Web Wide World

Toward the end of his strange and haunting 1940 story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Jorge Luis Borges described the origins of a conspiracy to inscribe in the “real world” first a fictional country, named Uqbar, and then, more ambitiously, an entire fictional planet, called Tlön:

In March of 1941 a letter written by Gunnary Erfjord was discovered in a book by Hinton which had belonged to Herbert Ashe. The envelope bore a cancellation from Ouro Preto; the letter completely elucidated the mystery of Tlön. Its text corroborated the hypotheses of Martinez Estrada. One night in Lucerne or in London, in the early seventeenth century, the splendid history has its beginning. A secret and benevolent society (amongst whose members were Dalgarno and later George Berkeley) arose to invent a country. Its vague initial program included “hermetic studies,” philanthropy and the cabala. From this first period dates the curious book by Andrea. After a few years of secret conclaves and premature syntheses it was understood that one generation was not sufficient to give articulate form to a country. They resolved that each of the masters should elect a disciple who would continue his work. This hereditary arrangement prevailed; after an interval of two centuries the persecuted fraternity sprang up again in America. In 1824, in Memphis (Tennessee), one of its affiliates conferred with the ascetic millionaire Ezra Buckley. The latter, somewhat disdainfully, let him speak – and laughed at the plan’s modest scope. He told the agent that in America it was absurd to invent a country and proposed the invention of a planet. To this gigantic idea he added another, a product of his nihilism: that of keeping the enormous enterprise a secret. At that time the twenty volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica were circulating in the United States; Buckley suggested that a methodical encyclopedia of the imaginary planet be written. He was to leave them his mountains of gold, his navigable rivers, his pasture lands roamed by cattle and buffalo, his Negroes, his brothels and his dollars, on one condition: “The work will make no pact with the impostor Jesus Christ.” Buckley did not believe in God, but he wanted to demonstrate to this nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world. Buckley was poisoned in Baton Rouge in 1828; in 1914 the society delivered to its collaborators, some three hundred in number, the last volume of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön. The edition was a secret one; its forty volumes (the vastest undertaking ever carried out by man) would be the basis for another more detailed edition, written not in English but in one of the languages of Tlön. This revision of an illusory world, was called, provisionally, Orbis Tertius and one of its modest demiurgi was Herbert Ashe, whether as an agent of Gunnar Erfjord or as an affiliate, I do not know. His having received a copy of the Eleventh Volume would seem to favor the latter assumption. But what about the others?

In 1942 events became more intense. I recall one of the first of these with particular clarity and it seems that I perceived then something of its premonitory character. It happened in an apartment on Laprida Street, facing a high and light balcony which looked out toward the sunset. Princess Faucigny Lucinge had received her silverware from Pointiers. From the vast depths of a box embellished with foreign stamps, delicate immobile objects emerged: silver from Utrecht and Paris covered with hard heraldic fauna, and a samovar. Amongst them – with the perceptible and tenuous tremor of a sleeping bird – a compass vibrated mysteriously. The princess did not recognize it. Its blue needle longed for magnetic north; its metal case was concave in shape; the letters around its edge corresponded to one of the alphabets of Tlön. Such was the first intrusion of this fantastic world into the world of reality.

I am still troubled by the stroke of chance which made me a witness of the second intrusion as well. It happened some months later, at a country store owned by a Brazilian in Cuchilla Negra. Amorim and I were returning from Sant’ Anna. The River Tacuarembo had flooded and we were obliged to sample (and endure) the proprietor’s rudimentary hospitality. He provided us with some creaking cots in a large room cluttered with barrels and hides. We went to bed, but were kept from sleeping until dawn by the drunken ravings of an unseen neighbor, who intermingled inextricable insults with snatches of milongas – or rather with snatches of the same milonga. As might be supposed, we attributed this insistent uproar to the store owner’s fiery cane liquor. By daybreak, the man was dead in the hallway. The roughness of his voice had deceived us: he was only a youth. In his delirium a few coins had fallen from his belt, along with a cone of bright metal, the size of a die. In vain a boy tried to pick up this cone. A man was scarcely able to raise it from the ground. I held it in my hand for a few minutes; I remember that its weight was intolerable and that after it was removed, the feeling of oppressiveness remained. I also remember the exact circle it pressed into my palm. The sensation of a very small and at the same time extremely heavy object produced a disagreeable impression of repugnance and fear. One of the local men suggested we throw it into the swollen river; Amorim acquired it for a few pesos. No one knew anything about the dead man, except that “he came from the border.” These small, very heavy cones (made from a metal which is not of this world) are images of the divinity in certain regions of Tlön.

