Trembling Before the Google Books Project, a Response to Joe Harris

If you haven’t run across Joe Harris’s blog, In my idiom, go there now. Read it. It’s just as good as the rest of the work he publishes. A different focus/technology/etc., so it’s not the same. But it’s very good blogging work.

I was there this morning and saw that Harris had posted a response to Robert Darnton‘s excellent book, The Case for Books (PublicAffairs Books, 2009). I found Harris’s analysis to be right on the money, but for some reason I felt like responding to his note about Darnton’s recurring focus on the Google Books project. Here’s the bulk of my response. Feel free to read Harris’s post to which I’m responding before you tackle this rather large thinking-through of mine below.

[pullshow]Hey, Joe. Glad to see I’m not the only one interested in Darnton’s book. I agree with what you’ve said above: repeated themes throughout the text, a fascinating introduction, and the chapter on Baker.

One of the things I found so valuable about this book are some of his discussions about the future of the book. He eschews sweeping and reductive claims about what’s going to happen to the codex. Instead, he focuses on future books from the perspective of scholarly, academic publishing. His discussion of the Gutenberg-e project I found, like you, to be pretty obscure, but a great, concrete example of just how difficult it is for electronic texts to find legitimacy in current academic conditions.

One of the things I found most interesting about this book was his seemingly relentless interest in the GoogleBooks project. You’re right. He keeps bringing it up, and re-covering the same ground. But the reason I find it so valuable is that each of those discussions is an example of him working to put into practice his analytical tool, the “communications circuit,” a term he uses to structure his analysis of the cultural systems working together as part of book cultures (authors, publishers, etc.).

He suspects, I think, that Google’s overwhelming influence, given the scope of its current scanning/archiving initiatives, will directly affect the fate of books in the near and distant future. Your comment about his avoiding common tendencies toward jeremiads and hosannas is right on the money. He’s always worked to understand books as one physical/conceptual element in several intersecting industries (retail sales, printing, retail booksellers, academic audiences, etc.). His model, by the nature of is complexity rightly resists claims about the codex’s immanent destruction. He shows that there are just too many people and too much money and too many cultural institutions that employ the book as a central technology. All of these investments aren’t easily or quickly changed (which is why the form of the book still has yet to change much, despite plenty of powerful technologies for building and distributing electronic books of all different sorts. Changes in books won’t change our institutions very quickly. Nor will changes in institutions affect the way the forms of books continue to emerge.

So why, then, the focus on Google? I don’t think he adequately addresses this in his book’s introduction. But here’s my guess…

There are two ways (in which I’m particularly interested, anyway) that books operate culturally. The first has to do with the ways textuality structures knowledge. For instance, books are structured very differently than newspapers, and the types of knowledge-work that each accomplishes is very different. If we change the way books are structured, then to some degree we change nature of the ways knowledge operates within them. The second cultural operation of books has to do with the way knowledge circulates. Long story, shortened here… the form of the codex facilitated portability and reproducibility in a way that radically (though gradually) changed cultural access to knowledge and the value we place on it.

So what does this have to do with Google? Two things. First, and most simply, digitizing books and making them available for searching and downloading has the potential to change the way we value different forms of knowledge. For some people that’s scary, and for others it’s exciting.

But the other thing that’s important to note is that Google, in a lot of ways, functions much differently that some traditional corporate entities. It’s search-dominance has made the overall company so rich and so big, that it’s shareholders don’t really expect much of the rest of the company to be directly profitable. That is it’s got all sorts of cash and infrastructure, it can move very quickly given it’s relative autonomy, and there’s not real pressure to be immediately or highly profitable. So it can dedicated shockingly large sums of resources to scanning these books in ways that no other company could really even imagine. I’m still working this out in my head and in various things I’m reading, but I think, to some degree, Google has the potential to either undermine or work outside of Darnton’s traditional “communications circuit” model, given that it’s big enough to start controlling the bulk of the systems traditionally intersecting within the model. In other words, [pullthis]the components of Darnton’s model no longer negotiate and keep each other in check. Instead, in the case of Google, there’s the potential that each of the components will be controlled by a common hand.[/pullthis] And this potential phenomenon, too, is cause for some pretty serious concern.

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