tlön, uqbar, orbis internetius

tlön, uqbar, orbis tertius is one of borges’ most celebrated short stories, and for good reason: the sheer density of novel and thought-provoking concepts borges manages to lay out in just a dozen pages is extraordinary. for deep memetics researchers, of particular interest is the story’s final section, the so-called “postscript”. in it, the narrator relates how an ambitious secret society of intellectuals called “orbis tertius” puts together a sprawling encyclopedia of a fictional world named “tlön”, with the intent of creating a new world. then, they try to meme it into existence, basically, through an ARG/viral marketing campaign. tlönian artifacts suddenly appear (or are planted) throughout the world, a journalist discovers (or is fed) the encyclopedia and publishes it, and a world still reeling from the chaos of war becomes enraptured with the order of tlön. children in schools are taught the language and history of tlön as though it is their own, entire fields of study are reformed in line with tlönic thought, and the narrator laments as the world is reshaped in the image of tlön.

a thought: what if the internet is our encyclopedia of tlön? this is the question i finally arrived at recently while considering twitter. twitter is fascinating because it seems to punch far above its weight in terms of political and cultural influence, despite the fact that it has a fraction of the userbase of other sites like facebook, instagram, tiktok, youtube etc. how is this possible? there is a pretty simple explanation: almost everybody who works in media is a prolific twitter user, especially journalists. from what i have read, there is a large portion of twitter that has basically become a social club for journalists and wannabe journalists, so if you want to make it in the industry it is practically a requirement to use it for networking.

but inevitably, hanging out on twitter all day means that what journalists see on twitter will have an influence on what they report on. this may not be entirely a bad thing, because it just so happens that they share the platform with many “newsworthy” individuals: politicians, celebrities, “intellectuals”, the kinds of people who might have scoops or be scoops themselves. there’s a sinister side as well, however, because of course there’s hordes of political extremists and miscellaneous trolls/schizos sharing the site too. this is where journalists can easily stumble into a classic trap, believing that the map (twitter) is the territory (america, the world, the people, the “real world”, etc.). so in their peripheral vision (the trending tab, perhaps) they see all these schizos and extremists getting worked up over some insane issue on twitter and assume “this must be something important that people are really concerned about”. they forget that objectively, twitter users are a small minority outside twitter, and there’s probably some sort of self-selection bias at work too that makes them more likely to be deranged than your average person.

then, the journalists decide that said insane issue is worth writing an article about, since it must be important because it’s trending on twitter. the article about the insane issue gets published in the mainstream media, where normies see it and spread it around, sharing it on facebook and the like. it must be a real issue and a Big Deal, they reason, because the news is supposed to publish stuff that's a Big Deal. thus they come to believe it is a Big Deal and now everyone else is seeing it and talking about it and arguing about it and now politicians are making speeches about it because it’s clearly something that people care about. in that manner it really does become a Big Deal.

you may have heard of all the recent research showing that political views are becoming more extreme, more polarized. originally, extreme political views were a defining feature of the online world, of twitter, of tlön. one cannot help but wonder, is our world becoming tlön?

when you gaze into the abyss...

let us consider another example: the much-maligned youtube "algorithm". like nearly every "machine learning" model, it can be thought of as a black box (or perhaps an abyss). it takes as input all of your viewing data and other metrics (that many are kind enough to provide), performs inscrutable operations on vast quantities of numbers in matrices (the "model), and then spits out recommendations. sure, theoretically you can peek in and see all those numbers in their neat matrix rows and columns, but what each one signifies (if anything) is completely incomprehensible, so it might as well be a black box. it is not at all like looking at the source code for a program.

we call it the model, though, because presumably that is what it is doing: trying to model you, with all those numbers. you can think of that model as your tlönic doppelganger. another "map/territory" distinction must be made here: you're the territory and the model is the map. thus, it is neccessarily going to be imperfect, there will be gaps, were you to actually meet your tlönic doppelganger they would be you but somehow off, uncanny.

the issue is, when the "algorithm" recommends you videos, it's actually recommending videos not for you, but for your tlönic doppelganger. as you watch these videos meant for your tlönic doppelganger, something happens - you find yourself inadvertantly changing, becoming your tlönic doppelganger - ...the abyss gazes back.

of course the algorithm will pick up on these changes, change its model of your in turn, and now give you recommendations based off your new tlönic doppelganger, and the hyperreal feedback loop continues - what results after many iterations is something that's been observed and decried by many as "the youtube algorithm is radicalizing people!". a similar effect to what occurs with twitter, just individualized and fully automated. if the world is becoming tlön, then there must also be tlönic people to dwell in it.

the map/territory relation reconsidered

On Exactitude in Science

...In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and now without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

if you haven’t guessed, the exceptionally-short short story above was also written by borges, built upon the absurd premise “what if the map is the territory?”. but even so, what never is never in question is the nature of the relationship between map and territory: it is the territory which precedes and survives the map. the map remains reliant on the territory, it must represent the territory, without the territory there is no map. the map is subservient.

but as we have seen, perhaps these notions are now outdated in the age of the internet. in fact, they were outdated as soon as we entered postmodernity. jean baudrillard argues as much at the start of the very first essay of simulacra and simulation, while considering the borges fable above. now, baudrillard writes, it is the map which appears first, a reference with no original, the authentic fake, a pure simulacrum. it is the map that begets the territory and survives it, rather than the other way around. “...if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. it is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.” out in the far reaches of the internet, of tlön, we find the disappearing remnants of the real world.

then, baudrillard goes even further, and asserts that even inverted, the borges fable is unusable. the barriers have collapsed, the "sovereign difference" is no more, the simulated and the real have merged into the hyperreal...

to be continued...