Posted by: David | June 22, 2007

The Infinite Monkey

Just read a nicely written post in a blog called “Sailing to Byzantium”. The author draws an interesting parallel between the blogosphere and that old saw about whether or not an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters would eventually churn out the works of Shakespeare. Or maybe just a single work of The Bard. Either way it’s a statistical supposition, if not entirely ridiculous. Like how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Angels don’t even dance, do they? JEEZ!!

The writer, shazgood, titles the post “Infinite Library”, and mentions having recently read a Jorge Luis Borges short story called The Library of Babel. I read some Borges short stories maybe 20 years ago, and remember them having a major impact on my thought. Shazgood writes hopefully that we can maybe be freed up for more fun and recreative endeavors when technology and the robots take over all our drudgery! What wonderful optimism! I have to agree that technology, information technology in particular, can be quite freeing. But it’s such a double-edged sword!!

And blogging, though it’s still very compelling to me, simultaneously feels like an exercise in futility. I guess it’s not unlike talking in that regard, in that you never know if your audience …

  1. notices that you’re talking
  2. gives a crap that you’re talking
  3. gets what the heck you mean (assuming that it’s cogent thought)

Because the words of blogs live on the internet, available to anyone with an IP address, it’s like having the eyes and ears of the world to play to, blind and deaf though they may be. Another image that comes to mind is being on center stage at Carnegie Hall, but the house is empty.

If we can always count on finding needed information in a book, or on the internet, then why bother committing it to memory? If we give all our data and jobs over to the robots and computers, what will be left to us? Will we then be free to frolic on hill and dale in flowing white tunics? Or will we still need to know stuff? See where I’m going with this? Can we really trust The Machine to hold all our knowledge for us? If we give it all over to said Machine, how will we then synthesize our wisdom?

The AI (artificial intelligence) folks would have us believe that the machines can eventually take over creative thought too, and sure, that would be fine. But what will we do with all that new free time? Music and dancing? Painting? Eating and sex? Will anyone care? About anything? If we can find whatever we need to know in the Infinite Library, won’t we just become stupider? Don’t we need ignorance and pain in the world for the knowledge and joy to even show up?


  1. Interesting post, Dave. I’ve noticed I have a much decreased tolerance for uncertainty since the rise of the internet as a search tool. I get twitchy when I don’t know who sings a song, or what the Novgorod Republic was. I’m pretty sure this is unhealthy.

    The prospect of having a mayfly existence is somewhat tempting, though. And if our lives become less complicated due to the machines taking over, how much will it be necessary for us to know, or even to look up? For instance, we won’t need to know what sort of interest rate we can get, how many teaspoons are in a cup or how to make spanakopita.

    Very interesting things to contemplate – thanks for the thought starter.

  2. This reminds of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    Well almost everything reminds me of it.

  3. Thanks Dave for highlighting my post!
    This discussion could head off in so many myriad directions, it is hard to know where to start. But since I’ve been writing my blog (30 days now only!) I have been taken aback at just how many people are writing blogs and if you include wiki, google, online encyclopedias, out-of-copyright books, newspapers etc, then I despair at ever getting the time to read even a tiny, tiny part of it. Practically speaking, we as individuals can now get whatever information we want, whenever we want it. The old problems for humankind (in a narrow sense of knowledge) was to get the basic facts right. Now, it seems to me, the problem is more subtle. We have the facts. But we also have tons and tons of crap too, so the trick is to intelligently wade through it all. We have the infinite library and exactly the problem Borges anticipated too! (He was a prophet of the Internet).
    But the tools are getting there. One way is to add your blog to my blogroll and others like it. We are then building communities of common interest. It is an exciting time.
    As for the Hitchhikers, I loved that book. The entry for the earth was just “Harmless” until Ford Prefect spent many years living and researching it, when he then changed it to….”Mostly Harmless”. Brilliant!

  4. Thanks all for your comments.

    Ceridwen- twitchy? Can’t imagine where you get that from, NOT.

    The interweblogosphere is truly amazing. As were Borges and Adams. Connecting the Borges story to the web really hit me, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide too.

    Lots to think about while I pedal my bike today!

    • You think while pedalling! I had been told that you watch the morning news.

      Ha ha. I do all 3 things at once. I’m a pretty good multi-tasker.

  5. You know, technology creates such mystical marvels all on its own. For instance, ever watch the snow on the television. It’s really quite underrated.

    How about the sounds inbetween AM radio stations. That’s an acquired taste. Not for the unwashed masses to enjoy.

    Must get myself to therapy appt now.. lest I start counting the tiles on the ceiling. Again. 🙂

  6. Good comment gwhiz- the rests between the notes make the music too. Haven’t tried the inter-frequencies between radio stations, but does short wave count? Especially like your use of the word ‘mystical’. I think the interweblogosphere is definitely the cup running over …

  7. Re: robots freeing us up – “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” (Robert Frost)

    Re: monkeys – Any number of monkeys (plus their descendents, since monkeys are not forever) at any number of typewriters would eventually ape the Bard. But read the fine print: “eventually” = a gazillion ages-of-the-universe. On the other hand, an infinite number of monkeys at an infinity of typewriters could do it before lunch – but the banana bill would kill you.

    Re: knowing stuff – Information is not knowlege.

    Re: AI – Intelligence, artificial or otherwise, doesn’t exist; intelligent people do.

    Re: blogging – “If David’s words fall in empty cyberspace, did he make a blog?” (Bishop Berkley)

    Re: trusting the Machine – “Donuts … is there anything they can’t do?” (Homer Simpson)

  8. Greg, thanks for your witty comments. Never thought about the infinite number of bananas! Guess we’ll use virtual monkeys. Screw it, the works of Shakespeare are already written anywho.

    Awareness hierarchy from low to high:


    I am NOT taking the blame for my irresponsibility!

  9. In economics it is called dumping, which is selling goods below cost price in order to eliminate the competition. All writing is now part of this effort. In fact, all individual art is: composition, singing, painting, sculpture, photography.

    I am not sure about film. Maybe it is expensive to produce and cannot be dumped. And architecture?

    I thought that the best an individual can still do is to act as a filter.

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