Blog Post

Google Books and the "Broadcast Humanities"

 "Men live in a community by virtue of the things they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common." –John Dewey, Democracy and Education

I have been reading (admittedly haphazardly…I am preparing for preliminary exams after all) about the Google Books settlement, and I am struck by the relentlessly contemporary focus of most discussions of it. Discussions of copyright (which I will be leaving aside in this post) sometimes look back to older Anglo-American origins, but all other concerns seem to have sprung forth with the advent of the internet and the emergence of a corporate behemoth with a funny name.  In what I think will likely be a running theme on this blog--given my position in a history department and my particular interests--I would like to take an opportunity to try to situate what seems to be a very current issue in what historians sometimes call the longue durée.  In other words, I want to look at debates about the politics of information in what often gets termed the “digital environment” (I don’t love the phrase, but that’s another post) within a larger, and longer story.

It seems to me that, aside from copyright issues, the debate over Google Books seems to come down to a single question: What is at stake when access to information is made possible by capital and its social relations?  And it is by no means an easy question.  Or a new one.  Similar (though by no means identical) issues have been raised in at least several situations where commerce, access, and print culture have collided.  These include (but are certainly not limited to) chapbooks and the biblioteque bleue, the bookmobile, and educational uses of radio.  For now, I want to illustrate that last moment, among many, to illustrate its intriguing parallels to the problem of Google Books.

Beginning shortly after radio’s emergence as an everyday media technology in the 1920s, but reaching a fevered pitch in the 1930s and 1940s, librarians and educators inspired by the Progressive theories of John Dewey sought to use the new technology to make knowledge and information more widely available than had ever been possible before.  They truly believed they could use radio to promote reading.  “There are encouraging signs that books have a vital and everyday place in radio programs,” wrote Faith Holmes Hyers, chair of the American Library Association’s Library Radio Broadcasting Committee in 1938, “and that librarians have a definite office to perform in placing books on the air.”  But this attempt at what we might call “broadcast humanities” was not a straightforward or uncontroversial.  Given the trajectory of radio in the United States, American teachers had to particularly grapple with the commercial, and increasingly corporate, character of the medium.  Through the period from the 1920s through the 1940s, there were local radio stations, university stations, and some efforts to establish stations to serve the public good.  But national networks--the mutations of whom we still live with today in the form of ABC, NBC, and CBS--dominated the airwaves.  Given the massive expense, in money and effort, it would take for school districts to set up their own broadcasting apparatuses, insofar as schools used radio, they frequently had to use corporate radio.  While some districts did broadcast their own material, or used university stations, most librarians and teachers interested in using radio to promote reading depended on programs like CBS’s American School of the Air.

Some educators were enthusiastic, believing that corporate media offered an opportunity at least as much as it presented a hindrance.  In 1932, for example, National Council of Teachers of English president Stella Center called on teachers to “try to utilize this vast network in which the whole world is enmeshed” to further “social progress” and educational objectives.  Center was adamant that teachers could hitch their wagon, so to speak, to this powerful engine of commerce and capitalism.  In doing so, they could make their education relevant to the “compact, cohesive world-society” produced by what today we might call the circuits of global capitalism.  Here, we have an earlier version of Sergey Brin’s recent defense of Google Books: that the project could bring together all of the world’s printed material, under the auspices of a capitalist enterprise yes, but for the purposes of preserving its “collective knowledge and cultural heritage” (emphasis added) and making it possible to prevent the tragedy of bibliocide.  Center admired new technologies for their ability to “girdle the earth” infinitely faster than Puck’s forty minutes (ironic link notice), and dreams of the wider access to new ideas it could make possible.  Brin admires his own project for its ability not only to preserve the world’s knowledge but to allow access to the “vast majority of books every written [which] are not accessible to anyone except the most tenacious researcher.”  Both Center and Brin, in their own idiosyncratic ways, dream of an odd sort of world where capital democratizes access to knowledge.  (Center was, as you might expect, less gung-ho about corporate control than Brin certainly is.  But she nonetheless addressed the NCTE with striking optimism and hope.)

