THE UNIVERSAL LIBRARY

George Dyson [11.29.05]
Topic:

Why does this strike such a nerve? Because so many of us (not only authors) love books. In their combination of mortal, physical embodiment with immortal, disembodied knowledge, books are the mirror of ourselves. Books are not mere physical objects. They have a life of their own. Wholesale scanning, we fear, will strip our books of their souls. Works that were sewn together by hand, one chapter at a time, should not be unbound page by page and distributed click by click. Talk about "snippets" makes authors flinch.

Introduction

The late artist James Lee Byars inspired the creation of the Reality Club, which evolved into Edge. Byars was also responsible for the motto of the club. He believed that to arrive at an axiology of societal knowledge it was pure folly to go to a Widener Library and read 6 million books. He kept only four books at a time in a box in his minimally furnished room, replacing books as he read them.

Not for him a universal library. Byars would have been bored by the intense debates swirling around New York regarding Google's recent interest in the world of books. "The Chinese make books to go on their sleeves," he said. "We don't make sleeves like that." His "books", sometimes written in fine calligraphy on the silk sleeves of his elegant plural clothing creations, were written prior to Ray Kurzweil's invention of the ccd scanner in 1975. Byars would not have had time for people who talk about "snippets".

He had another approach: "The World Question Center". In 1971 Byars planned gather together the world's 100 most brilliant minds, lock them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they were asking themselves. By "interrogating reality" in this manner, he expected to achieve a synthesis of all thought.

Last month, Edge published George Dyson's piece, Turing's Cathedral, about his visit to Google on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of John von Neumann's proposal for a digital computer. The piece has echoed across the Web and continues to be a lightning rod for discussion. Given the response to his essay, I asked Dyson if he had anything to say about books, authors, and the digital age that goes beyond shopping on the Internet.

—JB


THE UNIVERSAL LIBRARY

Books are strings of code. But they have mysterious properties — like strings of DNA. Somehow, the author captures a fragment of the universe, unravels it into a one-dimensional sequence, squeezes it through a keyhole, and hopes that a three-dimensional vision emerges in the reader's mind. The translation is never exact.

The Old Testament prophets of the digital revolution — Thomas Hobbes, John Wilkins, and G. W. Leibniz — dreamed of a universal language: the Ratiocination of Hobbes; the Universall Character of Wilkins; the Calculus Ratiocinator of Leibniz. All three prophets saw that given ones and zeros, coding could do the rest. Two centuries later, the New Testament prophet Alan Turing showed that given any method for making — and remembering — distinctions from one moment to the next, you can build a Universal Machine. And if you build (or even just imagine) a Universal Machine, a Universal Language (and a Universal Library) is an inescapable result.

Given one of Mr. Turing's Universal Machines (by definition, equipped with a finite but unbounded tape) it is trivial to write a program whose output is the exact text of all possible books of a given length. This is the last library you ever have to build. Authors are obsolete! When the program comes to a halt (as we know it must) there will no longer be books that have not been written! There will only be books that have not been read! Now, it may take longer than the age of the universe to reach the volume you are looking for, and long before then every atom in the universe will have been consumed as ink, but those are mere details. There will always be new ways to speed up the printers, conserve resources, and weed out unpopular texts. This seems hopelessly unrealistic — but remember how unrealistic Turing's computer appeared in 1936.

The bound universe has been divided, in recent discussions over the digitization of books, into works in the public domain on one side, works under active copyright on the other, and a vast sea of inactive titles drifting in between. For those who dream of a Universal Library, however, any such classification is deficient, because it neglects the most important sector of the literary universe — books that have not been written yet.

The books that have been written are easy. They represent the collective memory and imagination of mankind, and the technical resources now exist to deliver The Complete Works of Homo Sapiens, Unabridged. Who can argue against this? It is the realization of every librarian's dream — unless you harbor suspicions about who is going to need librarians once the Universal Library has digested all the books.

Digital coding is the universal language allowing free translation between abstract information and physical books. Once upon a time, if you wanted the information, you had to physically possess (or borrow) the book. If you wanted to purchase a new copy of the book, the title had to be "in print." This is no longer true. Scan the text once, digitally, and the information becomes permanently available, anywhere, no matter what happens to physical copies of the book. Search for an out-of-print title and you will now find bookshops (and libraries) who have copies available; soon enough the options will include bookshops offering to print a copy, just for you. Google Library and Google Print have been renamed Google Book Search — not because Google is shying away from building the Universal Library (with links to the Universal Bookstore) but because search comes first. To paraphrase Tolkien: "One ring to find them, one ring to bind them, one ring to rule them all."

