Sic transit gloria mundi

This morning’s Observer column.

Some years ago, when the Google Books project, which aims to digitise all of the world’s printed books, was getting under way, the two co-founders of Google were having a meeting with the librarian of one of the universities that had signed up for the plan. At one point in the conversation, the Google boys noticed that their collaborator had suddenly gone rather quiet. One of them asked him what was the matter. “Well”, he replied, “I’m wondering what happens to all this stuff when Google no longer exists.” Recounting the conversation to me later, he said: “I’ve never seen two young people looking so stunned: the idea that Google might not exist one day had never crossed their minds.”

And yet, of course, the librarian was right. He had to think about the next 400 years. But the number of commercial companies that are more than a century old is vanishingly small. Entrusting the world’s literary heritage to such transient organisations might not be entirely wise.

Compared with my librarian friend, we have the attention span of newts. We are constantly overawed by the size, wealth and dominance of whatever happens to be the current corporate giant.

To which, of course, the best riposte is probably Keynes’s: In the long run, we’re all dead.

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