Monday, July 12, 2010

The Word Machine of Lagado

Jonathan Swift published the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 and since then it has never been out of print. In Book III, Gulliver is abandoned by pirates on the continent of Balnibarbi. After a visit to the flying island of Laputa, he is taken to the Academy of Lagado, where “useless projects” are undertaken. There, he is given a demonstration of a word machine, which is nothing less than a giant mechanical computer used for making sentences and books. The satirical aspect of Swift’s idea is that the machine renders obsolete any study or expertise; an absolute idiot can write a masterpiece by virtue of cranking the machine. In the post-modern context the irony becomes a tenet: all texts are self-produced, they have an transcendental-bibliographical animus which acts like a virus. Human minds are the hosts of this viral propagation and mutation of texts. The writer “thinks” he is the creator but he is merely an empty vessel, a hapless idiot.

The word machine of Lagado has fascinated computer dreamers too. It is the original idea behind Hilbert’s Ur-algorithm – a logical contraption that, should humanity come to an end, can recreate by itself, automatically, the works and knowledge that was lost. The machine that can write any book. The mathematical formula that can prove every theorem. Thanks to Gödel we now know that such a machine, or algorithm, is impossible to construct. But the fascination with the word machine of Lagado is too strong to let go. Like a childhood dream it returns again and again to haunt the adult life with nostalgia. What if there is a way round Godel’s incompleteness theorem? What if there exists, somewhere in an infinite multiverse, a word machine like the one dreamt by Swift? What if our thoughts are written in the pages of its infinite books?

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