Wooden Dominoes

By Tom Peters | Yesterday Princeton University Woodrow Wilson on $100,000 U.S. Noteannounced it has joined Google's mass digitization project, adding another million volumes to the maw. I reckon people will begin speculating what former president (of both Princeton and the U.S.) Woodrow Wilson would have made of Princeton's participation in Google's project. At least the speculative heat will be off Thomas Jefferson for awhile, who was invoked by University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman to defend this project from beyond the grave.

All of this fills me with wonder. Are we witnessing a fresh new instance of the domino theory, with the nations of Southeast Asia replaced by Association of Research Libraries' member libraries? The parallels between efforts to stem the growth of Communism in the mid-twentieth century and current efforts to contain the Google wen are eerily similar. Dominoes Waiting to FallFirst the French tried and, predictably, failed. Then the U.S. appeared as the last great hope. If the feds decide to take on Google, it would be the largest corporate domestic war since the Teddy Roosevelt era. Is Hillary or Barack up to such a challenge?

Princeton is the twelfth research library to join. These announcements are becoming routine, and I pity the poor writers of these press releases, who must search in vain for some interesting new angle (Time to make the doughnuts: quote the president, then the provost, then the university librarian).

Still, there is something about this massive digitization project that befuddles me. I usually scoff at conspiracy theories, but something does not seem quite right about all this. I've been trying to put my finger on it for months. Here's my short list of ruminations:
  • Google is not a philanthropic organization, so how does the company plan to recoup its investment of millions of dollars and turn a handsome profit? I have not been privy to these negotiations between Google and each of the major research universities and/or libraries, but the agreements must be perceived as obviously beneficial to both parties, because—despite investment risks and lawsuits—Google continues to push forward, and the universities seem to be lining up to get on Google's dance card.

  • Is there a secret war room in some bunker deep beneath the surface of Mountain View, where top management types move little book trucks and planetary scanners, instead of battle ships and troop divisions, around on a world map?

  • Who are the battlefront troops in this mass digitization effort? Are they idealistic young people in white jump suits or ex-cons transitioning back into society? What do they think of mass digitization projects as seen from the trenches? Is anyone studying and interviewing these foot soldiers in the mass digitization wars?

  • What is the digitization process being used? Why is it all so hush-hush? With all the organizations and individuals involved, I'm surprised the top-secret process is not widely known and imitated by now.

  • What will be the unexpected outcomes of this and other mass digitization projects? Will super intelligent zombie robots (zombots) ingest all this digital information and lord it over us mere mortals? Will the federal government, state legislatures, alumni, and other major funding sources for universities decide that research universities don't warrant the continued level of financial support they have had since WWII? Perhaps the entire social contract between research universities and the society as a whole is at stake. As with the development of nuclear weapons, the interstate highway system, and Asian land wars, and as we undertake these projects we seem blithely—almost willfully—ignorant of what will be the true and lasting outcomes, be they laudable or lamentable.
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