Blog Post

How Sergey Brin Can Be the Andrew Carnegie of the Digital Age

Here's a modest proposal:   Google finishes digitizing all the books--and then it bequeaths this incredible legacy as a permanent endowment to the American people and, beyond, to the world.   Maybe use the Library of Congress is the repository.  This would be a digital gift comparable to Andrew Carnegie, that "Captain of Industry," leaving virtually all of his money to philanthropic institutions.  


An immigrant to America, sometimes thought of as the second richest man in history, he continued literary and political pursuits throughout his "robber baron" business life, Carnegie's life parallels Brin's in many ways.   Brin too is an immigrant.  He too continues with political and cultural interests.   And Google's motto, "Don't Be Evil" has parallels with Carnegie's reputation as a ferocious competitor who was not as evil as many.  


Imagine what an amazing gift to the nation Google Books would be?   France has undertaken its own "Google Books" equivalent as part of its own legacy.  The idea is that the French government, as part of its mission, should digitize all books with a French publication imprint and then make that incredible wealth of knowledge available to the world.  This is a way of preserving France's intellectual legacy and sharing it with the world.


Google has used scanned over 10 million titles so far.  They use the Elphel 323 camera that scans about a thousand pages an hour, and then converts text to an optical character recognition system that stores text in a data base that can be searched and scanned.  PDF's of books that are out of copyright or otherwise in the public domain can also be downloaded by the user.  It's a tremendous contribution to humanity--that offers either enormous human benefit to all or the possibility for a monopoly that can be turned to vast sums of capital if Google decides to play it that way.


They insist that is not their intention.  Google insists that they are digitizing all of these books, including with the cooperation of libraries and publishers worldwide, for the good of humanity.   Many worry though that, with such a monopoly, the temptation will be to capitalize and charge for all these digital books in the way that Elsevier and other trade science publishers now have journals locked into a lucrative, price-gauging system.   One university library can pay as much as a million dollars a year to subscribe to the journals owned by Elsevier.   Think about what it would mean if all of the world's books were digitized, and then access was only possible through a for-pay, subscription-based library system?


So, that's my modest proposal:  Sergey Brin, also an immigrant like Carnegie, could go down in world history not just as the great industrialist of the Digital Age but as a great philanthropist by making all of these digitized books a national legacy, a national endowment.  "Don't Be Evil" might then be a motto that means something.





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