So I’m sitting in an incredible house in the Cote d’Azur after four days in Paris. This is the life! First time overseas since my kids were born, and Europe is definitely a different experience with kids–and, by the way, with the Internet.
I made my visit particularly Francocentric by reading Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View From Europe while in Paris.
It’s a delightfully French book, alternating between a terrific view of the possibility of state action on behalf of culture and what feels to my American sensibility like a depressing naïveté about the benevolence of institutions.
Jeanneney is the head librarian of the National Library of France, and the book is all about Google’s intention to digitize the world’s “knowledge”. He considers this a kind of Americo-centric blundering do-gooderism with the potential seriously to bias the future development of culture. Why? Well, because Google’s book search takes knowledge out of context (both passages’ context within books and books’ context within libraries, cultures, and histories). Furthermore, its selection of what to digitize is myopic, based as it is on the cooperation of particular libraries, mostly in the United States. There are lots of amusing anecdotes, including many of searching for things that ought to come up with French sources and, instead, turn up with English translations or American secondary works.
The solution the book advocates is a European-scale competitor to Google book search that would be in the public domain and a project of Europe’s great libraries (France being among them, of course). The defense of this position is spirited and convincing, to me, although my notes to my objections are currently locked in a laptop whose battery is dead and whose charger broke, so I can’t actually get to them till I get home! But the basic idea is strong: what’s more important to nations’ governments than intervening to “defend” their cultures against marauding outsiders?
On the other hand, what’s sillier than trying to defend culture against, well…. culture, in the form of Google?