Would Gandhi have been a Wikipedian?
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In 1941, a young Argentinian librarian who would soon go completely blind published a story about the futility of the "total" library. His inspiration was Kurd Lasswitz, a 19th century German philosopher and science-fiction pioneer, whose own idea of a "universal" library was a mathematical nightmare of frighteningly large but finite proportions. The writer was Jorge Luis Borges, and his story, The Library of Babel, (taking off from the mythical Tower of Babel, a place of linguistic dysfunction) spawned a minor publishing industry of its own. Borges' library was not a happy place: its chronically overworked librarians were suicidal, thuggish cults periodically vandalised the books, people spent lifetimes searching for a catalogue without success, and — wondrous as it all was — no one expected to find anything useful there ever.
Eighty years after it was written, Borges' feverish fantasy is a cautionary tale for those who are tempted to take Internet-era fantasies at their word. When a Google executive was asked to describe the perfect search engine, he is reported to have said, "It would be like the mind of God." Preposterous, yes; but also exciting. And anyone excited enough to adopt this as a mission statement would do well to have a cold shower, and heed Borges' conclusion on the topic — "The library is unlimited and cyclical".
Happily, there are more human, and altogether more humble manifestations of the desire to learn and share and prosper. In ancient history, the pre-biblical city of Babylon was a working counterpoint to the biblical Tower of Babel; a bustling site where diverse crowds made good together. In the present day, we are no closer to knowing everything, but we have Wikipedia: a bustling website where diverse people from everywhere in the world create miracles. Wikipedia's humility is the flip-side to its success, and it comes from wanting to be precisely the opposite of the total library: call it a perpetually partial library, if you will. No one who has spent even a minute contributing anything to it would dare assume that the job is done, the perspective complete, or the game won.
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