Stream-of-Carelessness: How the Touchscreen is Changing the World

Is social media changing our language? Dale Lately looks at slanguage, speakwrite and the unlikely precedent of Virginia Woolf’s txt spk.

Photo by Stephan Geyer
Photo by Stephan Geyer

Stream of Carelessness

A teenager appointed to be Britain’s first youth police and crime commissioner makes “inappropriate” comments on Twitter.  A 16-year-old is fired after she describing her office job as “boring” on her Facebook page. Two teenagers sacked for writing about their boss on Facebook.  Star Charlie Sheen falls into the social media celebrity bear trap by inadvertently tweeting his phone number to five million potential stalkers. A juror in the UK is sacked after disclosing sensitive case information on Facebook; a major airline takes disciplinary action against 13 crew members who insulted their safety standards online. Sobering stories, to be sure, and a telling snapshot of the dangers of the networked world – but they also beg an obvious question: what on earth do we expect if we write this stuff down in a forum available to anyone who looks for it?

Like many of older terms adapted and re-employed in a new context – to post, to mail, to update your status – the word “write” is sorely in need of an update. The teenagers, the Virgin  cabin crew, the Labour candidate sacked over misjudged tweets from a trip to his Scottish constituency, did indeed write their comments in the technical and legal sense of the word. They pressed the keys, they saw the words appearing on the screen, and they hit Enter. But writing means so much more than the production of words. What seems to be on the face of it a matter of netiquette – why some people lose all sense of propriety in broadcasting their thoughts to a potential audience of over two billion people – is as much down to our ideas about how we classify written communication itself as it is to humanity’s evolving online personality.

It’s easy for digital natives to forget what a deliberative act writing once was, before technology eased the process. A simple letter involved a process of several stages: locating paper, stamp and envelope, as well as pen or typewriter, and finally some means of having it transported – not to mention the fact that in the days before open sharing, all interpersonal communication required an actual recipient. Even the most casual scribbling of all – a post-it pinned to the fridge, say, or a love letter passed among school students – still took substantially more effort than the average Facebook update.

Photo by Raul Lieberwirth
Photo by Raul Lieberwirth

And that’s why the word “write” just isn’t adequate for the ceaseless, real-time posting that’s now taking place across the world. Thoughts splashed onto a Facebook wall or tweeted from a handset are too casual and spontaneous to qualify as writing in its traditional sense. In an age where most of us touch-type while our minds roam free, the kind of commentary that dominates the social networks – and certainly the kind that tends to land people in trouble – is more like a burp from the brain, language that has evaded the formal filters of pen and ink, stamp and envelope.

In fact, the mode of communication that’s developing around us is far closer to a large-scale pub conversation, one that happens to take place in text rather than sounds and syllables. Punctuation, spelling and grammar often revert to pre-Johnsonian codification; complex sentences are folded into telegraphic verbless phrases; emoticons, exclamation and question marks are all over-employed to match the blustering levels of the web’s public discourse.

As language descriptivist David Crystal points out, the modern internet has speeded up an already bubbly surface of linguistic ferment, spawning whole new language subcultures in the process. Today’s social networks are the petri-dish for a mode of communication that’s neither precisely speech nor writing but a hinter-language between the two. Call it the Facebook lingua franca – a stream-of-carelessness that is, in the noisy echo chamber we inhabit, bound to claim victims. Let’s get our terms right here: we’re not talking about “writers”. The people who got caught out in the cases above were just speaking with their fingertips.

A visit to the Facebook page of a teenage relative of mine might illustrate my point. I’ve changed nothing in this sample of a short conversation thread – the first to appear on my screen when I glanced at his profile – but for cloaking the identities of the speakers:

facebook-no-image11Nate Jourden Jonny Jayde and any1 else av missed who wants to go sledging!!!!?


facebook-no-image11Weheyyy me & jonno got a sledgeee xxx


facebook-no-image11If I cud get up there and see u I wud well come sledging haha !! Think av got 2 aswell  xxxx


facebook-no-image11Yea babe that defo sounds good! Just gimme a text!  hope you have a good time sledging  xxxx


facebook-no-image11And on another note jd from scrubs is a ledge


facebook-no-image11Yer but if I get a bike I can take it to uni with me whereas am givin the car to ma mum

