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Bradbury, Borges, and the Future of Media
Who knew that Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine fiction writer and maestro of high literary culture, was a Martian Chronicles fan? Now that you know, doesn’t it seem fitting? In Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions I came across the following tribute to Ray Bradbury, who died this past week at 91:
What has this man from Illinois created—I ask myself, closing the pages of his book—that his episodes of the conquest of another planet fill me with such terror and solitude?
How can these fantasies move me, and in such an intimate manner? All literature (I would dare to answer) is symbolic; there are a few fundamental experiences, and it is unimportant whether a writer, in transmitting them, makes use of the “fantastic” or the “real,” Macbeth or Raskolnikov, the invasion of Belgium in August 1914 or an invasion of Mars. What does it matter if this is a novel, or novelty, of science fiction? In this outwardly fantastic book, Bradbury has set out the long empty Sundays, the American tedium, and his own solitude, as Sinclair Lewis did in Main Street. [“Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles,” Eliot Weinberger trans.]
I don’t think Borges ever commented on Fahrenheit 451, but I wish he had: it makes for fascinating reading beside Borges’s fictions. Bradbury’s most famous book imagines a dystopia in which books are systematically burned. Late in life, the author pegged this nightmare to a specific interpretation: it wasn't about censorship, he said, but the replacement of books by television. He imagined a world in which books were first stripped down to their bare “factoids,” then junked altogether in favor of “a proliferation of screens.” He feared the destruction of precious texts, precious culture.
In his own stories, Borges gave us the nightmare of texts proliferating out of control, such that the best are not destroyed but lost in the shuffle. He captured this idea through a variety of related images: neverending books (“The Book of Sand”), infinite libraries (“The Library of Babel”), labyrinths (just about every Borges story). A librarian who suffered from deteriorating eyesight, he dramatized both his private anxieties and a mounting twentieth-century sense of information overload. In the futuristic universe of "The Library of Babel," the book destroyers have already come and gone—and haven't made a dent:
Their name is execrated, but those who deplore the "treasures" destroyed by this frenzy neglect two notable facts. One: the Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is infinitesimal. The other: every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma. Counter to general opinion, I venture to suppose that the consequences of the Purifiers' depredations have been exaggerated by the horror these fanatics produced. [Andrew Hurley trans.]
Both authors' prophecies were spot on. The Web has overtaken TV as our dominant mass medium, but while it’s partly text-based, it’s much better at chopping up, scattering, and recombining texts than preserving their integrity. It hasn’t ended the dominance of visual media or the decline of print books (Bradbury himself finally consented to a Fahrenheit 451 e-book last year), but it does churn out more text per day than anyone could sift through in a lifetime. It’s Borges’s nightmare linked to, or spliced with, or embedded within Bradbury’s.
At the same time, both prophecies were pure fantasy. The Web, unlike TV, is not a medium constrained by a finite number of programming hours. It’s capacious enough to offer both a universe of stupid factoids (or if you prefer, cat videos) and a universe of serious, long-form texts. It also makes information far more navigable—and thus less overwhelming—than it ever was in the days of card catalogs and microfilm. A simple search algorithm could have tamed the Library of Babel.
Still, the future isn't over yet. In a book culture increasingly dominated by an electronic device called the Kindle, and freshly divided over plans to create a “universal library,” both Bradbury and Borges will be wearing their prophets' mantles for a long time to come. May we never lose the worlds they created, and never be lost in them.
Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.
- Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
- With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
- The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Howard et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again'," they wrote in a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-56316-y#Fig3" target="_blank">paper</a> published in Nature Scientific Reports. "Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique."</p>
Connecting modern people with history<p>It's not the first time scientists have "re-created" an ancient human's voice. In 2016, for example, Italian researchers used software to <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/hear-recreated-voice-otzi-iceman-180960570/" target="_blank">reconstruct the voice of Ötzi,</a> an iceman who was discovered in 1991 and is thought to have died more than 5,000 years ago. But the "Voices of the Past" project is different, the researchers note, because Nesyamun's mummified corpse is especially well preserved.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was particularly suited, given its age and preservation [of its soft tissues], which is unusual," Howard told <em><a href="https://www.livescience.com/amp/ancient-egypt-mummy-voice-reconstructed.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>.</em></p><p>As to whether Nesyamun's reconstructed voice will ever be able to speak complete sentences, Howard told <em><a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Weird/wireStory/ancient-voice-scientists-recreate-sound-egyptian-mummy-68482015" target="_blank">The Associated Press</a>, </em>that it's "something that is being worked on, so it will be possible one day."</p><p>John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, said that reproducing voices from history can make museum experiences "more multidimensional."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is nothing more personal than someone's voice," he told <em>The Associated Press.</em> "So we think that hearing a voice from so long ago will be an unforgettable experience, making heritage places like Karnak, Nesyamun's temple, come alive."</p>
Inequality in wealth, gender, and race grew to unprecedented levels across the world, according to OxFam report.
- A new report by global poverty nonprofit OxFam finds inequality has increased in every country in the world.
- The alarming trend is made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, which strained most systems and governments.
- The gap in wealth, race and gender treatment will increase until governments step in with changes.
People wait in line to receive food at a food bank on April 28, 2020 in Brooklyn.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Credit: Oxfam International
A supernova exploded near Earth about 2.5 million years ago, possibly causing an extinction event.
- Researchers from the University of Munich find evidence of a supernova near Earth.
- A star exploded close to our planet about 2.5 million years ago.
- The scientists deduced this by finding unusual concentrations of isotopes, created by a supernova.
This Manganese crust started to form about 20 million years ago. Growing layer by layer, it resulted in minerals precipitated out of seawater. The presence of elevated concentrations of 60 Fe and 56 Mn in layers from 2.5 million years ago hints at a nearby supernova explosion around that time.
Credit: Dominik Koll/ TUM