Venerable Wired dude Kevin Kelly has a fun article that is near and dear to my heart in the New York Times, and I just can't pass up calling attention to it (although I think it is Most Emailed, so I'm hardly the only one).
I'm just so easy. All you have to do is mention Alexandria and I get all a-quiver. I have my own theories about grand libraries, which I'll probably mention below, but suffice it here to say that a Library of Everything is one massive part of the reason I jumped into cyberspace with both feet in 1990 and never looked back. And for the record, that was long before I read about Neal Stephenson's Librarian in "Snow Crash."
What would Borges say? What would Confucius say?
I think Confucius would say "It is written... "
But the bigger question, I think, is "Will this Tower of Babel reach to the heavens?"
Scan This Book!
By KEVIN KELLY
In several dozen nondescript office buildings around the world, thousands of hourly workers bend over table-top scanners and haul dusty books into high-tech scanning booths. They are assembling the universal library page by page.
The dream is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages. It is a familiar hope, in part because long ago we briefly built such a library. The great library at Alexandria, constructed around 300 B.C., was designed to hold all the scrolls circulating in the known world. At one time or another, the library held about half a million scrolls, estimated to have been between 30 and 70 percent of all books in existence then. But even before this great library was lost, the moment when all knowledge could be housed in a single building had passed. Since then, the constant expansion of information has overwhelmed our capacity to contain it. For 2,000 years, the universal library, together with other perennial longings like invisibility cloaks, antigravity shoes and paperless offices, has been a mythical dream that kept receding further into the infinite future.
[You know, if they were going to build such a great library in Alexandria with all that very precious stuff, why did they have to put it in such a precarious location?! I've been mad about this as long as I've known about it, and I'm still mad about it. I WANT to go to Alexandria and I'm pissed off that I can't, dammit!]
Until now. 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.
[And we an build this wonderful Tower that will reach to the Heavens! We will all speak the same language and nothing we plan to do will be impossible for us!
Until you look at the appropriate Tarot card, the Lightning-Struck Tower.
You say hey, it's a web, not a tower. Why are you going on and on about a tower? It's my theory, you see, a theory of the Web. In the Platonic sense, or Neoplatonic, if you will, this idea of a Library of Everything is technically an imitation, and perhaps a very pale imitation at that. The original "Library of Everything" supposedly exists as a great Ideal in the sky, in the Heavens, on some energy plane, or in Nirvana. It is called "The Akashic Records," or, to Hebrews, Muslims, I think, and Christians, it is called "The Book of Life."
It's the source of that "This Is Your Life" movie that St. Peter plays for you when you get to the Pearly Gates, before you get your harp and cloud and graduate to a New Yorker cartoon.
Edgar Cayce supposedly went to visit this library when he was asleep and found out all kinds of mysterious and secret stuff. I bet he's got a lot of overdue books by now, too. I usually think it is this library that Borges wrote of in his "Library of Babel" short story in the "Labyrinths" collection. His version is pretty twisted, though.
So what does this "Book of Life" have that our longed for Library of Everything doesn't have?
Some people imagine it as a Tapestry, with a thread for every life and a full record of each and all its intersections. This would be where the Three Fates of Greek mythology would hang out, the Three Norns of Norse mythology.
So the Akashic records would have not only every book, every image, an instantly searchable movie of every life, IT WOULD ALSO HAVE A FULL RECORD OF EVERY THOUGHT.
Stream of consciousness personal diary bloggers are working on uploading this part into the Web, but we're still stuck with a pale imitation of that panoptic record that Santa Claus clearly has access to as well, for checking to see if we've been naughty or nice. I bet the NSA is envious of HIM. Oddly enough, the Panoptic Eye appears to be just as much a part of the Neoplatonic imitation of the Akashic as it is in the "real" Akashic.
New Agers and others believe the Akashic Records are not confined to matter, but also include a record of all energy, which makes sense if matter and energy are conserved. Perhaps the Akashic is where all that dark matter goes that no one can account for. These people believe "Thoughts are Things" that send energy out in to the universe, whether in the form of prayers, wishes, curses (a panoptic and authoritarian god keeps track of sins of thought, word, and deed: God as Universal Accountant), lust in your heart, coveting, or the off-key internal singing of your soul.
