you were to list corporations arrogant enough to initiate the Terminator franchise’s Skynet apocalypse,
Google would have to rank at the top. In
fact, they might be the entire extent of the roll. Ben Lewis documents enough characteristic
weirdness and secrecy surrounding the company’s controversial book-scanning initiative
to provoke all sorts of paranoia with Google
and the World Brain (trailer
which screened as part of the World Documentary Cinema Competition during the
2013 Sundance Film Festival.
sounded innocent enough during the early stages. Google approached some of the greatest
academic libraries, offering to scan their collections. For librarians, it offered the opportunity of
digital preservation, without taxing their institutional budgets. However, many were surprised to find Google
selling the resulting e-books online, including a considerable number of titles
that were out-of-print, but not out of copyright.
the considerable number of authors affected, this constituted theft of intellectual
property. Yet, many techy tea leaf
readers were even more concerned about the big G’s ultimate aim. Although not confirmed by the company, the
book-scanning project is largely considered to be part of a larger undertaking
to create a “World Brain” artificial intelligence.
employs the words of World Brain proponent H.G. Wells to introduce the concept,
but you do not have to wear a tin foil hat to be uneasy with his “paternalistic”
rationalizations. Likewise, given the
big G’s history collaborating with the Chinese government (briefly addressed in
the doc), one does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to be uneasy with the
company potentially keeping tabs on what books people read in the future.
course, it is hard to say just what the big G’s intentions are because they are
not particular talkative about that.
Despite his efforts, Foster only gets a bit of corporate flakery from an
official spokesman and some less than illuminating comments from the rather
confused sounding head of Google Books in Spain (who evidently did not get the
memo). One thing comes through loud and
clear in G & WB. If you want to talk to the big G about a cup
of coffee, you will quickly find yourself signing non-disclosure forms.
not exclusively about the court challenge to the big G’s settlement agreement
with the Authors Guild, this is unquestionably Lewis’s strongest material,
becoming the dramatic backbone of the film.
Plenty of those objecting to the arrangement talk on-camera about the
complex court case and their wider reservations. We also hear from the usual futurist
suspects, essentially picking up where they left off in Welcome to the Machine.
distinguishing it from other tech docs, G
& WB sports some surprisingly cool graphics that nicely serve the
narrative clarity. In a minor quibble,
the film commits a fallacy of composition when it lumps together several ongoing
court cases related to e-books that are really more about commercial practices
than control information.
takes guts to question a company with the resources and self-righteous image of
the big G. In doing so Lewis tells a
great David vs. Goliath story and raises some pertinent ethical issues for the
information age. Well thought out and lucidly
presented Google and the World Brain
is recommended for the Wired set and book
publishing dinosaurs as it makes the festival rounds following its world premiere
at this year’s Sundance.
Labels: Documentary, Google, Singularity, Sundance '13