17 October 2009

GBS Tangent: Sergey Brin's Ignorant Defense

Irony. It's like goldy and bronzy, but it's made out of iron. It is also well beyond the capabilities of any of the participants in the Google Book Search litigation to recognize... especially when it's coming out of their own mouths.

As I noted a couple of days ago, Sergey Brin (one of the founders of Google) had his seemingly empty head handed to him in a very short, sharp response at the NYT to his bloviating, imperceptive, self-aggrandizing editorial drivelling. Ms Baratz-Logsted's responsive letter is a model of brevity. Being trained in the law, I'm going to substitute fifty words where five would ordinarily do and explain even more about the ignorance behind Brin's position.

To begin with, consider his invocation of the Library of Alexandria. We'll leave aside the ineptness of the comparison to begin with; recall that the Library of Alexandria consisted almost entirely of hand-copied scrolls, that were acquired by force without any compensation. If one brought a printed work into the city, one was required to deposit it at the library for copying. Although there was a security deposit, that deposit was solely as security for the physical article; when the printed work was returned by the library, the owner of the printed work had to return the security deposit to the library. And, of course, there was no compensation to the author of the work copied, nor to the owner of the physical item based upon its rarity if not returned (the later Ptolemies were notorious for not returning particularly rare items). The deposit requirement was enforced by searches of ships at the docks and of caravans at the gates... which bears a disturbing resemblance to what has happened in the GBS scanning program, albeit with a little less tar and sand at issue.

Of course, there's another problem with comparison to the Library of Alexandria: At that time, there was a decent chance that the copy that strayed into the limits of Alexandria was one of, at most, a handful of extant copies of that work. For particularly rare books, I suppose that is a possibility now with Google Book Search; however, it is actually quite rare for a university library to have copies of works printed in editions of less than 1,200 or so, except for materials produced by its own graduate students... which are scanned in a different program by University Microfilm anyway. Further, the then-denominated Google Library Project essentially ignored the rare books collection at Michigan. So, on that ground, too, Mr Brin's invocation of a disaster in the past — and, one should add, a nonaccidental disaster — crumbles to dust.

The most disturbing implication of Mr Brin's misguided diatribe, though, is at a more-metaphoric level, and becomes apparent largely through its comparison to Ms Baratz-Logsted's response. The floor underneath Mr Brin's position is that he should not be required to interact with any human being — ever — if he wants a particular bit of textual stimulation. Those with much knowledge of the history of speculative fiction should spot some echoes of both H.G. Wells and, in particular, E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909). Ironically enough, Forster himself had a substantial connection to Alexandria during his lifetime (1879–1970); and, even more ironically, under the copyright law of his home country (and most of the world), "The Machine Stops" (US only) remains in copyright!

Forster's story posits a society in which all human contact is via a black-box "machine" that substitutes for communication and personal experiences, and in particular for physical and personal interactions. When the machine stops, both individuals and society collapse. This bears more than a hypothetical relationship to reinventing a Library of Alexandria with cultural artifacts: The proposed settlement would essentially establish a deposit requirement without a security deposit, without a branch library, and all inside of Google's monolithic machine... so that Mr Brin need not interact with so annoying a person as a "reference librarian," and can instead get his (unproofread) reading materials of dubious origin without leaving his room. Ever again.

The best defense that life has against extinction is diversity in numbers. Despite Brin's invocation of that problem, the Google Book Search settlement would actually return us to the Library of Alexandria problem, mediated by the Machine. I'm no Luddite; that model is not "Progress in the Useful Arts," or indeed progress of any kind at all. I learned all of the information presented above from print materials; the links are for user convenience only.