Google, Kindle and The Library of Babel
Technological innovation seems almost strangely commonplace these days, from say, contact lenses that could layer data directly onto your view of the world to robots fighting far-flung wars to computer systems perhaps smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy!” All astonishing developments in their own right, and yet the most profound change of our times may yet be purely informative in nature: The digitization of all that we read.
At the University of San Francisco on Sunday I participated in a symposium on “Life after the MFA” for students graduating the writing program. Unsurprisingly, the technological upending of books, magazines and newspapers was a particular focus. Fellow panelist Patrick Dunagan, a poet who works as a specialist at the USF library, spoke with some alarm about the rate at which books and print periodicals there are going the way of the dodo. The idea is that many are being replaced digitally. I expressed a bit of surprise to him about this afterward, whereby he asked me when I last conducted any research in a library. Point taken. If only Borges were still hanging around and could rejoin the discussion.
One theme I hoped to suggest in my part of the talk was that print vs. digital isn’t a zero-sum equation. We can still love books and newspapers while getting charged about the possibilities of digital publishing. In many ways the latter remains a Wild West — and without a doubt has blown holes in some old ways of doing business. But in my view the rising digital infosphere is far more expansive and generative than it is destructive.
In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, author Steven Johnson explores both the thrill and potential chill of electronic books, a fast-growing realm thanks to Amazon’s innovative e-book reader, the Kindle, and Google’s Book Search service, home to approximately 10 million scanned titles and counting. One exciting aspect Johnson flags with regard to ideas and research:
Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read — as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.
But there will be pitfalls, too, especially with respect to evolving market forces. The all-powerful search engine that is Google, and the ways in which it guides users to digital content of all sorts, could impact how books actually get written:
Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.
Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.
What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We’ll have to see.
A strength of Johnson’s essay is that he doesn’t pass judgment on these possibilities; he concentrates on laying out in lucid terms what he sees coming. (Another recent piece of his, on how the web’s information ecosystem changes how we get our news, is also well worth reading.)
The latter segment above, under the subhead “Writing for Google,” got me thinking about a worn adage heard in MFA programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” If that advice translates fundamentally to writing from a place of experience and passion, it could take on fresh meaning in the digital future — when the suggestion to “Write what you can search engine optimize” may well become a growing temptation.
UPDATE: Some wonder if Google already has too much sway with its Book Search service, including the U.S. Department of Justice.