10/11/2005

More JULIAN DIBBELL on blogs - The first blogger

Dibbel said in 2000:

Like the hero of Borges’s "Funes the Memorious," who suffers from the inability to forget a single thing he’s seen or heard, [Joe] Barger contends daily with a surfeit of memory -- the Web’s vast, collective store of recollections. Funes ultimately resorts to cataloguing it all in terms of purely personal associations... And so, too, in effect, does Barger... The difference being this, of course: Where Funes is a tragic figure, unable in the end to make anything of the chaos but more chaos, Barger has made of it a cabinet of wonders. As all good bloggers do.

But in this Dibbel was wrong, as Barger is also a tragic figure, who now roams the streets, homeless, blogless and wrapped in personal chaos. The fate of many a man ahead of his time -- law


JORN BARGER IS A COLLECTOR, of a sort -- though you wouldn’t know what sort, exactly, from gazing on his worldly possessions. A long-haired, thick-bearded former artificial-intelligence (AI) programmer in his forties, Barger lives in genteel poverty, sharing an apartment with roommates in Chicago’s scruffy West Rogers Park neighborhood. His bedroom once held a lot of books, but he had to sell them off some time ago; the principal fixtures remaining are a secondhand Macintosh with built-in television, a boom-box radio, and a bed. Barger spends his days in the bed, and there -- sitting with the Mac’s keyboard in his lap and its monitor beside him -- he collects: A color-coded map of the world’s language families. A discussion of the various titles Proust considered and discarded for Remembrance of Things Past. A National Enquirer article on "who’s doing yoga in Hollywood." A BBC item on the evolution of cooperation among capuchin monkeys. Some photos of Fisher-Price Little People repainted as characters from Futurama...

A compilation of Noam Chomsky resources on the Web. A detailed list of textual correspondences between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. A phrase that Barger dreamed last night on the edge of waking.

All these items -- and many, many more -- have been collected over the years as links on Barger’s Web site, Robot Wisdom. His collection is what’s known these days as a Web log, or, to its friends, a "blog" -- a regularly updated site containing links to pages the author finds interesting, typically with commentary attached. Barger coined the term himself when he started his Web log in 1997, though he was hardly the first person to have kept one. For as long as there have been browsers, there have been surfers gathering and sharing their favorite finds. The father of browsers himself -- Mosaic author Marc Andreessen -- is sometimes cited as the founding blogger, for the seminal What’s New page he maintained in the early days of the Web.

But Web logs have come a long way since then, and Barger -- well, Barger has plainly taken the concept to another level altogether. The word "obsession" comes to mind, though "passion," I suppose, is a kinder and maybe fairer name for what drives him to blog. He derives no revenues from the Robot Wisdom site; there are no advertisements on it, banner or otherwise. There are hardly any graphics at all, in fact. Just links -- miles and miles of them, discerningly selected, pithily annotated, stacked one on top of another all the way down the main page and off into years’ worth of monthly archives.

During the first two years of Robot Wisdom, the Web log was Barger’s full-time occupation. Full time: He sat in bed surfing and linking all day long and had, he says, no job to support the habit. Last August, he finally cut back on the logging, limiting it to just a couple hours a day, but only so that he could devote more time to other aspects of the site. He spends the better part of his days working on long-term projects that surround and extend the daily log -- link-studded FAQs on various subjects (artificial intelligence, ASCII art, Web logs), Web-resource pages on his favorite artists and authors (Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, Joni Mitchell, the Incredible String Band), and above all his magnum opus: a vast hyperlinked and open-ended annotation of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

His Joyce pages appear to be getting as popular with scholars as his Web log has long been with journalists, but Barger remains a dedicated amateur in both fields, intent on dodging the temptation to professionalize. He has not had good experiences with the traditional workplace. He gets by, he says, with odd bits of contract work (programming, the occasional Joyce article), with loans, and with economies. Serious economies.

"I live on bread and water," Barger explains. "So as not to submit to the Idiots."

Well, homemade vegetarian pizza and cheap, supermarket-brand coffee, actually.

But still.

ONE ISN’T BORN a blogger, surely, and yet in Jorn Barger’s case one has to wonder. Decades before there was a Web, he was chasing links through thickets of loosely interconnected data and ideas.

