Review: Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge

On: September 16, 2007
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About Raoul Siepers
BA Media Studies - Universiteit Utrecht Student MA New Media - Universiteit van Amsterdam.


Book CoverThis review of Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge will provide the reader with an overview of the questions raised regarding the online publishing of books.

A View from Europe

Branded with the tagline a View from Europe on its cover, the tracts basic premise – and perhaps bias – can hardly be overlooked. Taking a stand against the American dominance – as he sees it – in online book publishing, namely in the form of Google Books, Jeanneney argues for an European counterpart of the search engine and the underlying database. As the president of the Bibliothèque nationale de France one could not deny his particular knowledge and interest in this matter. Without trying to hide his French nationality, he sets out on explaining his motives and actions.

The argument outlined by Jeanneney finds its source in the 2004 announcement of Google to venture into the realm of digitized literary content. The Google Book Search project, as it is now called, strives toward an ambitious goal. Digitizing millions of books in a matter of years and making them freely available to the public through the well known Google search engine. With powerful institutions on their side as the Harvard and Oxford universities, their claims towards universality (not to be taken too literal of course) seem to have a productive starting ground. It is hard not to be mesmerized by the magnitude of the undertaking. The mere thought of being able to access an exhaustive library of books formerly only available in physical form makes for some blissful dreaming. However, as with any projects of this scale, there can not be progress without some controversy. In this case, the instigator is Europe, in the person of Jean-Noël Jeanneney.

Criticizing Google

Criticism has emerged along a few major lines. These can be summarized under the following categories. First, there is the problem of selection. Which books make it to the database under which criteria? Second, search criteria bias. Which books make it to the search results in what order? Next, the issue of author and publisher’s (copy)rights. What are the consequences for the customary channels of distribution and intellectual property? And finally, the challenge of long-term preservation of digitized information. All of these questions raised can be found in Jeanneney’s critique.

When it comes to the selection process of the books made publicly available by Google, Jeanneney fears an inevitable American self-centeredness. He does not demonstrate this statement, but merely attributes it to the “ […] spontaneous prioritizing of things that fit into the American vision of the world.” While not condemning this bias, the author finds it paramount that a counterweight is developed against the alleged Anglo-Saxon dominance. His solution is straightforward. Abandoning the possibility of diplomacy completely, European countries should join forces and create their own digitized library. Each individual country will then be assigned the task of selecting the works that they feel have contributed most to national and international society. In the authors opinion, this process ought to be supervised by national governments and thereby freed from commercial interest. Interestingly, his motives appear to be fuelled by an “European vision of the world”, which does resemble the American vision quite a bit. On the one hand he rightly fears for the marginalisation of less dominant cultures in the library database, but at the same time assumes an European effort will be free from this bias. This faith becomes even more incongruent when we learn how Jeanneney primarily dreads the idea of Europe “missing the train”.

Let us assume our database happened to be universal, containing every single book published. How would we be able to find relevant information within this ever growing body of data? According to Jeanneney we just would not be able to do so, if we were to be using Google’s search engine. He attributes this to the nature of the engines algorithms, which are known to order search results primarily to their degree of linkage. One can imagine how such an architecture might prove biased towards dominant paradigms. Even more so, it would not take a works context into account, thereby providing the user with fragmented search results. This brings Jeanneney to demonstrate the relevance of pre-digital professional knowledge, exemplified by librarians. Their experience with the public presentation of literature would prove to be invaluable for the creation of a more contextualized search engine architecture.

Jeanneney not only questions the technological foundations of the Google project. He foresees critical changes in the domains of distribution and intellectual property as well. What will happen to bookstores when its goods are made fully available online? How are authors and publishers protected from their property ending up in the Google database unauthorized? Unfortunately, Jeanneney does not give concrete answers in that respect. He simply concludes that publishers should play an important role in the conception of a European digital library.

One of the author’s more convincing arguments is his call for a digitizing effort based on long-term thinking. It ought to take in account the various possibilities of categorizing the data as well as technological advancements which could render current archiving methods obsolete. According to Jeanneney, a profit based company as Google can not provide any of those securities when it comes to the durable conservation of data. As long as we do not rely on a single organization for gathering and guarding the world’s data, we should be fine. But to appoint Google as the sole keeper of this heritage might turn out to be a dangerous bet.


My sympathy lies with tracts like these, which provide its readers with valuable insights. Without criticism our minds would grow numb. However, Jeanneney’s arguments would have benefited from a less opposing stance. Why should Google and the “American world vision” play such an important part in the analysis? Self-assuredness starts with knowing ones own strength, not in comparing yourself to another. The author definitely brings up some good points of critique, but they tend to get lost in European (or should I say French?) rhetoric. As an introductory piece to the debate concerning digital book publishing Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge does a good job, but a more in-depth study on the subject would be welcome.

So, where do I stand? First of all, I believe initiative to be a good thing. Whether the originator be a commercial organization, or a governmental institution. We need commercial entrepreneurs who can achieve a great deal in a short time, thanks to their financial potential. At the same time we need institutions which respond in a pro-active, non-regulatory fashion. In that sense I wholeheartedly support Jeanneney’s cause. The point is that fear should not lead your actions. Let the Googles of the world inspire you, do not force yourself in a defensive and restrictive stance. I do not share the author’s viewpoint of a European culture being oppressed by an Anglo-Saxon dominance. If so, we ourselves are to blame.

At this moment however, a joint European digitizing effort under supervision of the European Commission is already on its way. Called the Digital Libraries Initiative it aims to make Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage accessible to the public. There can be no doubts about the importance of this project, but one critical note remains. Who represents those who can not represent themselves? Jeanneney does not look past the borders, nor does the European Union. Digitizing the world’s cultural heritage should not be an act of nationalist protectionism, but of seeking a global communality.

Jeanneney, J. Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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