Celia Kang, a technology writer for the Washington Post was interviewed on Business of Books. BookTV has showed this interview several times on C-Span. I caught it yesterday. Ms Kang did a reasonable job of presenting the issues surrounding the proposed settlement to the class action suit against Google over its intent to create a world library containing a digital copy of all the world’s ninety plus million books.
Ms. Kang explained that this has been the intention of Google from its inception in 1996. The company began immediately, according to Ms. Kang, working in stealth mode for two or so years and then publicly, but quietly, with various major libraries for another four or so before everybody started to threaten to sue one another.
Now, of course, there is a proposed settlement in the consolidation of many of these suits. US District Court Judge Denny Chin, of the Southern District of New York, has announced a preliminary approval order for a settlement and announced a February 18, 2010 date for a final settlement/fairness hearing. At the same time Judge Chin set December 14 as the date supplemental notices from the parties, and others, should begin being sent in. January 28 is the deadline for objections to be sent in to the court.
Judge Chin is, apparently, the go to guy in the Southern District. He is, for instance, the judge who handled the Bernie Madoff case. I hope he is as special as everyone seems to think. This case is far-reaching and complicated and involves stuff that hasn’t been invented yet. Hell, it involves stuff that hasn’t been conceptualized as yet.
Ms. Kang found it almost impossible to provide a meaningful description of this case. This is not her fault. All things considered, she did a pretty good job. Explaining all this in laymen’s terms is hard in any complicated legal matter. Translating all the legal, technical and business jargon into simple English is a task. As the Apostle said, it is a matter of seeing through a glass darkly.
Even that ain’t the half of it. When I mentioned that there are matters at stake that are, as yet, not even developed to the stage of being an interesting notion, I meant it. Consider that the entire matter was kicked off by the founding intent of Google to create a world library. That intent is staggering enough. It is particularly daunting when it is understood no one really comprehends the full implications of such a creature. Consider further, that a company that set this intent, one now well within the realm of possibility, in motion is younger than my dog, Brutus.
All my children are older than Google. Indeed, all my children are older than Amazon.com, another major player in this titanic struggle to control the dissemination of information. If two of the major players are not yet twenty and others, like Microsoft are only a decade or two older, what makes anybody think that major beneficiaries and, perhaps, major victims of the resolution of this struggle are not yet in existence. Perhaps the main actors to be are not yet, as one used to hear, even a gleam in their fathers’ eye.
So, the main problem with this settlement is that no one really knows, not the geniuses at Google or Amazon or Microsoft or AT&T or IBM or any of the other behemoths staking out one or more positions in this case, enough about the future to get this right. None of these companies understand enough about the implications of this thing to even know what is best for that company. They all know they want to be a major gatekeeper sitting between you and me and the information. However, without knowing how we will use it and in what form we will prefer it, they can’t really know what they want.
This is a terrible situation. If you have ever tried to negotiate with a person that doesn’t know what they hope to get out of the bargaining then you know what the major players are up against. Not only do they not know, for sure, what their adversaries want, they don’t know for sure what they want.
Many will say Google is an exception to this uncertainty rule. I don’t think so. It does appear that Google is determined and ready to plow ahead and expects to be nimble enough to find solid footing on the other side no matter what. But, I don’t think anybody at Google has any better idea what that terrain will be like than all the rest of us.
Libraries, as a repository of human knowledge, in one form or another, have been around since the dawn of human existence. In all that time, whether the library took the form of a clay drawing scratched out on the walls of a cave in Southern France, a room full of clay tablets containing pictures and symbols, a building full of papyrus scrolls or a building full of books and digital files awaiting retrieval, a library has always been a place. It has also been limited to the knowledge it contained and could retrieve from elsewhere in a timely fashion.
The Google notion of a world library is now a possibility and it is different in several significant ways. First, it is disembodied. The world library is not a geographic place. It is a repository of world knowledge that exists nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Second, like the sum total of human knowledge and understanding broken into component parts within the brains of each human, the world library will store the sum of its knowledge in components all over the world. However, unlike the human knowledge resident in our brains, the world library will be connected so that every portal into the system of knowledge is immediately and transparently connected to every other portal and repository of the system. The world library will be a singularity. Human knowledge is a plurality. Third, no such thing as ever existed. No one knows how mankind will use it. No one can predict, with certainty, how the mere existence of this singularity will impact our life. Indeed, it may impact the species itself in ways we cannot now comprehend, envision, conceive or suspect.
Whoever defines and controls this thing will exercise a lot of control over humanity. By this, I do not mean mind control or police power control. No, far more likely is the kind of control we all accommodate as we grow older. As we mature, we must make choices. We must decide with whom we will share our lives. Before, we shared our lives with the family into which we were born. At some point we have to choose our company. We also choose professions, hobbies, or, if we don’t choose, just drift along. That too becomes a choice.
With each choice in life comes limitation. There are only so many hours in the day, only so much energy available to pursue whatever activity catches your fancy so you cannot choose them all.
However this new world library is set up, however it is operated, choices will be made. These choices will not only limit the persons and companies making them, these choices will limit the rest of us as well. These choices involve what economists call “opportunity costs,” an opportunity that will no longer exists because someone made a choice that precludes it.
It may be best to allow the “best minds” in the world to hash this thing out in court. It could be the best thing would be to legislatively delay this thing until more is known of its implications. I don’t know. Neither do you. Neither do the major players involved in the hashing.
Of course, the first guy to capture fire and tame it to his (her?) use had no idea how the power and energy that it contained would be used. Ditto the wheel, the domesticated animal, and every other “invention” of man. On the other hand, this thing will be the repository of everything we know and everything we ever shall know. Someone or some company will be its gatekeeper. The inventor of writing was never its gatekeeper. The wheel offered itself to anybody who saw it and understood. It was the same with fire and dogs, horses, cows, goats and cats, for that matter. Maybe this is the same thing in digital form, maybe not.
One thing for sure, we, as always, are on the cusp of something. Another certainty is that if the mind of man can conceive it, the hand of man can build it. The puppy company Google, which had it been brought up properly would call my dog Brutus “sir,” out of deference to his age, is going to push us ever further toward this new singularity of knowledge. Brutus and I both are happy to be here to see its beginning. It remains to be seen how happy anybody will be to see the conclusion.