Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sundance ’13: Google and the World Brain

If 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 here) which screened as part of the World Documentary Cinema Competition during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

It 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.

To 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.

Foster 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.

Of 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.

While 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

Further 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.

It 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.