Several commentors on my recent article about Salman Rushdie’s imaginative foretelling of the Web have suggested that Rushdie’s vision — of a library made up of the Stream of all Stories ever told — was influenced by Jorge Luis Borges’ story The Library of Babel — which describes the universe as a library containing all books. There certainly is a resemblance, in that both Rushdie and Borges imagine a library of all knowledge. But the nature of the libraries pictured by the two writers is quite different. Borges’ library is very much a print library, made up of physical books. Much of the description of the library (as in the quote below) involves the intricate geometry of the shelves and the exact description of the books in the library.

In Borges’ library, as in the traditional print library, the books sit on the shelf, with no suggestion of their being connected to each other, no sense of movement. Rushdie, on the other hand, imagines a library in which the books flow in a stream — twisting and stretching and weaving in and out of each other. As I’ve discussed in the previous article, Rushdie’s vision resonates with recent discussions of the growing sense of the Web’s Stream-like, flowing nature and also with the coming revolution in libraries, as books are digitized, remaking them into Rushdie’s “fluid form.” The excerpts below give a sense of the different visions of the Library of Rushdie and Borges.

From Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of stories:

[The Ocean of the Stream of Stories is] “made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity.” Rushdie imagines this Ocean as “the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.” [See previous article for complete passage and for picture credit.]

From Borges’ The Library of Babel:

“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. … There are five shelves for each of the hexagon’s walls; each shelf contains thirty-five books of uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in color.” [The picture accompanies the Web version of story, and is not credited; it appears on numerous other sites.]

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Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

In a prophetic passage written in 1990, Salman Rushdie paints a vivid word picture of the Ocean of the Streams of Story that I’ve suggested is an uncanny envisioning of the yet-to-be-created Web. Right now, the evolution of the Web seems to be speeding up, and two recent commentaries, one on the Twitter/Facebook world, and one on Google Book Search, suggest that the Web may be fast growing into the sort of place imagined in Rushdie’s Stream metaphor. I’ve described and excerpted Rushdie’s passage and the two commentaries in other articles, so in this article, I’ll bring the three “streams” together, by excerpting a few lines from each.

Salman Rushdie, describing the Ocean of the Stream of Stories:

It was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity … it was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

Nova Spivack suggests that the new metaphor for the Web will be the Stream:

Something new is emerging … I call it the Stream … The Web has always been a stream of streams. … with the advent of blogs, feeds, and microblogs, the streamlike nature of the Web is becoming more readily visible.

Peter Brantley, writing on Google Book Search, says:

We stride into a world where books are narratives in long winding rivers; drops of thought misting from the sundering thrust of great waterfalls; and seas from which all rivers and rain coalesce, and which carry our sails to continents not yet imagined.

What an interesting story the Web itself is! — The Stream imagined by Rushdie 19 years ago looks like it might finally be flowing together with Spivack’s Stream and Brantley’s long winding river.

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Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

Nova Spivack, in his article Is The Stream What Comes After the Web? suggests that the new metaphor for the Web will be the Stream. He says that especially with advent of Twitter and microblogging, the streamlike nature of the Web has become more apparent:

Just as the Web once emerged on top of the Internet, now something new is emerging on top of the Web: I call this the Stream. … The Stream is what the Web is thinking and doing, right now. It’s our collective stream of consciousness. … Perhaps the best example of the Stream is the rise of Twitter and other microblogging systems including the new Facebook. These services are visibly streamlike — they are literally streams of thinking and conversation.

The Web has always been a stream. In fact it has been a stream of streams. … with the advent of blogs, feeds, and microblogs, the streamlike nature of the Web is becoming more readily visible.

The Web is changing faster than ever, and as this happens, it’s becoming more fluid. Sites no longer change in weeks or days, but hours, minutes or even seconds. if we are offline even for a few minutes we may risk falling behind, or even missing something absolutely critical. The transition from a slow Web to a fast-moving Stream is happening quickly. And as this happens we are shifting our attention from the past to the present, and our “now” is getting shorter.

The era of the Web was mostly about the past — pages that were published months, weeks, days or at least hours before we looked for them. … But in the era of the Stream, everything is shifting to the present — we can see new posts as they appear and conversations emerge around them, live, while we watch. … The unit of change is getting more granular. … Our attention is mainly focused on right now: the last few minutes or hours. Anything that was posted before this period of time is “out of sight, out of mind.”

The Web has always been a stream — it has been happening in real-time since it started, but it was slower … Things have also changed qualitatively in recent months. The streamlike aspects of the Web have really moved into the foreground of our mainstream cultural conversation. … And suddenly we’re all finding ourselves glued to various activity streams, microblogging manically … to catch fleeting references to things … as they rapidly flow by and out of view. The Stream has arrived.

Spivack’s vision of the future Web as a Stream resonates with other commentaries, as I’ve discussed in related articles:

Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

When I first read the passage below in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories three years ago, it struck me as a remarkable word picture of my experience of the Web. So of course I went right to Google to see if anyone else had made this connection — My searching, surprisingly, has found little since then, so I’ve thought about writing it up, but it didn’t get done. In the last week, I’ve gotten nudges (discussed below) that tell me this is the time. Here’s Rushdie:

Haroun looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

Pow! Isn’t this a strikingly clear metaphorical description of the Web Stream that we all swim in every day? My first idea of a title for this article was “Did Salman Rushdie predict the Web?” I decided that was a bit too presumptuous  — But not by much — The passage does indeed verge on prediction. It was written in 1990 — Interestingly, the same year that Tim Berners-Lee “invented” the World Wide Web. It’s tempting to imagine the left-brained engineer (Berners-Lee) and the right-brained artist-seer (Rushdie) both envisioning the future Web in their own ways — Berners-Lee in outlining his Web ideas at CERN, and Rushdie in writing Haroun.

