Digital Content: The Babel of Cyberspace

Bertram Bruce
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
United States




This column is reprinted from the Technology department of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (JAAL). It contains the following sections:




Author's Message

Anyone who is engaged in teaching people to read and write would be justified in questioning the relevance of the cyberworld to their concerns. This is especially so for those who teach adults, second language learners, or nontraditional learners. The basic issues of participation, engagement in learning, and fundamental skills stand out as priorities ahead of learning about complex new communication and information technologies, which in their promised form often seem to be perpetually just beyond the horizon.

Moreover, even if one grants the importance of the new technologies as learning resources or as occasions for developing critical job skills, their lack of availability often precludes their use. When they are available, they are often inaccessible because of lack of technical or administrative support, language barriers, and a host of other barriers.

Despite these legitimate reservations, it is increasingly obvious that those involved with literacy education can no longer conceive of their enterprise as separate from the realm of the new technologies. The most compelling reason may be that the distance between some learners and the technological world is itself a stark indicator of their exclusion from the dominant literacies of today. Each of the arguments about participation, engagement, skills, availability, accessibility, and so on, can be flipped to show that the cyberworld must not be ignored if we are to meet these learners' needs as literate citizens.

None of this really answers the "What do I do on Monday?" question, but it does say that we need to incorporate the opportunities and challenges of the new technologies into our discourse about teaching and learning. In this month's column I will take a fanciful journey into the Library imagined by Jorge Luis Borges and ask what it tells us about literacy resources today. Along the way, I will look at how digital libraries are growing and what they mean for literacy education.

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Issue of the Month: What Kind of Library Is the World Wide Web?

Thus begins the fantastic tale written in 1941 by Jorge Luis Borges, called "La Biblioteca de Babel," or "The Library of Babel." The story was published in his collection Ficciones (Borges, 1962) and is available online at http://jubal.westnet.com/hyperdiscordia/library_of_babel.html .

You can learn more about Borges himself through the World Wide Web at http://rpg.net/quail/libyrinth/borges. There you can discover how he began writing when he was 6 years old, and that by age 9 he had published his translation of Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" in a local newspaper. When he was 58, he was appointed to his dream job, the Director of the National Library of Argentina. But he was now almost totally blind, saying, "I speak of God's splendid irony in granting me at one time 800,000 books and darkness."

In "The Library of Babel" Borges envisions a world populated by books, much like his world, for he had led a life immersed in reading and writing. There is no Internet, and no computers exist like those of today, for his year is 1941, but his imagination moves far beyond such limitations. His books are held in a fantastic Library, whose architecture is like no existing library, but is nevertheless carefully and believably constructed. Each of the galleries within the Library is hexagonal with bookcases on four sides. The free sides lead to hallways from which one can reach additional galleries.

These books contain all possible arrangements of the orthographic characters, punctuation, and spaces, leading some to assert "the formless and chaotic nature of almost all the books." It is assumed that

This totality of texts means that one can find anything in the Library, beautiful writing in every conceivable genre, information for every purpose, and guidance for every problem:

People saw that the Library could answer any question, no matter how arcane. If you wanted to know the annual catch of sea bream in Corsica, you could turn to the hexagon containing the book, http://www.netcorse.tm.fr/investir/corse/us_corse2.htm and learn that "in 1995, Corsica produced 900 tons of sea perch and sea bream." Along the way, you could find a recipe for "Corsican grilled whole fish with breadcrumbs and anchovies" at http://food2.epicurious.com/db/recipes/recipesH/0/340.html. Of course, there was the nontrivial problem of finding that book in the first place.

If you search the Web for "Library of Babel," you'll find hundreds of sites, an article by Dominic Gates in the October 1997 issue of the journal PreText at http://www.pretext.com/oct97/features/story1.htm being a good starting point. One of these is the Borges Library itself in a form the author himself would have appreciated: http://scow.gslis.ucla.edu/students_a-l/bzuraw/html/main.html. If you go to that site, just be prepared for a methodical reading of each text.