So the Akashic Tapestry Record spreads out across the ethers like a giant web, just as our Internet weaves invisibly around our planet. You could make an argument that the Akashic Records are the Mind of God, and all of us (and our atoms and animating energy) make up that godhead at an atomic level as well, microcosm, macrocosm, as above, so below, or is that as below, so above? Ergo, the Akashic Records ARE GOD?
And what does that make our Platonic Imitation of an Imitation of the Akashic, the World Wide Web? The etchings of the Mind of Humanity? Humanity trying to make Itself God?
Interestingly, when you use a Kabala system of numerology (not the "Americanized" one), WWW=666. Those odd literalists, the fundamentalist Christian dispensational pre-millenialists, see three as the number of God, and six as the number of humanity, so they interpret this very famous and ominous symbol 666 (the movie previews are making such a big deal about an "Omen" remake coming out on 6/6/06, so maybe my ramble here is in honor of that) as three times six, or man trying to make himself god, repeated without question in pulpits across the U.S. I don't know if it is really an accurate interpretation, as some Hebrew sites also list six as a holy or "god" number, instead of seven, which I had always heard.
My Neoplatonic argument isn't really that compelling, if you look at the actual text that mentions it, because it is a WEB, not a man, unless the Web is the Mind of Man.
In the New International Version Bible, Revelation 13:18 reads:
- This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666.
And here's a neat tidbit, care of Wikipedia: The fear of the number 666 is known as "Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia". Say that three times fast.
Now about that Tower of Babel, reaching to the heavens, is the Web another instance of man trying to make himself like the gods, to reach into the heavens? The cautionary tale here is the lightning-struck tower, the blow to the head, a fall from a high place. The Tower is a nearly universal cultural symbol of hubris, of pride going before a fall.
Something to look forward to! Anyway, let's get back to Kevin... (grin)]
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.
1. Scanning the Library of Libraries
Scanning technology has been around for decades, but digitized books didn't make much sense until recently, when search engines like Google, Yahoo, Ask and MSN came along. When millions of books have been scanned and their texts are made available in a single database, search technology will enable us to grab and read any book ever written. Ideally, in such a complete library we should also be able to read any article ever written in any newspaper, magazine or journal. And why stop there? The universal library should include a copy of every painting, photograph, film and piece of music produced by all artists, present and past. Still more, it should include all radio and television broadcasts. Commercials too. And how can we forget the Web? The grand library naturally needs a copy of the billions of dead Web pages no longer online and the tens of millions of blog posts now gone — the ephemeral literature of our time. In short, the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time.
This is a very big library. But because of digital technology, you'll be able to reach inside it from almost any device that sports a screen. From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have "published" at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films and 100 billion public Web pages. All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow's technology, it will all fit onto your iPod. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet — if it doesn't plug directly into your brain with thin white cords. Some people alive today are surely hoping that they die before such things happen, and others, mostly the young, want to know what's taking so long. (Could we get it up and running by next week? They have a history project due.)
[Kevin! You of all people know we won't need that white cord into our heads, iPod reference not withstanding. The library of all libraries will of course either be transmitted wirelessly, or hell, it'll probably be implanted into our heads directly! Instantaneous interfacing, always on, ubiquitous. Neal Stephenson's Librarian, beamed directly to gargoyles everywhere.
Surely Plato has reincarnated around here somewhere at this time. He pre-dates Alexandria (Aristotle was Alexander's tutor, so I imagine Plato had been dead a while) but he actually wanted Greeks to keep things in their amazing big Greek memories. Plato had his toga in a twist because this new thing, WRITING, was creating cheat sheets, so to speak (cheat scrolls?). If you could write something down, your brain, your big-Greek-reciting-Homer memory didn't have to work so hard, and you started keeping fewer things INSIDE your head, storing them so much more effectively in written form, which could then be assembled into a library.
Just as most of our math skills have withered in this age of the calculator, poor Plato was watching the decline of Greek oratorical skills based on memory. Was the trade-off worth it, Plato? Could Alexandria be the consolation prize?
And now, if we can have a Library of Everything implanted in our heads, does that mean we're returning to the days when people will be able to recite Homer without a teleprompter or PowerPoint? Will we get those big Greek memories back, augmented and more complete with access to everything that was ever written? Would Plato reincarnated feel redeemed at long last, or would it be the final betrayal?]
