Jesse Jarnow

google & the myth of universal knowledge

I swallowed Google’s utopian kool-aid at CES a few years ago, and — on a primal level — have a real hard time understanding any argument suggesting that Google’s mass digitization of books is anything but a profoundly good thing. But Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge genuinely opens up the discussion.

Where publishers’ frustrations seemed profit driven, Jeanneney’s analysis of how Google’s economic approach manifests itself in search results is totally essential.

There is a danger that cultural populism will organize channels of access in favor of the most elementary, the least disturbing, and most commonplace products.


Despite the false appearance of gratuitousness, the private sector reaps the profits by indirectly selling the use of these books through the advertising exposure that occurs with each hit, and also by global exposure. The company expects this increasingly lucrative business, thanks to Google Book Search, to have an impact on its entire commercial offering. Naturally, what remains of such profits, after distribution to shareholders, will further accentuate the imbalance in favor of the private sector and reduce the influence of those institutions serving the common interest.

In other words, down with libraries! Having run the Bibliotheèque nationale de France for five years, I can see why Jeanneney might fret. His arguments get curmudgeonly on occasion, such as his criticism of Google’s massive book intake, saying that it is the job of a library to carefully pick what they preserve — and totally ignoring the fact that Google is digitizing collections already vetted by librarians. (Though his fear of an American dominance seems totally warranted.)

Jeanneney yearns for some sort of governmental involvement in these projects. And, really, if what he proposes ever occurs, it would be an amazing and useful advance for humanity. While it is true that the internet is a free market (which left it vulnerable to domination by a utopian company like Google), it also has the power to be something else entirely, the same unformed ether it always was. (Maybe this is a particularly American way of approaching the basic metaphor of the ‘net: the old, unsettled west.) People can preserve information with profit behind them, like Google, or because they want to, like Brewster Kahle’s

In the case of the latter, it is little different than any national library, at least in the sense that it is an institution that earns its power in recognition. After Jeanneney’s book, I might not trust Google the way I once did, but I do trust the internet. When given the choice of freedom, the result isn’t always a market. Sometime it’s just being free.


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