Meeting on the ledge

(or why I don't get out much…..)

Google Books

I saw a rather good documentary, Google and the world brain on BBC4 the other night. If you didn’t catch it I can recommend it. It was intelligent,well made, and allowed the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions.

The subject matter was Google Books. Google seems to have surrounded this with layers of legalistic secrecy that are bound to incur suspicion even if this isn’t actually justified. Several of the talking heads mentioned that they’d been told to sign non-disclosure agreements and there was one scene where the librarian of a monastic library just stopped speaking in obvious confusion about what he could or couldn’t say.  This was exacerbated by Google US’s odd decision not to participate in the programme (and yet one of their Spanish staff did do so?)

Yet the logic of Google Books seems clear. As a librarian I’m all for free availability of information, and it seems obvious that a search engine provider would want to add ever more information to their database to improve the quality of the answer. I think it was the fact that the digitisation puts the scanned images into the control of one organisation that drew most suspicion. Can we trust one organisation to do this fairly? The jury is out on that one.

The other objections were equally predictable. The programme painted a perhaps unfair picture of the nationalistic objections from the former head of the Bibliotheque Nationale. However the objection which has done most to hinder the original aims of the Google Books project is copyright. Up until recently Google Books was scanning in-copyright books but said that this was legal because of the ‘fair use’ clause in copyright law.  Due to legal actions they’ve now stopped this and are scanning only books outside copyright (even though the laws which define what is and isn’t copyright aren’t exactly universal either!).

The programme touched on the murky world of copyright. Both sides of the argument were presented: that knowledge itself can’t be held to be private and so only the author’s arrangement of the words is copyright-able, versus the argument that if an author has spent a year or more of his/her time creating a book they deserve some kind of recognition and reward for this. Much can be said on this and opinions are very entrenched so I won’t say any more!

Another aspect of the programme which deserves further exploration is Google’s motives in developing Google Books. It is costing them millions of dollars. Improving the search engine is an obvious aim, but also mentioned was an aspiration towards Artificial Intelligence. There were several quotations from H.G. Wells musing on the World Brain. However the acquisition of knowledge is not the same thing as being able to use that knowledge logically, fairly and morally (just look at many of the occupants of the House of Commons for evidence of that!). If Google is working towards AI, then the ‘thinking brain’ must be another one of those Google side-projects, some of which blossom (like Android), and others which never go anywhere. Of course if they are working on AI they are not alone, as there are many projects of this nature around the world, some overt and sharing their results in the scientific principle, but doubtless others which are under the radar. But I suspect that Google’s slightly quirky approach to development might have led them further down the road than others which are less free to question doctrine. Google Search was a game-changer when it emerged, but an adaptable AI which could operate outside very closely defined parameters might well be a society-changer. ….

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February 20, 2013 - Posted by | General |

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