But because of copyright issues and the physical fact of the need to turn pages, the digitization of books has proceeded at a relative crawl. At most, one book in 20 has moved from analog to digital. So far, the universal library is a library without many books.
But that is changing very fast. Corporations and libraries around the world are now scanning about a million books per year. Amazon has digitized several hundred thousand contemporary books. In the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford University (one of the five libraries collaborating with Google) is scanning its eight-million-book collection using a state-of-the art robot from the Swiss company 4DigitalBooks. This machine, the size of a small S.U.V., automatically turns the pages of each book as it scans it, at the rate of 1,000 pages per hour. A human operator places a book in a flat carriage, and then pneumatic robot fingers flip the pages — delicately enough to handle rare volumes — under the scanning eyes of digital cameras.
[Boggles your mind, doesn't it? All those texts, all those words, keyword-searchable, context-searchable. But still, not enough of those texts in the public domain.]
The idea is to seed the bookless developing world with easily available texts. Superstar sells copies of books it scans back to the same university libraries it scans from. A university can expand a typical 60,000-volume library into a 1.3 million-volume one overnight. At about 50 cents per digital book acquired, it's a cheap way for a library to increase its collection. Bill McCoy, the general manager of Adobe's e-publishing business, says: "Some of us have thousands of books at home, can walk to wonderful big-box bookstores and well-stocked libraries and can get Amazon.com to deliver next day. The most dramatic effect of digital libraries will be not on us, the well-booked, but on the billions of people worldwide who are underserved by ordinary paper books." It is these underbooked — students in Mali, scientists in Kazakhstan, elderly people in Peru — whose lives will be transformed when even the simplest unadorned version of the universal library is placed in their hands.
[Democratizing, yes, I suppose, if people are still reading these books. If they one day become inert material, like the quartz crystals New Agers think are embedded storage devices holding the wisdom and all the knowledge of Atlantis, about as useful to us as that funky vinyl record the post-apocalyptic kids spin on the end of a forked stick in "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome." Gotta watch out for the Pocky Clips, or your giant Atlantis pyramid shaped quartz crystal Library of Everything gets as wrecked as Alexandria, and then where are you? Standing in front of a frame of branches and "telling the tell" through a memory of television?
I'm still chuckling at the idea of lesser university libraries getting to make huge leaps in how many "volumes" they supposedly have, simply by downloading a big old mess of these public domain texts from those famously massive major university libraries. Will they use the new numbers to adjust their budget requests? Will university administrators realize they don't have increased heating and lighting costs for all these new "volumes?"]
Yet the common vision of the library's future (even the e-book future) assumes that books will remain isolated items, independent from one another, just as they are on shelves in your public library. There, each book is pretty much unaware of the ones next to it. When an author completes a work, it is fixed and finished. Its only movement comes when a reader picks it up to animate it with his or her imagination. In this vision, the main advantage of the coming digital library is portability — the nifty translation of a book's full text into bits, which permits it to be read on a screen anywhere. But this vision misses the chief revolution birthed by scanning books: in the universal library, no book will be an island.
[Aha! Decontextualized Library of Congress notation, The Dewey Decimal System, arbitrary shelving, or even mis-shelving, a black hole that books sometimes disappear into in some libraries, even the venerable card catalog, will they all become irrelevant? Remember those dreary library classes where you were drilled in when to use the Author's name, when to use the Subject Index, when to try to find the Title? And even early databases used in libraries preserved this quaint eccentricity long after it was necessary, in some cases, is present still, although I have no idea why we need separate fields for Author, Subject, and Title, when Keyword ought to catch everything just fine.
I remember an argument I had with a librarian once, and I remember the exact year: 1990. I was bringing my research paper classes to the library for their regular library orientation sessions. After class, I questioned the librarian about the new InfoTrax database system for periodicals that she was happily touting. It was pretty neat, and I was ready to go to town with it, but as a usual dyslexic, I was frustrated when it couldn't find things I didn't type precisely, or in the correct Subject, Title, or Author field.
Why can't it all be keywords I asked her? Oh, that's coming soon, she said, and went on to explain what it would do. But no, I wanted keyword searching of ENTIRE TEXTS, just of magazine, journal, and periodical articles, which I thought was perfectly reasonable. Why wouldn't it do that? I wanted to be able to run Boolean combinations through this jackpot, just to see what would turn up. The librarian's eyes went wide, and then she got angry. How dare I even expect such an impossible thing! The absurdity of it. THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN, she pronounced. Don't even think about it.
