Google and The World Brain

Yesterday, we took a field trip to the Galway Film Fleadh to view Google and The World Brain. This documentary examines Google Books and the steps that were taken by many authors around the world to protect their copyrights from unauthorized digital scanning.

The film began by exploring the ancient idea of a world library; a collection of all of the world’s knowledge through text in one place. I find this idea fascinating. I am in the school of thought, much like Google, that access to information should be easy and free. However, the documentary furthered my thought process. Is it fair (or safe?) to have all of that knowledge in one place. By the end of the movie, I was not so sure that was a good idea.

Having a hard copy of every single text all in one place is one thing. A physical book cannot record personal information. It can be read, analyzed, and placed back on the self. The author will always get recognized for having written the book because his or her name will always be printed on the front. No one gets hurt by a library book. Digital books present an interesting problem. While Google Books set out to create an online library without the intention of infringing on copyright law, digital books can be used to any user’s discretion, legal or not. Whats more is that Google can start tracking their readers and never disclose what they use that data for.

I began thinking if the differences between a physical library and a digital one. Why were the authors who protested to the scanning upset? Their book was already in many libraries around the world, and the library was just making digital copies of a book that the library already owned…what’s the difference with having it online instead of just on a book shelf? I think I’m still grappling with this question. Anyone can walk into a library, pick up a book and read it, just like anyone online can click on a link and read it, so why is everyone so up set? I haven’t landed on an answer yet, but what I do understand is that Google was (even if unintentionally) monopolizing the information market.

Create a digital world library that anyone and everyone can access for free. The idea is harmless, right?

Not so fast…

If knowledge is power, then what exactly is Google compiling?

Consolidation of knowledge into one corporation could, in fact, defeat the purpose of a free, accessible, word library. Said corporation could potentially monopolize the books. Who’s to say that this was actually Google’s intention, but the idea of such power is not something that can go unchecked. When it was discovered that Google was scanning books that were still in copyright, many of the affected authors fought back. This caused Google to draw back and only release keyword based snippets of books.

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An example of a ‘snippet’ created by Google Books. (photo attributed to http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/copyright_and_copyleft/index.html?page=3)

My favorite part of the movie was a Japanese author who explained “the America concept of ‘snippets’.” Google would show a piece of a page from a book based on a keyword search. In a Japanese book the characters are written length-wise on the page, unlike in an English book, where the pages are written left to right. Google did not consider this when creating snippets of Japanese books, so the snippets were rendered useless. The author, even thought his book was pretty much unreadable, still battled Google in court to halt the scanning process.

I understand why libraries would want to work with Google to create this database of texts. I find the idea of a World Brain hugely empowering and inspiring. On the other hand, the fact that it could be so abused makes me sad for humanity. It reminds me of Gee and many of the points that he makes in his book, The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning. People are not very smart about taking care of each other. We all want a lot of things for ourselves, but when it comes to the common good, there is very little that we are really willing to sacrifice and this makes us stupid (Gee, 2013). It makes me sad that there is not enough faith and trust amongst humans to built such an amazing tool. Even though I believe that Google’s initial intention was not to hurt anyone by scanning books, other people villianized the process.

Gee, J.P. (2013). The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

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