Ask yourself: does it look like writing or speech? It’s function rather than form that determines the true nature of an utterance, and while the above has all been typed (a voice-to-text device would presumably have employed a spellchecker) the discourse displays all the impatience of a fast paced, garbled muttering-match between adolescents. Conventions of writing crumble. Phonetic spelling (wud, cud), glimpses of the speaker’s Yorkshire dialect (ma mum, else av missed) provide stylistic shortcuts just as elision and ellipsis serve to shorten casual speech. More than one unrelated conversation seems to be taking place simultaneously, just as in real life gatherings. Orthographic rebuses (any1, got 2) and splashes of text speak (defo, gimme) lessen the typing load still further. You could call it speech disguised as writing, but it’s more accurately described as a medium that lies somewhere in between, a form of “speakwrite” expressing the immediacy of the former but cloaking itself in the permanence of the latter.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that all this has an ancestry. While it’s true that the instantly accessible public forum didn’t exist before Usenet and the first digital bulletin boards, and that personal expression in written form was restricted for most to the odd note, postcard or letter to the editor, literature has been borrowing from the conventions of speech for centuries.

Consider the conversational narrator of the 18th and 19th centuries, with their moral commentary and direct address, a line that runs backwards through the likes of Dickens and Hugo to a pitch of sublime garble and narrative circumlocution in the pre-post-modernism of Laurence Sterne. Think of Richardson and the epistolary novel. Even the handwritten letter – already beginning to evoke ink-dipped quills and decorative seals for a new generation of kids who may never post one – was not always so sober as we may have imagined it. This epistle from Virginia Woolf to lover Vita Sackville Vest betrays all the breathy impatience of a lovesick SMS tapped out in a moment of inebriated passion, albeit with a touch more finesse:

Virginia Woolf

Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come…

Or part of Sackville West’s reply:

Vita Sackville West by Gisele Freund, 1938
Vita Sackville West by Gisele Freund, 1938

Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

Again, the clipped phrases, broken sentences, exclamations, exhortations and scattered punctuation, the breathless and, and, and… all suggest the speed and immediacy of speech. True, Woolf is perhaps a biased example – famous as she is for actually pioneering the voice of the unmediated consciousness in her literary output – but she by no means stands alone. Even in fiction, an urgent narrative could lead to speech-like prose, and the more the narrator was inveigled by some destructive passion the more the conventions crumbled. Take early pioneer of the confessional first-person narrator Edgar Allan Poe, whose 1843 short story of an unbalanced mind The Tell-Tale Heart strikes us with its vacillating, accusatory immediacy:

TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?

And in the same passage:

You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work!

While early horror writers like Poe sought to emulate the patterns of confession and conversation in their narrators, the formalist experiments of the Modernists would strive to do away with speech altogether. This extract from Molly Bloom’s internal monologue in Ulysses strives at a register which issues direct from the consciousness and shows even less regard for written convention than the Facebook posts above.

a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office or the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brain out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5…

To cut a long story short, the formal conventions of written prose, as well as the cultural and linguistic power bases that sustained them, have been under attack since long before Facebook. The rise of regional dialect in literature in the second half of the 20th century, kept under check since the likes of Robert Burns and Walter Scott by an Oxbridge-educated literati, famously found its expression in the Mersey poets and literary regionalists like Irvine Welsh, Patrick McCabe or Roddy Doyle, all of whom employ narrative voices and stylings that betray the features of local speech rather than writing. (The history of literature in English rings with a rich polyphony of dialect, of course, but it’s relatively new for it to colour the voice of the narrator themselves).

Accents, slang and swearwords became acceptable stylistic tools. Even the supremacy of writing itself was being questioned. Brian Patten memorably employed phonetics in his poem ‘Gust becos I cud not spel’ whose verses display an uncomfortable similarity to some of the less gifted contributors to today’s web comment threads (“those who laffed a lot / Have al bean rownded up / And hav recintly bean shot”).

But cultural change aside, it’s network technology that has brought this stylistic informality off the page and into the hands of the public on a mass scale. And it’s the new pads, phones and tablets that have made a population of young communicators pioneers in orthographic experimentalism. Beginning with the rise of the text speak around the Millennium – when sputtering Telegraph columnists were confronted by the cultural atrocity of a smiley – an entirely new dialect has swung into being, spurred on by the pell-mell of progress. Textiquette and its peculiar orthographic interventions quickly filled the classrooms. Impoverished slanguage or not, it heralded a new level of playfulness in how the country communicated with itself, as well as giving rise to a whole new linguistic subculture now busily migrating to the social networks.