Meanwhile, I got to graduate school three years later and eventually encountered my future dissertation adviser, a hypertext theorist who imagined a world where EACH AND EVERY WORD is a hypertextual link to somewhere else. Even "a" "an" and "the." Ted Nelson's "docuverse" indeed!]
Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.
In recent years, hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic amateurs have written and cross-referenced an entire online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. Buoyed by this success, many nerds believe that a billion readers can reliably weave together the pages of old books, one hyperlink at a time. Those with a passion for a special subject, obscure author or favorite book will, over time, link up its important parts. Multiply that simple generous act by millions of readers, and the universal library can be integrated in full, by fans for fans.
[I just can't wait. Not only will the future be hyperlinked, but it will also spin out into recombinant document DNA, and we don't even need plagiarizing Harvard sophomore novelists to start us off on the right/wrong foot.
Imagine recombinant Faulker and parody Faulker, the novelistic version of "filksongs."
Interweave Emily Dickinson's 1,775 quatrain-driven poems with 1,000 "Centuries" of Nostradamus quatrains! Ooh oh! Hold me back, hold me back! Audio track them all over the midi-tune of Gilligan's Island.]
In addition to a link, which explicitly connects one word or sentence or book to another, readers will also be able to add tags, a recent innovation on the Web but already a popular one. A tag is a public annotation, like a keyword or category name, that is hung on a file, page, picture or song, enabling anyone to search for that file. For instance, on the photo-sharing site Flickr, hundreds of viewers will "tag" a photo submitted by another user with their own simple classifications of what they think the picture is about: "goat," "Paris," "goofy," "beach party." Because tags are user-generated, when they move to the realm of books, they will be assigned faster, range wider and serve better than out-of-date schemes like the Dewey Decimal System, particularly in frontier or fringe areas like nanotechnology or body modification.
The link and the tag may be two of the most important inventions of the last 50 years. They get their initial wave of power when we first code them into bits of text, but their real transformative energies fire up as ordinary users click on them in the course of everyday Web surfing, unaware that each humdrum click "votes" on a link, elevating its rank of relevance.
[Now this isn't as much talked about these days, since tags get all the buzz, but Kelly alludes to it above here. I don't know if people are still calling it this, but I've always called this interface design feature, used somewhat in blog software, "self-organizing sites." In blogs, this is seen when the table of contents also reflects dynamic traffic patterns, in the form of "Most Commented," for instance. In some larger content-management-system blogs like Scoop and others, there are also more reader/viewer/member voting/rating systems, like relevance ratings, or trust ratings in eBay, or marking which reviews on Amazon are helpful or not helpful.
I try to build sites with self-organizing features, as a general goal, just as I also was learning XML in order to make a really FUNKY document-type-definition (DTD) on a goofy theory I was working on at the time. But what I see happening now, especially with tags, is that tags themselves are writing INTO the deep structure interface of the Web (as it becomes more Semantic) the very idea of the DTD I was trying to build, amped up to the -nth degree by enlisting online participants to write to it on the fly. Utterly brilliant.
What I don't see yet, what I hope to see more of to come, is the same thing happening to self-organizing site features. Wouldn't it be cool if this Library of Everything harnessed a web-wide structural interstitial thing that allowed self-organizing features to be WRITTEN ACROSS venerable texts just as people are doing right now with custom Google Maps? I'm not kidding myself, tho. The biggest self-organizing system on the web is Google itself, with its crunching crunching god-like algorhythms.]
You may think you are just browsing, casually inspecting this paragraph or that page, but in fact you are anonymously marking up the Web with bread crumbs of attention. These bits of interest are gathered and analyzed by search engines in order to strengthen the relationship between the end points of every link and the connections suggested by each tag. This is a type of intelligence common on the Web, but previously foreign to the world of books.
[Can we really still call them "books" then? I think what we're getting will read something like this Michel de Certeau quotation from The Practice of Everyday Life:
…Today this text no longer comes from a tradition. It is imposed by the generation of a productivist technocracy. It is no longer a referential book, but a whole society made into a book, into the writings of the anonymous law of production. (1984, p. xxii)
Neat, huh? But do you want to be an anonymous blob? Are we doomed to lose our identities, subsumed into a vast postmodernist and culturally referential text?
