Last week I posted a teaser about Jeanneney’s Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge. I did so sans notes, though, so I bring it back up here. I do think this is a very French book, in two ways. The first is the way we discussed last week: the French concern for preserving and defending French-ness in petit-cultural ways, e.g., language and cuisine.
The second way this is a French book is much more interesting, in my view. That is in its expansive view of what might reasonably be a public concern. American politics, in my experience, tends either to radically narrow the realm of legitimately public issues by incessant concerns about efficiency and the bottom line, or to introduce morality into the picture as a question of individual behavior, e.g., abortion, same-sex marriage, and so on.
In this book, moral concerns are very much part of the public sphere, indeed, they are simply assumed to be the domain of the public. But morality here is about the social; it’s about actively pursuing collective questions of good and bad.
Some further notes from the book:
The overall argument is that the acontextual (or American-centric, which seem to be the same thing) digitization process means Europe will be left out. We will end up with a two-dimensional view of world culture and history because of this myopia. I waver between agreeing with the book’s feisty defense of state action to protect culture (in this case, Culture writ large) and finding it heavy-handed and naive with respect to institutional self-interests.
- 5: “I was reminded of Cyrano, Edmond Rostand’s hero, standing under Roxane’s balcony and feverishly calling out his love for her: `I will throw them to you in clumps without making a boquet.’ Cyrano, who was distraught, played with such disorder in order to seduce. But in the case we are dealing with here, the clumps have no sense, and only bouquets have value. An indeterminate, disorganized, unclassified, uninventoried profusion is of little interest.”
- 16: “If you believe in Europe’s enduring influence, indispensable for our collective pride and the balance of the planet, if you (and there are many of you in America, as well!) fervently wish for a multipolarity of cultural heritages, then you are summoned, in response to this call, to expend your energy and to manifest your commitment without delay.”
- 32: “Let us not succumb to the illusion that those who use Google can easily distinguish between `objective’ information and advertising….62 percent of Internet users questioned make no distinction whatever between advertising and other information, and only 18 percent proved capable of telling which data were paid for by companies for their promotion and which were not.”
- 37: “I have observed that some people, such as Miterrand’s former adviser, Jacques Attali, deride this concern as `distressing provincialism’ incapable of accepting `the formidable acceleration of globalization in progress’. This is a strange abdication, a strange ignorance of what the great movement in question calls for, provokes, and demands: the jealous preservation of differences so that the circulation of cultures and knowledge can remain fruitful.”
- 67: “In my view, we should be less interested in the utopian dream of exhaustiveness than in aspiring to the richest, the most intelligent, the best organized, the most accessible of all possible selections. This view differs from what Google is proposing but is faithful to Plato (Phaedrus) when he shows Socrates evoking that Egyptian king who feared the perverse effects of the invention of writing.”
- 73: “…maybe one of the reasons that the top managers of Google never seriously broach the question of how works to be digitized are chosen is that they maintain the conviction—or rather the illusion—that they can digitize all the books that have ever been printed since the time of Gutenberg. In this fantasy world, there would be no need to worry about selection, and the performance of the digital library would depend only on the quality of the search engine (or engines). But since this perspective is beyond what we can reasonably envision (Is this a bad thing?), we must find the means not only to furnish Internet users with organized knowledge but also to indicate its limitations. At the same time, we must signpost paths leading users to other resources, notably those of traditional libraries, thanks to helpful online catalogues that allow us to browse through them.”