DOXA 2013: Google and the World Brain considers the Internet as a sentient thing
After making a documentary about Google, filmmaker Ben Lewis isn’t particularly fond of the Silicon Valley behemoth. Turns out the feeling is mutual.
“I got a response saying they were disappointed by the overwhelmingly negative approach of my film,” he tells the Georgia Straight during a call from his home in London, England. And on the face of things, sure. It’s only a scant two minutes into Google and the World Brain—which receives a key screening at DOXA’s Spotlight on the Future program on Wednesday (May 8)—that a UC Berkeley law professor declares: “Google could basically hold the whole world hostage…”
With that dark statement still bouncing around inside your private brain, the film proceeds to ponder nothing less than the nature of the Internet itself. Issues of privacy, data-mining, surveillance, and intellectual property naturally arise, complicated by the thorny reality of the net as a place to do business. More jarringly, we’re asked to consider the possibility of the Internet as a sentient thing, or the “new lifeform” that’s talked about in Silicon Valley, according to virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier during one of his electrifying appearances in the film.
Lewis wisely takes a collagist’s approach to the subject, mingling the prophecies of H. G. Wells and the words of Franz Kafka with monks in Spain presiding over enormous supercomputers. He throws cranky infotech visionaries like William Gibson, Lawrence Lessig, and Evgeny Morozov into the mix. And he travels the world to tell the story of Google’s inconceivably ambitious attempt to digitize every book on the planet.
It’s a head-spinning, highly provocative piece of cinema, like a more accessible companion to Lutz Dammbeck’s 2003 film-essay, The Net: The Unabomber, LSD, and the Internet. Frightening future scenarios and overall mood aside, not to mention the fact that he describes Google’s uncooperative behaviour during production as ”appalling”, Lewis feels that he’s created a balanced work.
“I showed that the opponents of Google were often a bit kind of fuddy-duddy, like the French bloke,” he offers. “We had some fun at his expense, and that’s because I really wanted this film to present both sides as powerfully as possible.”
The “French bloke” is actually Jean-Noël Jeanneney, and he’s an almost comical embodiment of America’s nightmare vision of Gallic disdain. As the former president of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, that country’s national library, Jeanneney recalls with relish his visit earlier in the century from two Google reps bearing the gift of a company flask. “They had a kind of arrogance and a spirit of brutal commercialism,” he snorts, before telling Lewis that he sent the two Yanks packing.
Google approached Jeanneney with the mission of turning its book-scanning project into an online world library, an idea attractive enough on the surface that Harvard, Oxford, and a variety of other institutions eagerly signed on—at first. The notion of a world library has its roots in ancient times. Here was a company with the resources, the will, and the technology—although Google refused to grant Lewis’s cameras access to its scanning facilities, it should be noted—to actually make it happen in the virtual realm. Jeanneney proved one of the project’s most obstinate critics, initially because he feared it would be biased toward English.
One senses a deeper revulsion at the idea, however. As early enthusiasts came to discover, handing the project to private enterprise created a world of problems. Especially when the private enterprise in question had acquired its vast fortune and its dominant role in cyberculture on the accumulation of information—which it was now enhancing, immeasurably, for free. “This is about a service company which acts illegally on such a scale that it appears legal,” a distraught Roland Reuss, professor of modern German literature at the University of Heidelberg, tells Lewis.
“What’s serious,” the filmmaker explains, “is the complete picture about this entity, Google, that really is built on using other people’s creativity, the stuff that other people have produced for free, and the fact that, partly, they aren’t prepared to accept that this is an issue. But when you do decide to scan 10 million books in copyright to improve your search engine, then I think it does become an issue that you are responsible for.”
By 2005, three years into the project, six million books had been scanned without permission. Then a 350-page settlement between Google and parties including the Authors Guild backfired, allowing Google to actually sell out-of-print but in-copyright books known as “orphans”.
That decision was reversed in a fairness hearing in New York, in 2011. This was good news to everybody except the most ardent proponents of our brave new digital future, liked Wired magazine cofounder Kevin Kelly, who grumpily tells Lewis: “Copyright is an archaic, unproductive view… Artists do not own their ideas.” And for those concerned with online privacy? “They should cut off their phone lines and go hide on a mountain,” Kelly growls. “They have that choice.” He sounds like a zealot, and this is where things get really interesting.
“I don’t know why they’ve turned this into a religion, but they certainly have,” Lewis says. “And, obviously, it sells a lot of copies of Wired and stuff; I can see why they would do it commercially, but these people, they also really believe in it.”
As Google and the World Brain proceeds, Lewis plants small clues to the direction he’s taking. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has long been interested in the creation of artificial intelligence, but it still resonates to hear Kelly actually quote Google founder Larry Page’s long-term goal for the company. “Oh, it’s not to make a search engine,” Page told him. “It’s to make an AI.”
It might sound silly to you or I, but Ray Kurzweil prays for machine intelligence. Kurzweil is popularly known as one of the high priests of transhumanism, or the belief that technology will eventually supersede human biology. He shows up in Google and the World Brain to explain the so-called singularity, or that moment in time—in 2045, if Kurzweil is right—when machines finally outpace human intelligence. After Lewis completed his film, Kurzweil became Google’s new director of engineering.
