Politics & Policy

Google’s Great Pyramid

A new epoch has arrived.

The enterprise is magnificent. If the information age could have an equivalent to building the Great Pyramid, this is it. Google plans to digitize Harvard’s libraries–and those of Oxford, Michigan, Stanford, and the New York Public.

Building the Great Pyramid was not exactly a technological breakthrough. The art of piling heavy rocks on top of each other was already established in King Khufu’s time in the mid-third millennium B.C. But Khufu forever changed the scale of human ambition by applying the science of rock piling on an unprecedented scale.

Likewise, scanning the pages of a book into a computer database is no technological marvel. But scanning the pages of 15 million books is something else. And as with Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza, it is likely to define its own epoch.

Rapt in admiration as I am for the Great Pyramid of Google, I do seem to recall a few months ago that the National Endowment for the Arts issued a report, Reading at Risk, presenting a rather sobering view of American reading habits. In 2002, for example, only 56.6 percent of Americans had read a work of “literature”–very loosely defined. Perhaps the other 43.4 percent were waiting for the opportunity to read Dean Koontz or Amanda Quick online.

Access to all those books doesn’t mean people will read more, or more intelligently. Access to a vegetable garden doesn’t mean one has a healthier diet. Still, fast access to a lot of information is probably better than slow access to a little information.

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk with access to a vegetable garden, spent his days breeding peas, and published the results of his experiments in an obscure journal in 1865. Mendel’s discovery of the basic rules of genetic inheritance then went unnoticed for 35 years, until in 1900 three botanists–Hugo de Vries, C. Correns, and E. Tschermak–finally recognized their importance. The belated recognition was too late for Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was marred by his ignorance of genetics. Darwin had died in 1882, with an unopened copy of Mendel’s article tucked away in his library.

It is hard to imagine such a mishap today, when scientific papers are circulated on the Internet and nearly every significant science journal in the world is indexed and searchable. Still, it is pleasant to think that the Google super-library will lead to some happy rediscoveries. That will depend, however, less on the technology than on the perspicacity of readers. We will still need a Hugo de Vries, or a Christopher Ricks. Ricks is the literary critic who recently exhumed the previously unknown but impressive poet James Henry (1798-1876) from the miles of unread and unreadable verse in the vaults of Harvard’s libraries. If Google wishes to spend upwards of $150 million to find another James Henry, three cheers for lucrative public offerings.

The project seems to baffle skepticism. No matter that Americans increasingly write in a subliterate e-mail-ese and struggle with basic sentence structure. The New York Times struck that familiar discordance recently with an article on “What Corporate America Cannot Build: A Sentence.” I suppose corporate America is the destination of some of my students, one of whom turned in a paper this semester in which she referred to “wreck-looses and social misfits.” This took me a moment to decipher, and then a moment longer to consider whether I wanted to give up teaching and become a wreck-loose in Vermont.

Search all you want in the 15 million volume Pyramid of Google for the literature of wreck-loose-sivity, you will probably never find Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods. But this is no argument against building the Pyramid–just a reminder that some people will still get lost in the sand.

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the project is the unreliability of things. Some weeks ago, a Verizon repairman, mistaking my house for another, detached my phone line. It took eight weeks of speaking to machines and to people in India and sundry offices of the phone company around the United States before Verizon would send a repairman. I don’t mean to pick on one company. The communications industry as a whole seems like that–wedged tight in sophisticated but maddingly obtuse technology that cannot respond to actual human needs.

Google currently enjoys a well-earned reputation as being among the most practical and reliable Internet search engines. If we are going to build a Great Pyramid of virtual libraries, Google is the stone-mason of choice. Still, I wouldn’t advise anyone to plan on giving up the old hard-bound paper copies just yet.

Libraries are, in their way, excellent indicators of a culture’s aspirations and its temperament. King Khufu built his pyramid, but the Hellenized Egyptians of a later generation built the Library of Alexandria. Americans tend to think of their libraries on the Carnegie model, as institutions that are free, open, and engaged in a vague but wholesome enhancement of the community. To maintain this view we have to ignore the grimly unpleasant American Library Association, which has been engaged in a campaign to keep imaginary FBI agents from poring over library records in search of suspicious reading habits. But apart from the cranky left-wing librarians, our libraries are indeed pleasant places and they testify to some good American qualities. We have a moderate regard for the past and a temperate love of learning. Our libraries breathe a democratic spirit that allows room for enthusiasts, passionate amateurs, and autodidacts, as well as kids writing book reports and adults who don’t mind a waiting list for popular novels.

The systematic and grandiose spirit of a 15 million volume virtual library seems a bit at odds with the civic institution. Most likely we will take it in stride, but like the Internet itself, it may turn a shy scholar here and there into another unfortunate wreck-loose.

Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.


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