Category Archives: kevin_kelly

“the bookish character of books”: how google’s romanticism falls short

Check out, if you haven’t already, Paul Duguid’s witty and incisive exposé of the pitfalls of searching for Tristram Shandy in Google Book Search, an exercise which puts many of the inadequacies of the world’s leading digitization program into relief. By Duguid’s own admission, Lawrence Sterne’s legendary experimental novel is an idiosyncratic choice, but its many typographic and structural oddities make it a particularly useful lens through which to examine the challenges of migrating books successfully to the digital domain. This follows a similar examination Duguid carried out last year with the same text in Project Gutenberg, an experience which he said revealed the limitations of peer production in generating high quality digital editions (also see Dan’s own take on this in an older if:book post). This study focuses on the problems of inheritance as a mode of quality assurance, in this case the bequeathing of large authoritative collections by elite institutions to the Google digitization enterprise. Does simply digitizing these – ?books, imprimaturs and all – ?automatically result in an authoritative bibliographic resource?
Duguid’s suggests not. The process of migrating analog works to the digital environment in a way that respects the orginals but fully integrates them into the networked world is trickier than simply scanning and dumping into a database. The Shandy study shows in detail how Google’s ambition to organizing the world’s books and making them universally accessible and useful (to slightly adapt Google’s mission statement) is being carried out in a hasty, slipshod manner, leading to a serious deficit in quality in what could eventually become, for better or worse, the world’s library. Duguid is hardly the first to point this out, but the intense focus of his case study is valuable and serves as a useful counterpoint to the technoromantic visions of Google boosters such as Kevin Kelly, who predict a new electronic book culture liberated by search engines in which readers are free to find, remix and recombine texts in various ways. While this networked bibliotopia sounds attractive, it’s conceived primarily from the standpoint of technology and not well grounded in the particulars of books. What works as snappy Web2.0 buzz doesn’t necessarily hold up in practice.
As is so often the case, the devil is in the details, and it is precisely the details that Google seems to have overlooked, or rather sprinted past. Sloppy scanning and the blithe discarding of organizational and metadata schemes meticulously devised through centuries of librarianship, might indeed make the books “universally accessible” (or close to that) but the “and useful” part of the equation could go unrealized. As we build the future, it’s worth pondering what parts of the past we want to hold on to. It’s going to have to be a slower and more painstaking a process than Google (and, ironically, the partner libraries who have rushed headlong into these deals) might be prepared to undertake. Duguid:

The Google Books Project is no doubt an important, in many ways invaluable, project. It is also, on the brief evidence given here, a highly problematic one. Relying on the power of its search tools, Google has ignored elemental metadata, such as volume numbers. The quality of its scanning (and so we may presume its searching) is at times completely inadequate. The editions offered (by search or by sale) are, at best, regrettable. Curiously, this suggests to me that it may be Google’s technicians, and not librarians, who are the great romanticisers of the book. Google Books takes books as a storehouse of wisdom to be opened up with new tools. They fail to see what librarians know: books can be obtuse, obdurate, even obnoxious things. As a group, they don’t submit equally to a standard shelf, a standard scanner, or a standard ontology. Nor are their constraints overcome by scraping the text and developing search algorithms. Such strategies can undoubtedly be helpful, but in trying to do away with fairly simple constraints (like volumes), these strategies underestimate how a book’s rigidities are often simultaneously resources deeply implicated in the ways in which authors and publishers sought to create the content, meaning, and significance that Google now seeks to liberate. Even with some of the best search and scanning technology in the world behind you, it is unwise to ignore the bookish character of books. More generally, transferring any complex communicative artifacts between generations of technology is always likely to be more problematic than automatic.

