Why Google's universal library is an assault on human identity

Why Google's universal library is an assault on human identity

Summary: 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.

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TOPICS: Google
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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.


Topic: Google

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  • Its either left or right in this case

    MS actually just plans to do the same. I agree that a book is best read in full, but wouldn't it be great to find all books with a certain quote?

    If you look at the site, you'll notice they show scanned pages and from most books which have copyright, you can not read the full book. Nor is it easy to copy content and create mashups.

    And keep in mind, if Google won't do it, Microsoft will do so as they both have the same plans.
    tombalablomba
  • This is so inevitable

    I see nothing whatsoever to worry about here, at least from the angle the author fears.

    Everything will be digitized. This revolution is no less profound than when Gutenberg built the first printing press, making it possible to mass produce books in the first place.

    People who want to do stupid things with information will always find a 3 ring circus to perform in. Right now its the internet, due to its wild west nature.

    Eventually, the book will become a computer anyway. You will always be able to cozy up in the corner sofa chair and read your favorite novel, but with the added benefit of choosing your font size and not having to flip pages anymore.
    Compute_This
  • What are you talking about?

    (and what's with the ZDNET blogs animus against google?)

    People have been indexing books for ages. It's called a 'Concordance', and has been particularly useful for the bible, not seen as an assault upon it.

    The beauty of the Google books project is that it allows users to specify and zero in on content, not mash it up and mix it up.

    As it stands, Google books isn't really a "publishing" venue-- Not a pleasant way to read, but a good way to browse, which I think, is just what google's going for. If I really need the information in there I'd still go to the library or buy the book.

    This BS-talk about an 'assault on human identity' is ridiculously overblown.
    jtmodel
    • Yeah, and...

      "People have been indexing books for ages. It's called a 'Concordance', and has been particularly useful for the bible, not seen as an assault upon it."

      ... note how many people take passages from the Bible out of context, to support whatever they wish. Indexing and concordances are bad things, not good things. People need to read entire books, not just bits and pieces.

      In my opinion, no one should be allowed to quote out of a book until they've proven they've read the entire work first.

      Carl Rapson
      rapson
      • Screech

        "... note how many people take passages from the Bible out of context, to support whatever they wish. Indexing and concordances are bad things, not good things. People need to read entire books, not just bits and pieces.

        In my opinion, no one should be allowed to quote out of a book until they've proven they've read the entire work first."

        is the sound of intellectual progress coming to a halt. Indices and concordances are tools. Use them for good or for ill, it's ridiculous to blame the hammer because someone smashed someone else's head in.
        jtmodel
  • Is it the paper?

    As a self-described "book junkie" I think this story is bizarre. Was John Updike talking about his love of paper or the words on the paper? Sounded like the paper. Reading is reading. I don't need to read the words on paper though that is my preference. The words can still be valuable even if they are on a screen. There won't be that nice heft or great smell of a leather-bound book but the medium has changed many times throughout history. I for one am grateful that I don't have to read my daily clay tablet or papyrus scroll. I certainly don't mind a good index in a book either. Now if someone would really make a good ebook I wouldn't have to give up two rooms in my house to my books. If I could replace my thousands of books with one good appliance and a shoebox full of chips I doubt my human identity would be diminished.
    CriticalThinker
  • You're absolutely right

    Electronic copies of text should be made illegal on pain of death.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • turn off your computer then, we'll do this all by carrier pidgeon

      or maybe build a lyceum, and fling grapes at each other.
      stevey_d
  • Sounds like the author is wanting to restrict information from the public

    When I was first searching books I had to go to a Univerity library. Once there I had to find the Dewey code for the information I wanted, then look in a card index for books and summaries, then go look at the books themselves (after physically finding them, which might not be so easy because often they were on loan).
    Later the looking up Dewey code and card index became computerised, as well as the status record showing the book was on loan.

    If you've ever formally had to do any of the above, you can see what Google is doing. Making it easier to get information.

    I totally fail to see what is wrong with this, unless you have a hidden motive where you don't want people to have access to information.
    stevey_d
  • binaries are so wrong

    left/right on/off 0/1 paper/digital cut/paste
    to be or not to be

    this article wanted so wanted to be sturm und drang.
    instead it was a hopeless black and white
    mess signifying nothing.

    paper/plastic?
    chacal la chaise
  • William Gibson, Web 2.0?

    Okay, you've got me. What the hell does William Gibson have to do with Web 2.0? Or Kevin Kelly?
    dthomasmaddox@...
  • RE: Why Google's universal library is an assault on human identity

    All because you can access William Shakespeare's plays online - or in a book from a library for that matter - it does not make you an instant expert.

    Web 2.0 pundits seem to have forgotten that to become an expert actually requires study and understanding - not just a click of a mouse
    Leemelon