Something very unexpected and unusual happened to me last Friday. I received a letter: a paper letter with a stamp on it, written out by hand. I'm not sure this has happened to me before, since coming to Korea, with the exception, perhaps, of some Christmas-letter type compositions from some members of my family. Not to discount those Christmas-letter compositions, but an actual letter is groundbreaking. I've been in Korea for over five years, and I don't want to rule out the possibility that I've received another paper letter in the past since coming here – my memory isn't perfect. Regardless, it was a striking occurance.
So who wrote me a letter? This is the funny part: my friend Peter, who lives in Bucheon, just across the Han River, about 30 minutes by bus from here. No, it wasn't anyone in my family, it wasn't anyone on another continent.
It was, actually, the sort of thing I get all the time from friends, family and acquaintances (including Peter): a sort of proto blog entry or comment on some cultural or political content. Normally, however, these things arrive via email, as is right and proper in the early 21st century. That Peter took the time to make it into a letter is what was interesting. Perhaps there was some intentional irony in the gesture, given the topic.
Anyway… included with Peter's letter was a clipping of an essay from the Korea Herald, which can be found online here. The essay discusses Borges' infinite library metaphor, as found in his story La biblioteca de babel (The Library of Babel). I have a long familiarity with and passion for this story, having first read it in my early teens (in English) and later during Spanish Lit classes (in the original Spanish). It is a classic of literature and deeply thought-provoking.
The essay, by someone named Eli Park Sorenson (hmm, is that Danish-Korean?), wonders if the internet, in this day and age, is becoming a real library of babel. My opinion is that think that the internet is, precisely, not becoming that, since the dismaying truth about the library of babel in Borges' story is that it turns out the content of the library was essentially random – just all the possible strings of characters a book could hold (a la infinite monkeys). Hence, the library's books were oddly devoid of any possible authorial intent or meaning. Meanwhile, the internet, as it is today, is nothing but intent (although the issue of meaning is admittedly a bit different, tongue-in-cheekwise). Internet content is, in fact, sometimes randomly generated (that's what spambots do), but even then, there is a broad authorial intent that is quite insistent and transparent: pageviews, which is connected to advertising, which is all about money.
The internet is not even close to being a library of babel. It is, instead, The Library of Capital (pace Karl Marx). It is the manufacturing of desire-for-stuff, to keep the whole global consumer machine clocking forward. And… I don't mean that in a bad way.