Place in Knowledge, Knowledge in Place

“There was no personal or world problem whose solution did not exist in some hexagon.”

-Borges, “The Library of Babylon”

The 19th century was defined by transportation innovation – the locomotive, the automobile, the airplane. Of course, most of those innovations didn’t reach their full potential until the 20th century, and communication technology, in the form of the telegraph, itself had profound effects on things like the U.S. Civil War and westward expansion. But in the 20th century, as much as people loved their cars and planes, it was information – an overwhelming flood of information, from radio to television to cable to satellites to the Internet – that truly and fundamentally transformed the world.

Now, we’re entering a new century – one that I’ve argued will be largely defined by the confluence of information and transportation. Vehicles with smart telemetry connected to global wireless data networks – a category that already includes not just cars, but trains, planes, and buses – are going to be ubiquitous in a matter of a decade.

But figuring out why this matters, and more importantly, what it will feel like, is a tall order. Vehicles will be where they’re expected and needed, increasingly without active human intervention. By extension, that means both people and things will increasingly be where they are needed, or where they want to be, without applying the level of physical effort, or even the level of conscious will, that we now have to exert simply to move.

Now, if you were to explain that scenario to, say, a leading futurist in the early 1990s, their likely response might be some variation of “so what?” That’s because the dominant intellectual paradigm of that time – just as the Internet was emerging – held that information would eliminate the relevance of space. That we would live wherever we wanted, and still have access to the whole breadth of human experience. That we would consume fewer physical goods, and spend more time in virtual worlds.

That, clearly, has not happened.

I say this from a place of real experience. I live in Florida, where the cost of living is low and the quality of life is, by most measures, high. I work, primarily, for an organization based in New York City. I consume media from around the world, and order anything I could possibly want online.

You could say I have the best of all possible worlds – and yet I’m planning on moving to New York fairly soon. Given the absolute explosion in urban real estate over the last 20 years, I’m obviously far from alone in believing that “being there” is crucial to living richly.

To understand why space still matters – maybe more than ever – it’s worth turning to a strange story by the Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. The story, titled “The Library of Babel,” is on the one hand the sort of gnomic, mind-bending fantasy that I spend time obsessing about over on my other blog, Blown Horizonz. It is also an amazing metaphor for the intersection of information and transportation.

The premise of the story is simple, though bizarre. In the world described by the story’s narrator, all of human existence takes place within an infinite library, extending in all directions, its books containing every possible scrap of human knowledge.

The hangup is that, unfortunately, the library is entirely random – not just the arrangement of the books, but the arrangement of the letters within the books. The library contains every possible configuration of the 25 symbols of basic written Roman script.

When the infinite nature of the library is discovered, there is a brief period of elation, fueled by a sense that all knowledge is simply there for the taking – a direct mirror of the most optimistic takes on the Internet (even though Borges was writing in the 1950s). Borges also predicted the inevitable fallout of this revelation of total knowledge: the inquisitors who journey the halls of the library seeking answers are soon enough reduced to shells of their former selves, their hope and optimism extinguished after years of wading through randomness, discovering little or nothing of use.

Of course, it’s trite by now to say that the internet is a cesspool of bad information, and to reiterate it would be missing Borges’ point. There is a much more specific failure of the mythical Library of Babel that make it such a mind-bending vision, such an acute tragedy – and such a touchstone for the promise of intelligent transportation.

The library is a failure not of knowledge, but of organization, which Borges depicts as a failure of location. None of the books are where they should be – they are randomly scattered, and so might as well not exist. Even in a society that is understandably book-centric, this keeps any community from forming around bodies of knowledge. The only communities that grow from Borges’ totally disorganized knowledge are nihilistic doomsday cults.

The greatest imaginable library lacks the relatedness and context that give information its value (hence the title’s allusion to Biblical incomprehension). To really know something also means to know who else knows it, and to know what you can accomplish with your knowledge. Without human communities organized around and acting on knowledge, the librarians soon resort to suicide. (That also basically sums up my reasons for leaving academia, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Even in a world of total information, location remains vital. Knowledge is everywhere, as omnipresent as water or air. But it is the people who interpret that information that actually give it meaning, who embody it through what they do with it, with each other.

And that “doing with” is often anchored in the physical, in building, in gathering, in making, in nourishing. McLuhan wrote of media as “the extensions of man,” but they are obviously only one of man’s extensions, and at least on the surface a fairly ephemeral class. The more obviously substantive extensions of man are machines – trains, boats, threshers, grinders.

But if knowledge floating in space is maddening, physical power undirected by knowledge is equally pointless. By giving the library to machines, we are also give machines to the library – giving physical form to the abstract encoding of our own accumulated wisdom. And after that uploading (and/or offloading) our consciousness, the possibilities are limitless.

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