fragility

Jason Epstein writes,

Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter — the human inability to read what is unreadable — will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats’s nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary’s haikus. That the contents of the world’s libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age.

This is of course not true, and one wonders what caused Epstein to make such a claim. Does he think that every book ever digitized is on a single un-backed-up computer? “Digital content is fragile,” he continues. “The secure retention, therefore, of physical books safe from electronic meddlers, predators, and the hazards of electronic storage is essential.” I agree with this, but maybe not for the reasons Epstein has in mind. Paper codices contain a great deal of information — data and metadata — that can’t easily be transferred to digital form, and that information is worth preserving. But it’s not clear, to me anyway, that electronic texts are more fragile than books. It’s true that digital media deteriorate, and at rates and under conditions we still don’t understand, but steps can be taken and are being taken to keep those media constantly updated. And books are damaged, lost, or destroyed as well. Few objects persist over time unless they are cared for, which is presumably what certain Chinese Buddhist scholars were thinking about when they built a library.It’s interesting to think about what would happen if certain sources of information we rely on were somehow to disappear, wholly and instantaneously. Losing Wikipedia wouldn’t be a big deal, since by design its information comes from other sources, most of which are online elsewhere. Losing the books that Google has scanned would be more problematic, but there are many other sources of digitized texts. We need to be good custodians of all the information we have gathered, but with proper care, I don’t think that digital media are any more fragile than any other kind.

embedded previews from Google Books

Google says I can now embed certain passages from Google Books — those books with previews — on my website. Let’s see if it works:  Hmm. Well, sort of. You don't seem to be able to choose what you want to show — I thought I was choosing to embed a portion of the text, but evidently not. Not sure what this is good for.

it’s Google’s world; we’re just living in it

Much of the Robert Darnton article I linked to in an earlier post is concerned with the power that Google now has over access to books, through its massive digitization project and, especially, the recent agreement it has reached with publishers to continue and expand on that that project. Darnton:

The settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans, whether they want to find out about people, goods, places, or almost anything. In addition to the original “Big Google,” we have Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Images, Google Labs, Google Finance, Google Arts, Google Food, Google Sports, Google Health, Google Checkout, Google Alerts, and many more Google enterprises on the way. Now Google Book Search promises to create the largest library and the largest book business that have ever existed.Whether or not I have understood the settlement correctly, its terms are locked together so tightly that they cannot be pried apart. At this point, neither Google, nor the authors, nor the publishers, nor the district court is likely to modify the settlement substantially. Yet this is also a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream [of a true Republic of Letters] may be as elusive as ever.

Nicholas Carr has some of the same concerns, only more so, because he would cross out Darnton’s “apart from Wikipedia” concession. Carr has been running a set of Google searches repeatedly since 2006, and while Wikipedia was prominent in the search results from the start, it now provides the first option for every single search in the series. Carr:

The first thing to be said is: Congratulations, Wikipedians. You rule. Seriously, it’s a remarkable achievement. Who would have thought that a rag-tag band of anonymous volunteers could achieve what amounts to hegemony over the results of the most popular search engine, at least when it comes to searches for common topics.The next thing to be said is: what we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history’s eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia – and I admit there’s much to adore – you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing. Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

A thoughtful response to at least some of the concerns of Darnton and Carr comes from Tim O’Reilly. Note especially this point:

There has never been more competition either in electronic books, or for books, in the broader electronic ‘republic of letters.’ . . . In short, there’s a strong economic motive for publishers to release digital editions of their books, and to treat Google Books as only one possible channel. . . . Frankly, I’d be far more worried about Darnton’s wished-for utopia, in which the government had funded the equivalent, mandating that all publishers participate. That might well have nipped the competitive ebook landscape in the bud. . . . As it is, we see lots of different competing approaches to bootstrapping this market. I’d say it’s opening up very nicely!

I don’t know who’s closer to being right here. It’s likely that O’Reilly is too sanguine and Darnton and Carr too worried. But I have just enough Richard Stallman in me to distrust Google’s power. I’ve been trying lately to disentangle myself to some degree from Google’s services — though I’m not likely to shift from Gmail — and to diversify my online investments, so to speak. I’m also thinking about retrieving some of my stuff that’s now “in the cloud” and confining it to my desktop. But I have to admit, I use Google Books more and more and more, for reasons such as the ones noted here.

a new life for old books

Over at boingboing, a very interesting post by Steven Johnson in which he discusses, among other things, the research he did for his new book on the great clergyman/chemist/inventor/revolutionary Joseph Priestley:

This is the first book that I have written where Google Books played an absolutely indispensable role. An amazing number of Priestley’s original writings (along with other texts from that period) are available from Google as downloadable PDFs, with scans of the original page design and typography, along with full-text searching. Many of these are texts that would be very hard to find even in a major research library, and of course, even if you could find them, you wouldn’t be able to search them. . . . One thrilling thing about these Google Book resources is that you can now link directly to an individual page of a book that has potentially been out of print for centuries. We need to think a bit more about how to standardize these links, given multiple editions and multiple library sites that might have digital copies. But what you can see happening, slowly but surely, is the Memex and Xanadu and the Information Superhighway — all those inspiring dreams of information utopia — finally crossing crossing over into the vast universe of books. Slowly, over time, a page typeset in 1771 might start to get a whole new life, thanks to the growing authority we grant it through that elemental gesture of making a link.