Monday, June 29, 2009

In Their Defense

These days any news about Google seems to be bad news, and always along the line of no good intention ever going unpunished.

The good deed they've been getting the most flack for these days has been their bold, unprecedented attempt to digitize the world's books.

When I first heard about this initiative, I loved it unreservedly, because I had wanted to do something similar myself.

Indeed, a lifelong ambition of mine has been to build a house somewhere with a lot of space, and add on a big circular library. You know, one of those tower like structures that's three storeys high, the shelves rise up to dizzying heights, with a massive stained glass window on the top. It would be like my own little wizard's enclave, a place where Raistlin would feel at home.

But could I hold the world's books? And for what purpose? In the event of Armageddon, or some sort of nuclear holocaust, a place that could help the world rebuild. It would be the center of a brand new civilization, and oasis of knowledge and learning in the midst of ignorance and savagery.

But when was the last time the whole world ended?

Maybe one day I will build a library like that, but it would only be an ornament, really. Not something that could enrich the lives of others, unless I wanted to turn my home into a public space, and I'm sure the wife would have reservations about such a plan.

Besides, what I imagined doing was and still lay firmly in the realm of my own imagination. In practice, I seem to have gone in reverse, as I have become one of those people who now sheds books after using them. But Google isn't talking about a cool idea, or a grand notion, they're in the business of making it happen.

And that's where I get mystified by the response Google has gotten. A huge number of the books they have been dealing with are out of print, the author has died but no copyright owner can be found, or their is no indication of the clear holder of the copyright. In other words, these are books existing in a form of purgatory, of no real use to society at large, yet representing a massive amount of intellectual capital.

What Google found was a gold mine that nobody wanted, and nobody had ever bothered to even look at. So when Google staked their claim on all that empty territory, put a ton of resources into making something out of what had been abandoned as nothing, why only then did the howls begin. Accusations of monopoly where flung with abandon. Google was said to have vile, nefarious plans for locking up all the world's information, and leaving mankind in the dark.

All because they began digging up books that had been left to rot.

The whole thing struck me as the rawest of hypocrisy. Let's say I found a book they had dug up, and I had to pay a fee to access it. Well, the very fact that I found out about the existence of that book was due to Google, and the fact that I could actually obtain access to a copy was due to Google. So why they heck shouldn't they be allowed to charge me? They did all the work, and I am reaping the benefit of that work.

As usual, what strikes me as common sense, often seems to be less than common, and I find myself on the thin edge of an argument wedge. Which is why is was gratifying to see come to the rescue with an argument that puts paid to all that nonsense sprayed about by all those howling nincompoops.

Now if only a way can be found to make digital storage and retrieval permanent, then worries about the loss of information can be put to rest.

Crystalline storage, anyone?

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