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March 10, 2006

mass digitization and the steamroller of technology

There is a school of thinking that technology is an autonomous, unstoppable force -- a steamroller that steady moves along and crushes things in its way -- and an irresistible temptation for those who implement it. Frankenstein could not resist the opportunity to create his monster, Oppenheimer (and his colleagues) could not resist the opportunity to create the atomic bomb even though at the time it was thought that an atomic reaction might ignite the earth's entire atmosphere, and Truman could not resist the opportunity to use it even though it was not needed for victory over Japan. If Oppenheimer or Truman hadn't done what they did -- one might argue -- someone else would have, and perhaps that person have been working "for the other side".

But these discussions inevitably turn to fears of the unintended consequences of technology and how to avoid these. In the cloning (and human cloning) debate, while some jurisdictions have taken to instituting bans of the practice, others argue that the development of this technique is inevitable whether it's outlawed or not. Likewise, one might say that guns or drugs will inevitably be part of society, so the "Dutch model" for drugs -- of treating them as a public health rather than criminal issue -- will work the best in the long run. You need to steer a technology's development rather than attempt to fully control. The steamroller can't be stopped, but you can move things out of its ways or even change its direction slightly.

What if we think of mass digitization as autonomous technology? What unintended consequences might it have? While the speakers and audience members have been quite supportive of new paradigms in information services, scholarly communication, and intellectual property, what fears do other librarians and users have about Google's partnership with libraries?

There is a whole literature in the library community discussing the "Google effect" (and Amazon.com effect) upon today's users and their expectations. But let's think ahead to what might happen in five years, when Google possesses digital copies of a significant portion of scholarly literature, plus trade publications (all under Google Book Search). While U-M, for example, will provide access to its own copy of the content digitized by Google, it seems doubtful that it will ever have the visibility of Google's larger collection. Once Google accumulates such a large collection, it will have incredible market -- and legal -- leverage. If finding books and then buying them becomes even easier (as with the latest announcement from Google Book Search ), there's less reason to have a browseable library -- even a virtual one -- available. Once Google fends off the current copyright lawsuit and continues with the "take it or leave it approach" in its contracts with publishers (as Alicia Wise mentioned), it might push for changes in law to give it more control over its content -- much like the roles other large companies are playing in the proposed WIPO Treaty for the Protection of the Rights of Broadcasting, Cablecasting and Webcasting Organizations.

William Patry wrote on his blog, "So in the Google project, why should we care if there are server copies? [. . .] It in no way harms copyright owners unless the project becomes something else, namely a full-text service which then is a market substitute." Google tells us they all want to make information available for all, but they're a for-profit corporation accountable to shareholders. Won't asserting rights over their content become an irresistible temptation, and won't the scale of Google's collection give it a bigger advantage over libraries than even Amazon.com and Google have over libraries right now?

Can we move things out of the way of the steamroller of mass digitization, or alter its course slightly, to prevent oligopolic interests from gaining control of information? The Open Access movement has been trying to reassert control over content from oligopolic publishers, but should people with sympathies similar to the OA people give another corporation such leverage? We can say that we've retained the right to our content, but will it matter?

Alicia Wise mentioned these concerns more amicably and with less philosophical background. I began composing this before she spoke, and am referring to a course on technological change I once took and to discussions with library colleagues.

Posted by kshawkin at March 10, 2006 04:32 PM


I'd like more nitty-gritty information about this project: what parts the libraries are actually performing, the standards involved, who is indexing/cohering/selecting snippets, and so forth. The Google Book site did not answer my questions; nor did the UM documents. Where/who shall I ask?

Posted by: celia.white@gmail.com at March 11, 2006 11:02 AM

Celia, we'd be glad to provide more information. I suspect you've used the FAQ -- http://www.lib.umich.edu/staff/google/public/faq.pdf -- as a starting place. Are there specific questions we could expand on, or specific questions/answers you'd recommend adding?

Posted by: jpwilkin at March 12, 2006 09:56 AM

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