“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to make a film about libraries,” explains Ben Lewis, the director of Google and the World Brain (2013). About libraries, he says, “they are my favourite places to be. Serene, beautiful repositories of the best thoughts that men and women have ever had”. Political economy, and the rights of citizens in a democracy, also loom large in Lewis’ estimation of the importance of libraries. As he states, libraries are: “Free to use. Far from the din of modern capitalism, libraries are the epitome of the public institution. There is simply nothing bad about a library. It is my paradise”. While praising the value of the Internet, Lewis warns, “the Internet also takes things from us, without asking”. Marrying the Internet and libraries raises hugely problematic issues, especially in the case of Google’s book-scanning project—problems surrounding copyright, national cultures and surveillance.
The political economy of knowledge production is one of the central areas of research interest that constitute the Zero Anthropology Project. This documentary was a good match for that interest, especially as it provokes a number of “big questions”: What are the social and political consequences of knowledge centralization? How, or when, is the digitization of knowledge problematic, and for whom? What role do libraries play in contemporary society? Does copyright protect much more than just authors’ rights and publishers’ profit-making activities? How is the digitization of knowledge linked to surveillance and governance? Should private corporations play any part in creating and/or controlling a universal library? Is a universal library even possible?
Google and the World Brain (2013)
If you were looking for a documentary that was not just another evangelical tract about how “information wants to be free,” spoken by wide-eyed zealots of “open access,” then this is the film for you. While beginning with enthusiasm for open access, for nearly a decade now Zero Anthropology has been warning about the dangers of open access, especially when it comes to facilitating the flow of information to the imperialist military of the US, or bolstering US academic hegemony. Ben Lewis’ Google and the World Brain shows us that we are on the right track. Yet some will argue that there are questionable aspects of Lewis’ critiques and the way they are presented in the film.
Directed by Ben Lewis, Google and the World Brain (2013) runs for 89 minutes. A trailer is included below, but the film in its entirety can be seen online, for free, on Archive.org and on the website of Polar Star Films. If you have 89 minutes to spare, please view it and then let us know if the following analysis was either flawed or unfair.
A trailer for the film is available below:
Polar Star Films, which produced Google and the World Brain, provided a detailed synopsis of the film which forms the basis for the following overview of the film.
Google and the World Brain is the story of “the most ambitious project ever attempted on the Internet: Google’s project to scan every book in the world and create not just a giant digital global library, but a higher form of intelligence”. The film’s critique draws from the dystopian warnings of H.G. Wells who in his 1937 essay “World Brain” predicted the creation of a universal library that contained all of humanity’s written knowledge, and which would be accessible to all of humanity. However, this would not just be a library in the sense of a static holding of inventoried contents, rather it would form the foundation for an all-knowing entity that would eliminate the need for nation-states and governments. With every increase in the quantity of information that it possessed, the globalist World Brain would be better able to rule over all of humanity, and would thus monitor every human being on the planet.
Supposedly Wells’ dystopian vision of technological progress (has progress ever really produced anything other than a succession of dystopias?) was just science fiction. However, this film shows how a World Brain is being brought into existence on the Internet: “Wikipedia, Facebook, Baidu in China and other search engines around the world are all trying to build their own world brains—but none had a plan as bold, far-reaching and transformative as Google did with its Google Books project”.
Starting in 2002, Google began its project of scanning the world’s books. To do so, they entered into legal agreements with major university libraries in the US, most notably those of Harvard, Stanford, and Michigan, and then expanded to include deals with the Bodleian Library at Oxford in the UK and the Catalonian National Library in Spain. The goal was not simply the collection of all books—instead, as Lewis’ film argues, there was “a higher and more secretive purpose” which was to develop a new form of Artificial Intelligence.
