Magazine article Screen International

Google and the World Brain

Magazine article Screen International

Google and the World Brain

Article excerpt

Dir/scr: Ben Lewis. UK-Spain. 2013. 89mins

Taking its title from futurist author H.G. Wells's 1937 essay World Brain, this well-constructed, though conventional documentary explores the efforts of tech giant Google to create a massive digital library by scanning millions and millions of books, fulfilling the promise of a "universal library."

The documentary convincingly points out that Google's ambitions aren't entirely philanthropic, but meant to continue to improve their Search algorithms, and find ways to monetise their enormous stores of information.

Although largely staid material, veteran documentary filmmaker Ben Lewis (The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, Hammer And Tickle: The Communist Joke Book) manages to raise intriguing questions about the future of books and the corporate control of information in the Internet age.

Co-produced by European broadcasters such as the BBC and ARTE/ZDF, the documentary is perfectly suited to television showings and film festival play, as it is told efficiently and studiously, though not exactly reaching the level of dystopian sci-fi that it likes to reference.

The film puts Google's massive endeavor to digitise some 10 million books in historical context, tracing such age-old undertakings to create biblio-Meccas from the Library of Alexandria in Ancient Egypt to more recent efforts such as the Guttenberg Project, Wikipedia, and Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive.

Smart talking head interviews with the likes of Harvard Library director Robert Darnton and University of Oxford's head librarian Reginald Philip Carr offer astute background information about Google's plans, while technology thinkers such as Russian author Evgeny Morozov and blonde dread-locked virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier raise concerns about what's problematic: Is Google a social reformer or a maleficent Big Brother; are they power-mongering monsters, or working on behalf of the public good?

This is the main conflict in Google And The World Brain, and it gets played out among its subjects in some surprisingly effective moments. In one instance, smiling Google Sr. VP Amit Singhal speaks as if he's drunk the Google kool-aid, testifying to the company's beneficence. In another scene, an interviewer asks a Spanish monk whether it's okay if Google is making money on the more than 20,000 books they've copied from his Monastery, and he's struck dumb for a full five seconds, seemingly unable to grapple with the crass commercialistic side of Google's mission. …

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