Friday, September 11, 2009

Google bigger than Gutenberg?

“Don't be evil” is the rather gothic mission statement of the search engine company Google, which is planning to digitise all the world's books. Set up a decade ago by American digital pioneers, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google has set itself the modest task of organising all the world's knowledge. Everything. The lot. You don't have to be paranoid to find this idea more than a little scary.

Mind you, it's such an extraordinary concept that it's hard to believe that they're serious. But they aren't laughing. Google wants to be bigger than Gutenberg, and the world has four weeks to decide whether it should get its way. That's when the biggest legal suit in publishing history will finally be resolved in a New York court room overGoogle's proposal for a Books Rights Registry which will allow it to carry on copying. The likelihood is that Google will win.

Universities across the world are bracing themselves for what could either become a new republic of knowledge – a project as old as the Enlightenment itself – or a monopolist dystopia in which one private company controls a digital portal to all of society's wisdom. It could be a giant leap forward in human understanding, or a step towards an intellectual dark age in which knowledge itself becomes privatised. This is not just an issue for the publishing world, or even the literary and academic communities. Google's project could be a defining moment in western civilisation with profound implications for business, media, government. In fact, almost everyone who reads a book needs to know what is happeneing and to take a view on it. Are you with Google or against them?

Google has already helped undermine the business model of newspapers by repackaging their content on the web. The print media failed dismally to anticpate the impact of new technology and didn't defend its intellectual property with any vigour – a mistake that Rupert Murdoch of News International says he intends to rectify. But the collapse of countless regional and national newspapers is a fundamental problem for democracy since a free and well-resourced press is essential if politicians are to be held to account. There's little doubt that putting Google in charge of the world's knowledge could lead to greater unforseen disasters.

The books project began as a kind of brainstorming session in the bowels of Google four years ago. When Google started copying millions of books in US libraries, authors naturally thought Brin and Page had found some clever way of getting round copyright laws. And it is certainly the case that Google was incredibly naive when it launched its scanning project without checking where it stood on intellectual property. Google thought it was doing authors a favour since it was making millions of out of print books accessible again online. The writers and publishers didn't see it that way, and Google has now offered to give authors 70% of any revenues after digitisation But many are still unhappy and are refusing to give Google authority even to scan books that are out of print.

But what they don't understand is that Google was NOT trying to steal a march on publishers or violate intellectual property rights. I don't even think that crossed their minds Brin and Page were hoping to achieve something much more ambitious: they want all this data to be available, not for sale, but for search. That's where Google makes its money, through highly targeted and lucrative advertising, and through applications like psychological consumer research. Google is a friendly spy; it wants to know everything about you, from where you live to how you dream.

However, after some paranoid soul searching, I have surprised myself by coming down on the side of Google. This is because collectivising all the world's information could lead to an intellectual revolution, breaking down barriers to scholarship and research. Imagine: every book that has ever been printed could be available on any computer screen, smart-phone or e-reader. Scientists, doctors, historians, politicians and of course journalists would have the intellectual resources of the entire world at the click of a mouse. Every dusty class room in sub-Saharan Africa would have instant access to the sum total of human knowledge. It could be a quantum leap in the battle against ignorance, and would transform education. No more learning of facts, only how to use them. No more spending endless hourse in dusty libraries looking for sources and references. A brain as big as the world.

Yes I'm only too aware of the risk that this could turn into an Orwellian Big Brother. Governments, regulators and the law simply are not equipped to meet the challenge posed by Google's knowledge grab. I don't believe that Brin and Page have sinister intentions, but truth is, no one least of all Google really knows what the digital knowledge project could lead to. All we know is that we're getting there fast. Out of the 32 million books in the world's libraries, Google has already scanned 10 million and if they win on October 7th, they will have completed the task within a decade.

Of course, a lot of human knowledge isn't in books, but the Googlers are onto that too. An estimated one million Google-controlled computers are currently searching billions of web pages every second. Google bought Youtube to gain access to billions more bytes of video. Through Google mail, their algorithms can rifle through hundreds of millions of emails, and they can process the contents of computer clouds created by personal users of their software. Google Earth is photographing all our streets so that this knowledge can be organised geographically. This really is a project for world domination - only without an evil genius. At least for now.

Universities across the world have opened their doors to Google and many academics believe that digitisation of all the world's knowledge would be a great achivement, making a reality of the ideal of a democracy of knowledge, where everyone has free access to the collective wisdom of human civilisation. Put this way, it is a wonderful idea. But it is absolutely imperative that Google is subject to democratic control. If we hand it the key to knowledge it must let us know what it is doing with it. It must be utterly transparent and accountable. We know so little about this organisation that is taking over the world. It's time for the people to search the search engine.

1 comment:

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