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Funes the Memorious

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.

 

 

836 comments to Funes the Memorious

  • Nancy

    There’s a difference between memory and memories. I think Borges would be happy with what you say–kind of the point. Funes had a fine memory, but not much of a life.

    The data will outlive you…does that matter? Are you OK with taking what mattered to you with you?

  • kmb445

    Definitely going to read this!

    You raise some really interesting points about the longevity of data and what that means. I find myself with tons of hard drives trying to preserve my work in its purest most high quality form. Part of me believes it’s important to have as many copies as is “safe” to not lose your work, but the other part of me thinks that we can’t save everything and that it’s important to let things go! Saving everything seems unnatural. The way our natural environment works aka an “organic” response is for things to grow and die cyclically so we are never producing more than we can accomodate.

    I wonder if data and information systems will ultimately follow a more organic process or obtain an abundance of overwhelming numbers and statistics.

  • Andres

    I remember analyzing this story in my literature class in high school. One of the things that came to discussion was how his ‘superpower’ actually was a problem also. He didn’t have the choice to avoid counting or forgetting. A particular example was with a tree: instead of being able to appreciate the landscape, nature, etc., he could not avoid start counting the number of leaves in the tree, and just focusing in that. The moral would be that information without the ability to prioritize and discard it is not something desirable.

    About internet and the real world, I think that maybe today the problem is more like Funes. The trouble is not finding information, there is a problem in actually having too much information, into a point when it cannot be considered information anymore, without further filtering. We have internet with all the data, but what meaning can we find in all that data? And how can we avoid using garbage data?

  • Ben Kauffman

    “The moral would be that information without the ability to prioritize and discard it is not something desirable.”

    This is a great point. So much of our energy today goes towards making light of the data we have and turning it into information. We cannot learn from data, only information.

    On a more abstract level, I think of memory not as catalogue of all of the things we have encountered in our lives. A word like “recall” has the feeling of simple regurgitation. Memory is the overtaking of an objective fact or event by other factors: our emotions, our contextualization, our sense of time. This process turns data into information–into something to learn from, to gain inspiration from, to share with others.

  • ytf208

    Memory is a really interesting stuff. There are a lot of Japanese science fiction talk about memory. Something like AI stuff, when people die their children inherit their memory. Sometimes they have a war just because of the memory. I don’t know how people think about the memory, but once if you die, all the memory become a property of other’s. That’s a really weird thing. In the past, we encourage people to experience and do something crazy because that’s the unique memory belong to yourself. How things will go if you can buy everything or get everything really personal?

  • Andrew Cerrito

    Would love to hear more about Japanese science fiction! Do you know any titles off the top of your head?

  • Andrew Cerrito

    Responding 2 months later!

    I’m more than okay with taking what mattered to me with me, but it seems disturbing to leave all the chaff behind for anyone to remember me by. I guess that, given the limited visibility of older data on facebook and other sites, it will eventually just fade by itself. I certainly hope that I’m not still generating new banalities on facebook (or whatever will be the next facebook) by the time I reach old age.

    This is kind of a morbid to think about right after finishing finals!!

  • Jess

    While I read Andres’s comment, one thing comes out in my mind. Actually, Funes didn’t gain a power- he just lost one, which is for discriminate between useful information and useless one. As many of you commented before me, it can be a reflection of us who live in 21 century. Internet, the most amazing implement in the history, looks like a blessing for human being in terms of continuity of data. But meanwhile, we are deprived of an ability to discriminate data because of its incredible size and unconsciously exposed an ocean of garbage information online. As Funes can’t see the beauty of a landscape because of useless details of data, we also keep ourselves away from things we should know about.

    And Andrew’s point about a possible loss of all data in the web ecosystem is also interesting. But I would like to say that internet is just a cluster and index of information which each person has. so it is a natural result to lose it someday as well as a paper book is worn out.

  • hm1109

    Meomories are more relate to one’s life and events that came from one’s experience. By the internet, from the single piece of data to the live experience bradcasting of other’s event, it became possible to restore it. This creates virtuality which is the mixed concept with the memories and time-line. Of course the data can be removed by the evolution of the internet. But, I think by the capacity of the internet to communicatewith others and replicating the process give us a chance to use and extend the virtuality of life to overcome the limit of physicality.
    In this era, in my opinion, not like the boy Fune, who lost the abilty that Jess mentioned, ‘discriminate between useful information and useless one”, internet started to gain the power of it and we have to develope it. The process of picking valuable data and turn it into information was the developement of the internet of last two decades. And now it is the era to communicate with others and experience the information livley by the internet. What should be the next generation? I think it is related to the virtuality that connects the real nature and the memories with open timeline.