A strain of literature based on text-speak has been evolving since the early 2000s, gaining wide readerships in China’s ‘m-novel’ romances and Japan’s Yoshi genre (T-Mobile crowned a UK “Txt Laureate” in a 2007 competition). Twitter fiction published in 140-character instalments has given us Josh Gosfield’s Fathom Butterfly, a recent Twitter Fiction Festival, and the nascent genre of nano-fiction, which shrinks flash fiction down even further to produce literature on the atomic scale. (Here’s author Esher Freud’s one line “novel” for a recent Guardian competition: “Mother love is strong enough to lift a car. I’d heard that. But when my girl was hit by a Mercedes, I heaved, screaming. Nothing moved”.) Some are attempting to deliver Ulysses or War and Peace tweet by tweet. The nano-linguists are nothing if not ambitious.

That’s not to elevate a slapdash Facebook stream to the level of artful prose. As what you might call a literary aesthete, I find the thoughtlessness of much of the speakwrite splashed across the web a gloomy herald of humanity’s potential for self-expression in the future, and I suspect I’m not alone. But literary aesthetes don’t write the history books. Facebook and Twitter do – or at least the people use them. The last 15 years has placed a public forum based on the written word (or wrtn wrd) within easy reach of the general population. It’s a mass democratisation of written language, if you like, just as the full extension of the voting franchise in 1928 was a mass democratisation of political rights. And mass democratisations have a habit of being messy. Universal suffrage is a noble achievement but also leads to UKIP-shaped weeds growing between the cracks; when technology expands the writing franchise, similarly, it has to be content with a lot of semi-literate mush amongst anything more thoughtful.

Photo by jonkpirateboy
Photo by jonkpirateboy

It might seem an academic point whether we label the more informal strain of online posting as writing or speaking, a question of classification for the linguists to sort out. But it has real world implications. If we fail to recognise speakwrite for what it is, we end up judging what is “said” online as if it carried much greater weight than it actually does. From the examples I began with to the man who found himself under threat of criminal prosecution when he tweeted an ill-advised joke about blowing up an airport, we treat the brain-to-blog outbursts that fills the web’s social hubs as they were the result of calculated stylistic intention. Was the airport tweeter really a terrorist, or just a cataclysmic judge of comic timing? What does it say about us that we’re prepared to treat a throwaway slip of sarcasm as if it were a bomb-threat, simply because it appeared on a screen? Let he step forward who’s never ground their teeth in a queue and muttered about how a bit of carefully placed Centex would do a great deal of improvement. Daily speech is rich in ripe incivility: the mistake the victims above made was to type it up and hit Enter.

Kids are coming of age now who have been on Facebook since childhood, who have no local library, who have never unfolded a paper map. There are others who can text but struggle to form letters with a pen or pencil. The future always arrives faster than we expect but feels oddly prosaic when it gets here. The billion or so people from the developing world expected to join the web in the 2010s will do so not via the keyboards and monitors I grew up with but rather, as technologist David Talbot points out, from tablets and mobile phones – with far-reaching implications for the further informalisation of language. Think before you speak, as my elementary teacher used to tell me. In a culture progressing faster than we can type, her words seem more apposite than ever. Some of us just also have to remind our fingertips.

The End of the Word As We Know It: Reading in the Age of Distraction

Broken Kindle. Photo by Jason Brackins
Broken Kindle. Photo by Jason Brackins

My flatmate lays it out on the kitchen table. He turns phantom pages with a flick of the wrist. The text is translucent. It swoops and scrolls, fits to size. Everybody purrs in approval. And I, the aspiring writer, I stare down at this next generation ebook with a sickly smile, and I think: sorry. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why a book has to resemble an impressive special effect…

Will the paper book be the next casualty of the information revolution? The sea of Samsungs, Androids, Apples, pads, pods, netbooks and notebooks that confront me on every plane, waiting room or cafe these days would seem to suggest it. Unlike films, newspapers or music, the web’s threat to the traditional publishing industry is not from making what’s already out there available for free, but rather providing too many enjoyable alternatives to reading. A decade ago the web remained quarantined indoors, anchored to desktops by Ethernet umbilical cords, and a good novel could still help to pass the time on a heaving tube and or lonely bus. Now kids who sport web-enabled phones can never leave what Andrew Keen calls the ‘global dorm room’ – Facebook is the book they all read, the novel they’re all writing, and they rarely need to leave its realm any more.

