Review: Google and the World Brain

The story of Google Books is pretty astounding. The tech, the speed, the turning-the-book-industry-upside-down. As the best one-liner in the BBC/ARTE/ZDF/etc documentary, Google and the World Brain, had it: ‘if you do something illegal on such a massive scale, you can get away with it’. 

CC Andrew Turner

This 60-minutes too long 90-minute documentary couldn’t decide whether it should be about the legal battle between Google, publishers and authors; about the naivety of librarians; about old Europe vs Google; or about a giant big-picture theme of the distopian Google overlordship that is the future.

It might have worked quite well as a radio doc. The pictures included: a bunch of old white men talking in libraries; pictures of threatening looking buildings and servers; lots of vintage HG Wells.

In a nutshell, so you don’t have to bother watching it:

Google basically played a fast one on lots of libraries – convincing them to lend all their books to Google for scanning and Optical Character Recognition. Sounded great – the librarians clearly fell in love with the idea of the World Library – a dream of librarians since Alexandria – but nobody stopped to think why Google might be doing this. Larry and Sergei probably did envisage great benefits to humanity, etc etc, but handily it’s also a huge commercial advantage – improving their search and other products. One of them did apparently tell Kevin Kelley that Google Books was really about AI. Building a digital brain.

Google also scanned books that were still in copyright – and published them online too – oops. Got sued, lost – on a range of grounds – and are still working on various arrangements with publishers and authors. It’s worth reading a summary of the court’s judgement. It’s another really interesting copyright discussion that is nothing like as high profile as music and film. Partly cos it’s Google doing it, rather than teenagers, presumably.

Things we learned along the way:

  • Google, as is its way, monitors everything about the books being read, how long people read them for, which pages they linger over, etc. Cue concerns about surveillance.
  • The title came from HG Wells’ story, ‘The World Brain’, in which he pretty well predicted the idea of Google Books – an attempt to get all human knowledge accessible from one place. The documentary had him predicting that it wouldn’t end nicely.
  • Evgeny Morozov popped up doing his normal cybercritic thing – essentially saying that Google is full of engineers who mean well, but can’t grasp the social, legal and political impacts of what they do. I think that’s a pretty reasonable precis of the entire story.
  • Larry Page and Sergei Brin might be evil geniuses.
  • Ray Kurzweil popped up to talk about the Singularity, just to scare people a bit more.
  • The French reeeeally don’t like Google.
  • The Germans really, really don’t like Google. The quiet fury of the bloke from Heidelberg was probably the scariest thing about the documentary, never mind Google’s superbrain.
  • Japanese books tend to be read from the top of the page to the bottom, but Google Books’ snippets view goes horizontally – which made it useless in Japan.
  • Some good news: the academic librarians woke up a bit (the French guy, to be fair, was never asleep) and are building their own public digital book places – Europeana and an American equivalent, all of which should link up nicely and be purely public. The World Library is a noble dream – an awesome thing to aim at – but it’s only in everyone’s interest if it’s owned by everyone – and pays some attention to author’s rights.

[Lots of other people thought this doc was better than I did.]


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