"In 1970, I decided that what I wanted to do with my life was to try to find a way to do psychology scientifically," says Barger. "I wanted to find a way to have it be both good science and good spiritual ethics, and through the seventies I pursued that in various ways. By the end of the seventies, I’d come up with the idea of robot wisdom."

Robot wisdom? That’s as good an encapsulation as any, and none are very good. Barger’s ideas are at once subtle and florid, and they don’t summarize easily. Suffice it to say that they’re as much literary as scientific, and that they orbit a complicated connection between artificial intelligence and the masterworks of James Joyce. Barger discovered that link in the midst of trying to map out a programmable taxonomy of human emotions: "I started compiling index cards with little descriptions of human behavior, mostly taken from literature. And when I organized them I started seeing cyclical patterns emerging, and it reminded me of things I’d read long ago about Joyce. I discovered there were very close matches, and that Joyce was also trying to build this large-scale model of human psychology."

When Barger discovered the Net in the late eighties, he threw his ideas at it with all the energy of an author finding his first audience. He became a netnews junkie, posting wit and wisdom to newsgroups from comp.ai to rec.arts.ascii-art to alt.music.alternative.female. He got into flamewars, deeply, some of them going "thermonuclear" and taking up prodigious swaths of his waking hours. His real-life interactions took a dive. "I found that I just spent much more time thinking about the flame wars that I was in than the people that I hung out with," says Barger.

As intense as his netnews involvement was, though, Barger felt something was missing -- a context for his postings, some frame of reference that would fill in the contours of his Net persona, now badly fragmented across the boundaries of his various newsgroups. His Web log, in the end, was born to fill that need. It was conceived less as the quality news digest it has become (frequented by thousands of the Net’s most knowledgeable) than as a portrait of Jorn Barger, rendered in the medium of his own daily, unexpurgated curiosities. "I was inspired by Ana Voog’s Anacam, by the whole aesthetic of being on the Net twenty-four hours a day, and being as transparent as possible," he says. "I try to make it my ethic that whenever I see something that I enjoy, I don’t filter. You know, if it’s some silly thing about a TV commercial, I won’t say, well, that’s too frivolous."

Does it even count as irony that Barger’s rigorously unfiltered perspective is perhaps as good a filter as can be found for the welter of the Web? It practically goes without saying: Accept that the Web ultimately overwhelms all attempts to order it, as for now it seems we must, and you accept that the delicate thread of a personal point of view is often as not your most reliable guide through the chaos. The brittle logic of the hierarchical index has its indispensable uses, of course, as has the crude brute strength of the search engine. But when their limits are reached (and they always are), only the discriminating force of sensibility will do -- and the more richly expressed the sensibility, the better.

In the end, then, there is at least a little something to the claim that Web logs belong to literature. Deriving full-bodied, believable personalities from the quotidian flow of consciousness is, after all, one of literature’s specialties -- especially the high-modernist literature to which Barger has, not coincidentally, dedicated himself. Whether James Joyce would recognize the traces of his stream-of-consciousness techniques in Robot Wisdom’s daily trickle of links is, of course, an open question. But Marcel Proust, who also spent his waking hours in bed compiling an impressive log of life’s detail, would certainly approve. And as for that arch-late-modernist Jorge Luis Borges, whose oeuvre is more or less one long meditation on the themes that haunt information fetishists like Barger, don’t get me started.

Well, too late. Borges, as it happens, is curiously absent from Barger’s constellation of literary heroes, but the truth is, Robot Wisdom’s labyrinthine castle of links and annotations would have fit in comfortably among the fables of the Ficciones. Barger’s passions, like those of Borges, are a librarian’s, concerned with superabundances of word and image and the struggle to wrest sense and order from them. Like the hero of Borges’s "Funes the Memorious," who suffers from the inability to forget a single thing he’s seen or heard, Barger contends daily with a surfeit of memory -- the Web’s vast, collective store of recollections. Funes ultimately resorts to cataloguing it all in terms of purely personal associations (he even counts in them, replacing numbers with mental hyperlinks: "Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale, the gas, the cauldron, Napoleon, Augustin de Vedia," and on toward infinity). And so, too, in effect, does Barger.

The difference being this, of course: Where Funes is a tragic figure, unable in the end to make anything of the chaos but more chaos, Barger has made of it a cabinet of wonders. As all good bloggers do.

JULIAN DIBBELL

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