Just when I think I’ve reconciled myself with technology, this goes and happens. These precise words, in this order, have been written before. In fact, all words in the English language have already been laid out in every conceivable order. Technology can be friend or foe, it seems. The website Library of Babel—with its biblical name—has undertaken the task of writing every conceivable combination of letters (using our standard English alphabet) and putting them into a vast, if only electronic, library. This was not done by a human being like me, with intent or even any interest in the meaning of the words, but rather as one of those things people do simply because they can. This entire paragraph can be copied and pasted into their search box and found.
The Library of Babel has made plagiarists of us all, even as it plagiarized everything written before it was programed. After I learned about this library the wind avoided my sails for a while. You see, what’t the point in writing what’s already been written? Then it occurred to me. Context. The fact is, had I not scriven these very words, and put them on this blog, they would never have come to the attention of the kinds of people who read what I write. The words have been spelled out before, but they’ve never been written before. Those of us who write know the difference. We spend hours and hours reading and thinking of ways to combine words. We’re not out to kill the creativity of our species, we simply want to participate.
There should be limits to human knowledge, otherwise we’d have nothing for which to strive. The internet may make it seem that all knowledge has been found—it is so vast and so terribly diverse—and yet there are people who never use a computer. Their wisdom counts too. It may seem that everything is here, but there is material that still has to be looked up in physical books. There are crates and crates of clay tablets from antiquity that have never been transcribed and translated. When that finally happens, the words they contain may be found, in a strangely prophetic way, in the Library of Babel. But they won’t have any meaning there until it is given by the context. And what can a library preserve if it isn’t the context that a (human) writer has given the words?