Of the 10 million books scanned by Google by the time this documentary was made, six million of them were under copyright. This fact provoked authors, publishers, and some librarians around the world to not only protest Google, but also to take legal and political action against it. In the fall of 2005 the Authors Guild of America and the Association of American Publishers filed lawsuits against Google. That resulted in a 350-page agreement negotiated with Google, which was unveiled in October of 2008.
However, that agreement which involved Google paying a settlement of $125 million, also granted Google Books huge new powers. The result was that Google would become the world’s biggest bookstore and commercialized library. Google now had the exclusive right to sell scans of all out-of-print books that were still in copyright. What this meant is that Google had a monopoly over the majority of books published in the 20th-century.
Reacting against this settlement, Harvard University withdrew its support for Google’s project. Authors in Japan and China joined a worldwide opposition to Google’s book-scanning. The governments of France and Germany also condemned the agreement. In the US, the Department of Justice launched an anti-trust investigation. Starting in late 2009, US Judge Denny Chin held hearings in New York to assess the validity of the 2008 Google Book Settlement, and in March of 2011 he struck it down.
Google altered its plan in order to continue with a version of its book-scanning project. Google signed deals with many individual publishers that would allow Google to show parts of their books online. Google also continued to scan books out-of-copyright. What Google was not able to do was carry out its master plan for an exclusive library that it controlled alone. The Authors Guild also persevered with suing Google for up to $2 billion in damages for scanning copyrighted books.
In this documentary, Google occupies the spotlight. Issues of copyright, privacy, data-mining, downloading, surveillance, and freedom come to the fore as a result.
The key figures interviewed in this film include some of the leading Internet analysts such as Evgeny Morozov, Jaron Lanier, Kevin Kelly, Clay Shirky, and Pamela Samuelson. Librarians in charge of some of the world’s leading libraries are also interviewed, including Robert Darnton (Harvard), Reginald Carr and Richard Ovendon (Bodleian), Jean-Noel Jeanneney (French National Library). In addition, authors involved in the struggle against Google Books such as Charles Seife, Roland Reuss, and Mian Mian (a best-selling Chinese author), are also key figures in the film.
The filmmakers challenge utopian visions of the Internet as the hoped for means of spreading democracy, freedom, and culture around the globe. Instead, the film argues that the Internet has enabled practices contrary to those ideals by, “undermining our civil liberties, free markets and human rights, while concentrating power and wealth in the hands of powerful new monopolies over which we have little influence”.
Polar Star Films ends its synopsis with this very important warning and urgent call for action:
“Humanity now stands at a crossroads. We can either take action to ensure that all the information and knowledge that the Internet is providing serves us, or we can remain passive consumers, and wait for all that information to take control over us. Whatever we do in the next few years will shape society for centuries to come”.
Contemporary Globalization as Science Fiction
H.G. Wells has to be one of the most prescient thinkers of the past two centuries. It is astounding just how far his supposed science “fiction” was in fact an outline discerning what would soon become reality. He had a particularly keen sense of the patterns taking shape around him, and just as keen a vision of the direction in which forces would move the world.
This is not the first time that we resort to the work of H.G. Wells which, under the guise of “fiction,” seemed to provide what global leaders would then adopt as a plan of action. In “The Shape of Things to Come in Libya,” we witnessed the applicability of Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come with its domineering figures, the “United Airmen”—progressivist autocrats who proclaimed themselves “freemasons of science”. Precursors to the neoliberal globalist mode of governance, the United Airmen came to vanquish local warlords and end all national governments, declaring independent sovereign states at an end, even if it meant war to erase them from the face of the earth.
Google and the World Brain opens with these words from the 1937 essay, “World Brain,” by H.G. Wells:
“There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements. To the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind”.
Wells’ depiction of the World Brain was of a new kind of empire: a global dictatorship of technologists and intellectuals. Managers would become the new de facto politicians. This tyranny of expertise sits very well with the current neoliberal world order which sees its future in jeopardy.
