A Necessarily Incomplete Guide to What’s Going On: I

Of the two worlds available, the more intriguing one at the moment is the Internet. A crank calls it the “second spectral world that spins parallel to our own, the World Wide Web’’, but it might more cannily be described as the global subconscious. Not in the sense of a dirty, barbaric child subconsciousness that is out to get you and your socialized self (though there is that too, viz. pornography and fetishism on the web), but in the sense of a subconscious as the productive, free-associative secret double-life of the mind. The Internet is fast becoming humanity’s Wise Blood, a mysterious ground of real life (rl) action inaccessible to the frontward, or conscious, social attitude.

Why inaccessible? Because the Internet is so large, multilingual and informationally dense, it simulates the complexity of the world itself, yet it presents fewer barriers to exploration of that complexity. This lack of physical barriers more readily exposes a condition that we resist recognizing when we butt up against it in rl: that our understanding is not sufficient to grasp the world in its complexity. We may have a survey knowledge and we may have specialized knowledge, but knowledge as universal expertise is a doomed proposition. While many would see this as a common wisdom universal to the ages, it has previously been urged on us in the language of religious humility: bow before the infinite, o finite wretch, etc. The intellectuals, somewhat in defiance, have always sought to “broaden’’, “deepen’’, “expand’’ their knowledge as if there were no certain promise of defeat in this.

The Internet, its world, forces us to acknowledge our limitations: the problem can be displayed mathematically to us, by our computing machines. Sartre’s the Self-Taught Man attempts to read through the inventory of the local library alphabetically. Many an intellectual harbors a fantasy of reading through the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. But the Wikipedia now holds over a million entries, and is growing; a broad Google search can yield millions of pages; the catalogs of Amazon and others confront us with terrible figures: millions of books, millions of movies, albums, billions and billions of man-hours on display. Even thousands of graduate theses, even millions of bad poems. This is our world, expanded perpendicularly to its surface, piled with all the information that has been teased from stony being, and given to us to wander at will. It is nothing but one of Borges’ maddening universal libraries.