The Googlization of Everything

Robert Darnton has written a long and interesting article about the Google books class action at the New York Reveiw of Books, entitled Google and the Future of Books.

In the article, Darnton begins by describing a mythologised but historically extant “Republic of Letters” – the Enlightenment, if you like – inhabited by men like Voltaire and Rousseau, Jefferson and Madison. This Republic wasn’t always a wonderful thing, confined as it was to those rich and educated enough to gain entry, but it none-the-less represented a vision of free-and-frank intellectual exchange and discussion which has endured:

One way to understand this system is to draw on the sociology of knowledge, notably Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of literature as a power field composed of contending positions within the rules of a game that itself is subordinate to the dominating forces of society at large. But one needn’t subscribe to Bourdieu’s school of sociology in order to acknowledge the connections between literature and power. Seen from the perspective of the players, the realities of literary life contradicted the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment. Despite its principles, the Republic of Letters, as it actually operated, was a closed world, inaccessible to the underprivileged. Yet I want to invoke the Enlightenment in an argument for openness in general and for open access in particular.

Darnton argues there is a similar tension between the principles of free access and open information embodied by many libraries and educational institutions, and the money and power at stake in the information they generate, distribute and control. He points out that copyright is specifically set down in Article I of the United States Consititution ‘”for limited times” only and subject to the higher purpose of promoting “the progress of science and useful arts.”‘ In the 1780s this meant a 14 year term with one extension. Now, of course, copyright has lengethened to more than a century.

This long and interesting article is in many ways an elaboration and commentary on Lawrence Lessig’s work, but contains many fascinating observations of the contentious interface between the public and prviate spheres of knowledge. For instance, did you know that relatively obscure journals charge tens of thousands of dollarsz to public and unviersity libraries?

… the Journal of Comparative Neurology now costs $25,910 for a year’s subscription; Tetrahedron costs $17,969 (or $39,739, if bundled with related publications as a Tetrahedron package); the average price of a chemistry journal is $3,490; and the ripple effects have damaged intellectual life throughout the world of learning. Owing to the skyrocketing cost of serials, libraries that used to spend 50 percent of their acquisitions budget on monographs now spend 25 percent or less. University presses, which depend on sales to libraries, cannot cover their costs by publishing monographs. And young scholars who depend on publishing to advance their careers are now in danger of perishing.

But now, of course, one corporation is changing that business model: Google, with its ground-breaking settlement known simply as the Google Book Settlement. Although there has been some in depth commentary on this topic – most notably from Siva Vaidhyanathan – there has been suprisingly little attention paid to it in cultural and economics circles. When Darnton takes the time to read through the entire 134 page settlement, he is dumbfoudned by the scale of the settlement:

… here is a proposal that could result in the world’s largest library. It would, to be sure, be a digital library, but it could dwarf the Library of Congress and all the national libraries of Europe. Moreover, in pursuing the terms of the settlement with the authors and publishers, Google could also become the world’s largest book business—not a chain of stores but an electronic supply service that could out-Amazon Amazon.

The problem, Darnton realises, is that Google is not just creating the world’s largest library: it is also creating the world’s largest research infrastructure monopoly, one controlled in the end by the board of a for-profit corporation – for good or evil.

The money quote in Darnton’s article is this, which makes you realise the scale of the opportunities missed by the 1990’s IP gold-rush:

Looking back over the course of digitization from the 1990s, we now can see that we missed a great opportunity. Action by Congress and the Library of Congress or a grand alliance of research libraries supported by a coalition of foundations could have done the job at a feasible cost and designed it in a manner that would have put the public interest first. By spreading the cost in various ways—a rental based on the amount of use of a database or a budget line in the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Library of Congress—we could have provided authors and publishers with a legitimate income, while maintaining an open access repository or one in which access was based on reasonable fees. We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy—the control of access to information—to be determined by private lawsuit.

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