The result of this industrial-level distraction is a gradual infantilization, not only of the way we write (if Facebook is a collective novel, it’s a poorly punctuated one), but of the way we read. In his seminal essay Is Google making us stupid? Nicholas Carr talks of how the fidgety behaviour we associate with small children is spreading up the age brackets, and how the “deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” And that was written when tablets and smartphones were still new.

Let’s be honest, serious reading is an often difficult task, requiring mental space and energy, and with more than a whiff of deferred gratification about it. It promises something richly rewarding in return for an investment of hours, days, or weeks; the internet squirts an all-singing, all-dancing boredom-prophylactic into your eyeballs after an investment of seconds. Trying to focus on a book while you’re online is a bit like studying for an exam in the midst of a multi-media carnival parade: a bitmapped swirl of trivia, live gossip, shimmering images, sputtering podcasts, YouTube echolalia, links, jinks, jokes, tweets, tropes, memes, clips, bits, bytes, sites…

Broken Kindle. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski
Broken Kindle. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Enter the e-reader. Touted as one way to save old-fashioned reading in the age of the touchscreen, the Kindles, iPads and Nooks offer a sort of détente between the slower-paced world of print and the gratifying immediacy of the web age – a high-tech life-rope to a low-tech tradition. After all, in a resource-hungry world, does the paper itself still matter if people continue to download (and even occasionally pay for) books?

But the e-reader is not a simple format switch, the same thing on a different device. The reality is considerably more complicated. Not only have ereaders created an ebook market that’s becoming increasingly independent of the traditional one (and one which predictably involves scores of authors giving away their work for almost nothing), but their loyalties are to the future – or to put it another way, they’re subject to the same market dynamic as every other bit of hardware out there: planned obsolescence, accompanied by regular competitive upgrades.

Here the essential fallacy in the e-reader as saviour of the publishing industry argument becomes apparent. There’s only so far you can upgrade a screen which displays books; once you’ve been through a couple of generations (the Kindle is now on its fifth) new improvements can only go one way – more speed, more multimedia, more interactivity. The Kindle Fire, Amazon’s recent showpiece, boasts ‘over 22 million movies, TV shows, songs, books, and magazines, plus tens of thousands of popular apps and games such as Angry Birds Space, SkyscannerJamie’s 20 Minute Meals and Auto Trader.’ And… books? Yes, those too.

Admittedly the Fire is an offshoot branch of the family, but it does suggest that the ereaders of the future are about much more than just reading. By setting the simple book within the visceral riot of the contemporary web, the Kindle and its futuristic brethren risk eclipsing it entirely. Let’s not even dwell on the fact that it’s produced by a company famous for slashing publisher revenues since the Millennium. If a machine boasting of its power to bring a whirlwind of music, video and games into your hands is publishing’s last best hope, then things are grim indeed.

Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the times we live in. Our age is witnessing a grand project of de-contextualisation, as old media is re-framed within a new, multi-tasking environment. The recent Storyville documentary about Google Books’ attempt at a forced-collectivisation-of-literature program, by means of a Soviet-scale push to digitise the bulk of the world’s libraries without asking anyone, highlighted the culture clash between a millennia-old literary tradition and a new information economy based on speed, ease and instant appropriation. What first appears a noble sentiment – who can argue against saving the out-of-print archives from decay? – is revealed as a potentially reductive and profit-oriented credo.

Leaving copyright issues aside, books are not books as we know them to Google. They’re the information economy’s equivalent of undiscovered oil, more fuel for the search engine, and the project’s resounding achievement was to turn years of scholarly effort into a highlighted citation. Narrative, cohesion, authorial intention: all irrelevant. A book is just a bit of long-form content. Of course it might steer some to buying a copy – links to Amazon in the sidebar and so on – but we’d be optimistic indeed to assume all those all students compiling their bibliographies from a laptop are eager to pay if only someone would just let them.

Broken Kindle. Photo by Lachlan Hardy
Broken Kindle. Photo by Lachlan Hardy

Unusually in that case, Google lost the battle; their books-into-blurb program won few supporters among ranks of authors, editors and publishers less than overjoyed to see years of their labour reduced to a splash of searchable text, and the overlords of the information age were forced by court injunction to put the brakes on their voracious digitising. But the case speaks volumes – every pun intended – about Silicon Valley’s attitude to the oldest text-based technology of all. Culture is content, and the quicker, easier and cheaper it flows, the better for everybody. Why read when you can just scan? Why attempt to understand the subtleties of an author’s argument when the web will give you two lines you can patch into your thesis? If it turns coherent works into orphaned snippets, it turns serious readers into distracted surfers. After all, let’s not forget that Google is a company whose revenue stream comes from servicing humanity’s global attention deficit, a business model based on directing us toward content calculated to tantalise – a compelling thought when we remember these are the people we’re about to entrust the bulk of world literature to. We’re handing the library keys to a company that turns interruption into algorithmic science.

