google is sued... again 10.20.2005, 8:08 AM
posted by ben vershbow
This time by publishers. Penguin Group USA, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons. The gripe is the same as with the Authors' Guild, which filed suit last month alleging "massive copyright infringement." Publishers fear a dangerous precedent is set by Google's scanning of books to construct what amounts to a giant card catalogue on the web. Google claims "fair use" (see rationale), again pointing out that for copyrighted works only tiny "snippets" of text are displayed around keywords (though perhaps this is not yet fully in effect - I was searching around in this book and was able to look at quite a lot).
Google calls the publishers' suit "near-sighted." And it probably is. The benefit to readers and researchers will be tremendous, as will (Google is eager to point out) the exposure for authors and publishers. But Google Print is undoubtedly an earth-shaking program. Look at the reaction in Europe, where alarm bells rung by France warned of cultural imperialism, an english-drenched web. Heads of state and culture convened and initial plans for a European digital library have been drawn up.
What the transatlantic flap makes clear is that Google's book scanning touches a deep nerve, and the argument over intellectual property, signficant though it is, distracts from a more profound human anxiety -- an anxiety about the form of culture and the shape of thoughts. If we try to grope back through the millennia, we can find find an analogy in the invention of writing.
The shift from oral to written language froze speech into stable strings that could be transmitted and stored over distance and time. This change not only affected the modes of communication, it dramatically refigured the cognitive makeup of human beings (as McLuhan, Ong and others have described). We are currently going through another such shift. The digital takes the freezing medium of text and throws it back into fluidity. Like the melting of polar ice caps, it unsettles equilibriums, changes weather patterns. It is a lot to adjust to, and we wonder if our great-great-grandchildren will literally think differently from us.
But in spite of this disorienting new fluidity, we still have print, we still have the book. And actually, Google Print in many ways affirms this since its search returns will point to print retailers and brick-and-mortar libraries. Yet the fact remains that the canon is being scanned, with implications we can't fully perceive, and future uses we can't fully predict, and so it is understandable that many are unnerved. The ice is really beginning to melt.
In Phaedrus, Plato expresses a similar anxiety about the invention of writing. He tells the tale of Theuth, an Egyptian deity who goes around spreading the new technology, and one day encounters a skeptic in King Thamus:
...you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a power opposite to that which they in fact possess. For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign marks, they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves. You have discovered a remedy not for memory, but for reminding. You offer your students the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
As I type, I'm exhibiting wisdom without the reality. I've read Plato, but nowhere near exhaustively. Yet I can slash and weave texts on the web in seconds, throw together a blog entry and send it screeching into the commons. And with Google Print I can get the quote I need and let the rest of the book rot behind the security fence. This fluidity is dangerous because it makes connections so easy. Do we know what we are connecting?
Posted by ben vershbow on October 20, 2005 8:08 AM
tags: Copyright and Copyleft, Libraries, Search and the Web, Transliteracies, copyright, google, literacy, mcluhan, ong, plato, publishing, search, web
matt on October 20, 2005 12:42 PM:
once again, i see burke hovering over your shoulder and whispering in your ear.
we do not yet know what we are connecting, but i, for one, am eager for discovery...
virginia kuhn on October 20, 2005 6:46 PM:
Just for grins I excerpted my dissertation at the point when I discuss the Phaedrus:
Similarly, for Plato, language can arrive at truth through dialectic--through a living exchange with other wise speakers. In this way, one may elaborate and amend one's knowledge and eventually teach wisdom to a less informed rhetor, or, more accurately, to a "lover of wisdom" (242e 1). Since writing takes the "life" out of words, rendering them static and unable to respond to an interlocutor, it is not only limited, but potentially dangerous. On the one hand, a written text serves only to record that which an intelligent man already knows; on the other, a written text in the hands of a less scrupulous individual might render a type of pseudo knowledge for which he has not sufficiently worked or proved himself worthy of acquiring. Indeed in Plato's famous dialogue, the Phaedrus, Socrates notes that:
"he who supposes that he has left behind an art in writings, and he in turn who receives it with the thought that there will be something distinct and solid from writings, would be full of much simplemindedness and would fail to understand Ammon's prophesy, supposing written speeches to be something more than reminding one who knows about the things that the writings are about." (257c7-d2)
In other words, writing is the mere expression of some previously-conceived truth that is the result of a vigilant pursuit of wisdom. Thus Plato's notorious tirade against writing is more a concern with the absence of the ability to elaborate and to provide adequate context. Socrates takes speech writers to task as well, noting that intelligent men will not put to writing "speeches that are powerless on the one hand to assist themselves with argument, powerless on the other to teach true things competently" (276c8-10). Socrates differentiates a text that is "written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with the power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and keep silent toward those it ought" since writing, if allowed to be read by just anyone, risks becoming mere lip service and the receiver of such wisdom did not have to internalize it."
