Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Premature Report of Death?

Robert Darnton’s latest post to NYRBlog, “Six Reasons Google Books Failed,” is more another attempt to make a case for his Digital Public Library of America than an analysis of the decision of Judge Denny Chin to reject the settlement between Google and the authors and publishers who sued it.  However, if he were as aware of recent history as he is of that of past centuries in France, he might have realized that his analysis rests on at least one weak premise, which is the accuracy of his title.  He does not seem to recognize that, where large teams of well-paid corporate lawyers are involved, failure is not an option (as they say).  Google Books may have suffered a setback.  Most likely Google is well-equipped to apply a strategy that Darnton knows full well in its French formulation:  reculer pour avancer (draw back in order to advance).  In English we might say that every setback still provides information, and I am sure that Google is studying that information well to prepare its next move.

There is also the question of why Darnton is as interested in his own solution as he is.  On past occasions he has observed that the knowledge maintained in libraries is too important to be entrusted to a single entity in the private sector.  I would not dispute that point, but does he really wish to pursue the alternative as a public service entrusted to our Federal government?  Currently our government cannot even be trusted with a principle of social democracy as fundamental as the public service of health care.  Why should we expect that our representatives will take any better care of a large collection of books, most of which they have never heard of, let alone read?

To the contrary, the one thing politicians seem to know is that old saw that knowledge is power.  If they truly believe that precept, why would they ever want to share knowledge?  (To frame this in another context, are the communications networks established as a result of the formation of the Department of Homeland Security any better at “connecting the dots” than the previous “disconnected” intelligence and law-enforcement agencies were?)  Yes, knowledge, indeed, is power, which is why those with power derived from knowledge want to keep everyone else in ignorance.  Indeed, to follow up on yesterday’s post on health care, ignorance is simply another one of those agencies through which those without wealth and power are being turned into a new class of slaves.

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