But perhaps we shouldn’t let ourselves lapse into wild dystopia. The digitization of books, the evolution of ereaders into tablets and web portals – all just aspects of a slow process that may well transform the publishing industry, but will never quite kill it off entirely. The reality is that whichever format they come in, books are too central to our culture to be totally side-lined by the web’s glitzy ephemera. The Booker, Pulitzer or Costa remain major press events; today’s bookslams, signings, festivals and other live literary events are doing more than ever to yank the author out of seclusion, and reveal a passion for writing that goes far beyond the polite or academic. Even the young who we imagine don’t read any more still surprise us: the fans of Dumbledore, Discworld or The Hunger Games are prepared to besiege Waterstones or Barnes & Noble for a major signing. It’s hard to imagine them getting so worked up about a blog-post.

In a perfect world, book selling might continue to thrive while the web makes it possible to gather together the ‘”ong tail” niches of out-of-print or obscure volumes – albeit with a touch more respect for the original than Google has shown. The web is best when it shines a torchlight on overlooked corners, giving unread authors the chance to circumvent the slush pile and gain a readership, while allowing ereaders to bring books to new audiences, the young and disabled among them. The reading community finds new ways to unite online even if what it reads becomes more piecemeal and disparate. And in doing so it’s simply part of the great contradiction of our time: that we gather ever more closely around ever more scattered campfires. The community of readers now spans the planet. If it could only find the time to read.

Of course reality is more prosaic, and the digital revolution – like the industrial one before it – will have its casualties whether we like it or not. But we do have to set our own concerns within a wider historical picture and remember that change is always terrifying to those who can only imagine its consequences. One noted thinker I glanced at recently complained of how information technology actually reduces our faculty for recall by providing an artificial prop to our memories – an observation that sounds like something Nicholas Carr might make to bait a Wired readership. In this case however the writer was Plato, and the new technology he feared was writing itself. Perhaps progress, like a novel reframed within the borders of a Kindle Fire, is all just a matter of context.

The Tower of Babble: Borges’ Library and the Blogosphere

(c) april-mo
(c) april-mo

I’d never heard of “text miners” until recently, but apparently there’s a National Centre of them here in London, bringing to mind ticklishly unlikely images of programmers arriving at work in hard hats or jamming a pickaxe beneath the spacebar. They’re part of the growth industry of data mining, and the fact that they exist at all is testament to a world that’s gasping beneath the weight of its own archives, however incorporeal these archives may be.

Seventy years ago the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote “The Library of Babel”, a short story about a cosmically vast library that contained all possible books — a whole universe based on the inconceivable number of permutations a length of text would allow, making possible not only all the books ever written, but all the ones that could be written. What a wonderful conceit at a time when print was still expanding, and the surfeit of magazines, supplements, fanzines and free zines that avalanched our world in the years before the web was beginning to emerge; when “records” meant cavernous filing cabinets and punch cards, deep-recess shelves and cryptic, Cabbalistic microfiches; when librarianship was still cinematic.

It was a richly imaginative idea in its day, but the metaphor of Borges’ Babel Library has, in the last decade, gained a relevance it could never hitherto possess. What expresses better our long slogs through the internet — the insipid pulse of Twittertopia, the unceasing verbal slurry of the blogosphere, and the multitude of social networks — than this Piranesian prism of senselessness: literature as chimera, jumbled apocrypha, and verbal ephemera? Borges’ Library made works of great beauty possible, but it also buried them beneath a quasi-infinity of trivia — an idea he originally explored in his essay “The Total Library”: “For every sensible line or accurate fact,” as he would have it, “there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings.”

True, the web’s not quite on the scale of the whole universe, but to us helpless human beings it may as well be: to read what is posted today around the world in just one minute would quite possibly take more than a lifetime (I say “possibly” because nobody actually knows; the web is simply too huge to be properly measured.) There are estimated, or loosely guestimated, to be 350,000,000 websites registered around the world, and like the universe itself, the whole thing’s expanding at an exponential rate. And of course, static web domains are no longer where the action is, but rather in the mighty social networks: the world’s greatest talk shop, Twitter, now oversees 340 million tweets a day. In this “Library of Babble”, can something meaningful still matter when it’s drowned out by a tide of trivia?

