Cheaper than printing it out: buy the paperback book.

Out of Control

In the end, breeding a useful thing becomes almost as miraculous as creating one. Richard Dawkins echoes this when he asserts that "effective searching procedures become, when the search-space is sufficiently large, indistinguishable from true creativity." In the library of all possible books, finding a particular book is equivalent to writing it.

This sentiment was recognized centuries ago, long before the advent of computers. As Denis Diderot wrote in 1755:

The number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.

William Poundstone, author of The Recursive Universe, contrived an analogy to illustrate why searching huge Borgian libraries of knowledge is as difficult as searching the huge Borgian library of nature itself. Imagine, Poundstone said, that there is a library with all possible videos. Like all Borgian spaces, most of the items in this library are full of noise and random grayness. A typical tape would be two hours of snow. The main problem with searching for a viewable video is that no title, call name, or symbol of any sort could represent a random tape in any less space or time than the tape itself. Most of the items in a Borgian library are incompressible into anything shorter than the work itself. (This irreducibility is the current definition of randomness.) To search the tapes, they must be watched, and therefore the information, time, and energy needed to sort through all the tapes would exceed the information, time, and energy needed to create the tape you wanted, no matter what the tape was.

Evolution is a slow-witted way to outsmart this conundrum, but what we call intelligence is nothing more (and nothing less) than a tunnel through it. If I had been especially astute in my search in the Library for my book Out of Control, after several hours I might have discerned a cardinal direction to my wanderings through the library stacks. I might have noticed that in general, "sense" lay to the left of the last book I held. I could have anticipated many generations of slow evolution by running ahead miles to the left. I might have learned the architecture of the library and predicted where sense would hide, outrunning both random guessing and creeping evolution. I could have found Out of Control by a combination of evolution and by learning the inherent order of the Library.

Some students of the human mind make a strong argument that thinking is a type of evolution of ideas within the brain. According to this argument, all created things are evolved. As I write these words, I have to agree. I began this book not with a sentence formed in my mind but with an arbitrarily chosen phrase, "I am." Then in unconsciously rapid succession I evaluated a headful of possible next words. I picked one that seemed esthetically fit, "sealed." After "I am sealed," I went on to the next word, choosing from among 100,000s of possible ones. Each selected word bred the choices for the next until I had evolved almost a sentence of words. Toward the end of the sentence my choices were constrained somewhat by the words I had already chosen at the beginning, so learning helped the breeding go more quickly.

But the first word of the next sentence could have been any word. The end of my book, 150,000 choices away, looked as distant and improbable as the end of the galaxy. A book is improbable. Out of all the books written or to be written in the world, only this book, for instance, would have found the preceding two sentences in a row.

Now that I'm in the middle of the book, I'm still evolving the text. What will the next words be that I write in this chapter? In a real sense I don't know. There are probably billions of possibilities of what they might be, even taking into account the restriction that they must logically follow from the last sentence. Did you guess this sentence as the next one? I didn't either. But that's the sentence I found at the end of the sentence.

I wrote this book by finding it. I found it in the Library of Borges by evolving it at my desk. Word by word, I traveled through the Library of Jorge Luis Borges. By some kind of weird combination of learning and evolution that our heads do, I found my book. It was on the middle shelf, almost at eye level, in the seventh hexagon of region 52427. Who knows if it is my book or merely one that is almost my book (differing by a paragraph here or there, or maybe even by the omission of a few critical facts)?

The great satisfaction of the long search for me -- no matter how the book fares -- was that only I could find it.