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Google: All Your Books Are Belong To Us

Reading Google & The Future of Books by Robert Darnton

My Sunday morning reading started off in one direction and veered suddenly in another. I had been thinking about the position Jason Calacanis put forward on yesterday’s GillmorGang broadcast. Calacanis has recently been lamenting what he believes is the death of blogging. He sees a “race to the bottom” where writers will do anything for ratings. Rather than write a blog, he’s returned to the era of epistolary exchange and combined that with the mailing list. In the limited economy of that form, he finds more of the kind of value he’s looking for.

It’s at that point that I started reading Robert Darnton’s essay ‘Google & the Future of Books‘ in the latest New York Review of Books. Darton begins his essay with a look back at the Enlightenment:

The eighteenth century imagined the Republic of Letters as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won.

This free flowing economy of thoughts, ideas and conversations was perhaps a Utopian ideal from the beginning:

Far from functioning like an egalitarian agora, the Republic of Letters suffered from the same disease that ate through all societies in the eighteenth century: privilege. Privileges were not limited to aristocrats. In France, they applied to everything in the world of letters, including printing and the book trade, which were dominated by exclusive guilds, and the books themselves, which could not appear legally without a royal privilege and a censor’s approbation, printed in full in their text.

You can easily trace the lineage, the geneology of the idea, from the Republic of Letters to Vannever Bush’s Memex, Ted Nelson and Xanadu, Doug Engelbart and Augmentation, and Tim Berners-Lee and the original World Wide Web.

This is where Darnton hijacked my stream of thought. My desire to explore the political economy of restricted and general systems of epistolary conversation was shoved aside as Darnton revealed his purpose in the essay. He enlightened me to the fact that Google has monopoly ownership of the right digitize our nation’s books. And this of course means that all access will have to go through Google.

Google is not a guild, and it did not set out to create a monopoly. On the contrary, it has pursued a laudable goal: promoting access to information. But the class action character of the settlement makes Google invulnerable to competition. Most book authors and publishers who own US copyrights are automatically covered by the settlement. They can opt out of it; but whatever they do, no new digitizing enterprise can get off the ground without winning their assent one by one, a practical impossibility, or without becoming mired down in another class action suit. If approved by the court—a process that could take as much as two years—the settlement will give Google control over the digitizing of virtually all books covered by copyright in the United States.

Darnton mourns the lost opportunity to create a National Digital Library. As Google search is increasingly the provider of our first hyperlink to click as we enter the World Wide Web; now they will have absolute power over access to all books under copyright. In this Google moves from Soft Power to Hard Power. We choose to use Google’s search engine because it works well for us. If we want to search the nation’s digital library, our Republic of Letters, we will have no choice but to ask Google. Darnton believes it’s too late to change the outcome. I hope he’s wrong.

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