Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, January 25, 2009

it’s Google’s world; we’re just living in it

Much of the Robert Darnton article I linked to in an earlier post is concerned with the power that Google now has over access to books, through its massive digitization project and, especially, the recent agreement it has reached with publishers to continue and expand on that that project. Darnton:

The settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans, whether they want to find out about people, goods, places, or almost anything. In addition to the original "Big Google," we have Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Images, Google Labs, Google Finance, Google Arts, Google Food, Google Sports, Google Health, Google Checkout, Google Alerts, and many more Google enterprises on the way. Now Google Book Search promises to create the largest library and the largest book business that have ever existed.

Whether or not I have understood the settlement correctly, its terms are locked together so tightly that they cannot be pried apart. At this point, neither Google, nor the authors, nor the publishers, nor the district court is likely to modify the settlement substantially. Yet this is also a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream [of a true Republic of Letters] may be as elusive as ever.

Nicholas Carr has some of the same concerns, only more so, because he would cross out Darnton’s “apart from Wikipedia” concession. Carr has been running a set of Google searches repeatedly since 2006, and while Wikipedia was prominent in the search results from the start, it now provides the first option for every single search in the series. Carr:

The first thing to be said is: Congratulations, Wikipedians. You rule. Seriously, it's a remarkable achievement. Who would have thought that a rag-tag band of anonymous volunteers could achieve what amounts to hegemony over the results of the most popular search engine, at least when it comes to searches for common topics.

The next thing to be said is: what we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history's eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia - and I admit there's much to adore - you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing. Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

A thoughtful response to at least some of the concerns of Darnton and Carr comes from Tim O’Reilly. Note especially this point:

There has never been more competition either in electronic books, or for books, in the broader electronic ‘republic of letters.’ . . . In short, there's a strong economic motive for publishers to release digital editions of their books, and to treat Google Books as only one possible channel. . . . Frankly, I'd be far more worried about Darnton's wished-for utopia, in which the government had funded the equivalent, mandating that all publishers participate. That might well have nipped the competitive ebook landscape in the bud. . . . As it is, we see lots of different competing approaches to bootstrapping this market. I'd say it's opening up very nicely!

I don't know who’s closer to being right here. It’s likely that O’Reilly is too sanguine and Darnton and Carr too worried. But I have just enough Richard Stallman in me to distrust Google’s power. I’ve been trying lately to disentangle myself to some degree from Google’s services — though I’m not likely to shift from Gmail — and to diversify my online investments, so to speak. I’m also thinking about retrieving some of my stuff that’s now “in the cloud” and confining it to my desktop. But I have to admit, I use Google Books more and more and more, for reasons such as the ones noted here.