In Funes, the Memorious, Borges’ narrator describes his acquaintance with the amazing Ireneo Funes, of the spectacular memory. The narrator meets Funes in his youth, and jokingly refers to him “The Human Chronograph.” After a fall that paralyzes him, Funes’s memory takes over his entire state of being; although perhaps it would be just as accurate to say his entire being takes over his entire memory, and both are expanded. The story reaches a climax of sorts as the narrator reveals the full extent of Funes’ memory and consciousness, and in doing so, adds on to what the reader begins to understand is a collective consciousness ever enlarged, yet, always stuffed full.
Funes reads from Pliny’s Historius Naturalis, from what the narrator tells us is the twenty-fourth chapter of the seventh book, the subject of which is memory. The last words are “..ut nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditum.” Translated: ”So that, nothing that has been heard can be retold in the same words.”
Funes enumerates things in the world according to his reverse-digital system: Numbers are transformed into nouns: ”…in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar,” and in the transformation, the analysis made possible by mathematics is impossible, at least on the “front-end” of Funes’ memory.
“Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day. He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world. And again: My dreams are like your vigils. And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is like a garbage disposal.” These two statements illustrate the contradiction of Funes: He is an ever-vigilant recorder, and a repository of the minutest memories and perceptions, yet he collects without forgetting, and is thus an involuntary hoarder, a junkman of the mind. Funes’ memories, which accumulate upon each and every second of existence, consume his experience, and yet experience of his present immediately becomes memory, experiencing, producing, storing, experiencing the memory of the experience. Reading historical texts provides no balm for this condition, for which Funes does not desire a cure, because each new reading and re-reading is a new experience, each new utterance, all of which must be stored. Borges’ naming of this character with the prefix to the Spanish and Portuguese word for ill-fated– funesto –provides us with a judgement of such an existence.
Funes’ state is a kind of pure consciousness without breakpoints. His extreme memory and hyper-real perceptions recall the vast amounts of information, the scrupulous and minute perceptions and recountings of details of mundane life available on the vast arrays of information repositories, cloud instances, and the Internet as a whole. Relentless indexing of any information that has been exposed to digital nets, countless personal recollections, interior monologues and even homework assignments live in perpetuity in “the ether.” The rise of cloud computing gives information a greater persistence. There is much repetition of information and experience in tweets of re-tweets that have been re-tweeted.
Crowd-sourced repositories and crowd-sourced databases and Wikis re-tell existing vetted sources of information along with new informal sources of information, and this information is recycled again in school papers, marketing materials and personal conversations. Obviously, social networks and sharing sites expand the collective hoarded memory further. And while we name every capability and site only after an assiduously conducted name search, ultimately, the named properties and everyday objects of the digital age cloak numbers, in their constituent pieces, and directives.
I am stretching and distorting the elegance of Borges’ story to call up a point others have made about a somewhat banal digital existence today, when I say that digital memory management and data storage challenge societies as we push along our age’s timeline. And yet Borges writes: “The truth is that we all live by leaving behind; no doubt we all profoundly know that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do all things and know everything.” Is Funes’ memory is a garbage disposal that is only be emptied at his death at 19? How can digital societies address the continual, compulsive, automated indexing and information accounting, storing, recounting, saving again that is ongoing, along with the energy demands of these activities? Funes’ memory is not contained at his death; it lives on anew with each re-telling, each new reading of his story.
There is much more to this story, and it is redolent with dense associations and trails for philosophical thought, so I have done it a disservice describing it in this mundane context. Still, we move in a digital life in which I make these ungraceful analogies, I am trying to bring that life to that wheel.