Wednesday, February 28

deadly light

we searched out an audio-short-story with which to pass the time on our way to and from Chicago several weeks ago. it was "The Call of Cthulu," by H. P. Lovecraft, streamed on Spotify. it begins with a few lines that I've since thought about over and over again:
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

I've been writing (in what is shaping up to be chapter 2 of a sure-to-be-marvelous dissertation project) a little bit about what Lovecraft's narrator here describes as a terrible horror--the distant someday when knowledge from every possible corner of the world will finally be pieced together into a comprehensive whole. such a vision is what plenty of people seem to be working toward now. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales boasts that the the Wikipedia project will make it happen. The Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle insists that such a thing is more than possible. in 1926 when "The Call of Cthulu" was written, I expect it didn't seem quite so possible.

despite all the fancy internet-connected technologies that make access to information so incredibly and amazingly simple compared to how past centuries must have done things, I do have rather many doubts about whether access to knowledge could really ever be comprehensive and universal. knowledge isn't quite the same as information, after all. and whether or not it'd be easy to gather up and store some version of all the knowledge any human has ever professed to know, what would that actually look like? and how would one actually interact with it? I have a feeling that human knowledge is so diffuse and multiple and embodied that it can't ever be summed, can't ever be so singular as to be stored in any static form. no matter how interdisciplinary things get, all the kinds of knowledges out there in the world will always be in some way dissociated.

but it is interesting to imagine it differently. to dream for a moment, with Wales and Kahle and Lovecraft, that all the edges might someday match up.

and if they ever did, and if we dared to let ourselves read through the everything, would we really go mad?

or run as fast as we could back into a blissful pool of ignorance?

or both? or neither?

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