You’ve all, I’m sure, heard that old adage that if you put enough monkeys at a typewriter, one is bound to plunk out Shakespeare. Well, This week it came out that some smart programmer, virtually, did just that. It is all done with strings of letters being randomly generated and cross checked against an entire text file of Shakespeare’s works, and there is an evolutionary culling process involved which speeds things up tremendously.
But this whole thing begins pushing some philosophical buttons. What is the point of randomly generated classical literature, other than to prove that a thought experiment could theoretically be true?
It reminds me of the Borges story “The Library of Babel.” The Library in this story is comprised of what appears to be every permutation of letters within a particular size and shape of volume in a hexagonal spire that goes infinitely in both directions. The books themselves eventually contain every work that is ever written, but the endless madness in between renders them completely irrelevant. The people in the library, desperately struggling for meaning, form factions, conduct pogroms, declare certain works definitive and then burn anything that is remotely similar, though the variations and the randomness of the entire collection makes this a nigh-on-impossible task. I like to think this was some clever commentary on the literary predisposition for analysis of different editions of works, and whether or not there is meaning in a comma or an adverb. However, I think it’s slightly more than that.
With the Library of Babel and the infinite monkey experiment we are confronted with this kind of predestination of the written word; all thought can be made, it is just a matter of culling it from the dross of the infinite. However true this statement may be, the fact remains that infinite culling will take an infinite amount of time. Only a madman would even begin to attempt something that foolhardy (sorry virtual monkey dude).
But what it shows us on the reverse is something miraculous. Shakespeare was a unique individual (as is most commonly believed), and his work has lasted over four hundred years. The artistry of that one person is unique, and it is this uniqueness and genius that we cling to. It would take an infinite number of ignorant monkeys to accidentally reproduce masterpieces, but it only took one Shakespeare. How rare and wonderful!
Shakespeare is only the beginning of this though. All of literature is a unique bloom. It may be built on the shoulders of others, it may be as common as a formula romance novel, but it is still the product of the human mind. Of all the works that could have been pulled from that chaos of the infinite, this one, beautiful work was created.
And that is miraculous.