New word order

23 February 2013

‘Don’t be evil.’ Google’s unofficial motto.

‘Evil men don’t get up in the morning saying, “I’m going to do evil.” They say, “I’m going to make the world a better place.”’ Christopher Booker.

Meanwhile — while you were distracted by other things like tax bills and school fees and somehow scraping by — Google and Amazon and Apple took over the world. This, of course, is what novels by the likes of William Gibson, films such as Blade Runner and comic strips like Judge Dredd have been telling us for some time: that one day, the world will be ruled not by governments but by giant corporations. What I don’t think many of us realised — I certainly didn’t — was that such a thing was going to happen in our lifetime.

But then I watched Ben Lewis’s glacial but rewarding Storyville documentary Google and the World Brain (BBC4, Monday) and my eyes were opened. What Google has been trying to do — in all our best interests, apparently — is very, very scary. And the thing that’s so scary is precisely this: that Google cannot see — or claims to be unable to see — that it has been doing anything wrong.

Google’s plan went something like this: with the permission of the world’s greatest libraries — from Harvard and the Bodleian to the 11th-century Monastery of Montserrat in Spain — it would scan the pages of all the books ever written. These would then be made available for free access at all the world’s public libraries, thus treating all mankind to the gift of knowledge.

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But there was at least one problem with this. Out of the ten million books Google has scanned so far, six million are still under copyright. What Google was doing, in other words, was stealing six million properties — and expecting no one to mind, either because the theft was on such a massive scale that it almost defied comprehension or because the project was costing so much money that everyone would somehow applaud Google’s altruism.

It took a German to point out the obvious. ‘I could go into Deutsche Bank and remove all the money and hand it out to all the people in the street. “Look, I have helped unemployment. There are no beggars any more,” I might say. But it would still be a bank robbery,’ said an engaging fellow named Roland Reuss, professor of literature at Heidelberg.

Normally, when it’s a competition between fusty, sclerotic Old Europe and go-ahead, can-do America I’m with the US all the way. Not on this occasion, however. I particularly warmed to a character so ludicrously Gallic and Grande Ecole I’m surprised they didn’t film him with a napkin over his head devouring an ortolan. His name was Jean-Noël Jeanneney, former director of the French National Library.

Jeanneney was not impressed when the young men from Google approached him. He could tell they were not habituated to wearing ties, he said, and had clearly only put one on because such, they believed, was the European way. Worse, they made the fatal mistake of attempting to curry favour with a gift: they had brought him one of those thermos mugs that keeps your hot drinks warm on train journeys. He had resolved then and there to have nothing to do with Google and its infernal project.

Of course, there were other talking heads on hand — the co-founder of Wired, for example — to tell us that we were all making a huge mistake, that objecting to Google’s plan was essentially Luddite and that people who didn’t like the way progress was going should just give up their computers and go and live in the hills.

It seems to me, though, that this ‘you don’t understand technology’ defence is not only arrogant but specious, too. There’s a reason why we have monopoly regulations and it’s precisely to stop the kind of dangerous concentration of power that would have given Google — had not its scheme been thwarted by a US judge after a case brought by the Authors Guild — a stranglehold over all the best things that had ever been thought or written, to exploit this as it wished.

‘What is a company doing with all this information?’ one commentator asked. What indeed. It’s said that Google’s ultimate goal is to create a form of Artificial Intelligence, a search engine so amazing that it can answer in an instant almost every question you ever dreamed of asking. Already, we are well on the way to achieving this. An IBM supercomputer called Watson recently beat its human rivals to win the US quiz show Jeopardy: to do this, it not only had to be capable of sifting 200 million pages of data to find the right answer (or rather, in Jeopardy’s case, question) but also to understand colloquial speech and metaphor. By 2045, one expert reckoned, our computing technologies will have expanded a billionfold — and we’ll be able to access all knowledge from an implant in our bodies no bigger than a blood cell.

Bugger. Does that mean the money I spend on school fees is completely wasted, then?

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Show comments
  • John Alexander

    Yes it does James. BTW – being able to contemplate paying school fees is not ‘somehow scraping by.’ Only 10% of families can afford to contemplate it at all. I went to a normal comprehensive, did well in my exams, and now have a well-paid and socially useful job. I didn’t go to Eton, become a banker and dedicate my time to destroying the British economy and propping up the Colombian (sniff-sniff).

  • Jens Knocke

    Of course Google will not be the “owner” of these texts, for G’s sake. I recently needed a text by a Swedish author around 1901 – Hjalmar Söderbeg – and Google supplied it, not asking a penny. t’s just a marvelous service offered.

  • gillibrand

    Completely agree. I am launching an epublishing business which includes translations from German and French. I have to be very careful about the copyright, even having in some cases to check how long authors have been dead, but Google are bigger than me. Reminds me of a patent case my grandpa kept winning against HMV in the 1920s- they were bigger than him and just paid the fines.

  • Richard Stanford Brown

    No. A good school teaches much more than simply information.

    • A J Brenchley

      Richard: *If* he’s allowed to. Many heads of schools these days are allergic to anything that resembles lectures, hand-written note-taking by students, and use of one’s memory. They believe that only tablets should be used and consulted by students while in the classroom, and that such reliance on technology is a) a matter of ‘keeping up’ with the contemporary world and b) giving the students what they demand and apparently now can’t live without.

      Perhaps maths and languages can be taught by means of constant reference to ‘apps’, and English teachers can at least have everyone read the current book on the tablet (or more likely, the lazy version of the ‘Notes’); but history cannot be adequately taught that way. Ideas must be discussed. By people with their heads up, engaged with one another, here and now. Technology is and should only be a tool because it can’t be an end.

      • Richard Stanford Brown

        That’s a matter for parental choice. As it happens I share your concerns, and as a result my children are flourishing in a well-established Steiner-Waldorf school.

        • A J Brenchley

          That’s a matter for parental choice.

          I’m afraid it isn’t, really: that’s the problem. Parents are very much imposed upon by schools that are hell-bent on capitulating to students on the one hand and tech bullies on the other (administrations are rife with them, in the USA). Parents can be a problem in their own way, of course. Very few people understand what an education actually IS, and it’s dismaying how few heads of school have any real respect for learning.

          • Richard Stanford Brown

            Really, it is. I have made a choice concerning which school my children attend, and that school doesn’t use computers or televisions in their teaching methods, at all. It is rated as ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED, achieves fantastic academic results, produces enthusiastic and responsible young adults, and yet is very affordable. I moved house to be near it. To deny the existence of choice is to forgo parental responsibility. It’s all choice.

          • Swanky Yanky

            I think we’re both right. Where the schools have big enough endowments to be selective, they can set the policy with the highest practicable ideals in view, and the parents can sign up or not. But where every tuition payment must be fought for and money is tight, the school tends to be obsessed with bragging in the brochure, and with marketing an ‘angle’ that makes the school seem superior to the one that the taxpayer’s paying for. And what I see is that Lefty schoolteachers (especially those in administration, some of whom haven’t even taught adolescents) fall easy prey to arguments about ‘collaborative learning’ and ‘the world in the palm of your hand’ and similar kumbaya claptrap.

            Glad that you were able to move near the worthy school. I’m sure you realize, however, that many good parents can’t afford to do that, financially or in other ways.

  • Richard Stanford Brown

    Intellectual copyright is essentially unsustainable in the 21st century. Producers, myself included, must adapt to new paradigms. Yet another example of Rothbard being correct.

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