April 03, 2020
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Our Own Private Babels And The Future of Knowledge

Every internet user has become a 'Modern Major General'--and if we shouldn't find each other ludicrous, it's because we are all dressed in patchwork uniforms of information

Our Own Private Babels And The Future of Knowledge
File-AP Photo/Desmond Boylan
Our Own Private Babels And The Future of Knowledge

For some inexplicable reason, the Google Chrome browser on my smartphone persists in opening to the Wikipedia page on the late Bollywood meanie Sudhir. I now exult in the useless knowledge that the real name of this sidekicking, dapper-dressing rake, rapist and roue of the screen was a vapid Bhagwandas Mulchand Luthria. I had come to think that the last of his appearances might have been in Tahalka (1992), in which he delivers in an unforgettable twang the forgettable line, "General Dong is waiting fer you in the rang mahal!" But the Wikipedia page mentions Victoria House (2009)--and in a curious follow-through of click, click, click, I learn that Sudhir ghost-walked as caretaker Ramu Chacha (wearing a woolen cap, of course) in that bhoot bungla thriller, released five years before his death. All this I gather although there is no Wikipedia page dedicated to that film.

I then notice that the Sudhir page baldly states that his stepson is Ashok Banker--and I am wiki-piqued by the glimmer of possibilities. Is this Ashok Banker the writer, one of the many thriller dudes I am envious of for their sheer prolificity? Is he the one whose book gave me a well-rounded if simple version of the semi-mythic Battle of Ten Kings of circa 1400 BC, set in present-day Punjab-Haryana? Before reading his Ten Kings, I had only vaguely heard of the battle from childhood friends whose families claimed lineages running back to the Rig Veda and from the dead and sketchy account of it that Wikipedia offers. What links actor to author, I wonder, as Wiki-scepticism melds with a curiosity I might call prurience in others. While Banker's own Wikipedia page makes no mention of Sudhir, further searches yield links to reports, interviews and articles that do establish a brief and tenuous connection.

My mind is addled and adazzle at any given time with thousands of ephemeral nuggets such as these. Suspended magically within is a protean conglomerate, forever changing as my interests change, shift, divert or get distracted. This is nothing unusual. For so it is with everyone's mind and so it has been for humankind since first we learnt to speak, remember, make music and stories, mix fact and fiction, write, forget and struggle against forgetting. The sheer commonness of this process makes it a unifier that is at the same time marvelous, enormous, humbling and dangerous. And cyberworld, which has become humankind's greatest project in collective consciousness, has imparted to this process a magnitude and entropy that will in the future see googols or perhaps googolplexes of infobits change shape in a nanosecond or less. We have fragmented beyond measure our several knowledge domains. We have exponentialised our focus and our fickleness.

These processes continue at a relentless, unforgiving pace. And against this roaring churn-over, the Wikipedia model--democratic in that anyone is free to make changes, and meritocratic in that registered subject-experts get to contribute, intervene and raise the red flag on disputes--stands as a moderator, though its output is often off the mark in the way averages can be. Today, Wikipedia pages serve as convenient and reliable portals to information. And if they preserve a complete record of the changes they have undergone under multitudes of visitors and editors, that digital palimpsest will in part serve as a measure of their reliability.

Sometimes, I am given to idealising what this same process, working outside the domain of Wikipedia, might lead to. Three kinds information processors come to mind. First, the poets. In each domain will emerge individuals with a range of expertise and polished craft who will, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, purify "the dialect of the tribe". They will each have their own ardent audiences, whether the snobs of taste like it or not. Second, the codifiers. Like Euclid and the unknown author of Ad Herennium did for geometry and rhetoric, codifiers will sieve through the stream that runs from practice to theory and fabricate utilitarian scaffoldings from the forked branches that come floating by. Third, the committees. Like the group of scholars who put together the King James Version of the Bible, committees, either commissioned or coming together informally, will work and rework their domains of expertise with the diligence that piety brings to create reliable or perhaps beautiful works of reference or reverence. Even in august publishing circles, "crowdsourced editing" is gaining a buzz.

This is all premised on the belief that human endeavour strives towards ideals, and that knowledge in every domain will eventually, like the scriptures did over the centuries, acquire lustre, musicality and grandeur of vision through cumulative changes. But I am equally haunted by a bleaker view. Since neither mankind nor knowledge is perfectible, conflicts will proliferate. And in much the same way that trivia has drowned in a flood of trivia (my 10 factoids about Kim Kardashian being as good as or better than your 100!), each domain of knowledge will find itself surrounded by conflicting and parallel ones on a flat plain of equality. Babel will be out-Babeled by paradox: not one tower will qualify as a tower because it will be surrounded by so many others packed like stalagmites around it.

Within the individual, too, changes are taking place that will warp our processing of information. Attention and retention spans are diminishing. An image comes to mind. Each of us is inside his or her own dark and vast crypt, the high walls and ceiling inscribed with our personal hieroglyphics. We paint and read the figures by a handheld lamp, and they change kaleidoscopically before us. Now we magically flit to a corner near the ceiling to limn the current pharaoh after our heart, now we alight on the floor to con a magic square collected from someone or somewhere and marked up in the light of our attention. All that exists for us at any moment is what lies in our circle of buttery light. Now imagine that the crypt is invaded through its vents by a storm--the very breath of Horus, perhaps--buffetting us about but keeping us safe from the rock walls, swirling us in circles along the walls but never putting out the lamp, allowing us to work on a figure or two if we choose but never letting us linger too long. 

Which brings me to the desultory movement of this piece. I might have more impressively started with an anecdote about Bergman rather than about a Bollywood meanie and Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf rather than Banker's of the Dashrajna. But by following the ready trail my browser offered, I hope to have mimicked the way our attention flits as we go click, click, click. One last digression. In the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, the Modern Major General has all kinds of information, "animal, vegetable and mineral", and is "teeming with a lot o' news about the square of the hypotenuse". In a sense, every user of the internet has become a 'Modern Major General'--and if we shouldn't find each other ludicrous, it's because we are all dressed in patchwork uniforms of information.

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