Also take a look at Peter Brantley’s thoughts on Duguid:

Ultimately, whether or not Google Book Search is a useful tool will hinge in no small part on the ability of its engineers to provoke among themselves a more thorough, and less alchemic, appreciation for the materials they are attempting to transmute from paper to gold.

the least interesting conversation in the world continues

Much as I hate to dredge up Updike and his crusty rejoinder to Kevin Kelly’s “Scan this Book” at last month’s Book Expo, The New York Times has refused to let it die, re-printing his speech in the Sunday Book Review under the headline, “The End of Authorship.” We should all thank the Times for perpetuating this most uninteresting war of words about the publishing future. Here, once again, is Updike:

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

I was reading Christine Boese’s response to this (always an exhilarating antidote to the usual muck), where she wonders about Updike’s use of history:

The part of this that is the most peculiar to me is the invoking of the Renaissance. I’d characterize that period as a time of explosive artistic and intellectual growth unleashed largely by social unrest due to structural and technological changes.
….swung the tipping point against the entrenched power arteries of the Church and Aristocracy, toward the rising merchant class and new ways of thinking, learning, and making, the end result was that the “fruit basket upset” of turning the known world’s power structures upside down opened the way to new kinds of art and literature and science.
So I believe we are (or were) in a similar entrenched period like that now. Except that there is a similar revolution underway. It unsettles many people. Many are brittle and want to fight it. I’m no determinist. I don’t see it as an inevitability. It looks to me more like a shift in the prevailing winds. The wind does not deterministically affect all who are buffeted the same way. Some resist, some bend, some spread their wings and fly off to wherever the wind will take them, for good or ill.
Normally, I’d hope the leading edge of our best artists and writers would understand such a shift, would be excited to be present at the birth of a new Renaissance. So it puzzles me that John Updike is sounding so much like those entrenched powers of the First and Second Estate who faced the Enlightenment and wondered why anyone would want a mass-printed book when clearly monk-copied manuscripts from the scriptoria are so much better?!

I say it again, it’s a shame that Kelly, the uncritical commercialist, and Updike, the nostaligic elitist, have been the ones framing the public debate. For most of us, Google is neither the eclipse nor dawn of authorship, but just a single feature of a shifting landscape. Search is merely a tool, a means: the books themselves are the end. Yet, neither Google Book Search, which is simply an apparatus for extracting new profits off of the transmission and search of books, nor the present-day publishing industry, dominated as it is by mega-conglomerates with their penchant for blockbusters (our culture haunted by vast legions of the out-of-print), serves those ends very well. And yet these are the competing futures of the book: lonely forts and sparkling clouds. Or so we’re told.

good discussion(s) of kevin kelly article

In the New York Times own book discussion forum, one rirutsky opines eloquently on the problems with Kelly’s punch-drunk corporate optimism:

…what I find particularly problematic is the way that Kelly’s “analysis”–as well as most of the discussion of it–omits any serious mention of what is actually at stake in the utopian scheme of a universal library (which Borges, by the way, does not promote, but debunks). It has little to do with enabling creativity, but rather, with enabling greater corporate profits. Kelly is actually most close to the mark when [he] characterizes the conflict over digital books as a conflict between two business models. Of course, one gets the impression from some of Kelly’s writings that for him business and creativity are more or less the same thing….
….A more serious consideration of these issues would move away from the “old” binary antagonisms that Kelly outlines (surely, these are a relic of a pre-digital age) and think seriously about how society at large is changed by digital technologies and techniques. Who has the right to copy or to make use of data and who does not? In a world of such vast informational clutter, doesn’t power accrue to those who can afford to advertise? It is worth remembering, too, that searching is not, after all, a value-free operation. Who ultimately will control the searching and indexing of digital information? Should the government–or private corporations–be allowed to data mine the searches that people make? In short, who benefits and who loses from these technological changes? Where, precisely, is power consolidated?
Kelly does not even begin to deal with these sorts of serious social issues.

And from a typically immense Slashdot thread (from highlights conveniently collected by Branko Collin at Teleread) — this comes back to the “book is reading you” question:

Will all these books and articles require we login to view them first? I think having every book, article, movie, song, etc available for use anytime is a great idea and important for society but I don’t want to have to login and leave a paper trail of everything I’m looking at.

And we have our own little thread going here.