Saturday, January 13, 2007

Slow News Day

Well, it's not really that slow a news day, since there were some notably stiff sentences handed out last week that may well have a chilling effect on educators and parents who are held responsible for monitoring the use of the Internet by the young. A substitute teacher convicted of having pornography on a school computer faces up to 40 years in prison, and the daughter of Patti Santangelo, whose fight against the recording industry became a cause célèbre in the blogosphere, received a hefty $30,750 fine for piracy despite dropped charges against her mother.

However, I want to take a Virtualpolitik day to review Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the French national library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Jeanneney makes a good case for skepticism about Google's ambitions to digitize the content of the world's great libraries and brings up many of the same objections that are raised by Siva Vaidhyanathan in his essay about the potential for "A Risky Gamble with Google" about privatization, proprietary technologies and contracts, and potential corporate vulnerability to liability for copyright violation. Jeanneney is also making a cultural argument about the threat to basic European information infrastructure when English texts are privileged, and cultural artifacts that buttress American ideology are prioritized. He argues for creating a competing European search engine with Airbus as the cooperative model. He also claims that if citizens don't pay as taxpayers, they will pay as consumers, so that publicly funded initiatives for digital libraries need support, which is a case that I have certainly similarly made. Furthermore, even though some -- like Cory Doctorow -- are skeptical about claims made for metadata, Jeanneney is making an argument for a qualitative as well as a quantitative approach to digitization that values electronic mark-up of documents and the value of readable text.

Still, I find myself with issues about this book. No one is a bigger Francophile than I am. I use my iPod to download French news broadcasts from the Internet, crane my neck to follow a conversation in French between a pair of tourists, and will even confess to getting choked up over certain French national symbols when I'm in Paris. But I think that Jeanneney is clearly not speaking to an American audience or even to me.

Although he disavows a "crusade or a culture war" his implicit equation of "civilization" (a frequently used word) with European values is a bit off-putting, and he devotes relatively little attention to the needs of the developing world, despite an interesting claim that "inequalities of knowledge" will actually proliferate if knowledge is voluminously stored without proper cataloging for retrieval. He's clearly irked by American anti-French xenophobia, but it's odd that he focuses on a relatively arcane example, Simon Schama's Citizens and its unsympathetic historical portrayal of the French revolution, rather than something more indicative of the mainstream U.S. Zeitgeist like statements made on talk radio or the switch to "Freedom fries."

Certainly even relatively right-wing Gaulists that I know brag of their ancestors' signatures on revolutionary cahiers of complaint. Granted, Jeanneny is probably right that Americans misunderstand the French revolution, and the fact that it was also an information revolution that attacked the king's control of copyright deposit and other forms of censorship by the elites. My favorite authors of this period -- Madame Roland, Germaine de Staël, Olympe de Gouges, the Marquis of Condorcet, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Restif de la Bretonne -- were keenly aware of this feature of their historical time. But it seems like a cocktail party argument about cultural difference rather than a relevant objection to Google's plans.

Furthermore, Jeanneney actually says remarkably little about the "myth of universal knowledge" promised by his title or even addresses what I consider to be a fundamental schism between two contemporaneous cultures: a culture of knowledge and a culture of information.

Finally, there are a number of notable blind spots in this book. He praises the index as an organizational invention, and yet declines to provide one for his own book. He holds up the Library of Congress as a model with their American Memory project and yet ignores their regrettable deal with Coca Cola. He lauds his own digital library Gallica without acknowledging how inefficient its document selection and metadata parameters can be.

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