Scan This Book!

Kevin Kelly published an interesting paen to Google Books in the New York Times recently. Sample:

When Google announced in December 2004 that it would digitally scan the books of five major research libraries to make their contents searchable, the promise of a universal library was resurrected. Indeed, the explosive rise of the Web, going from nothing to everything in one decade, has encouraged us to believe in the impossible again. Might the long-heralded great library of all knowledge really be within our grasp?

Brewster Kahle, an archivist overseeing another scanning project, says that the universal library is now within reach. “This is our chance to one-up the Greeks!” he shouts. “It is really possible with the technology of today, not tomorrow. We can provide all the works of humankind to all the people of the world. It will be an achievement remembered for all time, like putting a man on the moon.”

And unlike the libraries of old, which were restricted to the elite, this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person.

But the technology that will bring us a planetary source of all written material will also, in the same gesture, transform the nature of what we now call the book and the libraries that hold them. The universal library and its “books” will be unlike any library or books we have known. Pushing us rapidly toward that Eden of everything, and away from the paradigm of the physical paper tome, is the hot technology of the search engine….

This is typical Kelly hyperbole, and it attracted a lot of attention in the blogosphere. Including some perceptive criticism from here.

Of course, the difference between now and then is that doing gives a single company – Google – enormous market power.

And if history is any guide, not once has a firm with absolute power – Standard Oil, Microsoft, you know the score – been anything less than evil.

Google is, in a very real sense, profiting enormously from the utopian naivete of the Valley. And though Kevin’s article is a great read – and I’m a huge fan of his new work – this flaw makes his conclusion – a utopian vision of ubiquitous, “free”, information totally invalid.

Has Kevin used Google Scholar? If you haven’t, try a simple query like this.

That screen is the polar opposite of ubiquitous, free information – it is a set of links which send you to walled gardens built by academic publishers who want to charge $20, $50, or $100 or more for a single article.

But it is the future the Googleverse leads to. It’s the inevitable result of handing informational market power over to Google – just like physical distribution economies (and price hypersensitive consumers) inevitably lead to Wal-Mart. Either one is just as evil as far as consumers are concerned.

Kevin argues that we should scan books because there is a “moral imperative to scan” – a moral imperative to make information free, essentially.

Are you kidding? That’s like saying there’s a moral imperative to buy gas, or to buy the cheapest goods possible – because this so-called moral imperative has a single economic effect: to line Google’s pockets, handing market power over to it.

Take books – what we’re talking about here. The so-called moral imperative is only valid if there’s a level playing field for scanning; if the scanning market can be made competitive.

Of course, it can’t – it’s a natural monopoly; who scans the most wins, because the average cost is always falling.

And this – profiting from the natural monopoly dynamics of information – is, make no mistake about it, exactly Google’s game – not creating some kind of Gutopia.

The Google Scholar example is very compelling. This guy is sharp.