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Google and the World Brain

Google and the World Brain is a fascinating documentary about the Google Books project, and it’s legal troubles when challenged by copyright holders. It was shown as part of the BBC’s “Storyville” series and can be viewed at the moment on iPlayer (in the UK) .

The World Brain was a concept by the author (and perhaps one of the first futurists) H.G. Wells in which he thought that the technology was available to create something like the library of Alexandria – a repository of the sum of human knowledge, but sorted and indexed in order to make it easily available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

At first the documentary takes pains to show both sides of the argument. Google is perhaps uniquely positioned with the capabilities to digitise such a large amount of books (even if in the snippets it looks like mind numbingly tedious manual work!) and present it with it’s own search algorithms. However as the naysayers get to speak their piece it becomes an argument between the freedom of information, the potential monopolising of certain sectors of the publishing world, and the tearing away of copyright protection enjoyed by authors.

As usual it boils down to money. As Kevin Kelly (founder of Wired and a well known technology evangelist) says if you don’t agree with these freedoms or are worried about privacy, unplug your internet connection. I guess you can’t say fairer than that.

With a cast of characters including French and German representatives, who no matter what they claim seem to carrying an anti-american point of view more than worrying about a threat to culture, the story eventually ends on the note that perhaps it shouldn’t be commercial entities like Google controlling this mass digitising, it should be governments. And rightly so.

I’m all for freedom of information. Of course information should be available to all. However I feel this perhaps is more relevant to academical works, bodies of research, and perhaps news and current affairs. Knowledge helps further the human race, prevents endless reinventing of the wheel, and empowers, informs, and educates. All modern material of course is now heavily provided in digital form, so there should really be no argument against digitising to preserve and index work that was made before this present level of technology.

In all honesty Google’s current way of showing “snippets” of published work for search queries is of no real use to anyone. And if those snippets provide book sales of out-of-print books I’m sure most would agree this is more about a sale of a lost work than a lost sale for a current work…

The arguments about whether “Google is Evil!” (a twist on it’s motto of Do No Evil ) have long been discussed, and the matter of it’s map-making cars gathering wifi data mentioned in this film. I feel much more damage is done by world governments who love to censor on one hand but have access to all we hold private in the other than ever Google would achieve in it’s side line of profit alongside it’s altruistic endeavours.

“Google and The World Brain” was made by Polar Star Films  and also shown as part of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Trailer @ Youtube