Funes the Memorious, by Jorge Luis Borges, is a short story regarding a narrator’s account of his meetings with Funes Ireneo, a young boy with exceptional powers of memory encoding and recall. When the narrator first meets Funes, he is an eccentric boy, known for avoiding people and a fixation upon the time, but he has otherwise normal capabilities. The narrator again encounters Funes two years later and finds that a horse-riding accident has crippled his body with total paralysis, but has also gifted him with incredible powers of memory and recall. Funes is able to process and remember with perfect clarity every single detail he encounters in his daily life, no matter how small or mundane. He is able to master reading and reciting Latin after glancing at a few texts with a dictionary, and, in his own words, he has “more memories than all mankind has had since the world has been the world.”
The narrator goes on to further describe the workings of Funes’ mind and some of his feats: he created his own system of counting in which every number is assigned a unique and seemingly arbitrary name, he had learned multiple languages with minimal investments of time, and his immense powers of observation make it difficult to sleep, as his brain imagines every single detail in his narrow but sharply defined world.
The end of the story provides an abrupt contrast between the narrator’s perception of Funes and his ultimate fate. The narrator discloses that “He seemed to me as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, older than the prophecies and the pyramids. I thought that each of my words… would persist in his implacable memory; I was benumbed by the fear of multiplying useless gestures.” The very next sentence, unceremonious and direct, ends the story: “Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of congestion of the lungs.”
This juxtaposition of seeming immortality and death was particularly striking to me. In the story, Funes was a vast source of memory and information; in our world, information is vital to our survival and growth, and so we venerate the vessels that preserve it (writings, books, the internet, etc).
Maybe for our own peace of mind, we try to consider these vessels as enduring objects, valuable containers that will forever outlast their sources. As the internet is our most recent and globalized store of information, we are increasingly placing our trust in its durability and security – the recent push towards cloud computing emphasizes this fact.
However, the internet is not immutable. It changes all the time, and it seems almost like a living organism in its growth and decay. Data centers can close, drives can fail, information can be removed by copyright, and companies can go under – in fact, a lot of the crude tools that helped democratize the Internet (free website hosts like Geocities and Angelfire, early social-media efforts like Friendster) no longer exist. These early devices evolved into better and more elegant means of sharing information, but their stores of data are gone. Yet, I seldom hear discussion about what is lost on the internet, only about what is new and what is changing. Does this loss of data even matter to us, or is it just a natural function of the web’s evolution?
The mention of immortality also made me think about the role of social networking sites in modern society. We record our lives and daily happenings on these sites; what will happen to our data as we ourselves fade? Will we gain some form of limited “immortality” through our disclosures to social networks, or will that data someday disappear? Would we even want that data to remain? Personally, I’m a little discomforted at the idea of my mostly banal data outlasting me. Also, these networks skew heavily toward current content by design, and our past submissions rapidly become less visible and more cumbersome to unearth. In this sort of ecosystem, are our old experiences and memories as good as “lost”?
I guess I’ll close this by saying that I feel kind of dirty warping a WWII-era story rich in themes of cognition and the nature of human thought into a discussion about the internet. Apologies to you, Borges. Hopefully you’re not spinning in your grave, and…. I’ll totally make it up to you somehow? Probably not.