Not all were so sanguine, however.  In 1940, delightful curmudgeon Erwin Frey wrote an absolutely scathing article in which he lamented the fact that most people “suffer from an oppressive bondage under the serfdom of a false culture” and calling on educators to resist.  Not one to mince words or avoid hyperbole, Frey nonetheless did acknowledge that radio, like other “mechanical reproductions” might be “somewhat useful” in education.  But only somewhat, and barely that.  They fail to provide “a complete experience” and thus undermine “three-dimensional living.”  In the end, though, Frey was intensely suspicious of the capacity of radio to contribute to anything except the “slow strangulation which extinguishes the innate capacity of the average man to use his creative imagination.”  For Frey, the expediency, relevancy, and popularity of radio were far outweighed by what he saw as the risks of letting industrial capitalism run amok in the classroom.  A Sven Birkerts for the 1940s, Frey presages some concerns that could be raised about Google Books.  What happens when printed information is divorced from its three-dimensional, sensual form to be reproduced endlessly in other (lesser?) forms?  (Some researchers suggest that when we read online, we follow an F-pattern that is not characteristic of book-reading.)  If all that information is available at the stroke of a key--and possibly a credit card--what might be the unintended effects on creativity, persistence, and patience in research?  (I know that while I love the ability to full-text search, I sometimes find myself wishing my eyes had a search function of their own to help me speed through a stack of reading for prelims.)  And perhaps most importantly, what happens when all that information is only accessible because a corporation decided to make it so? (Are we to trust industrial capitalists, in Frey's world, or their digital heirs in ours with the keys to our intellectual kingdom, no matter how benevolent they seem?  Carnegie built many fantastic local libraries, but he also presided over a monopoly, contributed to the vast income disparity of the Gilded Age, and arranged for a strike at one of his factories to be viciously crushed.)

Indeed, many of these questions are echoed in contemporary opposition to Google Books.  In a 2007 Weekly Standard article (reblogged by Cathy Davidson on HASTAC), Jonathan Last explains a lot of these objections.  Shortly after the project was announced, for example, the president of the ALA that Google Books “will no doubt join taking personal commuter helicopters to work and carrying the Library of Congress in a briefcase on microfilm as 'back to the future' failures, for the simple reason that they were solutions in search of a problem."  Last also convincingly points to “Google's Wal-Mart-like obsession with secrecy,” arguing that it “does not engender trust in either its practices or arguments.”  If the point is to make information available, why do it with such opacity?  Last concludes his article almost wistfully, less hyperbolically echoing Frey’s fears that giving knowledge-production and -dissemination over to “mechanical reproduction” is not worth the risks.  “As much as any other American business, Google is the corporate embodiment of the Internet's first principles,” Last writes.  “And as with so much else on the Internet, the promise of Google Book Search lies somewhere off on the horizon, while the dangers it poses today are very real.”

In the end, using radio in schools just didn’t work very well (public radio, while never as prominent here as in the UK, worked out a little better).  The fact that radio broadcasts were specifically timed and generally non-repeating made fitting them into the rhythm of the school day nearly impossible.  While I think the form of Google Books (if not necessarily its corporate parentage and business model) is suited to educational purposes far more than radio was, the competing senses of promise and horror radio elicited is echoed by the current predicament too much to ignore.

I have no final, ultimate, or easy answer to the problem of Google Books.  Perhaps that is because I am profoundly ambivalent about the whole thing.  On the one hand, I am more than a little creeped out by the idea of Google’s corporate pigeons flocking, or its spiders swarming, through libraries and the totality of print.  With Google Books atop Google Earth and Google Street View, will anything escape the disciplining gaze of that multicolored logo?  At the same time, like Slate’s Tim Wu, I am incredibly skeptical that there will ever be a truly public option, so to speak.  If Google is willing to spend its money on what will almost certainly not be very profitable economically, but which could help researchers, why not let them?  Americans are unlikely to tax themselves to produce a massive digital library when the brick-and-mortar one down the street so often fails to pass muster at the ballot box.  As a cultural historian in training, who is currently tracking the bookmobile through twentieth-century American culture, Google Books has been invaluable.  I might prefer an open-source, transparent, and public variation on the theme, but will an absent hope help me get my dissertation done sooner?

I seem to have talked myself back into the same quandary faced by Center and Frey.  So what wins out, the expediency and ease of using emerging capitalist forms of knowledge or the promise of “three-dimensional living” if only we can resist?



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