Google is impatient with our culture-upload speed, and starts taking the job to its own hands. Before we get to excited or too paranoid, let’s see what we stand to gain or loose. Who’s exploiting who? Or is it a mutual opportunity?
Last week Google have announced a somewhat surprising initiative, to digitize the artefacts and documents of the Iraqi National Museum. The first ring of this is great! A private American company helping with the reconstruction of the ravaged Iraqi cultural heritage and making it available to the public online. And all for free.
I do acknowledge that there’s a high level of paranoia whenever Google announces anything. And while I definitely share some of the suspicions, I do not wish to align this post with the side of the conspiracy theorists. Yet I believe it is not hard to suspect that there is more than pure altruism in play here. Google has been expressing frequent PR attempts lately to fight against the inevitable (just a matter of time) anti-trust lawsuit by aligning itself on the side of the public interest.
Still licking the wounds of its somewhat failed book deal (digitizing the world’s books for free), Google is still trying to make an attempt to dive into publishing (rather than indexing) public content on the web. It seems like Google is impatient with the world’s pace of uploading its knowledge online, every failed Google search is a net loss for Google and almost every new service it has announced lately is geared towards increasing this process.
So Is Googlizing Iraqi Heritage Inherently Wrong?
I want Google to help the Iraqi National Museum digitize its content. But I want to make sure this does not take our guards down about Google’s motives. The deal should be transparent, not only to the parties signed on it, but to those discussing it online and affected by it in different ways. I don’t really think Google is taking advantage of the poor Iraqis. Not more than the Iraqis are taking advantage of the fact Google needs to score some easy “public interest points” with a digitization case towards its next attempt at the book deal. This is a mutual opportunity and it is rightly exploited by both parties.
But it is not the first time. There is a growing pattern of .COMmercial companies collaborating with .ORGanization on social/public-interest/cultural initiatives as a way to develop new technologies or form public opinion around a topic. Google has done that before with Re:Captcha – the anti-spam pro-digitization mechanism, AMD (the processor company) has invested a lot in the One Laptop Per Child project and while doing that has advanced its own R&D (Research & Development) objectives, Amazon invested in Wikia (a Wikipedia related company), I could go on forever…
Tems and Conditions
This growing trend is not going to stop soon, it will grow. Some of my anti-capitalist friends might rather look at ways of stopping the beast, but I believe that like in the case of the Iraqi National Museum (INM) these commercial interests can be opportunities too. We have to put levers in place, we have to maintain the openness of the content and the public control of these projects. Google stands to gain from openness much more than anyone else, but it would want to do it in its own terms. The terms of the INM deal, are different than the terms of the book deal.
Here are some terms I think are worth maintaining:
- Transparency – The interests should be clear
- Flexibility / Leverage – The alternatives should be explored
- Means – Negotiate for the public control of the project – make it a .ORG rather than .COM
- Openness – Open source the code, open license the content
- Federate – Try to bring different players on board to balance the interests
- Anti Trust – Exclusivity should be prevented by any means (including breaking the deal)
I can think of more, and I should, and so should you. We need to come up with new mechanisms and processes for managing this new Techno Cultural Industrial Complex. We got it wrong the last time with the Military Industrial Complex and the Military Academic Complex. This time we should affect the debate from early on.
What do you think?