The Web today hides its precious treasures behind a greater mass of semiprecious or junk-grade texts. Moreover, it holds worse than useless works. As Borges would surely have surmised, it contains libelous portrayals, pornography, hate sites, and simple falsehoods. I once wanted to find the text for T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding," especially the oft quoted,

Not only did I find many sites providing the text, such as http://www.nas.net/~dmartens/4qrtets.htm, but also many sites with the poem misquoted. As the Web grows, these misquotes may perpetuate as easily as the original text, providing us with a plethora of almost-Eliots wherever we look.

This phenomenon of nonsense growing faster than sense has led many to seek ways to clean up the Web. In the United States, the Communications Decency Act, whose key provisions were overturned by the Supreme Court on June 26, 1997 (http://www.aclu.org/court/renovacludec.html), was an attempt to criminalize the "knowing" transmission of "obscene or indecent" messages to minors through the Internet. Many people similarly want public libraries to restrict access to certain sites. There are a wide variety of software tools, such as CyberPatrol, CyberSitter, NetNanny, and A.D.L. HateFilter, to protect users from harmful sites. Schools have Internet policies to ensure that the Web is not used for inappropriate purposes. And teachers worry about the ratio of useless to useful information that students may encounter when surfing the Web.

For better or worse the attempts to limit the Web appear to be futile. Restrictions of Web use in one country are quickly countered by the appearance of new Web sites in another. Attempts to monitor Web use are defeated by tools that allow anonymous use (see http://www.anonymizer.com). Replication and expansion of content proceeds much faster than any kind of control, whether rationalized by moral values or goals of content correctness. The Web remembers, because sites not only link to, but mirror each other by copying content.

What does all this incredible content mean? Are we moving toward some global encyclopedia that accounts for everything or to an entropic doom of maximal disorder? Can we imagine that the Web itself holds the explanation of its own purpose and intrinsic worth?

Even if we cannot fine that "perfect compendium," can we hope for a day when we know what is of value on the Web and what is not? That is unlikely, because the multifarious purposes of both Web readers and Web writers mean that even the apparently insignificant and the dubiously valid content may serve useful purposes.

Whether one's interest is in sea bream production or in British poetry, in Argentinean libraries or in new recipes, the Web answers. Though it may not have the unimaginable extent of Borges' Library, it compensates by its capacity to grow, to create de novo a response to every conceivable query. Unlike an encyclopedia, it has no authoritative authors, no board of reviewers, no content policies, and no guarantee of stability from edition to edition. At the same time, it bears none of the limits of time and space that define conventional encyclopedias. Can such an unlimited enterprise yield any sense of order or meaning? Borges answers,

Cyberspace, which exists in every country but also in none of them, appears to be a realm largely free of most laws. But there are two descriptive laws that have shaped its destiny.

One is the widely cited Moore's Law, proposed in 1965 by Gordon Moore (cofounder of Intel). This law holds that the computing power of a microchip will double every 18 months. The law has held up for nearly 4 decades. It has meant that computers have become smaller, hence faster, and cheaper. As the chips get smaller, more transistors can be stuffed into each chip, allowing new features to be added. The speed increases because the distance between the transistors is reduced. The accumulation of these quantitative changes has brought about qualitative changes in our lives.

As more transistors are packed into smaller and smaller spaces, microchip technology is approaching natural limits. At the size under development today, atomic layers can be counted and identified. Even Moore (1998) himself has said,

The second law has an even more direct connection to the growth of the Web as a gigantic library. Metcalfe's Law, after Bob Metcalfe (founder of 3Com), states that the value of a network increases as more people use it. He has written at www.infoworld.com/cgi-bin/displayArchives.pl?dt_data40_25.htm,

Just as is the case for Moore's Law, this law about networks has natural limits. Metcalfe (1995) himself has pointed out that once a critical mass is reached mere growth may not add much value. My telephone becomes valuable when most people I would like to talk with have one, but there's a lesser increase in value to add another 100 million people.