Here's Kevin Kelly again, in the New York Times: Link: Scan This Book! - New York Times.]
When books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity. Bookmarks can be shared with fellow readers. Marginalia can be broadcast. Bibliographies swapped. You might get an alert that your friend Carl has annotated a favorite book of yours. A moment later, his links are yours. In a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book.
3. Books: The Liquid Version
At the same time, once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or "playlists," as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual "bookshelves" — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these "bookshelves" will be published and swapped in the public commons.
[I'm already doing this on my blogs. It's one of the funnest things about keeping my blogs, the "Intriguing" dynamic bookmark list on the side, my books and DVDs lists, also on the side. I'd put my Delicious tags up, but I think I'm a Delicious anomaly. I believe in lots and lots of booksmarks and tags, and that's just way too messy to keep on the side, and so huge it's only valuable for me alone as a personal research tool, a game I've been playing with blog categories as well, as long as I've been keeping them. It's just a variant of that old theory I was working on while learning XML DTD's.I'm thinking about rhetoric and language frames, and what's visible vs. what's under erasure in socially-constructed online spaces, so I'm trying to make a tag set that's expansive, inclusive, not limiting and exclusive. My goal is to try to write more invisible things into existence online.]
And readers are already using Google Book Search to round up minilibraries on a certain topic — all books about Sweden, for instance, or books on clocks. Once snippets, articles and pages of books become ubiquitous, shuffle-able and transferable, users will earn prestige and perhaps income for curating an excellent collection.
[Heh. And academics are already using it to find out where they're being cited. (grin)]
So what happens when all the books in the world become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas? Four things: First, works on the margins of popularity will find a small audience larger than the near-zero audience they usually have now. Far out in the "long tail" of the distribution curve — that extended place of low-to-no sales where most of the books in the world live — digital interlinking will lift the readership of almost any title, no matter how esoteric. Second, the universal library will deepen our grasp of history, as every original document in the course of civilization is scanned and cross-linked. Third, the universal library of all books will cultivate a new sense of authority. If you can truly incorporate all texts — past and present, multilingual — on a particular subject, then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don't know. The white spaces of our collective ignorance are highlighted, while the golden peaks of our knowledge are drawn with completeness. This degree of authority is only rarely achieved in scholarship today, but it will become routine.
[Long tail, long tail, I love the long tail! (singing) Yup, I like all this stuff above, except the last bit raises my hackles. He said the A-word. Ooooh. I must take a moment and cringe. Context: there's a whole massive section of my dissertation, an entire set piece, where I look at and compare different assumptions about "Constructions of Authority in Cyberspace Cultures." I'm not just plugging my own bit there, although I am plugging my own bit. It was a major stew for me in my graduate work, to figure out what happens to authority both online and off, along with notions of hegemony and resistance. Go take a look at it if you want to see what I mean. It's too complicated to summarize here, but this topic is going to be SOOOO important online, and is so important right now in U.S. culture as we deal with a government that only seems to know how to use the "because I said so" argument from authority, rather than using other forms of reasoning and support.
But there's so many people making assumptions about authority in oral cultures vs. print cultures, claiming that oral cultures don't question authority as much as print texts do with the use of logic and arguments that can stand still. Then there's those who say print texts are authoritarian because of the permanence, or fixed nature. The texts aren't dynamic, they don't change, therefore, they are the tools of evil foundationalist authoritarians, cultures of the book. Then you look at electronic media, both "passive" media and "active" media. Is one more authoritarian than the other, linked to "secondary orality," or even "secondary literacy?"
So Kelly wants high levels of authority to be routine. That thought frightens me and would tend to send me screaming out of the room. What I want are levels of debate, annotation, linking, contextualization, nonlinear thinking, parallel thinking, CONTINGENT DISCOURSE to carry the day, NOT authoritarian "This is the law and I'm the decider" discourse. I suspect Kelly doesn't want that either, but he may be thinking about authority in different ways than I am. Perhaps he means real, earned authority, what I'd call "ethos," rather than shrill, usurped, fascist authority.
