In this morning's Financial Times, Thomas Rubin, Microsoft Associate General Council for Intellectual Property, suggests that authors won't benefit from Google's ambition to scan all the texts in the world and create a "vast online database of indexed content". Rubin is right, of course. But there's a second and even more important reason why Google's universal library sucks. It's bad for knowledge, bad for education, bad for the intellectual development of our kids. Google's universal library is, indeed, the very worst thing that could happen to our culture. It will kill the book.
What Google want to do is "liberate" words from the text. Eric Schmidt, Google's chiliastic chief executive, sees this as a way of delivering free knowledge to the world's intellectually undernourished masses. But he's wrong. Google's universal library will create more rather than less intellectual malnourishment. Books are cogent, coherent stand-alone entities that can't be chopped up like vegetables to create an "interesting" salad of digital snippets. In today's "cut and paste" Internet culture, scanning books and chucking their poor innocent words into a vast, searchable database will only create massive intellectual fraud and confusion. Books are more, so much more than the sum of their individual words. Taking a few words out of one text, replacing them with a few words from another, is the surest way to undermine the coherence of any textual argument. (Re)mixing Alan Bloom, Harold Bloom and Amy Bloom into a Blooming synthesis might be attractive to fashionable Web 2.0 theorists like Kevin Kelly or William Gibson. And, yes, mash-ups are okay when you are synthesizing mapping software with store locators. But (re)mixing great books like Plato's Republic with Hobbes Leviathan will create intellectual garbage. Web 2.0 (or 3.0 or 4.0) software can't deal with either ambiguity or intellectual complexity. I don't care how "intelligent" Google's algorithm becomes, it will never be able to either understand or mimic the seduction of an autonomous text.
John Updike put it best in his response to Kevin Kelly's notorious 2006 New York Times magazine piece about Google's universal library. For some of us," Updike said. "Books are intrinsic to our human identity." Exactly. So, by undermining the autonomy of the stand-alone book, Google's vast database of indexed content is actually a blooming assault on human identity.