Here I bring the personal part of my narrative to a close. The rest is in the memory (if not in the hopes or fears) of all my readers. Let it suffice for me to recall or mention the following facts, with a mere brevity of words which the reflective recollection of all will enrich or amplify. Around 1944, a person doing research for the newspaper The American (of Nashville, Tennessee) brought to light in a Memphis library the forty volumes of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön. Even today there is a controversy over whether this discovery was accidental or whether it was permitted by the directors of the still nebulous Orbis Tertius. The latter is most likely. Some of the incredible aspects of the Eleventh Volume (for example, the multiplication of the hronir) have been eliminated or attenuated in the Memphis copies; it is reasonable to imagine that these omissions follow the plan of exhibiting a world which is not too incompatible with the real world. The dissemination of objects from Tlön over different countries would complement this plan… The fact is that the international press infinitely proclaimed the “find.” Manuals, anthologies, summaries, literal versions, authorized re-editions and pirated editions of the Greatest Work of Man flooded and still flood the earth. Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but in accordance with divine laws – I translate: inhuman laws – which we never quite grasp. Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

We are now coming to understand that the failure of the once much-hyped virtual world Second Life was inevitable. It was never that the Web would provide an alternative reality. It was that the Web, a labyrinth devised by men, would become reality. Reality, as Borges saw, longs to yield, to give way to a reduced but ordered simulation of itself. In the constraints imposed by software-mediated social and intellectual processes we find liberation, or at least relief. A meticulously manufactured Tlön can’t but displace an inhumanly arranged Earth.

The end of Borges’ story:

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels. … A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.

12 thoughts on “Web Wide World

  1. Mycroft

    You’re an author yourself, sir. Borges’ 5600-word story is about 20% reproduced here (1300+ words. including several consecutive pages). I expect you might take issue with someone excerpting 20% of “The Big Switch” without permission.

    Perhaps, charitably, you left out the “Reproduced with Permission” tag?

    Or do you believe your reader base would consider this “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment” or “quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations” under Fair Use?

  2. Roger Moore

    Dear Nick, Thank you for your interesting read.

    Dear Mycroft, this clearly falls under Fair Use. But this is not what should be discussed in the comments section.

    We should discuss the idea presented in the article.

    Nick, your thesis promotes the idea that SecondLife will have the inevitable fate of disappearing.

    How would you comment that at this time, it has gathered such strong momentum that the site “secondlife.com” ranks in the top 3500 websites in the world ? I also see trends of support, and not resistance in my analysis of traffic rankings.

    ( via here: http://webstatshq.com/www.secondlife.com )

    This would mean that more and more people find comfort in the escape from an “inhumanly arranged Earth.”

  3. Nick Carr

    Fair question, Mycroft, which I gave consideration to before posting. I don’t know whether copyright on the piece (published in 1940) has expired. It may have in which case I’m in the clear. If not, I am hoping this would qualify as fair use, as my intent is not just to quote part of Borges’s story but to encourage readers to see its relevance to our own time. (I’m not sure that I find your 20% comparison – book to story – altogether relevant.) To me, that’s the essence of the fair use protection. If it’s in a fair use gray area, then I harbor a hope Borges’s ghost would approve of my use of the excerpt, as it may well bring a new reader or two to his work (and I do recommend people click the included link and purchase the collection and read the entire story, which is great). If Borges’s ghost (or those more earthly presences who look out for the interests of Borges’s ghost) do not approve, then I would certainly remove or shorten the excerpt immediately in accord with their wishes. (I tried to shorten it at one point, but it lost the imaginative richness of the original.) By the way, and for what it’s worth, which isn’t much, the entire story is widely available online (though I will continue to refrain from linking to those copies).