“It’s not so much a match made in heaven as a match made in that virtual reality we’ll be uploaded to after we’re all killed by the giant computer,” Lanier wryly tells the Straight in a call from DeKalb, Illinois. In his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto—published the same year he made Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people—Lanier writes about the various singularity scenarios imagined by the cyberculture crowd in the ‘80s, including one in which self-replicating robots evolve into a “gray goo” that devours Earth. Or, he writes, “the internet itself comes alive and rallies all the net-connected machines into an army to control the affairs of the planet. Humans might then enjoy immortality within virtual reality, because the global brain would be so huge that it would be absolutely easy—a no brainer, if you will—for it to host all our consciousness for eternity.”
“It’s a strange thing because it’s a form of pure evil except that nobody believes it,” Lanier says. “The people who describe themselves as transhumanists in Silicon Valley and think that humanity’s about to end still have their own children and still go about their days. If people really believed this they wouldn’t act normally, so it’s not real; it’s sort of a theatre. So you might say, ‘Well, why not just enjoy it as theatre, then? Why not just accept is a sort of weird science fiction kind of performance art?’ And it can be that—and indeed I’ve done debate shows with Ray Kurzweil, and I think we’re very entertaining—but the problem with it is that it serves as a sort of way of framing less extreme things that are happening, which are actually destroying people’s lives more slowly.”
Lanier elaborates on that theory in his next book, Who Owns the Future? (coming May 7), but he was happy to give it to the Straight in a nutshell. “It’s not The Terminator or The Matrix,” he says. “The real problem is not that the big computer will kill everybody. The real problem is that all the wealth will end up with the people who own the biggest computers…That’s the trend we’re moving towards. So the problem is not mass genocide, even though if you take them at their word, it seems to be what they’re saying. The real problem is mass poverty.”
Lanier laments that since the emergence of Web 2.0, the world’s dominant communication technology has failed to nurture the “wave of well-being” that seemed possible in the early ’90s. “Instead,” he continues, “since the turn of the century, we’ve had nothing but waves of austerity and recession and jobless recoveries. It’s screwed over the economy, and the big finance schemes that have done this are precisely the same thing as Google.”
Quoted in the film, Vancouver author William Gibson says we are Google’s “unpaid content providers”. Lanier puts it in more concrete terms: when you use any Google service, “you’re adding bits to a model of who you are that will then be used to manipulate you on a statistical basis in such a way that you’re poorer in the future than you otherwise would be, and somebody else is richer instead. And it’s very true on Facebook, and it’s very true with credit-rating agencies and loans, and it’s very true with the insurance industry. It doesn’t matter if it’s called search or social networking or a library or if it’s called a hedge fund or a high-frequency trading firm. Or, by the way, if it’s called a national intelligence agency. Everybody who’s using big computers to concentrate wealth and power is using the same algorithms to the same ends.”
In this context, there’s a different flavour to Wired’s Kelly describing the internet as “something divine”, or to Kurzweil evangelizing his cell phone as “part of who I am”. We’ve seen this kind of religiosity from charismatic preachers with their Rapture fantasies, and it’s usually cover for a big scam—which is precisely what Lanier calls it. (The transhumanists even have their persecuted; in July of last year, the University of Toronto’s Steve Mann was attacked in a Paris McDonalds because of the prototype video hardware attached to his skull.)
Google and the World Brain, meanwhile, offers varied points of philosophical departure. Lewis is certain, for instance, that Google sees itself as a genuine force for good. “Yes, God, yes—with a passion,” he insists, comparing Google’s corporate culture to a certain high-profile cult. “As you walk through the door there, it’s almost like you can feel the temperature change.” In his view, the company wants—and possesses the clout—to have it both ways.
“I didn’t really think this was an organization that was totally suspicious when I started out,” Lewis says. “I thought, ‘These people are immensely imaginative; they come up with these remarkable new inventions, like a search engine that really works. And, of course, they subscribe to the ideology of the Internet: free culture and free information.’
“But by the time I’d finished the film, I decided that [along with] any belief they had in that system, they’d also worked out that there was a way to make 150 billion dollars. And that [way] was to ruthlessly exploit new market economic areas that other people hadn’t spotted…and then to try and dominate them in a monopolistic way.”
What he found in the tale of Google’s world library was reassurance, however faint, that the big brain had not yet become completely unassailable. “I knew I had a great story,” he says, speaking for all us flesh-and-blood humanists, “because I had this fantastic example of a story where the little guy wins.”
Google and the World Brain screens at the Vancouver Playhouse (601 Cambie Street), on Wednesday (May 8). Other notable films in DOXA’s Spotlight on the Future program include City World, in which filmmaker Brent Chesanek finds haunting images of an imagined postapocalyptic Orlando, Florida, and The Mechanical Bride, which looks at the persistent male desire to create an artificial woman. Perverse behaviour of another kind is explored in Critical Mass, a film that begins with ethologist John B. Calhoun’s rodent-population experiments. Desmond (The Naked Ape) Morris is among those who extrapolate the forecast for our own crowded species.