Friday, February 20, 2009

Googling Atlantis/The Search Engine of Omniscience

Caroline McCarthy reports today on CNET News that Google Earth has discovered Atlantis. "From what it sounds like," McCarthy writes, "a British aeronautical engineer was playing around with the new Google Earth 5.0, which includes undersea data, and noticed something funny off the coast of Africa, about 600 miles west of the Canary Islands, that resembled a pattern of a street grid. According to the U.K.'s Press Association, the pattern of streets equated to an area the size of Wales." Certainly to all appearances this grid on the ocean floor is either Atlantis or another inundated city with the same name.

Google, naturally, denies that this image represents a ruined city at all, the party poopers; they present (as McCarthy reports) a more rational and mundane explanation. What is really revealed is the still-beating heart of the myth-making impulse. Cruising the planet via Google Earth from his computer chair, an engineer sees something he can't explain and he plugs it into a master narrative that has been around at least since Plato. That's the easy route; had his observation not fit so handily into the Atlantis story, he'd have found another (Evidence of Alien Visits Beneath The Ocean! Square Crop Circles Found Beneath The Atlantic!) or made up a new one. The good rationalists of science are spinning off so many mysteries and such powerful informational technologies that even engineers are succumbing to mythopoeia.

Borges would approve:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
From Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley

It appears that the great Borges, among his many other achievements, is the true author of Google Earth--or of another omniscient search engine going by the same name.

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