  4. Nick Carr


    I don’t necessarily think that Second Life will disappear. It certainly has its audience. But I don’t think it has lived (or will ever live) up to the hype of a few years back, when it was widely suggested that the site would become a mainstream hangout, with everyone maintaining an avatarial self separate from his or her bodily self. It remains a niche entertainment. Whether it can survive economically as a niche entertainment, I do not know.


  5. Tom Lord

    I think this piece is really weak. The Borges content I think I sorta get: he’s reflecting on the half-justified conceit of writers that they can conjure reality with words; reflecting on the relations between power and discourse; and conceding a bit to physical reality with the deus ex machina of the impossibly heavy physical artifact. Clear enough.

    This bit, from Nick, doesn’t sit right with me: “It was that the Web, a labyrinth devised by men, would become reality.”

    I don’t get what the referent of “the Web” is supposed to be there or what it would mean for “the Web” to “become reality”.

    Nick’s line of thinking here needs to cook longer, imo.

  6. Tom Lord

    A follow-up to my previous comment….

    Borges’ construction involves a multi-generational cabal taking semi-deliberate action to create a new reality — forging and surreptitiously placing encyclopedias for discovery, as one example.

    Where would Nick locate the analog of that cabal vis a vis “the web” and why? (I could offer suggestions, but…. ;-)

  7. BuggyFunBunny

    I, for one, would at least be content if The Wife would lose interest. Every waking moment in The House she is hooked up. Are there other SL widow(er)s out there??? Perhaps we should create a business as SL Interventionists, and advert on late night cable shows. Ah, capitalism.

    I never saw the point. But my brother _loved_ to read Tolkien and the like to the ignorance of all else, as did/do many others. Is there a material difference? Not sure.

  8. Stefano Trucco

    Some time ago the Nytimes had an article about Borges as The Man Who Discovered the Internet:


    I remembered it as totally misguided, if not obtuse: The Enciclopedia was a plot to erase the real world in favour of a fiction; the total memory of Funes was a curse, a weight which crushed the possibility of action; the Libray of Babel promises total knowledge but delivers only chaos and frustration…

    Well, yes, you might say that Borges was prophetic but not in a good sense, more like a prophet of doom…

  9. Linuxguru1968

    Stefano Trucco:

    Everyone seems to have their own exegesis at what fantasy writers are talking about – that’s how they make their money. (It keeps Nostradamus on the best seller list 400 years after he died – Nick, don’t get any ideas ….!)If Borges invented the Internet then Shakespeare invented cloud computing in The Tempest!

  10. Enrique Montesa

    I liked the post from Nick. I found it inspiring and in fact has moved me to go to the shelf and get the book again to reread Borges for his story again, always keeping in mind the idea of parallel drawn between the web, secondlife and the intriguing story written by the Argentine fabulist.

    I like tasty writings and this has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Great Switch. Thanks

  11. Charles Gravier

    Second Life is a sandbox, a proof of concept, a probe, far more efficient than “Le deuxième monde” http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Deuxi%C3%A8me_Monde and far less than the next one (Live Place ? http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/08/11/liveplace-to-launch-photo-realistic-virtual-world-rendered-in-the-cloud/ ).

    It was carrying its own money system and it helped its growth at the beginning, and crippled it then. It’s more or less the kind of primitive soup where “life” can appear upon specific conditions.

    It’s true that most of Second World was full of cheap copy of “First World” with little interest but due to high pressure, some crystals were created in this limited space, as a tribute to Dostoievski.

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