c.f. Monkeys, Typewriters

I remember at some point, perhaps in college, I first realized that a digital representation of the Mona Lisa would still be recognizable even at the small resolution of my computer monitor at the time. Here is a Mona Lisa at 334px x 520px, for example. It would still recognizable even in black and white, even with only a couple hundred shades of grey.

So you can display the Mona Lisa at 334x520, with 200 colors. My first thought was that compared to a blank canvas and a set of oils, this was a very limited set of possibilities. In other words, you could write a computer program to simply assign random colors to pixels on the screen, and eventually it would hit upon the right combination through pure chance*.

My second thought was that, on the way to a Random Mona Lisa, this computer program would end up creating thousands of almost-but-not-quite perfect Mona Lisas--Mona Lisa, but with a frown. Mona Lisa, but with an eyepatch, or upside down, &c.. And, of course, it would inevitably recreate every other masterpiece that had ever been made, or ever would be made. Not only that, but you can squeeze a lot of text into a 150x150 image--certainly including at least a few of the lost lines of Sappho. Possibly including the true name of God.

This is, of course, an ancient and venerable realization, but one that has stuck with me. I learned to my delight just yesterday that it had been wonderfully articulated by my new Favorite Author of All Time, Jorge Luis Borges. Go read the Library of Babel--it's quite short, and so good! It's set in an indescribably huge library, full of 410 page books. Every possible combination of letters is to be found in one or another of these books, certainly including (at least a latin-alphabet transliteration of) the true name of God.

In A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw, Borges references previous authors who had played with this theory: Raymond Lulio (who posited "an apparatus of concentric, revolving discs... with Latin words"), John Stuart Mill (who made a similar observation about the limited number of combinations of musical notes) and Kurd Lasswitz (who first used the term "Universal Library", in 1901). Interestingly, Quine* also elaborated on this in a tiny essaylette.

Two more interesting ideas on this subject: Kevin Kelly, in Out of Control "concludes by saying that one can consider any text, including his, as being pulled from the library by the act of the author defining the search letter by letter until they reach a text close enough to the one they intended to write." Which is an interesting way of looking at it, shades of "learning is remembering", perhaps?

Finally, Favorite Author of All Time Borges, in that same Shaw essay, says that even if every work of literature were to be created via random chance, it wouldn't be the same as if it had been written. "One literature differs from another, prior or posterior, less because of the text than because of the way in which it is read: if I were granted the possibility of reading any present-day page--this one, for example--as it will be read in the year two thousand, I would know that the literature of the year two thousand will be like* ". He addresses this even further in his short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", which is also awesome and short and you should read it, too.

* After all, we're only talking about 173,680 pixels in total. Admittedly each one can be one of 200 colors, which allows for a very large number of possibilities: 2.7 x 10870. A daunting number, to be sure. The universe is only 4x1021 milliseconds old, after all, so unless you got very, very lucky you wouldn't live to see your randomly generated masterpiece. Neither would the sun, for that matter.

If you only used two colors, though, you'd exhaust the possibilities in under a year. Say, is that right? Man, someone should get started on that!

* Interestingly, Quine's friends called him "Van".

*Mind you, I’m not entirely sure I have a grasp of the literature of 2008 myself… Also, it’s always neat to see “The Year 2000” in older literature, and to know that I live in the future.

Wouldn't you, if your other choices were "Willard," "Orden," or "the Q-man! Q-meister! Da Q-inator!" Dude, he'd shoot you with lasers.
my lips are numb.