Borges’ Babel Library is part ghastly premonition, part seductive fantasy. Borges was able to see the poetry of a world filled with almost infinite literary possibility — how it would not just replicate the great works of civilisation, but furnish us with the ones civilisation never got around to writing. As he put it, we’d find in there “the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon… my dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934… the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, those same chapters translated into the language spoken by the Garamantes…”

Borges’ Library would not only contain a complete catalogue, but also a text detailing, point by point, every single inaccuracy and falsehood of that catalogue. And presumably there would be another detailing every single inaccuracy and falsehood of that, too — and so on, like watching a piece of controversial draft legislation make its way through Parliament, watching a retweet go viral, or a comment thread raised to the level of the cosmic. Like the web, the Babel library would be more a place of reproduction than production.

And it’s perhaps this power to give form to the hypothetical, to the stories that could be, that lends a tantalising excitement to the bagginess of the web. Fan fiction — not native to the internet, but given room to flourish by its expansive boundaries — comprises, to quote a recent Ewan Morrison article on the subject, “crossover, AU, Hentai, OoC, Uber, Mary Sue, slash fic, hate fic, anti fic and even wing fic”. Its most popular sub-genre, alternative universe, where Borgesian permutations on a text are explored at novel length, has already spawned 130,137 reworkings of the Twilight franchise alone. It may not quite be the “several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma” of Borges’ Babel Library, but it does speak of a culture increasingly interested in what could be, rather than what is written.

This is the upside to the web’s oceans of verbiage. By sheer laws of scale, there must presumably be works of genius taking shape on a server somewhere: tweets of finely crafted beauty, Shakespearean gmails, Facebook posts so sublime they effortlessly express the human condition — or at least the human condition as it was two seconds ago — beside a fun animated graphic that links to a website that sells cheap holidays. They must be there, hidden in the depths. But they’re hard to find amongst the dross.

Similarly, it’s this near-identical repetition that renders the Babel Library almost useless, and indeed even destructive, spawning superstitious creeds and desperate mystics among its users. When rare profundity is buried in almost endless trivia, the search for any meaning at all becomes maddening. But since the internet is humanly rather than randomly generated, the “tyranny of the irrelevant” we face stems from our own shortcomings as authors. Leaving aside social networks and the terabytes of Javababble they generate every day, you only need to trawl the seabed of the blogosphere to be submerged in repetition, crude cut-and-paste, inane commentary, embryonic factoids, lazy hearsay and puerile humour — all collated like a cloud of car exhaust and wafted onto the world’s computer screens.

Of course, anyone who points this out tends to come over as a cultural elitist and clog-burning Luddite who’s wandered in dressed in a smock from the late eighteenth century — and indeed, the web is replete with exceptions: we all know wonderful blogs, and wonderful online platforms for new writing. But many more lie undiscovered somewhere down in the subterranean reaches of the Google rankings, buried beneath the weight of the banal, just as the “precious books” of Borges library remain unlocated and unread. Instead we get hashed and rehashed opinion and the endless documentation of our lives (which must surely be one of the web’s evolutionary dead ends: how long can any interest be sustained in something so innately uninteresting?) Teasing out the transcendent in the banal has always been the editor’s charge, but since the blogosphere is largely a world with no editors, the banal is given free reign. Indeed, to judge by some of the celebrity bloggers of the last decade (Perez Hilton or Coco Rocha heading an illustrious list of gossip-mongerers), the banal is big business. We’re witnesses to the rise, and rise, of the seriously trivial.

But perhaps this is all simply the price we pay for powers of composition on a cosmic scale? The precious, mystic tomes of Borges’ Babel Library only exist in the context of the galaxies of gibberish that surround them: Babel could not exist without the babble. Maybe we should accept that combing the web’s intestines in search of the profound is almost as endless as scouting for apocryphal books in a universe-sized library, and make do with the tit-bits of meaning we stumble upon. Borges was gloomy about those who committed their lives to searching: his Inquisitors are crushed by the Sisyphean scale of their task. “Obviously,” he tells us, “no one expects to discover anything.” Stick with the websites we know — and besides which, perhaps a dose of the trivial does us all good now and again. It’s hard to know what Borges himself would have made of the blogosphere, of Twitter and a platform for speech given almost infinite scope, but I have a feeling he’d have probably loved it.