Where'd this videocassette warehouse thought experiment come from?
June 5, 2013 6:39 PM   Subscribe

I remember reading somewhere about an imaginary giant warehouse that contains every possible VHS cassette. In my memory, the author went on to say that this warehouse contains every movie ever made, and every movie that will ever be made. It contains e.g. the 'Mad Men' series finale, and a tape that's nothing but static, except for one frame of the 'Mona Lisa.' You get the drift. I think it was in an essay someplace, but I may be mistaken. What's the source of this thought experiment?
posted by box to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
No idea about the VHS cassettes, but presumably connected to The Library of Babel? Mentioning in case it rings any bells for you or others...
posted by heyforfour at 6:43 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Full text of the Borges story is here.
posted by hydatius at 6:47 PM on June 5, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you for the Borges links--the use of the word 'source' in my question might not have been the best choice.

In case I wasn't clear, I'm wondering specifically about the VHS version, not the original version of the thought experiment.
posted by box at 6:58 PM on June 5, 2013

Interestingly, the Library of Babel also contains every video ever made or possible to be made, encoded in every protocol and numeric representation that exists. Just printed out on paper instead of in vhs form.
posted by empath at 8:00 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Well, the "every movie ever made" as a metaphor for the digital promise of the internet has been around a while -- 2003, 2011 -- but it's possible you saw a certain Qwest commercial almost 15 years ago, which promised that for the video-on-demand service in a hotel. Even as late as 2001, when the Economist wrote about it, the very idea seemed a difficult hill to climb just to have VHS video quality. Of course, even though as late as 2008 the selection was considered "dismal", we now know it as a completely normal part of our world (at least the "many popular movies" metric) but the change was technological, from VHS-style VOD to digital clouds and CDNs.

That said, instead of Borges, perhaps you're thinking of the very before-his-time vision of Vannevar Bush, which he called Memex. It's been recapitulated many times over the years by different authors.
posted by dhartung at 10:29 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's a fairly common idea -- Google even suggests the phrase "every possible combination of pixels" when searching. Some relevant hits:

Exhibition Uses a Computer to Generate Every Possible Photograph

We Have Pictures of That

I Have Pictures of the Aliens!

I suppose pictures are a more popular version of this Borges update because their permutations are merely mind-boggling and not mind-shattering, as they'd be with video.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:43 AM on June 6, 2013

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