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Funes the Memorious

January 1, 2007

I’m re-reading some short stories from Jose Luis Borges right now, and these excerpts come from “Funes the Memorious”.

We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on a table; Funes, all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising.

And later…

He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort. Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same names as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front).

And still later…

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world.

And finally…

With no effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

I’ve been thinking about this story in relation to the nature of the Web, specifically its state-less nature. Because each request from a web browser is treated as a distinct and self-contained thing, with no inherent mechanism for the server to know that this visitor last requested this other page, it seems that there’s something of Funes in the web – no ability to abstract information.

Developers and engineers have come up with ways around this amnesiac web – cookies, querystring variables, frames, and now AJAX. All of these in some way serve to make the web more context-sensitive – which makes this essay a little less relevant. I’m not sure that there isn’t something still worthwhile in all of this, however. I’m just not sure what, exactly.

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