With metaphorical slingshot in hand, puckish documentarian Ben Lewis stands up to the Goliath of the Internet age in “Google and the World Brain,” an alarmist inquiry into the search giant’s Library Project that cries foul at the company’s attempts to aggregate, scan and grant public access (for a fee) to as many printed works as possible. All but equating Google’s plan to share books with Hitler’s efforts to burn them, Lewis offers a wealth of talking-head commentary, courting easily riled Luddite crowds with hysterical claims that whoever gains a monopoly on information “could hold the whole world hostage.”
Lewis, a cheeky fellow who fancies himself Britain’s answer to Michael Moore, lifts his title from H.G. Wells, who imagined a day when a world encyclopedia might contain all human knowledge — a concept later extended by Arthur C. Clarke as capable of supporting a beneficent artificial intelligence. In both cases, this once-far-off eventuality was perceived as a good thing for mankind, yet the pic presents Wells’ ideas via retro, Cold War-era-styled filmstrips, slyly evoking the dystopian chill of that time and implying with arch suspicion that by extending beyond the Web to digitize analog publications, Google’s intentions could ultimately be sinister.
Lewis clearly adores old-school libraries, with their sweet-smelling bound volumes and standing invitation to discovery, offering his essayistic doc is a charming compact history of these institutions as well as a premature elegy for their demise. As its primary sources, the pic quotes experts who emphasize the virtues of libraries to the exclusion of their faults — as places whose assets are susceptible to loss, damage, censorship and fire. The effect of this is to romanticize the Renaissance days when the sum of published, Western, academic/literary understanding could be housed within a single building.
Today, that prospect is as daunting as counting grains of sand. And yet Google saw fit to undertake this mammoth book-scanning project without much heed to its ultimate application or legal ramifications. Although most libraries have been engaged in digitizing efforts of some form, none has had the sheer muscle power of Google, which the film implies hoodwinked Harvard and a number of other venerable institutions into granting access to their holdings — but to what end?
Lewis evidently feels that he and the public are entitled to know exactly what Google plans to do with all the pages it is collecting. Because of pending legal action in the U.S., Google reps decline to comment; the pic instead turns to Luis Collado, head of Google Books Spain and Portugal, for insights. But mostly, Google’s nonparticipation forces the filmmaker to lean on speculative theories by outsiders or to hype a six-second promotional clip of the company’s proprietary scanning stations as a breach in Google security, as investigative journalism.
Ironically, the crew seems to have done most of its research via Google, relying on those who have complained loudest in print, in court or online for comment. The results range from Jean-Noel Jeanneny, the highly entertaining former head of the French National Library, complaining about an English-language bias to the operation, to litigants Lewis Hyde (representing the Authors Guild) and Chinese novelist Mian Mian, who raise the subject of copyright violations — a can-of-worms topic that deserves far more serious inquiry than the pic allows. Forward thinkers Jaron Lanier and Kevin Kelly point toward a more interesting future-focused discussion.
As if to cover claims of potential “fair use” hypocrisy, the docu clearly sources its clips. Original footage looks sharp and coheres nicely in a package elevated considerably by Lucas Ariel Vallejos’ absorbing score.