Kevin Kelly, if you find this extended and freaky annotated blog post in the great Library of Everything, can you tell how much I am just LOVING your essay in the Times? You have me thinking in 15 directions at once, and about all kinds of things that used to consume me 24/7 before those fools threw away all that money on stupid ventures and the dot.coms crashed. I am just thrilled to discover (with this article being so popular) that other people are as primed as I am to be thinking about these issues again. And thank you so much for making your essay long enough for me to chew on. I get so sick of all these shortie shortie blog hit and run entries. I incline toward the long-winded, and I appreciate more heft in what I read as well.]
The main drawback of this vision is a big one. So far, the universal library lacks books. Despite the best efforts of bloggers and the creators of the Wikipedia, most of the world's expertise still resides in books. And a universal library without the contents of books is no universal library at all.
There are dozens of excellent reasons that books should quickly be made part of the emerging Web. But so far they have not been, at least not in great numbers. And there is only one reason: the hegemony of the copy.
4. The Triumph of the Copy
The desire of all creators is for their works to find their way into all minds. A text, a melody, a picture or a story succeeds best if it is connected to as many ideas and other works as possible. Ideally, over time a work becomes so entangled in a culture that it appears to be inseparable from it, in the way that the Bible, Shakespeare's plays, "Cinderella" and the Mona Lisa are inseparable from ours. This tendency for creative ideas to infiltrate other works is great news for culture. In fact, this commingling of creations is culture.
[Somehow we have to incorporate this basic principle of value in the information age, in spite of the TimesSelects of this world: information only has value when it circulates. Perhaps everything only has value when it circulates, but hoarders of money, gold coins, baseball cards, what have you, would belie that statement. But hoarders of information have a tougher time making that justification.
It is a Distributed Model of Value vs. a Scarcity Model. In a zero sum world, the scarcity model would seemingly hold: you only have what you can get and hold on to, even if you will one day die and you can't take it with you. A distributed, democratized model expands beyond the zero sum game, so that mainframe computers hoarded computing power among the very few, but when weaker machines were put on almost every desktop, the total set of computing power in the world increases exponentially.
I rant on this because of the assumptions of the entertainment industry about intellectual property and its insistence of being the old troll under the bridge the Billy Goats Gruff want to cross. Not only are they depriving culture of works that should be entering the public domain in a timely fashion, they are also causing the LOSS of culture through their ridiculous hoarding, as old films deteriorate, works get lost, and so on. The restrictions on Google Books are beyond absurd. Kelly really lays it out in this next bit.]
Not coincidentally, public libraries first began to flourish with the advent of cheap copies. Before the industrial age, libraries were primarily the property of the wealthy elite. With mass production, every small town could afford to put duplicates of the greatest works of humanity on wooden shelves in the village square. Mass access to public-library books inspired scholarship, reviewing and education, activities exempted in part from the monopoly of copyright in the United States because they moved creative works toward the public commons sooner, weaving them into the fabric of common culture while still remaining under the author's copyright. These are now known as "fair uses."
This wonderful balance was undone by good intentions. The first was a new copyright law passed by Congress in 1976. According to the new law, creators no longer had to register or renew copyright; the simple act of creating something bestowed it with instant and automatic rights. By default, each new work was born under private ownership rather than in the public commons. At first, this reversal seemed to serve the culture of creation well. All works that could be copied gained instant and deep ownership, and artists and authors were happy. But the 1976 law, and various revisions and extensions that followed it, made it extremely difficult to move a work into the public commons, where human creations naturally belong and were originally intended to reside. As more intellectual property became owned by corporations rather than by individuals, those corporations successfully lobbied Congress to keep extending the once-brief protection enabled by copyright in order to prevent works from returning to the public domain. With constant nudging, Congress moved the expiration date from 14 years to 28 to 42 and then to 56.
While corporations and legislators were moving the goal posts back, technology was accelerating forward. In Internet time, even 14 years is a long time for a monopoly; a monopoly that lasts a human lifetime is essentially an eternity. So when Congress voted in 1998 to extend copyright an additional 70 years beyond the life span of a creator — to a point where it could not possibly serve its original purpose as an incentive to keep that creator working — it was obvious to all that copyright now existed primarily to protect a threatened business model. And because Congress at the same time tacked a 20-year extension onto all existing copyrights, nothing — no published creative works of any type — will fall out of protection and return to the public domain until 2019. Almost everything created today will not return to the commons until the next century. Thus the stream of shared material that anyone can improve (think "A Thousand and One Nights" or "Amazing Grace" or "Beauty and the Beast") will largely dry up.