It is a peculiar way to start, accompanied by an eerie soundtrack, since one might think that there is nothing especially scary about an “index,” about efficient organization of information, or a complete memory. However, given the mood of the film’s opening, we are immediately invited by the filmmaker to consider these aims in a different light—a much dimmer one.
The film also ends with Wells—all is bad that ends Wells. Quoting from his 1945 book, Mind at the End of its Tether, Wells predicted that this progressivist new world order would come crashing down:
“It is like a convoy lost in darkness along an unknown rocky coast with quarrelling pirates in the chart room and savages clambering up the sides of the ship to plunder and do evil as the whim may take them. That is the rough outline of the more and more jumbled movie on the screen before us. There is no way out. Or round. Or through”.
What is at Stake?
Wells also seemed to predict the Internet as making this world brain possible—this complete database of all human knowledge, past and present, could “be reproduced exactly and fully in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa or wherever else”. One of the analysts interviewed in the film, Kevin Kelly, is of the opinion that having instantaneous access to all human knowledge, “changes your idea of who you are”. Some will inevitably ask: “Is that a bad thing?” Kelly himself seems to think not, and he appears in this film as an evangelist for AI, the Internet, and the wonders of the screen.
The film thus turns its attention to the Google book-scanning operation, described by one analyst as, “clearly the most ambitious World Brain scheme that has ever been invented”. Still, some will wonder, what is the problem? How is the scanning of books something that should alarm anyone?
The film focuses further, and becomes a story about Google trying to achieve a monopoly over the digitization of books. Some will ask: “Is the real problem the total digitization of printed knowledge (which is quite distinct, and often separate from all knowledge as such, since not all human knowledge is published), or is the problem that of corporate monopoly?” In its early minutes, the documentary can be confusing about its intended aims.
The third focus comes next: the argument becomes that Google could track everything, and as Pamela Samuelson (law professor, Berkeley) explains, Google “could hold the whole world hostage”. Some viewers might balk: “this is just alarmism”.
What are the stakes? Speaking of the continued importance of libraries, Robert Darnton (Director, Harvard University Library) says in the film that libraries are, “nerve centres, centres of intellectual energy”. Lewis Hyde adds: “Libraries stand for an ideal, which is an educated public. And to the degree that knowledge is power, they also stand there for the idea that power should be disseminated and not centralised”. Are centralization and dissemination opposed and mutually exclusive? Even as he calls for dissemination, Darnton himself utilizes the concept of “centres”.
(Ironically, Darnton calls for the knowledge held by libraries to be opened up and shared—yet when I tried to gain access to some of Harvard’s library collections myself during research visits in 2004 and 2005, I required special written permission just to gain entry into the buildings.)
Expanding and Centralizing the Control of Knowledge
Google was initially successful in seducing a few of the world’s largest libraries, including those of Harvard and Oxford, whose chief librarians interpreted Google’s book-scanning project as a logical extension of a long history of attempts at centralizing knowledge. Among the earlier attempts were encyclopaedias; plans for a catalogue of all knowledge; and, microfilming.
More recently, and since the advent of the World Wide Web, Project Gutenberg became the first digital library, one which scholars have used and will continue to use regularly. Project Gutenberg, founded by Michael Hart, actually started in the early 1970s with the simple act of typing and distributing the Declaration of Independence.
Ray Kurzweil’s invention of the scanner clearly represented the one key advance needed to proceed towards digitizing knowledge. In 1975, Kurzweil created the first omni-font optical character recognition device, which went commercial in 1978. As Kurzweil admits, “we talked about how you could ultimately scan all books and all printed material”.
In the late 1990s the book, the scanner, and the Internet were combined in an effort to create what was hoped would be gigantic digital libraries. The Internet Archive, an indispensable tool for both myself and likely many readers of this review, was established in 1996. Significantly, the director of the Internet Archive, Brewster Kahle, speaks in this film and indicates that he refused collaboration with Google because of the secrecy surrounding the nature of its agreements with libraries, and the fact that Google appeared to be on track to create something exclusive and separate.
