Beware of geeks bearing gifts

My friend Daniel Brandt e-mailed me this trailer for a movie about Google’s plan to digitize the world’s books and make them available on the Internet.

At first glance this would seem like a good thing, not a bad thing.  Daniel has two concerns.  One is violation of copyright.   It is a sign of the times that Google can ride rough-shod over copyright holders at a time when teenagers are prosecuted for file-sharing of copyrighted music.  The other and larger concern is the potential of a Google monopoly.  Authors, publishers, the U.S. Department of Justice’s anti-trust division and various European governments had the same concerns, and Google’s effort is stalled in the courts for now, but not stopped for good.

google-the-world-brain.xxxlargeLike many people, I use Google virtually every day of my life.   One thing Google does is to make this web log possible.   Without Google, it would be not be so easy to find information I write about, and, without Google, I don’t think anybody outside my circle of friends could find their way to this blog.  I think the same is true of Daniel Brandt and his web site.

But there is a price for this.  My every interaction with Google is logged, and I have no knowledge or control over how this information is used.

When Borders opened its first super-store here in Rochester, NY, I felt I was in book-lovers’ heaven.   The established local new-book stores soon went out of business (we still have good used-book stores), but for me that was outweighed by the greater availability and choice of books at Borders made possible.  Then Barnes & Noble came to town, and eventually put Borders out of business.

Now, or so it seems to me, Barnes & Noble is cutting down its selection, and shifting to promotion of its Nook utility and sale of non-book items.  True, I still have a bigger selection of books at B&N than I did 20 years ago at Village Green, Park Avenue and the other local bookstores.   What I can’t find locally, I order over the Internet, mostly from used-book dealers in other cities.   I have no real grounds to complain, and yet the whole trend to consolidation makes me feel at the mercy of institutions I can’t control.

So it is with Google.  The worst-case scenario for Google’s digitization process is that a majority of the world’s readers decide they don’t need physical books or public libraries because they can get books free from Google over the Internet.  Availability of physical books declines, and then Google is in a position to charge monopoly prices.  More importantly, Google is in a position to decide which books are unsuitable for availability to the public.

One parallel is J-STOR, a utility which digitizes and makes articles in scholarly journals available to academics in return for a fee paid by universities and their libraries.  J-STOR is strict about barring unauthorized readers from access to its service.   A young man named Aaron Swartz was prosecuted on felony charges for downloading J-STOR articles with alleged intent to distribute to the public, and committed suicide.   It is not fantastic to imagine a future Google creating the same kind of arbitrary gated access to the world’s books.

I would like to see public authorities, such as UNESCO, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library or the European Union, undertake the task of digitizing the world’s out-of-copyright books.   I would like to see more than one public institution do this because I don’t trust UNESCO or any other public institution with monopoly power either.  Daniel Brandt, with his usual foresight, proposed this 10 years ago.  But if Google gets in first, UNESCO and the Library of Congress will likely decide it is not worth the effort.

Click on World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopedia for H.G. Wells’ 1937 summary of his idea for universally available information.

Click on Google and the World Brain | Ben Lewis TV for background on Google by filmmaker Ben Lewis.

Click on Google and the World Brain considers the Internet as a sentient being for an intriguing review of the movie.

Click on The Great Google Book Grab for more of Daniel Brandt’s reporting on Google’s book project.

Click on Public Information Research for background on Daniel Brandt and his work.

scanningGoogledigitalbooksThere are alternatives to Google’s digitized library.

Click on Europeana Libraries for the web site of a project to digitize 5 million books in 19 European libraries.

Click on Project Gutenberg for the web site of the pioneer in digitizing out-of-copyright books and making them available free on the Internet.

On-line teaching is an example of the two-edged nature of Internet technology.  To make college courses available to the general public, instead of restricting them to those who can be physically present in a college classroom, is a good thing, not a bad thing.  The danger is that the on-line courses become a substitute for the real thing, and, in the long run, tenured professors with doctorates will be replaced by adjuncts earning minimum wage whose main job is to play videos.

Click on San Jose State Philosophy Dept. Opposes Online Courses for an article about this controversy.

The Internet is potentially the greatest tool yet invented for promoting freedom of information.  It also is potentially the greatest tool yet invented for Big Brother’s surveillance of the individual.  There is a two-front battle going on.  On one front, governments and corporations are increasing their power to track the words and deeds of individuals.  On the other front, individuals are losing their right to know the internal workings of governments and corporations.  Freedom for individuals is decreasing, while governments and corporations enjoy free rein.

Click on Aaron’s Law: Violating a Site’s Terms of Service Should Not Land You in Jail for an article by Lawrence Lessig about Aaron Swartz.

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One Response to “Beware of geeks bearing gifts”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    Many of us in Iowa City have paid more for books than we would have to in order to keep Prairie Lights Book Store in business. I hope it can remain.


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