Conventional libraries are rapidly being converted into digital libraries (www.dlib.org), and the Web itself functions as a new medium for text creation. Thus, both as a repository for existing texts and as a global publishing house for new texts, the Web takes on characteristics of Borges' Library, though one hopes with that there is some more care behind each text than simply the exhaustive enumeration that Borges describes.

It is difficult to appreciate what the World Wide Web means without thinking of the sheer quantity of material it contains. Last year, Krishna Bharat and Andrei Broder published a study of the size of the Web and relative effectiveness of various Web search engines (decweb.ethz.ch/WWW7/1937/com1937.htm). They estimated that the Web as of March 1998 contained at least 275 million distinct, static pages. If we accept as a trend the annual doubling rate that many researchers have found, we could estimate that there are 550 million pages as of April 1999.

Taking Borges' 410-page book as a standard, and making a few simplifying assumptions about page size, we would get about 1.3 million volumes, more than 60 percent larger than the National Library of Argentina when Borges accepted his position as director there. Other estimates, which take into account the amount of information on each Web page, arrive at much larger figures. By most accounts, the Web is now comparable to the larger university and national libraries, though it may still be shy of the Library of Congress. However, that library (A HREF="http://lcweb.loc.gov>lcweb.loc.gov), along with many others, is rapidly entering its texts, photographs, movies, and sound recordings on the Web. It is thus clear that the Web will soon surpass any physical library in holdings, though critics may say it falls short in terms of comfortable chairs and musty smells.

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Literacy Web Page of the Month

The Human-Languages Page (www.june29.com/HLP/) is a comprehensive catalog of language-related Internet resources. There are directories for languages including Afrikaans, Akha, Akkadian, Albanian, Arabic, Aragonese, and Arberisht, to name just a few of the As. If you go to the directory for Bahasa Indonesian for example, you'll find links to "20 Important Survival Phrases in Bahasa -- with sound," "Linguistic odds-and-ends involving English and Indonesian -- [such as] bilingual crossword puzzles, Indonesian tongue twisters, language riddles, and more," and an "index of Indonesian newspapers and magazines online."

The Human-Languages Page is a reminder of the diversity of human experience, and the fact that, despite growing English dominance, by far most of the people in the world today communicate in languages other than, and often very different from, English. It also reminds us that the Web offers tremendous resources that can help any of us communicate with others. In particular, the language resources can be invaluable for anyone teaching someone whose original language is other than English.

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Glossary

Digital library: a concept with varying definitions; the Association of Research Libraries (www.arl.org) has a definition (www.libnet.sh.cn/diglib/definition.htm), which suggests synonymy with "electronic library" or "virtual library"; key elements are that the library uses new technologies to link diverse resources in a manner transparent to the user.
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Dynamic (Web) page: a Web page that changes in response to user input, the time of day, or other variable information, a consequence being that it cannot be easily indexed by a Web search engine.
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Metcalfe's Law: the value of a network for users is proportional to the square of the number of users.
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Mirror site: a Web site that maintains a copy of another site so that the access load is distributed more evenly across the Internet, or users in a distant part of the world can have faster connections.
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Moore's Law: the processing power on a microchip will double every 18 months.
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Static (Web) page: a Web page that does not change and can thus be indexed by a Web search engine.
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References

Bharat, K., & Broder, A. (1998, April). A technique for measuring the relative size and overlap of public Web search engines. In Proceedings of the 7th International World Wide Web Conference (pp. 379-388). Brisbane, Australia: Elsevier Science.
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Borges, J.L. (1962). Ficciones (A. Kerrigan, Ed.). New York: Grove.
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Metcalfe, B. (1995, October 2). From the ether Metcalfe's Law: A network becomes more valuable as it reaches more users. Infoworld, 17(40).
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Moore, G. (1998, September 30). An update on Moore's Law. Intel Developer Forum, keynote address, San Francisco, CA. Available at http://developer.intel.com/design/idf/archive/sept97/.
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Reading Online, www.readingonline.org
Posted April 1999
Published simultaneously in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy
© 1999-2000 International Reading Association, Inc. ISSN 1096-1232