Wikipedia, and arguably YouTube, are also massive attempts at acquiring and centralizing knowledge.
Google = Hegemony
Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google with Larry Page, says that Page first conceived of Google Books in 1999. Google Books was then initiated in 2004. In “A Library to Last Forever,” published in The New York Times on October 9, 2009, Brin explained that Google’s digitization effort would be history’s largest-scale effort, primarily because Google invested significantly in the resources needed for the project. In that article, Brin also is clear that Google was zeroing in on out-of-print but in-copyright books, and commercializing them, while also seeking to create new regulations that would allegedly serve the interests of rights holders. Brin argues that Google’s motivation was to preserve “orphan books” against physical destruction and disappearance. Commenting on Google’s supposedly lofty goals, Evgeny Morozov says the following in this film:
“I don’t think that Google is aware of the fact that it’s a corporation. I think Google does think of itself as an NGO that just happens to make a lot of money. And they think of themselves as social reformers who just happen to have their stock traded on stock exchanges and who just happen to have investors and shareholders, but they do think of themselves as ultimately being in the business of making the world better”.
Google, while claiming to be laying the path for others to follow and which says it has aided other digitization efforts, is highly secretive about its scanning operation. It refused the filmmakers access to any of its (secret) scanning locations, and the film thus relies on six seconds of footage—the only such footage in existence—that was leaked out. Google’s secrecy extends to the total number of books it has scanned, and to how much it costs to scan them on average (one estimate is between $30 and $100 per book). Google also worked to prevent any one of its partner libraries from communicating with other partner libraries about the nature of their individual contracts with Google. According to Sidney Verba, former director of Harvard Library, Google “bent over backwards” to make sure that each library would not tell the others what kind of contract they had and how they were working with Google.
How did Google benefit from book-scanning? Five explanations are offered by interviewees in the film.
(1) Lawrence Lessig introduces the point that one of the benefits of massive book-scanning, is that it pumps information into Google’s core, allowing it to develop more sophisticated algorithms that depend on knowing more and more.
(2) Sidney Verba offers a different explanation: by having lots of information in Google, more people would use Google, which would increase the prospective advertising landscape, thus enriching Google by selling advertising space.
(3) Pamela Samuelson, narrowing Google down to a search engine, offers a third viewpoint: having more data (from books, for example), allows Google to perfect its search technology.
(4) Jaron Lanier argues that there is a competition between all sectors of the modern economy (whether healthcare, information and communications technology, finance, criminality, etc.) for more and more data, because data—and specifically data differentials—is a measure of power. Then the data hoarders can in some cases claim that their work is for the common good, by increasing efficiency.
(5) Lanier, Lessig, and Kevin Kelly together make the point that feeding all these books into Google’s servers leads to the creation of something akin to a life-form, a transformative force, a mass of memories that empowers an artificial intelligence system. As the reader will have noted, there is nothing about these five theories that renders them mutually exclusive—they can all be true, at the same time.
The head of Google Books Spain, Luis Collado, the only company official willing to speak to the filmmakers about Google Books, offered a comparatively milder and more innocent explanation. Collado says that Google’s motivation was to amplify the richness of online knowledge. Until it started adding books to the Internet’s offerings, the Internet only consisted of materials that were specifically created for it. For example, in late 1994 in the SUNY-Cortland library I surfed the entire World Wide Web as it then existed, in just one afternoon (at the time I rushed to the conclusion that the Internet was “useless”). For a few years, it was actually practical for me to print everything I found interesting online, because there was so little worth printing. So Collado has a point, even if it does not exhaust the range of plausible explanations.
