The Multimedia Library of Babel

There is no combination of characters one can make — dhcmrlchtdj, for example — that the divine Library has not foreseen.

A few years ago, I realized something that left a great impression on me, and it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I indulged once more into that thought experiment.

I recently bought and read Ficciones, a collection of short stories by the famous Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. This collection includes one of his most known stories, The Library of Babel, in which Borges describes a seemingly infinite library containing books with a finite amount of pages and lines, each with permutations of 26 possible characters. His point being that every single conceivable idea or story, either true or fiction, could be found in such a library – along with any other meaningless gibberish or similar variation in-between, that is.

Photo by vnwayne fan / Unsplash

Borges' idea is not limited to text only, it can be expanded to other media as well. Upon reading this short story, I suddenly remembered what I came to realize over 10 years ago; in my case, though, instead of written books it was a computer screen instead. Whereas Borges wrote about combinations of a finite set of letters and pages to make up the contents of his library; I came to think about images, composed of a finite amount of pixels – each of them containing a colour. This, of course, can be easily extrapolated to other scenarios such as audio.

Anything we've ever seen, that is yet to be seen or that we'll never see, can be represented in a screen, assuming that it can be visually perceived and encoded.

This led me to realize that was that there's really no such thing as creation or invention – at least not in the traditional or romanticised way one is used to think about.

The infinite monkey theorem proposes that, given enough time, randomness can output things that can have meaning – meaning being in the eye of the beholder. In the case of the theorem, monkeys using typewriters could, theoretically, type the works of Shakespeare, if given enough time. This means that anything can be generated by brute force and the difficulty really comes down to: differentiating the needle from the hay and doing that within a reasonable timespan for humans.

This shocked me. Every single truth and lie, fact and fiction, is out there, waiting to be found. This was not really a revelation, but it did change my perception of the world.

The rise of cryptocurrencies and NFTs also shed a whole new light on this subject for me. Cryptocurrencies work under a model in which value comes from finding something unique in a vast sea of noise. Precious stones are worthy because they are rare; cryptocurrencies are worthy because they are backed by models using rare numbers that satisfy strict mathematical conditions.

Any idea, work, patent, copyright or trademark that we make is the proof of having found meaning in a sea of possibilities. They are akin to being the real-life versions of crypto assets.

We are those miners. We don't create, we discover. Just like the librarians of Babel, we search for the meaningful in a space where the meaningless abound.