Why does this strike such a nerve? Because so many of us (not only authors) love books. In their combination of mortal, physical embodiment with immortal, disembodied knowledge, books are the mirror of ourselves. Books are not mere physical objects. They have a life of their own. Wholesale scanning, we fear, will strip our books of their souls. Works that were sewn together by hand, one chapter at a time, should not be unbound page by page and distributed click by click. Talk about "snippets" makes authors flinch.

How does wood pulp become a book? These days, it is fed through a high-speed web press at hundreds of miles an hour, but it has only been this way for a moment in the collective life of books. Before Gutenberg, you sent a scribe to the library, and copied a volume that was chained to its shelf. Later, type was set by hand, one letter at a time, until film-based typesetting sent lead by the ton to be melted down for scrap. The process has never been fixed. Literature, once scanned, can always move back the other way: from disembodied information to physical books.

I collect eighteenth century North Pacific voyages, and my treasured volumes do not bear the imprint of any recognizable press. Captain Nathaniel Portlock's Voyage Round the World; but More Particularly to the North-West Coast of America, Performed in 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, in the King George and Queen Charlotte, Captains Portlock and Dixon, Embellished with Twenty Copper-Plates, was simply "printed for John Stockdale, opposite Burlington-House, Piccadilly; and George Goulding, James Street, Covent Garden." Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, was simply "printed for Andrew Crooke, at the Green Dragon in St. Pauls Churchyard, 1651." And thus Hobbes became immortal, and his words turned the world upside down.

If I am writing a term paper, perhaps I only want to know what Hobbes said about the "Jargon... of Separated Essences" on page 371. If I am going to my cabin in the Adirondacks for the summer, maybe I want all 396 pages of Leviathan, printed at the local Kinko's and paperbound. If I am a scholar and collector, perhaps I want a copy printed on acid-free signatures by a craftsman at some modern-day counterpart to the Green Dragon in St. Paul's Churchyard, and hand-bound in marbled boards. The Universal Library promises us a repository for the souls of all existing books — and the resurrection of all titles that have gone extinct. And the books that have not been written yet?

In 1901 Kurd Lasswitz wrote a short story, "The Universal Library," elaborated upon by Jorge Luis Borges as "The Library of Babel" in 1941. "When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness," Borges explained. "All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose solution did not exist." Borges described the library in magical tones, whereas Lasswitz, a mathematician as well as a philosopher, got down to practical details. "You say that everything will be in the library? The complete works of Goethe? The Bible? The works of all the classical philosophers?" Professor Wallhausen's companion, the magazine editor Max Burkel, asked. "Yes, and with all the variations in wording nobody has thought up yet. You'll find the lost works of Tacitus and their translations into all living and dead languages. Furthermore, all of my and my friend Burkel's future works, all forgotten and still undelivered speeches in all parliaments, the official version of the Universal Declaration of Peace, the history of all the subsequent wars..."

"I'm going to subscribe right now," Burkel exclaimed. "This will furnish me with all the future volumes of my magazine; I won't have to read manuscripts any more!" Professor Wallhausen decided to calculate how many volumes (a large but finite number) the universal library would have to contain. "'Will you — ' he turned to his daughter — 'hand me a sheet of paper and a pencil from my desk?'" Max Burkel added, "Bring the logarithm table too." After a few minutes Wallhausen had the result, and wrote it down: 10^2,000,000. 

"You make your life easy," remarked Mrs. Wallhausen. "Why don't you write it down in the normal manner?"

"Not me. This would take me at least two weeks, without time out for food and sleep. If you printed that figure, it would be a little over two miles long."

"What is the name of that figure?" the daughter wanted to know.

"It has no name," Wallhausen replied.

The number of books in the Universal Library lies somewhere between a googol (10^100) and a googolplex (10^googol), numbers which werenamed, by 8-year-old Milton Sirotta and his uncle Edward Kasner, in 1938. In Lasswitz's tale, Wallhausen went on to demonstrate that there would not be enough room in the visible universe to contain all possible printed books. Editor Max Burkel's hope for the "elimination of the author from the literary business" was doomed.

And so it remains today — but with a new twist. Professor Wallhausen, 104 years later, could now make a mathematical argument that a very large network, on the scale of all the hundreds of millions of computers now collectively assembled on Earth, actually can contain all possible coded strings of a certain length. With one inescapable catch: in any Universal Library one has to specify the complete string identifying what one is searching for in order to find the desired book. "If you had found an index volume it wouldn't help you any," Professor Wallhausen had warned, "because the contents of the Universal Library are not only indexed correctly, but also in every possible incorrect and misleading manner." The Library, indeed, contained everything, Borges explained, including "the minutely detailed history of the future, 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..."

Even in the Age of Search, we still need authors to find the meaningful books!