In the world of books, the indefinite extension of copyright has had a perverse effect. It has created a vast collection of works that have been abandoned by publishers, a continent of books left permanently in the dark. In most cases, the original publisher simply doesn't find it profitable to keep these books in print. In other cases, the publishing company doesn't know whether it even owns the work, since author contracts in the past were not as explicit as they are now. The size of this abandoned library is shocking: about 75 percent of all books in the world's libraries are orphaned. Only about 15 percent of all books are in the public domain. A luckier 10 percent are still in print. The rest, the bulk of our universal library, is dark.
Which leaves 75 percent of the known texts of humans in the dark. The legal limbo surrounding their status as copies prevents them from being digitized. No one argues that these are all masterpieces, but there is history and context enough in their pages to not let them disappear. And if they are not scanned, they in effect will disappear. But with copyright hyperextended beyond reason (the Supreme Court in 2003 declared the law dumb but not unconstitutional), none of this dark library will return to the public domain (and be cleared for scanning) until at least 2019. With no commercial incentive to entice uncertain publishers to pay for scanning these orphan works, they will vanish from view. According to Peter Brantley, director of technology for the California Digital Library, "We have a moral imperative to reach out to our library shelves, grab the material that is orphaned and set it on top of scanners."
By scanning all books (something only Google had the cash to do), the company would advance its mission to organize all knowledge. It would let books be searchable, and it could potentially sell ads on those searches, although it does not do that currently. In the same stroke, Google would rescue the lost and forgotten 75 percent of the library. For many authors, this all-out campaign was a salvation. Google became a discovery tool, if not a marketing program. While a few best-selling authors fear piracy, every author fears obscurity. Enabling their works to be found in the same universal search box as everything else in the world was good news for authors and good news for an industry that needed some. For authors with books in the publisher program and for authors of books abandoned by a publisher, Google unleashed a chance that more people would at least read, and perhaps buy, the creation they had sweated for years to complete.
6. The Case Against Google
Some authors and many publishers found more evil than genius in Google's plan. Two points outraged them: the virtual copy of the book that sat on Google's indexing server and Google's assumption that it could scan first and ask questions later. On both counts the authors and publishers accused Google of blatant copyright infringement. When negotiations failed last fall, the Authors Guild and five big publishing companies sued Google. Their argument was simple: Why shouldn't Google share its ad revenue (if any) with the copyright owners? And why shouldn't Google have to ask permission from the legal copyright holder before scanning the work in any case? (I have divided loyalties in the case. The current publisher of my books is suing Google to protect my earnings as an author. At the same time, I earn income from Google Adsense ads placed on my blog.)
The argument is about the 75 percent of books that have been abandoned by publishers as uneconomical. One curious fact, of course, is that publishers only care about these orphans now because Google has shifted the economic equation; because of Book Search, these dark books may now have some sparks in them, and the publishers don't want this potential revenue stream to slip away from them. They are now busy digging deep into their records to see what part of the darkness they can declare as their own.
[Way to point up this absurd irony. It's like your nasty little brother who isn't playing with the toy at all, but as soon as you go take it out of the toy box, suddenly he pitches a fit and decides he wants it.]
7. When Business Models Collide
In thinking about the arguments around search, I realized that there are many ways to conceive of this conflict. At first, I thought that this was a misunderstanding between people of the book, who favor solutions by laws, and people of the screen, who favor technology as a solution to all problems. Last November, the New York Public Library (one of the "Google Five") sponsored a debate between representatives of authors and publishers and supporters of Google. I was tickled to see that up on the stage, the defenders of the book were from the East Coast and the defenders of the screen were from the West Coast. But while it's true that there's a strand of cultural conflict here, I eventually settled on a different framework, one that I found more useful. This is a clash of business models.
Protected physical copies have enabled millions of people to earn a living directly from the sale of their art to the audience, without the weird dynamics of patronage. Not only did authors and artists benefit from this model, but the audience did, too. For the first time, billions of ordinary people were able to come in regular contact with a great work. In Mozart's day, few people ever heard one of his symphonies more than once. With the advent of cheap audio recordings, a barber in Java could listen to them all day long.
