Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Global Anti-Trust Battle Over Google's Library

The Global Anti-Trust Battle Over Google's Library

You would think that I could find better things to blog about than what the core of the Main Stream Media writes about. After all, most everything I write goes toward unsettling our collective assumptions about what is true, and what we really must hold sacred.

But given so little time to read or search or get any good sense of what's up in the world, I still do find that I value those who are paid to do it for me. And for whatever reason, I think Time Magazine has figured out a pretty good mix to stay in business and on my screen.

Every day, they mail me a summary of the news of the day. Every week, they mail me my paper copy, and I find that I have already read many of the stories, or at least have glanced at them. I worry that the heft of their paper copy just seems to shrink and shrink. But on the other hand, it also doesn't make it into the recycling bin in pristine condition like my Nation Magazine often does.

Come to think of it, the Nation would really like me to switch from paper to digital, and they are really mad at Time Inc., and other major publishers for orchestrating a postal rate squeeze on minor publishers via the major publisher's lobbyists. The postal service has consistently offered its best discounts to the glossy rags with wider audiences, effectively handing the smaller publishers a massive budget hit every time the rates get raised.

The smaller publishers are being muscled out of any possibility to get their word in circulation, and bigger and bigger becomes the only way to stay in business. As in so many sectors of our economy.

This right here is the problem with what Google proposes.

As I've said in this space many times now, it doesn't matter the motivations or purity of heart of the current stewards of the Google empire. What matters is their scale.

If there is only one company with the size and reach to index the entire Internet real time - never mind the collected wisdom of all mankind as it gets written down in books - then we will have mortgaged our future to an unaccountable and therefore inevitably heartless corporate power. 

From a kind of laziness, we make these smallish compromises every day, but we must increasingly be aware of the direction toward which they all, collectively, trend. At some point our little compromises of today will have destroyed any chance for transformative input to the future we will become. At some point, only the money making stuff will be in circulation.

Why must this be so? Because anything too big or powerful becomes necessarily monstrous. We'll call this Rick's law. I always wanted to have a law named after me.

After a certain point, there really can be no "heart" to an overly massive organization. All of the minions make their little compromises out of a kind of fear of separation, or a desire to move closer to the center, and ultimately the very spirit of the place has become inhuman in the quest to become ever larger.

This is inevitable. Any organization requires stern leadership, a constitution, a kind of mission statement, and, most importantly, a positive desire to hear and receive input from the least among its constituted members.

The largest ever, and certainly most persistent organization must be the Chinese empire. It has struggled in as see-saw motion for over two thousand years between the poles of tyranny and civilization.

Companies which focus on their product, and which remain passionate about it, say, tend not to be evil. Conglomerates which focus on making money tend to promote a kind of evil. Ultimately, they don't really care who they take down along their inexorable path toward growth.

But when passionate companies get too big, whether they are soda pop companies, or banana companies, or toy companies or booksellers, they all do the very same thing, sweeping over the peoples and cultures and petty grievances which stand in their way of growth.

It can often feel good to blame the CEO, but he or she is most often systematically misinformed in internally focused propagandistic fashion only about what would be good for the organization.

And it isn't enough, as Google claims to do, to be guided by a simple slogan, like "we're not evil". That can be nineteen eighty foured in a heartbeat.

If we are to survive as a species - or maybe even if life on the planet is to survive at all above the complexity of the cockroach - we will develop global systems of governance which prevent organizations from turning monstrous.

The decision making which will inform such systems of governance will not be so terribly hard to make, so long as information flows freely, and education doesn't get perverted to prevent the masses of people from learning how to read.

During its best of times, the Chinese system of governance practically depended on a system of exclusion from the practice of reading. Very much like the Latin-restricted Catholic Church. But the best of time for preservation of the organizational spirit also often turned out to be the very worst of times for excluded peoples. Both the Catholic Church and the Chinese bureaucracies were behind rapacious, wanton and corrupt destruction of smaller so-called native cultures. They still are.

As a practical matter, Google is taking over our commons. That means that government will have already relinquished its proper franchise and will nevermore be in any position to arbitrate public good from public evil. It has already happened long past for the industry of health insurance, and so government can only run a damage control operation against an industry which has incrementally gained all the government's proper prerogatives.

So it isn't the concept of what Google proposes that needs to be stopped. It is the particular agency which is being proposed to realize the concept.   Google is at least as far apart from government sanction as its arch-rival Microsoft has so often proven to be.

As were the railroads, this digital library can seemingly only be built by private funds rendered up by the smallest purchase decisions of each of us. The government will be hoodwinked by earnest tycoons representing honest ambition. And we will spend the next century disentangling ourselves from the wreckage of our granting so much of our commons to the rapacious Huns among us. It seems the government as presently constituted could never render up a decision to do this kind of project in the public interest.

While it might seem that this is the way it always must be, the world is that much different now, this very very brief hundred and fifty years after globe spanning transportation and information transmission got their starts. After the capitalist apology underpinnings of "survival of the fittest" made their heretical way into print over Darwin's name.

We should be wiser now. We should understand that our margins for the Huns to rampage have nearly disappeared. We are in fact united as a single people on a single planet, and the impulse to spread information freely should not be a private one. There should be no profit motive. The planet can't sustain it.

The "information superhighway" and the cloud on which my writing now depends, should be the very last privately funded additions to our commons. These need to be re-appropriated into our commonwealth. They will be, or we will not survive.

Our renewed Constitution needs to make that direction clear. Our impulse to destroy the railroads by building public highways on the pretext that they were required for the national defense, was the right one or the wrong one depending on which way we turn now. These highways freed up immense charges of private energy. And now they stand to destroy us for so long as we allow the passion for private vehicles to overwhelm the collective necessity to get over it.

The same thing is true for the commons of the cloud.

I like Time Magazine just fine. They have smart and earnest editors, who pick out for my reading things I really should know about. They're not part of Murdoch's empire yet, and they don't seem bent on feeding me gut candy just to make them rich. Well, OK, I guess the conglomerate, Time Inc.,  has other divisions for that.

I still think the Nation Magazine is the far more important publication. They're the ones who will get my devotion and my donations when I have them. They're the ones who break the really important stories, which it must be in Time Inc.'s mission statement never ever to do.

And some day, again, I'll start reading the Nation preferentially. Some day I'll have the resolve to let them stop paying to send me the paper version which goes straight to the recycling bin that often without having been properly read.

The fact is that Time Magazine takes that much less effort to read, and like the rest of you, I have only so much time to devote to keeping up with the rest of the world.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the proper direction is to stop Google from having any kind of monopoly on what can or will be published for our collective reading. I don't think it will mean the end of the world either way, but I'm far less certain about that than I am about stopping Google from being our unitary publisher.

If I can be called an author, I've already taken my stand that what I write should be freely available to any and all who want to read it. Some day when I have something good enough to put a price tag on, you can call me out on this stand. But I'll always hold out hope that there will be other ways to make a living than to pander to mass tastes. That people with marginal, but possibly game changing, points of view will also be able to make a living.

I simply can't trust a proprietary cloud to ensure that this will always remain true. And in that, I'm a lot less worried about who can avoid flipping burgers while working to save our planet, than I am about what thoughts will simply be overwhelmed by the sheer overwhelming power of profit motivated mass mediation.

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