There is a revelatory moment in the movie “Google and the World Brain” that is excruciating and fascinating. In the mountains above Barcelona, Spain, Father Damià Roure, library director of the ancient Monastery of Montserrat, shows us one of 23,400 books in his library digitised by Google.
“This was a way of spreading our culture. It gives us great satisfaction that they are available to everybody,” he says as he slowly turns the pages of a 16th century prayer book. The interviewer’s rejoinder is sharp:
‘”Google didn’t pay you to scan your books. Was that fair? What if someone turns this all into a business and makes a profit?”
Father Roure’s lips move; no sound emerges. He bites his lower lip. His chin dimples. His head shakes quickly back and forth and his shoulders take a dip. Still no sound.
“Perhaps the question is too difficult?” says the interviewer.
And so it is. If Father Roure failed to consider that this might be exploitation, instead of charity, then we are all a bit like Father Roure. Are G-mail, YouTube, Picasa, and Android all something for nothing? Is there such a thing as a free lunch after all?
Digital technology has turned traditional notions of value on their head as surely as printing multiplied the power of the written word, or steam trains moved passengers faster than horse-drawn carriages. Ben Lewis, director of the film, says the out-of-print books that are a focus of his film had virtually no value before. But in the new digital economy they are highly valuable, just like Montserrat’s prayer books.
Lewis explores how Google is trying to exploit this value before everyone else wakes up. I once spent time as a Reuters journalist working on the story of the Google books settlement, yet Lewis’s film had new things to teach me.
At the same time that a new Hollywood comedy about Google is being released with great hullabaloo, Lewis cannot get his film distributed in the United States, even though it was a BBC production and exhibited at the Sundance Film Festival.
It would make us question Google’s values, and the value of data we give up willingly every day.
(Disclosure: One of my clients actively opposes Google business practices which have been identified by the European Commission as anti-competitive; I work on this case)