But a new regime of digital technology has now disrupted all business models based on mass-produced copies, including individual livelihoods of artists. The contours of the electronic economy are still emerging, but while they do, the wealth derived from the old business model is being spent to try to protect that old model, through legislation and enforcement. Laws based on the mass-produced copy artifact are being taken to the extreme, while desperate measures to outlaw new technologies in the marketplace "for our protection" are introduced in misguided righteousness. (This is to be expected. The fact is, entire industries and the fortunes of those working in them are threatened with demise. Newspapers and magazines, Hollywood, record labels, broadcasters and many hard-working and wonderful creative people in those fields have to change the model of how they earn money. Not all will make it.)
As copies have been dethroned, the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work.
The technology of search maximizes the value of a creative work by allowing a billion new connections into it, often a billion new connections that were previously inconceivable. Things can be found by search only if they radiate potential connections. These potential relationships can be as simple as a title or as deep as hyperlinked footnotes that lead to active pages, which are also footnoted. It may be as straightforward as a song published intact or as complex as access to the individual instrument tracks — or even individual notes.
Search opens up creations. It promotes the civic nature of publishing. Having searchable works is good for culture. It is so good, in fact, that we can now state a new covenant: Copyrights must be counterbalanced by copyduties. In exchange for public protection of a work's copies (what we call copyright), a creator has an obligation to allow that work to be searched. No search, no copyright. As a song, movie, novel or poem is searched, the potential connections it radiates seep into society in a much deeper way than the simple publication of a duplicated copy ever could.
We see this effect most clearly in science. Science is on a long-term campaign to bring all knowledge in the world into one vast, interconnected, footnoted, peer-reviewed web of facts. Independent facts, even those that make sense in their own world, are of little value to science. (The pseudo- and parasciences are nothing less, in fact, than small pools of knowledge that are not connected to the large network of science.)
[Shhhh, don't tell this to Bell Labs, the secret patented gene pools of Monsanto, or all the university researchers who have had to sell their souls to get proprietary research grants from corporations who force them to sign non-disclosure-everything agreements and sometimes won't even let university human subjects review boards review the study methods, everything is so top secret (and potentially compromised).
I mean, think about science as it grew out of alchemy and into the Royal Academy (OK, I've been reading Neal Stephenson's "steampunk," not actual histories, OK?) Alchemy was the Bell Labs of its day, secret science for the gain and benefit of a patron or the experimenter. Hermetic science, hidden from the Inquisition along with the secret banned books. The idea of the scientific method and replication and sharing brought science into the open, brought it in to school textbooks, but for all we know, Bell Labs is operating under a completely different idea of physical laws, but because it's so proprietary and secret, it will never make it into undergraduate physics courses, let alone junior high textbooks.]
The legal clash between the book copy and the searchable Web promises to be a long one. Jane Friedman, the C.E.O. of HarperCollins, which is supporting the suit against Google (while remaining a publishing partner), declared, "I don't expect this suit to be resolved in my lifetime." She's right. The courts may haggle forever as this complex issue works its way to the top. In the end, it won't matter; technology will resolve this discontinuity first.
What is the technology telling us? That copies don't count any more. Copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won't mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain in meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library. Soon a book outside the library will be like a Web page outside the Web, gasping for air. Indeed, the only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire their texts into the universal library.
I annotated a good bit of this valuable piece, both to be able to respond and build on the arguments it makes, and because, IRONICALLY, after two weeks, it will disappear behind the New York Times firewall and become inaccessible online for me to argue with interactively. Newspaper firewalls remain some of the most ridiculous generators of dead links on the Internet, something Kelly didn't get around to discussing in his excellent and timely essay. I'm sure he probably left out the kitchen sink too, damn him.
And for the record? I'd rather Wired magazine had more pieces like this and less advertising-driven gadget-of-the-week crap, entreprenuer-hero profile bullshit, and "I'm ga-ga over first person shooter games" stories. I'm a longtime Wired reader, but not a longtime subscriber, and that, in a nutshell, is the reason why. Tell that to your demographic researchers and marketing people. Unless all they care about is "proximity product placement" ads and the whims of advertisers as the primary audience for the magazine.
I wonder why Kelly placed this in the Times instead of letting it play big in Wired. Maybe it was too "entry level" for Wired readers, who've already read oodles of Google feature stories including a cover story not too long ago. On the other hand, I'd hardly call NY Times readers "entry level" either. The Times is one of the few newspapers where I can escape the relentless dumbing down I find in most mass media these days, lite fluffy stories that bore me to tears.