The Future Is Now: Let Google Be Google

03/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's always a puzzle how people who ought to know better keep looking backward rather than forward. Is it comfort about the past and fear of the future? The latest grumble is that Google's effort to digitize scholarly library books and make them available free to the public is dangerous because Google may have a monopoly.

Truly, that may not be the origin of the grumble. Some of the major research libraries in America, the main depositories of scholarly books, are owned by private universities with huge endowments and huge profits. They are called "non-profit," but all that means is that profits -- revenues in excess of costs -- are not distributed to corporate shareholders but instead distributed to faculty and staff as salaries and perks. The major university research libraries are real property producing revenue directly by subscription and indirectly by providing a substantial part of the intellectual status of the university. The general public, and that includes journalists and freelance writers of serious books, does not have access to these libraries without subscription or some official attachment to the university. So Harvard University, for example, has a monopoly over its collection, as does Princeton, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and so on. If Google digitizes university library collections and makes the books in the public domain available free to the public, the university libraries will lose their monopoly and ultimately whatever revenue accrues directly or indirectly from that monopoly.

That is how some university library heads are apparently thinking about this. They say Google's probable monopoly may eventually be bad for the public. They say that since Google is also (under licenses) digitizing books under copyright, the Google monopoly may eventually also be bad for authors and publishers. They say the people who run Google seem harmless at the moment, but who knows who will come after them? They say that private university libraries are in the public interest, and that, "Libraries represent the public good. They are not businesses but they must cover their costs."

Let's cut to the chase: The principle difference between the proposed Google paradigm and the present paradigm is that in the Google paradigm Google will make their digitized library, which will be the largest library in existence, available free to the public via a computer terminal in all public libraries in America, while in the present paradigm, access to private university libraries is restricted to university insiders and outsiders who can pay for it.

We live in an age in which applied science (technology) is turning everything upside down and changing the way we live. Throughout history, new technology has been fiercely resisted, sometimes to protect power and money, sometimes from a sheer lack of imagination. My favorite anecdote is about American railroads. In 1829, the governor of New York, Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) wrote the following to President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845):

"As you well know, Mr. President, 'railroad' carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour, by 'engines' which in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to the crops, searing the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed."

Never mind New York Governor Van Buren's ridiculous belief that he knew the intentions of the Almighty, let us focus on the risk assessment that must have occurred in the White House and in the minds of people with some imagination. Yes, this was new technology; yes, the engines frightened both people and animals; yes, there could never be any certainty about all the negative consequences. But the potentially positive consequences were enormous, the tying together of the entire continent, the expansion of trade and industry, the reduction of the hazards of migration to the frontier -- all of these had to be in the minds of the people in government and elsewhere who pushed for development of a railroad system on the American continent. Certainly, our present civilization and our economic strength depend on the risk-takers of the past.

So it is with the Google project to digitize university libraries. I suggest we stop looking at the past and instead look at the future. Let Google be Google. If the Google World Library (or whatever it's finally called) turns out to be clumsy and inefficient for the public interest, it will get modified by the force of circumstance. No matter how it happens, you can be certain that libraries of the 25th century will not be what libraries are today. We're in the future now. I for one am not worried about Google. Between Google and Wikipedia, the world is already a better and more exciting place.