by Steve Dietz

Curator of New Media Initiatives
Walker Art Center
Minneapolis, USA

Reverse Engineering the Library

Simon Biggs' Babel

Steve Dietz
Curator of New Media
Walker Art Center
Minneapolis, USA

In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, a proliferation of languages leads to the chaotic undermining of a previously unified civilization. In Jorge Luis Borges' story, "Library of Babel", an infinitude of books - of information - paradoxically lends itself to incertitude. One can never be sure that one has the best or the latest source on any given topic.

If heterogeneity - of languages, of nations, of points of view - can be said to be fundamental to the human condition, and if information overload - too much, too fast, too unmitigated - can be said to be a gnawing complaint of contemporary life, what might be the millennial role of the library, traditionally a source of public calm and transmitter of cultural values?

Simon Biggs' "Babel" references both the biblical and Borges stories, of course, but it is the domain of the workaday library it most directly invokes by borrowing the same information architecture - the Dewey Decimal Classification system (DDC) - albeit for a slightly different use.

Most simply put, Biggs, a visual artist who has been working with digital technologies and exploring notions of computational interactivity since 1978, has created a 3D representation of the numbering scheme of the DDC, which "Babel" then uses as an interface to navigate the World Wide Web. The implications of this strategy, however, are far from simple.

Libraries have been putting information about their holdings online for some 25 years, but this has been primarily as electronic card catalogs, allowing users to find a particular book. The DDC is not just a barcode for books, however; it is a hierarchical classification system to organize the world's knowledge. "Babel" takes this classification schema and "translates" a given DDC number to the hierarchy it represents, such as: arts + recreation : architecture : public structures : correctional institutions. It then links to a selected web site about correctional institutions, using the DDC, in essence, to catalog the Web as well as navigate it.

This conflation of cataloging and navigation - of metadata (the cataloging information) and data (the website itself) - is one of the distinctive characteristics of computational media. In the offline world, you would look up a topic in the printed card catalog, write down the call number of the book you were interested in, and then shuffle along the shelves until you found it. In the online world, finding the information about the website you want is virtually, with a click, the same as finding the website itself. This is a function of computing, which one of the early pioneers of the medium, Alan Turing, described when he realized that any string of words - any information, no matter how complex - could be translated into a string of numbers. The computer is then able to manipulate those numbers mathematically, so to speak, and "untranslate" them back into words, which is why the computer is known as a language machine, because of it's human-like capacity to manipulate the binary language of ones and zeros and output the results as human-readable information such as words or images.

Biggs succinctly described this functionality in relation to an earlier project of his, "The Great Wall of China."

"Computers both produce the material we experience and allow us to access it. The computer is a language machine. ...Turing simply defined the computer as a machine that could be any machine. It could be this because it was programmable - as such, operating symbolically upon symbolic things. This universe of symbolic forms includes the computer itself, and the recursive aspect of the medium is what leads to its real technological and therefore social power. To paraphrase Turing, the computer is the medium that can be any medium."
Of course, this does not mean that computers are actually smart. Just as Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, had an amazingly intelligent agent, which could not only program the blinking 12:00 of his VCR but also had the uncanny ability to identify which shows he liked best - his son - "Babel" has a remarkable agent helping to use the DDC to classify websites appropriately - Biggs himself.

This is only in part a technical issue. It is certainly possible to take a DDC number, look up it's hierarchy, and then use those terms to do an automated search through an engine such as Google, and select the "I'm feeling lucky" option to return a website that matches. With "Babel," however, Biggs' goal is not necessarily to create a straightforward search engine. By manually matching websites with DDC numbers, it allows Biggs to make "artitorial" decisions about selections. As he put it,

"Sometimes they are serious, sometimes silly, sometimes they are in direct conflict with the expected Dewey output...which gives my more evil side a strange sense of satisfaction."
In other words, while artists are often serious innovators in the online and technology arenas, their impulse just as often, as curator Jon Ippolito put it, is "the art of misuse."
"Looking at the way artists like Paik began to investigate the deliberate misuse of technology in the 1960s helps debunk some contemporary myths about creativity - in particular, the creative use of technology. One of those myths is that creativity lies in applying the right tool for the right task - i.e., managing technology. Magazine editors, advertising execs, and Web site producers regularly employ "creatives" to spice up their products. The assumption behind this ludicrous adjective-turned-noun is that a creative person is simply a painter of pictures or a teller of stories - especially one adept at Photoshop or AfterEffects.

"While managing technology is certainly a valuable skill - for artists and others - it's not the same as creativity. When you manage technology well, you are simply carrying out the agenda of the designers of that technology. A composer who uses a car to drive to the concert hall is managing technology. But when Laurie Anderson composed a drive-in concert of motorists beeping car horns, she was being creative."

One of the most significant aspects of the art of misuse for "Babel" is its multi-user functionality. Part of the project's initial appeal for the user is precisely its implicit promise of "debabelizing" the information overload of the Internet by using the DDC to classify it and intelligent agents to prioritize it. As multiple users log on at the same time, however, "Babel" quickly becomes just that - a beautiful visual riot of overlapping numbers, and, while, in fact, each user can navigate his or her own version of the library-Internet interface, it's so stimulating that one has the definite feeling, beyond a certain number of simultaneous users, of being navigated rather than navigating; a kind of collective unconscious filtering the Net.

For Biggs this represents a kind of tug-of-war between a phenomenological view of the world, in which we are always interacting with it from a first person perspective, and some kind of objective reality, such as the DDC system. Neither one is right or wrong, but they are in some kind of intertwined opposition, and the resulting chaos can just as easily be seen as beauty as a fall from grace as in the biblical story.

Finally, there is the issue of where "Babel" exists. In his artist statement, Biggs suggests that it is a "site specific" work.

"The site is an abstract thing...information space and the taxonomy of knowledge that all libraries represent...which the Internet, where the project is realized, is."
One way to think about this is whether the Internet is a space or an event. "Site" implies a place metaphor, while navigating through "Babel," could equally be described as an action; a performative event. In Borges' story, the library is described in several passages in seemingly precise physical detail.
"The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from the floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest."
Yet throughout the story, the narrator's voice is primarily one of uncertainty and ambiguity. Opposite conclusions about the nature of the universe-library seem equally plausible; equally irrefutable.

On the Internet, in a very real sense, navigation is architecture. The boundaries of where we link-travel become the contours of what we know. Performance and place are conflated. It is like light, which can be particles or waves, depending upon how it is measured. The idea of Babel can be the loss of unity or the rise of diversity; the site of all knowledge or the absence of any certainty; a means of navigation or a way to get lost; the beauty of systems or the beauty of chaos. Perhaps "Babel" is site-specific. Perhaps the library is a process of exploration.