Second thoughts

On Google — the New Yorker has a learned and fascinating article on the Google Library project this month, by historian Anthony Grafton. The Google project has gotten inordinate praise in some quarters, as well as its share of criticism (see here, for my contribution to the latter). But Grafton’s article is neither wholly critical nor wholly laudatory; his is an attempt to place Google in the history of efforts at building a universal library and to realistically assess what can actually be accomplished. He points out that a truly comprehensive history of humanity, which some have claimed Google will provide, will still remain out of reach. For example, much “gray” literature and archival material will never see the light of scanning, nor will the cultural production of many of the world’s poorest countries.

This latter point is especially troubling. Poor countries are not just consumers of cultural production, they do also produce it. The digitization of so much western/northern literature could have two negative effects on this production. One would be to push developing world literature further to the margins in the developed world. The other is that, in so far as technology is available within those developing countries, the easy access to material through Google could marginalize a country’s own cultural production even within its borders.

Nevertheless, Grafton is properly amazed at the level of access that digitization has made possible. As he says, picking up his opening theme, “Even [Alfred] Kazin’s democratic imagination could not have envisaged the hordes of the Web’s actual and potential users, many of whom will read material that would have been all but inaccessible to them a generation ago.” Digitization offers great things, but a realistic valuation of those benefits recognizes that no single means of access should replace all the others; the Internet will continue to coexist with libraries, archives and whatever the future holds that we can not yet imagine; all will be part of any genuinely comprehensive look at human history.

On Second Life — On a less exalted plane, the New York Post reported last week on a law suit filed by and against Second Life entrepreneurs alleging copyright infringement of products designed and sold entirely within the virtual environment. See another comment on the lawsuit here. As the comment points out, many educators are looking closely to consider the educational potential of Second Life or other virtual worlds. This lawsuit raises some interesting questions that will need to be answered in order to exploit that potential. For example, do real world laws protecting the rights of creators even apply to Second Life? Is copying someone else’s design in Second Life stealing, as the plaintiffs allege, or is it merely part of a giant “video game” that should not have real world legal consequences? The answer to that question should be a prerequisite to placing educational content into Second Life; teachers typically want to protect the content they produce, or at least share it on their own terms. Whether Second Life will be subject to real world laws, intra-world regulation amongst its members, or merely arbitrary decisions enforced by Linden Labs, its owner, will have a profound impact on how much time, money and content educators are likely to invest in Second Life.

Interestingly, the same defendant who argues that Second Life is a giant video game in which real world laws should not apply also claims that his home in Second Life was subject to an illegal search and seizure by the plaintiffs when they entered to photograph the allegedly infringing items. Just goes to show how hard it is for us to escape our real world notions of property and privacy.

2 thoughts on “Second thoughts”

  1. For another, interestingly biased perspective on the Google Library Project, take a look at the new blog from Paul Courant, University Librarian at the University of Michigan (one of the first Google library partners). His first post addresses some of the criticisms you allude to above.

    Au Courant

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