desolate wasteland of a planet are evil machines set on destroying the earth further, and a collection of animated rag dolls that were imbued with the spirit of their creator.

While Bush sets up his work in the context of war-driven technology, many of the concepts he describes are similar to technologies we use today in non-war settings.  The mini-camera, Memex, and voice-t0-text machine are all widely used in some iteration today, and are all used together in one device: my smart phone.  I can talk into it and record text, I can snap and store pictures in seconds, and I can harness faster and more efficient computing power than my first four computers combined.  Memory storage, linking, and memory access were the problems that the Memex intended to solve, and Bush would probably be amazed by the leaps and bounds we’ve made in the size and speed of this design concept at a state fair.

-Lianne

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