By Mark Bell | January 18, 2013

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point folks stopped looking at Google as some brilliant institution aimed at keeping to their “don’t be evil” motto and started looking at it as a giant corporation with all the malicious intent stereotypically reserved for such a monolithic company. And maybe it is warranted, I’m not entirely sure myself of where I stand on Google, but it does seem like it’s in fashion to “hate on” Google.

Of course, having said that, I don’t look at Ben Lewis’ documentary Google and the World Brain as hating on the company at all. Instead, in its investigation of the controversy surrounding the Google Book Search project, we get a story of a company that may or may not have embarked on digitizing all of the world’s books for altruistic purposes, or even for science fiction-friendly purposes related to a singularity-style cyber-brain (hence the “World Brain” aspect of the title). To paraphrase Jurassic Park, Google’s secretly partnering with major libraries, such as the one at Harvard, in order to digitize all the books, was a case of a company doing something because they could, not necessarily because they should.

And the result was a messy one. Poor quality control on scans lead to crummy search results, and the digitizing of libraries’ stock without relation to permission from copyright holders eventually lead to a lawsuit, as well as international controversy. What seemed to be a noble idea slowly becomes intertwined with corporate concerns, and it becomes less about there being a global cyber-brain of all knowledge and more about stopping one company from having a monopoly on that knowledge. As long as I’m on a roll with paraphrasing or referring to other flicks, essentially Google’s seemingly heroic project lived long enough to see itself become the villain.

The documentary does a great job of keeping enough of a balance in its investigation that one could still come out of this thinking that none of Google’s actions, or potential actions, come from a nefarious place (though the music score tends to lean more to the ominous side of the mood spectrum). Then again, you could go the other way. Simply, it’s entertaining and informative, with enough of a respect for the audience to draw your own conclusions.

Personally, I’m apprehensive about a world where everything we know is contained in some computer cloud. Not because I don’t think the idea is a good one, immortality through technology, but because of practical reasons. I’ve had many an instance where important documents or files were stored on a hard drive, and that hard drive died. When I think of the Singularity, I see a giant hard drive, or network of hard drives, just waiting to mechanically fail in some way. And when that happens, what becomes of us? Our legacy could be styrofoam.

Regardless of my technologically paranoid digression, I think Google and the World Brain brings up a lot to think about, not just about Google, but about where we’re heading as a globally-connected society. And it’s better that we individually become active participants in the conversation, lest we wake up one day finding all the topics up for debate already decided for us. Documentaries like this help us become informed, but they’re just the first step. The rest are on you.

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