Borges' Bookshelf

If you haven't read the short-story by Borges. Do. It's awesome.

A timely post perhaps – what with yesterday’s revelations about the war in Afghanistan.  Without doubt the Wikileaks story marks a significant milestone in terms of the use of data and transparency and there are interesting debates to be had around the role of information, state security and the freedom of the press that more intelligent people than I will have.

I wanted to post about the bulging shelves of Wikipedia (like a wing of the Library of Babel) because while dancing around the South Bank on Sunday – I was struck by how the ‘trusted’ source of info has become far more ingrained in culture than any encyclopaedia before it.

On Sunday I participated as an audience member in Domini Public – presented in the UK buy the Gate Theatre, but ‘staged’ outside the National.  (Incidentally I did this alone as a friend couldn’t get out of bed) The concept of the ‘play’ is aces.  The audience wear headphones, and are guided by an authoritative yet kindly voice, around the play space.  At first the instructions are simple enough: “stand to the right if you were born North of the river”.  As the play progresses, however, the audience is divided into three factions: police, prisoner, red cross.  What follows is a simple, yet insightful, comment on civil unrest, law and order and the role of the individual within society – all delivered with a wry smile.  Alas, Sunday was the last London performance – but should you ever come across the company behind this production do check it out.

So what does Wikipedia have to do with all this?  Well, during the warm-up section the entire cast/audience were grouped at one side of the space.  We then had to take four steps forward, if we could answer yes to the following questions:

  • Have you finished a book in the last week?
  • Have you seen a concert in the last seven days?
  • Have you been to the cinema this week?
  • Have you referenced Wikipedia this week?

Watching the  70 or so audience/cast members play out their answers to these questions, was really quite interesting.  I wouldn’t go as far as saying we displayed a microcosm of society (it was the Southbank on a Sunday, not a census), but what followed was quite startling.  I’d say the audience were aged between 16 and 60, though, so a good mix of ‘consumers’.  I’ve put in brackets below the rough percentage of who in the audience/cast moved.

  • Have you finished a book in the last week? (15 per cent)
  • Have you seen a concert in the last seven days? (10 per cent)
  • Have you been to the cinema this week? (20 per cent)
  • Have you referenced Wikipedia this week? (85 per cent)

So why did this interest me?  Well, it was a clear illustration that online media, entertainment and  information are all now a central part of our once analogue culture.  The immediacy, ease and (in many cases) low cost of social entertainment encourages us to use the internet as a more frequent source form of  entertainment and information than traditional mediums.  On Sunday, as a crowd of people, of mixed  backgrounds and ages, surged forward four steps – broadcasting their association with Wikipedia – it made a profound statement about the place of Wikipedia, and the internet, within the future of our society.  I’m not very good at maths but if 15 per cent of people are reading a book, but 85 are reading online – you can see how this is going to continue to snowball.

In case you’re interested, I took 12 steps…