Monday, December 05, 2005

Google and Books

George Dyson on Google book scanning: "The Universal Library"
excerpt from an essay by George Dyson on edge:

Digital coding is the universal language allowing free translation between abstract information and physical books. Once upon a time, if you wanted the information, you had to physically possess (or borrow) the book. If you wanted to purchase a new copy of the book, the title had to be "in print."

This is no longer true. Scan the text once, digitally, and the information becomes permanently available, anywhere, no matter what happens to physical copies of the book. Search for an out-of-print title and you will now find bookshops (and libraries) who have copies available; soon enough the options will include bookshops offering to print a copy, just for you. Google Library and Google Print have been renamed Google Book Search--not because Google is shying away from building the Universal Library (with links to the Universal Bookstore) but because search comes first. To paraphrase Tolkien: "One ring to find them, one ring to bind them, one ring to rule them all."

Why does this strike such a nerve? Because so many of us (not only authors) love books. In their combination of mortal, physical embodiment with immortal, disembodied knowledge, books are the mirror of ourselves. Books are not mere physical objects. They have a life of their own. Wholesale scanning, we fear, will strip our books of their souls. Works that were sewn together by hand, one chapter at a time, should not be unbound page by page and distributed click by click. Talk about "snippets" makes authors flinch.

I am . . . what? fascinated? puzzled? flabberghasted? by the response to the whole Google Books project.

Seemingly intelligent people are taking up stances that make no sense whatsoever, or ones that seem to run directly contrary to their own interests. George Dyson, for instance. I imagine he's a smart guy. And I love books, too. But everything what he's written on Google of late (this piece and "Turing's Cathedral," available at The Edge) seem almost unbelievablyy beside the point. Yes books are physical objects. So what?

The reaction to Google's ambition to index everything bears a lot of similarity to the popular-intellectual response to cyberpunk writing and the emergence of the Internet.Rememberr all the half-informed drivel written about something called "cyber space" which was going to replace all genuine, authentic experience with a simulation. Luckily, somehow that didn't happen.

New media and the availability of new ways to use new media do not spell the disappearance of old media and old ways. Mr. Dyson and book lovers everywhere (including me) will continue to buy, store and cherish books. Probably moreso than we did before with the (perhaps Google-supplied, perhaps not) ability to find books we'd never have come across otherwise.

The thing with Google is this: it is a means of access to information and a powerful one. They are not without competitors, and they will probably never be without competitors. They are never going to be the one entity that absolutely dominates everything on the web. And anything they propose to do is can probably be duplicated by one of their competitors. Google isn't the millennium, it's just a good search tool.

Copyright holders who deny the fair use of their material (let's leave the legal nitpicking aside here and just say that searchability and the display of excerpts is fair: it will cause few or no loss of sales (actually quite the opposite) and will certainly lend to the propagation of knowledge), with few exceptions are slitting their own throats. Because the big threat to books isn't being digitized. It's not being digitized.

There is an incrediblee wealth of knowledge now in print, but not available for search. And that fact will make the world of print increasinglyy the domain of odd ducks like me. While this might make people like me more special, if you are truly interested in books, you'll be more supportive of the reasonably regulated digitizing of print.