Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Search Engine

By Tom Peters |

Jonathan Edwards Google's Book Search Library Project, the massive digitization project involving the “G5 libraries" (Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, the New York Public Library, and Harvard), has really touched a cultural nerve.

Quite a few discussants have concentrated on the details of one or more facets of this project, i.e., fair use, the lawsuits, the digitization process and technology involved, Google’s business interests, and the G5 libraries’ motives and anticipated benefits.

There also seem to be some deeper, inchoate fears lurking about...

In the December 2 issue (vol. 52, issue 15, page B7) of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Siva Vaidhyanathan, an assistant professor of culture and communication at NYU and the author of several books and articles on copyright issues, contributed an essay that—either wittingly or unwittingly on the author’s part—teases out some of these fears and premonitions lurking beneath the surface lawsuits, debates, and arguments. Because online access to the complete Chronicle requires a paid subscription, Vaidhyanathan also has posted his essay on his blog.

Here are four fears I find evident in his essay and throughout the debate:

  1. More Problems; Fewer Solutions: Vaidhyanathan asserts that this project will create more problems than it solves. By problems, I assume he means added complexities, gray policy areas, legal issues, and even thorny opportunities.

    Is that necessarily bad? Most developments of this type eventually create more problems. An online catalog probably creates more problems than a card catalog, and a wireless network creates more problems than two tin cans and a string. Civilization itself creates more problems than it solves. The state of nature was not only nasty, brutish, and short, but also simple. The problems were few, but enormous and often fatal.

  2. The Innocent Bystanders Have the Most to Lose: Vaidhyanathan suggests that academics, researchers, librarians, and the general public stand to lose more from Google Book Search than will authors, publishers, and other rights holders. By asserting what it perceives to be its fair use rights, Google may in the long run inadvertently harm fair use.

  3. Google Will Kill Libraries: Vaidhyanathan also brings up “…the fear that Google's power to link files to people will displace the library from our lives." He suggests that this controversy may diminish society’s sense of what a library means. Truly understanding the value of a library “…means making sense of what a library signifies to a community and the individuals in that community. Libraries are more than resources. They are both places and functions. They are people and institutions, budgets and books, conversations and collections. They are greater than the sum of their books." Massive digital collections and the perfect search algorithm cannot approach that level of meaning and value.

  4. Google Is the Devil in the Guise of God: The debate sometimes hints at going beyond good and evil. Vaidhyanathan states it is shameful that a public-good project like this has been allowed to be outsourced to Google. He reports Google co-founder Sergey Brin once said or wrote, “The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God."

    There have been grumblings that Google’s management team, despite its apparent embrace of openness, fair use, and the public good, is really evil. Perhaps Google is a manifestation of humankind’s hubris.

I find it fascinating that the moral and fear-based facets of this project are frequently hinted at in this debate, but rarely openly addressed. This controversy may reveal—in more ways than we care to imagine—who we are, who we think we are, and who we want to become.