ad (non)sense

Micah White is upset:

The vast library that is the internet is flooded with so many advertisements that many people claim not to notice them anymore. Ads line the top and right of the search results page, are displayed next to emails in Gmail, on our favourite blog, and beside reportage of anti-corporate struggles. As evidenced by the tragic reality that most people can’t tell the difference between ads and content any more, this commercial barrage is having a cultural impact.

The danger of allowing an advertising company to control the index of human knowledge is too obvious to ignore. The universal index is the shared heritage of humanity. It ought to be owned by us all. No corporation or nation has the right to privatise the index, commercialise the index, censor what they do not like or auction search ranking to the highest bidder. We have public libraries. We need a public search engine.

Well . . . if advertising is the problem, then “a public search engine” won’t solve the problem, will it? We wouldn’t see ads while searching, but we would see them as soon as we arrived at the pages we were searching for. Moreover, if it’s wrong to have ads next to reportage online, then presumably it’s wrong to have ads in the paper version of the Guardian, in magazines, and on television as well.

What exactly is White asking for? A universal prohibition on internet advertising, brokered by the U.N.? An international tribunal to prosecute Google for unauthorized indexing? Yes, it would have been wonderful, as Robert Darnton has pointed out, if universities and libraries had banded together to do the information-indexing and book-digitizing that Google has done — but they didn’t.

So here we are, with an unprecedented and astonishing amount of information at our fingertips, and we’re going to complain about ads? — the same ads that give us television, newspapers, and magazines? Please. Why not just come right out and say “I want everything and I want it for free”?

Google gives us plenty to complain about; I have deeply mixed feelings about the company myself, as I have often articulated. But the presence of online ads ought to be the least of our worries.
(Update: here’s Darnton on the possibility of creating a national digital library.)

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.

the Republic of Letters

Here’s an excellent article by Robert Darnton, about which I will have more to say later. But for now here’s a taste:

The eighteenth century imagined the Republic of Letters as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won. The word also spread by written letters, for the eighteenth century was a great era of epistolary exchange. Read through the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson — each filling about fifty volumes — and you can watch the Republic of Letters in operation. All four writers debated all the issues of their day in a steady stream of letters, which crisscrossed Europe and America in a transatlantic information network. I especially enjoy the exchange of letters between Jefferson and Madison. They discussed everything, notably the American Constitution, which Madison was helping to write in Philadelphia while Jefferson was representing the new republic in Paris. They often wrote about books, for Jefferson loved to haunt the bookshops in the capital of the Republic of Letters, and he frequently bought books for his friend. The purchases included Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which Jefferson thought that he had got at a bargain price, although he had mistaken a reprint for a first edition. Two future presidents discussing books through the information network of the Enlightenment — it’s a stirring sight. But before this picture of the past fogs over with sentiment, I should add that the Republic of Letters was democratic only in principle. In practice, it was dominated by the wellborn and the rich. Far from being able to live from their pens, most writers had to court patrons, solicit sinecures, lobby for appointments to state-controlled journals, dodge censors, and wangle their way into salons and academies, where reputations were made. While suffering indignities at the hands of their social superiors, they turned on one another.

By “Letters” these figures did not mean epistles, though obviously they produced plenty of those, but rather Writing, humane learning, what we might call “literature” in the broadest sense of the word. (They used the word “literature” quite differently than we do. To us it means — more or less — poetry, fiction, drama, and some kinds of essay; to them it meant the scope of a person’s reading, especially in the classics and the best moderns. “He is a man of great literature” is a characteristic phrase of the period: it means “he is exceptionally well-read in the best books.”) Anyway, as I said, more on all this later. But read the whole essay.