For Father Damià Roure, Library Director at the Monastery of Montserrat in Spain, Google’s book-scanning was a means of “diffusing our culture” to the rest of the world, while helping to preserve the knowledge contained in its vast library. What he was simply unable to answer was why the monastery had not asked Google to pay for the privilege of scanning the monastery’s collection. As Google turned its operation into a business, from which it would profit, was it fair to get the materials for free? Father Roure went completely silent at this point in the film, in one of the longest, most awkward silences I have ever seen on the screen. He brought it to an end by saying that he was not in a position to comment on anything other than digitization. Reginald Carr, former director of the Oxford’s Bodleian Library, simply downplayed the point: Google, in his view, was fully entitled to make a profit—having invested so much in the scanning—even if the Bodleian’s ethos was to make knowledge available for free.
These two library directors serve a useful purpose: they are a reminder to us that willing collaboration on the part of intermediary local elites is often essential to any grant project of hegemony-building. When it comes to the Internet, and Google in particular, readers of this article are also collaborators—collaborators that, at a minimum, feed Google with content with each search they perform. By continuing to use Google, you make it more powerful.
Assisted Intelligence or Artificial Intelligence?
Speaking of collaboration, the film specifically addresses how Internet users are themselves used. To the extent that this is done unknowingly, unthinkingly, and without compensation, we move from collaboration to exploitation. Jaron Lanier makes this argument forcefully:
“AI is just a religion. It doesn’t matter. What’s really happening is real world examples from real people who entered their answers, their trivia, their experiences into some online database. It’s actually just a giant puppet theatre repackaging inputs from real people who are forgotten. We are pretending they aren’t there. This is something I really want people to see. The insane structure of modern finance is exactly the same as the insane structure of modern culture on the Internet. They’re precisely the same. It’s an attempt to gather all the information into a high castle, optimise the world and pretend that all the people the information came from don’t deserve anything. It’s all the same mistake”.
An absolutely unctuous and all too precious spokesperson for Google, Amit Singhal, actually confirms Lanier’s point when he says the following in the film:
“Google Search is going to be assisted intelligence and not artificial intelligence. In my mind I think of Search as this beautiful symphony between the user and the search engine and we make music together”.
Singhal confirms what Lanier argued, that Google is powered by its users, but then makes the false analogy to a symphony. Musicians performing in an orchestra are clearly instructed on their roles, they perform willingly, and they perform in accordance with known rules and by reading codified music sheets. In other words, the musicians are willing, aware, and informed. Most of Google’s users do not know they are performing in any “symphony”. Google emphasizes harmony where there is in fact concealment, deceit, and exploitation. If there is any music, it is music only to Google’s ears.
Google and Copyright: The Essence of the Confrontation
The film takes a turn into questions of copyright at this stage, when Harvard’s library director, Robert Darnton, points out that its agreement with Google only allowed for the scanning of books in the public domain. However, Google’s agreements with other libraries allowed it to scan all books, including those in copyright. Mary Sue Coleman, president of Michigan University, openly stated that her university allowed Google to scan copyrighted books, claiming that it was “legal, ethical, and noble” to do so (meanwhile universities warn students not to photocopy more than 10% of any given work). Copyright violation is where the legal problems exploded in Google’s face.
However, one of the outcomes of the lawsuits against Google was that the settlement agreement allowed Google to become the world’s biggest bookstore, specializing in out-of-print but in-copyright books. The settlement in fact granted Google an exclusive right to sell such books, without sharing the profits with authors. Google would also not respect the privacy of readers: the company would instead track what readers read, and for how long they read it.
One of the features of copyright that stands out in this film, is that copyright on the Internet takes the place of national borders. Thus we hear from Angela Merkel in this film, asserting that the German government would defend the rights of German authors, by making sure that copyright had a place on the Internet. Likewise, the former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, declares in footage shown in this film that France would not allow a large private corporation to seize control of French national heritage, “no matter how nice, important, or American it may be”. Standing against the imperial ambitions of Google therefore was the seemingly old-fashioned principle of copyright. It reached the extent that when the Google book settlement was taken to court in 2009, representatives of foreign authors and foreign governments, accused the US of violating various treaty obligations which could force foreign parties to go to the WTO—and in the likely event of the US losing a case before the WTO, other nations would then have a right to impose trade sanctions on the US.
