A Response to “Funes, The Memorious”

It was weird, reading thinkpieces about Google and War and Peace and clocks, then going to “Funes the Memorious.” Upon first impression, there’s a pretty stark difference between navelgazing about the compression of information and the description of a man lighting a cigarette. Honestly, when I first started reading the story, I was frustrated by how seemingly unrelated the piece was to the other two with regards to content and the ideas we’ve discussed so far in class. As I got further into it, though, I found myself connecting to the content far more than the previous readings.

Despite the fact that Jorge Luis Borges wrote this piece in 1942, well before the emergence of mainstream computers, the parallels between Ireneo and modern technology are a bit uncanny. When Borges described Ireneo’s compulsion to give everything a unique name, all I could think about was how my computer shares a similar preference in its absolute refusal for me to have two photos or text documents by the same title, no matter how different their content. This is only one example of the many ways Ireneo’s strange mind emulates a computer: his entire mind is comprised of details he never forgets, no matter how mundane or small. Like a hard drive, his memory is simultaneously pure and inefficient, infinite and yet limited by its own rigidity.

On that note, I didn’t catch in my first read that Ireneo’s memory was brought about by his incapacitation, and when I did realize it, it brought the connections I had begun to make into clear focus. In receiving this “gift,” Ireneo loses not only his physical capability but the ability to comprehend things of remarkable simplicity, such as the fact that the category of “dog” holds a variety of creatures within it. It makes me think of the push for and against true artificial intelligence. One side says it’s possible, while the other argues that such complexity could never be manufactured. Within the story, Ireneo is of course not manufactured, as his ability comes about due to a terrible fluke. Still, that trade-off, that exchange of one extraordinary thing for another, seems to echo that anti-AI sentiment that complexity and precision are often at odds with one another.

What also interested me about the story was how, despite its supposed categorization of fantasy, I found it relatively easy to believe. Sure, the self-explanatory title of the story collection, Ficciones, instantly alerted me to its lack of basis in reality, but beyond that, I wouldn’t have placed it in the same realm as other “fantasy” stories I read — and if a particularly compelling storyteller told me a similar tale, I might just be inclined to believe such a person could exist. Perhaps that’s just a testament to my own gullibility, but I do think that in today’s age, the idea of an infinite and perfect memory isn’t so ridiculous. Because even if it’s not something we’re able to have ourselves, we do see it in the technology we utilize. We can fit terabytes and terabytes of files onto tiny USB drives, can have our content shared and reshared to the point that it’s nigh impossible to erase. I wonder: has our current technological climate changed what seems believable to us? Or, at least, has it changed it for me?

In any case, I truly enjoyed the story. Frankly, it was refreshing to read something that wasn’t so buried in the discourse of What Technology Means And What Should We Do With It. But maybe it’s a bit hypocritical of me to say that, because here I am, drawing those comparisons anyway. I guess I just find it amazing that these threads of memory, information, and trade-off seem to linger both in 1940s fantasy and the discussions of twenty-first century internet. What exactly that means about people, I’m not sure — but I do know I’d like to check out some more Borges when I get the chance.

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