How has this passage and its Webishness gone unnoticed for so many years? Haroun is a story on many levels — Rushdie wrote it for his young son, and it’s often put in the category of “childrens’ literature.” I suspect this is the main reason it hasn’t been read often enough by grown-up Web users for someone to have seen Rushdie’s Stream of the Web metaphor. (Note that Haroun is on a prominent list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time)

How about the library connections in the passage? As a librarian, it certainly occurs to me that it could be viewed as being especially about libraries, maybe even seen as a threat to the traditional print library (“storeroom of yarns”). But I think, to the contrary, that Rushdie’s passage does the library world a great service, ushering us into the “liquid tapestry” of the digital Ocean, in which the Stream of “the library” will be able to “weave in and out” with the “thousand thousand and one different currents” outside of the traditional library world. Recent discussions of Google Book Search and orphan books show that the world is eagerly anticipating the stories in libraries being put into “fluid form.” And, in fact, library leader Peter Brantley, in commentary on GBS written in January 2009, talking about the coming age of digital books, uses language reminiscent of Rushdie: “We stride into a world where books are narratives in long winding rivers … and seas from which all rivers and rain coalesce.”

Speaking of the library world — As mentioned, there has been a notable lack of anyone else seeing a connection between the Rushdie passage and the Web. But the closest I’ve seen is in a paper co-authored by an engineer (JH Lienhard) and two librarians (JE Myers, TC Wilson), that was written in 1992, Surfing the Sea of Stories: Riding the Information Revolution (Mechanical Engineering 1992 Oct; 114(10): 60-65). This does an excellent job of connecting the Rushdie passage to the coming digital revolution, as it was seen in 1992, and contains the perceptively-done graphic in this article (above). But of course the full-blown Web was not born until 1995, so this view is limited. (The paper is summarized in the transcript of a radio program about it.)

Nudges for writing about this in the last week: First, In his blog article, Is The Stream What Comes After the Web?, Nova Spivack suggests that the metaphor of The Stream may soon replace The Web. The article doesn’t mention Rushdie, but it has elicited much discussion on Twitter, and someone would surely make the connection soon. Spivack does mention Twitter, saying that it and other microblogging systems are “the best example of the Stream,” which is related to the other nudge I’ve gotten, a blog article by Joff Redfern, Twitter is becoming the Ocean of the Stream of Stories. This is short , consisting mainly of the Rushdie quote above, but with its title it would likely be connected to Spivack’s Stream and Rushdie’s Streams of Stories sooner or later. Taken together, I think the articles by Spivack and Redfern indicate that Twitter is bringing to peoples’ minds the “stream-like” nature of the Web — The way big streams (e.g. swine flu 2 weeks ago) weave in and out with the day-to-day small streams of peoples’ lives on the Twitter ocean, with the stories constantly rewriting themselves.

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Excerpts from Peter Brantley’s eloquent words on the Google Book settlement, in A fire on the plain (bold added).

With recent back and forth over the proposed Google Book Search settlement (e.g., Robert Darnton’s essay in The New York Review of Books; Tim O’Reilly’s response; and James Grimmelman’s litany of proposed corrections predating both at The Labortorium), I’ve been cast again into thinking about aspects of the agreement.

It is difficult to credit that frustrating access is ever able to delay or stem fundamental social trends – for example, the increasing importance of visual and interactive media. … Or the possibility that searching and reading networked books for anyone under the age of 40 might be an inherently social activity that generally increases enthusiasm for all forms of reading.

Let us consider a far more basic, more fundamental concern: the proposed Google Book Search settlement is embedded in a set of conceptions about books, reading, and information access which is as profoundly obsolescent as the printed Encyclopedia.

This is a world where young children carry around in the palm of their hands gaming consoles that have more networked computing capacity than a moderately powerful Sun workstation of five years back. Where increasingly I think about printed books with as much fondness as large cinder blocks, …  And yet authors and publishers worry that a fair level of access to digitized books … might reduce their profits. Truly, this should not be their worry. Their eyes remain cast on a horizon which has fallen from the earth, while a new sun is rising.

The settlement describes a world of time past, not a world of possibilities. Can we not imagine a redrafting of the settlement’s terms with libraries? … let us envision an alternative world where children routinely carry Alexandria in their hands. Where they experience works of literature as games, pushing at the borders of their knowledge and experience by engaging the library with others as a festschrift.

The people served by our libraries – let them show us how to re-make literature in a world where it fits in the circle of many hands, caressed by fingers, shared between minds. Libraries are laboratories for the future of reading, and with this, we have the key to it. … We stride into a world where books are narratives in long winding rivers; drops of thought misting from the sundering thrust of great waterfalls; and seas from which all rivers and rain coalesce, and which carry our sails to continents not yet imagined.

[concluding paragraph] Digital books are sparkles of magic untapped. The settlement proposes a bold path from darkness. But it is a trail that circles back to an old forest, abandoned. Our people have left, ventured onto a flat savannah, strewn with rocks, thorny shrubs, windblown trees, beasts. We can see it all now. And we are starting fires, with wood from fallen trees. Burning down the forest.

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Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey