Italo Calvino, in Cosmicomics
, writes a philosophical, pseudo-scientific fantasy that attempts, somewhat whimsically, to answer the kind of questions a child might pose: How did the earth begin? Where do we come from? How did language begin? The book charts the path of a character named Qfwfq who roams through emerging galaxies, romps with hydrogen atoms, and, in general, makes observations about an evolving universe.
Calvino’s book, a landmark of postmodern fiction, depicts a common postmodernist theme: i.e., the “literature of exhaustion,” the sense that we are surrounded by words, drowning in words, and—as a consequence—words are all used up and devoid of meaning. However, Calvino, writing back in the 1960s could hardly have known how prophetic his words would be when related to cyber-space.
In a chapter entitled “A Sign in Space,” Qfwfq, who is in the midst of whisking through the Milky Way, stops and innocently draws a sign, the first sign, in fact, at a point in space, so that he can find his way when he comes around again in about two hundred million years. Qfwfq points out that just the process of making the first sign itself involved considerable leaps of thought. He states that we think of a sign as “something that can be distinguished from something else” when, at that point in existence “nothing could be distinguished from anything …” and there were no previous examples to suggest what a sign might even be.
Qfwfq’s sign, though, creates difference. Where there had been empty space there was now a something, a sign, a symbol that had to be reckoned with. For a long time, his sign remains untarnished. Then, some 600 million years later, as Qfwfq makes his third circuit, he sees that his sign has been crossed out and another sign put next to it, a sign that was obviously a copy of Qfwfq’s original sign. With the sign, its erasure, and the counterfeit sign, the universe’s first dialogue begins. One-upmanship takes over and soon—at least in terms of galactic years—the signs and countersigns begin proliferating at a rapidly escalating pace. Finally, Qfwfq remarks nostalgically:
“In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference.”
In 1965, Calvino could not have known that the mass of signs he describes clogging the universe was an uncanny prediction of the Internet itself where signs and sights/sites grow in increasing numbers in cyber-space. Calvino's tale parallels the type of world in which we now live. The Internet, without exaggeration, really is like a system of signs “superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space.” While terms such as the "information highway" imply that the Internet is a gateway to knowledge, I wonder about the ability to concentrate, and achieve any type of knowledge - much less wisdom - in our tech-laden, data-riddled world.From a prior publication