The outcome is that Google remains the target of publishers’ and authors’ lawsuits, while it continues to scan both out-of-copyright books as well as in-copyright books (in agreement with major libraries, and then offering only “snippets” of the book online). Rivalling Google, various governments and major libraries have undertaken their own library digitization, thus defeating Google’s attempt at becoming an exclusive monopoly. The Digital Public Library of America is one such example of a project that took off in response to the threat posed by Google, as is the case of Europeana.
Google as Empire
The film quotes from William Gibson’s 2010 article in The New York Times, “Google’s Earth,” as part of its argument that Google is building an artificial intelligence entity of a grander scale and sophistication than was even imagined in science fiction. As Gibson explains in that article, Google is “a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world,” and he adds that this was, “the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before,” only now Google’s empire is one that also becomes an organ of “global human perception”. In Google, we are citizens, but without rights.
Jean-Noël Jeanneney, the former director of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (the French National Library), represents the voice of the library of the nation-state, that which Google ultimately seeks to erase. He recounts in the film his first encounter with two young Google representatives who came to meet him—he points out that what struck him was their “arrogance” and “brutal commercialism”. These “salesmen,” as he calls them, badly miscalculated his psychology when they brought as a gift a thermo-flask, for which he had no use and which he cast aside. Following his meeting with Google’s representatives, and the company’s announcement that it alone would build a universal digital library, Jeanneney announced to his staff a plan for what he emphatically calls a “counter-offensive”. He criticized the Google book-scanning project as incorporating an Anglo-American cultural bias, and in a noteworthy critique published by Le Monde in 2005 titled “When Google Challenges Europe,” he argued that, “what I don’t want is everything reflected in an American mirror. When it comes to presenting digitized books on the Web, we want to make our choice with our own criteria”. Jeanneney pointed to “the risk of a crushing domination by America in the definition of the idea that future generations will have of the world”. Google suddenly appears not so much as a “new” empire, as in Gibson’s piece, but rather a part of the American empire in a new extension of itself. We are thus back to the familiar problems of Americanization and cultural imperialism.
As Sidney Verba explains in the film, there were two additional sides to the French critique of Google: one had to with the dominant language of Google search results—English—which thus acted as a force undermining French, and the second had to do with who got to decide what would be digitized, its order of priority, and who would get to do the digitization. Who are the Americans at Google who get to digitize France’s books?
While sometimes striking an alarmist tone that was not warranted by the empirical substance that was presented, one could also conclude that the film is only guilty of erring on the side of caution. When dealing with Google in particular, we are well past the point of being cautious: it is a monopolistic entity that for years had a large revolving door between itself and the State Department and the Democratic Party, while also striking deals with the Pentagon and engaging in political censorship. There is nothing innocent about Google, and to the extent that it swallows the Internet, there is little about the Internet that is innocent.
One of the possible lapses of the film is that it does not direct as much attention to China’s Baidu, which has its own extensive book-scanning project that might even rival Google’s. The film presents an interview with Baidu’s communications director, and provides some useful statistics from Baidu employees about the extent of its own book-scanning project—but the bulk of the criticism is reserved for Google.
However, it has to be said that Ben Lewis does us all an essential service with this film that, ostensibly, appears to be about the simple act of scanning library books, and becomes instead a much larger story about democracy, rights, nation-states, cultures, corporatization, political economy, international law, and the future of globalization.
It was not surprising to see that, once again, one of the top documentaries we have had the privilege of reviewing was produced by Europe’s Arte television company.
This documentary, with all of its thought-provoking questions and careful detail, would be suitable for a wide range of courses in fields such as Information and Communication Studies, Librarianship, Media Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, and Political Science. The film earns a score of 8.75/10.