‘Thoughts’ are a place for me to write down random ideas that I think are interesting. They might be of any length, discuss any topic, and will probably not be formal, scientific, or rigorous in presentation.

They are also, in some sense, a way for me to connect with interesting people, so if something here piques your interest or you have some comments to make, please do reach out! (omar at bloeys dot com)

In the short story ‘The Library of Babel’, Jorge Luis Borges writes about a world where the universe is a library made of hexagonal rooms, where each room connects to other rooms horizontally as well as vertically, with seemingly infinitely many rooms, with a void on the outside.

Bookshelves full of books line four of the six walls of each room where each book is always written in the same 25-character alphabet, although the actual writings seem to generally be random gibberish.

In the midst of this infinity, people. People live off fruits that grow in the library and are thrown into the void once they die, and in between birth and death they usually travel between rooms trying to unravel the secrets of this library, and perhaps even picking up some ideologies along the way about the meanings and truths of this library.

Back here on earth our situation is much more humble, with only finite physical libraries and digital ones (e.g. Amazon) being available.

Of the two, digital libraries with their vast collections unconfined by physical space, are the closer to giving us a taste of the infinite. However, while they allow for near perfect searchability and availability, they have low discoverability, and no community. Allow me to elaborate.

Searchability is when, given a specific book of interest, you can immediately find it, and in digital libraries it will also almost always be available. Now while physical libraries aren’t as good in terms of search and availability, they have superb discoverability, community, and experience.

First of all, in case its been a while since you visited a library, do remember that walking into a library can be awe inspiring, the walls can feel like they are made of books. A unique experience that’s very different from your average shopping trip.

Aside from the psychological component, you don’t need to go with a book already in mind since you can just walk around, randomly pick books, and organically discover titles interesting to you. In fact, you might even discover entire categories or topics that you never knew existed! The cherry on top of this is that you can read books you deem interesting on the spot, no buying, no waiting, and no shipping fees.

Digital libraries are unfortunately abysmal at this kind of discoverability, and also completely lack the experience of being in a library. Digitally, buying a book, a phone, or a shoe all tragically feel and behave the same.

An additional piece completely absent from the digital realm of libraries is that of the community. Our (usually?) finite physical libraries have people reading, searching, and discovering all over the place, making it easy to find others with similar interests or who can help you dive into a new topic simply by looking at what books they are browsing or carrying around. This is not to mention the groups that sometimes come to study together, meetups with authors, and even chatting with the knowledgeable librarians.

This social factor, which to me is critical in the same way the mixed intellectual environment in universities is critical for learning and scientific advancement, is completely missing. Even if you disagree with the assigned level of importance, I think we can all agree that at least some value is provided and that this value is lost in the digital library.

A more abstract way of saying the above is: The ‘interface’ through which we do something matters a lot, and the digital interface we created for libraries is severely lacking.

Its surprising to me that there hasn’t been a new digital interface that combines the strengths of the physical and the digital. I would like to propose one.

Imagine an infinite library, perhaps made of infinitely many interconnecting hexagonal rooms, and perhaps not. This library, filled with books from our humble planet, can be traversed on foot and allows you to hold and read any book. Each book has an identifier, and knowing this identifier you can immediately be transported to the shelf containing that book, or that book to you. Any book can be purchased immediately from where you stand and delivered to your physical home. Walking around, you see many people, all of whom can be talked to and interacted with, if they so desire, and the availability of private rooms and tables and the like make social gatherings convenient to setup. The library has two additional unique, and rather useful qualities.

The first is that, while the library has a ‘default’ physical configuration (i.e. the arrangement and content of bookshelves), the library can be made to morph to suit any person’s need. For example, say someone wants only horror novels written after 2020, in that case a new ‘manifestation’ of the library will be presented to that person where only books fulfilling that criteria fill the bookshelves. This makes targeted discovery possible (instead of combing an almost infinite library for books suiting that criteria). People can also be invited to join this manifestation (instead of the default one) so that they can start discovering this unique subset of the library!

The second unique quality of this infinite library is that, each person entering the library provides their expertise and interests, which is made visible (if they want) to other visitors. This not only allows people to know whether they are looking at someone who has shared interests, but can also be used to search for people. For instance, say you are looking for programmers to learn from, normally this would be next to impossible in an infinite library, but since the library knows each person and their skills, you can ask the library to show you only those who are programmers, or even to teleport you to the nearest programmer(s), or to show you where gatherings of programmers currently exist within the library.

The above description of a traversable, searchable, discoverable, and social digital library, which given the above features is more powerful than either digital or physical libraries, is 100% possible using current tech. In fact it isn’t even cutting edge!

What I just described is in fact nothing more than an ‘infinite’ 3D game with online multiplayer (e.g. Minecraft) and in-app purchases for buying books directly within the game. This has less complexity (I would wager way less) than your average Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game (e.g. World of Warcraft) given its simple mechanical and graphical requirements. One can also easily imagine VR being used to astronomically enhance the social aspects and experience (awe inspiring and all that).

Personally, I can imagine spending lots of time and money inside such a world, provided the execution is great. I can see this not only becoming a great business, but also a beautiful social experience, something that attracts even more people than the millions using the highly popular ‘VR Chat’ game/experience every month.

Finally, I want to note that much of the above argument (and even solution) can be applied to other types of shopping/physical experiences.

Here is hoping we see something akin to this in our lifetimes.