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New BBC Four Documentary Opens Our Eyes to the Scale of Google’s Influence

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Did any of you get the chance to sit down and take in BBC Four’s latest documentary, ‘Google and the World Brain’? As part of a Storyville series themed around the state of technology, this interesting hour and a half long show took a closer look at Google’s ambitious Google Books project and explored the consequences of the search giant’s eagerness to organise the world’s information for the benefit of society as a whole.

The basic premise of the documentary is this: back in the late 1930s, legendary sci-fi writer HG Wells predicted that a ‘World Brain’ would begin to take shape. He was sure that civilisation would at some stage work to develop a huge global library with a view to cataloguing all human knowledge and creating a kind of higher intelligence. Sounds a bit far-fetched, but in fact Google began building on this idea over a decade ago.

In 2002, the company began to work with international libraries to scan millions upon millions of books and store the data for use on the web. Potentially a great idea in theory, but Google wasn’t prepared for the legal implications of what it was trying to do. Over half of the books the team got their hands on were technically still in copyright, and the authors weren’t too happy that they hadn’t been approached for permission before their work was included in the project.

Authors, publishers and even librarians launched a campaign to stop Google Books, resulting in a legal battle that lasted several years. A US judge finally ruled against the previously-approved Google Books Settlement on the grounds that it enabled Google to have a monopoly over most of the books published in the 20th century, much to the dismay of those who had been heavily involved in the venture. The project was halted, although several other organisations are now attempting to create something similar (within the confines of the law this time, obviously).

The film offers a balanced look at the arguments for and against Google Books and featured interviews with a number of high profile technology boffs, including Google’s very own Amit Singhal (who’s something of an ambassador for the company and is definitely a familiar face for those who work within the SEO community).  One of the most interesting bods to be quizzed for the film, though, was Evgeny Morozov, a Russian writer who is famed for his work into the political and social implications of technology. He and fierce anti-Web advocate Jaron Lanier were more sceptical of Google’s ambitiousness and aired concerns that the company just has no interest in the social implications of its work – it simply rolls out projects and expects the world to hail them as genius without considering the consequences.

What’s interesting is that Lanier takes such a cynical stance on the topic despite being responsible for popularising the term ‘virtual reality’ and devoting a number of years to creating the web culture we enjoy (or tolerate) today.

So the question is, should we, much like Lanier, Morozov and a growing number of industry cynics, be wary of Google’s power on a global scale? Or should we embrace the way in which the search giant is going to shape our society in the years to come? ‘Google and the World Brain’ definitely sparked a passionate debate with the team here at FSE, but what do you think?

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