Sundance 2013 Review: ‘Google and the World Brain’ Comes Up Short

By  · Published on January 27th, 2013

This month’s issue of “Wired” magazine features a very lengthy, in-depth article by Stephen Levy in which the author interviews Google’s Larry Page. It covers all of the massive projects the company is undertaking, from a car that drives itself to the Google Books project, which still aims to scan every book in existence and create a repository of human knowledge that is indexed, searchable, and portable.

But as benevolent as that may seem on surface value, Ben Lewis’s Google and the World Brain takes a hard look at the Books project itself, the ideas behind it, and the proponents and opponents the company faces in the battle over digitalization of the printed world. The “World Brain” part of the title comes from a collection of essays H.G. Wells wrote in the late 1930s where he described a World Encyclopedia that would be free to everyone and full of all information.

Unfortunately, Google didn’t participate in this documentary other than to allow the filmmakers to speak with them about their Google Search function. Google Books was off-limits, and the only video from inside their scanning operation is just six seconds long, and it doesn’t show much. In an effort to try and draw you into the conversation, the film uses extensive video from other book scanning facilities around the world, notably at universities and large collections.

The main argument presented here is whether or not Google’s usage of the scanned book is ethical or not, given the fact that they were offering copyrighted works for free online and were also using the scanned books to improve their own search algorithms, and by extension, improve their business. Ultimately this came down to a case in the U.S. federal court, where a judge threw out Google’s proposed settlement with authors and publishers.

While that becomes the crux of the film, there’s a much larger issue here that I wish this movie had addressed: should information be free? Kevin Kelly (the not-me Kevin Kelly who co-founded “Wired” magazine) argues that artists do not own their works and that all information should be made available freely. While that isn’t a popular opinion at times, there’s a growing movement behind it that is quickly being brought to a fever pitch by the Internet and the capability to make information extremely portable, with users able to access it at lightning speeds.

In the film, Ray Kurzweil and other futurists argue that having the equivalent of all the information placed in your head would make you a lot smarter. While it might make you a trivia whiz – the film covers this with the IBM Watson visit to Jeopardy, where the computer beat two human opponents – it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to combine that information in useful ways. My friend Tam Morris directed a short film that addresses this very thing, and you can watch it right here:

Unfortunately, Google and the World Brain stumbles in its presentation of this issue, which will probably be looked at in years to come as the first shot fired in the digital revolution. Many written parts of the film, such as statements from the court case where no cameras were allowed, and essays from Wells and William Gibson on the collection of knowledge are read from video screens and iPad-like devices in animated pieces that just don’t work well here. Plus, there are an inordinate amount of beauty shots of the José Vasconcelos Library in México City, Mexico. It’s a gorgeous library, but we don’t need to see it every five minutes.

In the end, the questions the film asks are greater than the questions it answers, which isn’t the sign of a bad documentary at all. But it winds up feeling like one half of an argument.

Upside: The scanning devices presented here might not be Google’s, but some of them are stunning and beautiful gadgets.

Downside: Without direct access to Google in Mountain View to speak about Google Books (they did speak to someone from Google Spain about the project), the film lacks some impact.

On the Side: An engineer at Google turned a vacuum cleaner into a book scanner. While it isn’t what they use in their enormous book scanning project, it’s still pretty nifty.