Surely the fact that Plato had concerns similar to those we have today shows that emergent technologies are merely continuations of the technology of writing itself and that the relative difficulty of citing a text does not guarantee that one has digested it. Just because Ben can invoke the Phaedrus without being a Plato scholar does not mean he "gets it" any less than students who were subjected to rote memorization of the Socratic dialogues. At least such takes are more available to those who want to read them (crucial issues of access notwithstanding). And the risk of putting oneself out there on a blog, it seems to me, is a good and healthy thing even if the citation is simply cut and pasted. The sheer volume of texts from which to cite renders the selection an act of analysis.
ben vershbow on October 21, 2005 12:22 AM:
"The sheer volume of texts from which to cite renders the selection an act of analysis."
This is true, but probably not in the case of Phaedrus since Plato's tale is a touchstone in discussions of new media. With Ong (and I know you take some exception with him), Plato is a major character in his narrative of orality's shift to literacy. So my selection is not terribly cunning. But it works well in this repetitive way, to remind us, as Plato says, of something we have (hopefully) already internalized. And it contains a question that bears frequent repeating: how does our technology change us?
Slightly further down, Socrates says of words:
"...when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and do not know to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them, and they cannot protect or defend themselves."
One thing I love about blogs is how they return us to the dialogic. Each post is a small rhetorical act leading to a discussion in the comment stream. The text and the reply in one space. And the "parent" of the text can defend and protect his/her speech, and even modify it to incorporate the wisdom of the respondents. With each exchange, we inch closer to that "intelligent word written in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent."
virginia kuhn on October 21, 2005 1:11 PM:
I love this idea that blogs return us to the dialogic but is it really a return? The classicists in my field take the position that no one ought to cite Plato unless they are tranlating from the original. For them all comments are not equal and don't belong anywhere near that true "parent"; I guess they might consider these posts as being bastard children acting out.
That aside, if my comment is placed in the same space as your original post, well, that is due to if:book choice, right? - I've really no control. I am not trying to belabor this point at all but it seems to echo the narrative about the inherent demcracy of e-space where everyone's voice is heard. In reality, the power ultimately remains with the blogowner who can choose to shape any reaction and respond to whatever he sees fit (and I'm reminded of this everytime I see a typo in one of my comments and can't fix it myself).
I would rather see this current use of blogs as dialogic while I also want to remain alert to the potential for silencing opposition.
sol gaitan on October 21, 2005 4:59 PM:
On Wednesday Bob Siegel remembered a conversation he had with Ken Knisley in 1992. Knisley, who died this September, took philosophy to cable television in a show called "No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed." He argued that philosophy was born in conversation; Socrates, walking in the market place while merchants peddled their goods, brought rigorous inquiry to the immediacy of conversation. Therefore, why not bring philosophy to television?
On his interview, 13 years ago, he talked about his dialogue-based T.V. program as "electronic philosophy." Television was like the market place, and he demonstrated that beyond news and analysis on current events, it was possible to use the medium to take his inquiries to a higher, but immediate, level. The problem Ben brings here is the one that plagues academia. The impossibility of original thought. The constant need to look for the endorsement of one's discourse on the wisdom of others, followed by the terror of misquotation, plagiarism, and so forth.
True wisdom is based on reality, if I understand Plato's idea. Our reality, our market place, is one of vast amounts of information. Depth has been replaced by quantity, and there is nothing wrong with that. The beauty of dialogue is the ability to share and to construe, to arrive at knowledge, not to simply display it. Today's philosopher has the ability to search, and quote, all kinds of media, not only books. So, dialogue has taken an altogether new form. Google's troubles are related to the market (copyright royalties) not to the reader's ability to access information, which the Internet facilitates so much. And the Europeans are waking up to that reality (see the Times 10/18/05: "Google Opens 8 Sites in Sites in Europe, Widening its Book Search Effort"). In Platonic terms, reality today is not scholarship, it is the ability to access it dialectically.