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Google and the World Brain | Sundance 2013 Review

Legality Be Damned, Making Wells A Reality

Google and the World Brain PosterBen Lewis started as a commentator on the modern art world, but in recent years has made a name for himself as a sharp witted documentarian of modern culture, his films The Great Contemporary Art Bubble and Poor Us: An Animated History of Poverty making critical international waves. With his fluently astute and alarmingly predictory film, Google and the World Brain, Lewis finds us living in a Google fulfilled prophecy written by the hands of H.G. Wells in his book, World Brain. In this book, Wells theorized that all human knowledge would be centralized and freely accessible to all humans, with the downside that a ‘big brother’ type monitoring would be in place at all times. About a decade ago, Google started work on their Google Books platform, which would attempt to accomplish Wells’ story exactly.

The film begins with the positive – the idea of a ‘world brain’ in theory could be an incredible tool for progressing the culture of learning, and Google took it upon themselves to contact several of the world’s largest libraries to form contracts in which they would be allowed to scan either entire library collections or portions therein, providing these books online for free for the betterment of the world. Library representatives from around the world, from Harvard to Rome, have heralded Google’s efforts as just another way of providing library materials to people in need, but the inherent problem is that Google is basically stealing from copyright holders on a mass scale and using the online usage information for the betterment of themselves, a private, for profit corporation, to better their search engine algorithms and further their ever expanding reach on the e-marketplace. So, when this fact came to light, legal war was waged in the name of authorial ownership against the (monetized) freedom of human written knowledge.

Due to on going court cases, Google representatives and the few plaintiffs that appear in the film can not speak at length about the issues of copyright infringement, Lewis centers the film around a pivotal court case that would either shut down Google’s current plan to continue scanning copyrighted materials or give Google an advantaged entry into the e-book marketplace, with exclusive rights to books unclaimed by their original copyright holders. And though this judicial showdown sounds dry, it holds tension with charisma and a backbone that breathes the stuff of science fiction, yet, this is reality.

While the talking head conversation on screen pinballs between the minds of top library directors, Senior Vice President of Google Amit Singhal, futurist (and current head of engineering at Google) Ray Kurzweil, founding executive editor of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly, and a variety of other prescient individuals, there is little visual intrigue aside from a gorgeously photographed congregation of the world’s premier libraries, countless book scanning stations at work, page by page, and slightly out of place voiced over animations from news article snippets that manage to enrich the dialogue despite being a visual mismatch.

Google and the World Brain revolves around conflict between intellectual freedom, copyright remembrance, and corporate ascendancy. We can all agree that free access to books would be aptly beneficial to all, but we also want to be fair to the writers who’ve poured their blood, sweat and tears into the material. It is the same issue that libraries have faced with publishers for years. We also can appreciate all that Google has done for internet users, making searches, email and online document storage effortless, but most people like to have their privacy intact, and Google does not seem to care much about that fact. Ben Lewis’s briskly brainy new film reminds us of the importance of libraries while acknowledging that their physicality is soon to be a thing of the past. We just need to find a legal path into the future.

Reviewed on January 20th at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – WORLD DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION Programme. 89 Min

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