February 12, 2007

When All Books Are Online, Will All Reading Be Tracked?

Greetings. A new article currently online at The New Yorker, titled "Google's Moon Shot", discusses Google's continuing push to scan all books into a massive database.

Leaving aside the Google Book Search legal questions for now, let's ponder a different issue. Once most or all books are online, will every book search we make and every book page we read online be tracked, potentially to be handed over to the authorities of the moment as part of either large-scale or narrower investigations?

After all, as I frequently like to remind folks, future administrations may not be as, uh, "benign" as the current one, but the infrastructure of Google and similar services seem almost certain to outlive us all in one form or another.

Comprehensive online book systems will likely result in the long-run deterioration of access to physical libraries and their physical books, and in the ability to enter libraries, read, and leave without any records being kept. As years go by, libraries are likely to place more and more books in storage for safety, and expect all ordinary patrons to use the online (trackable) versions.

If we are to reap the vast benefits of online books without fear, we must also consider all of the complex issues regarding data retention risks that apply to conventional Web search operations and perhaps even more so to book searches and related access.

This specific issue has already been envisioned by science fiction, in the 1967 novel Chthon by Piers Anthony. I noted this originally in a 2005 blog entry: An Online Library from Science Fiction.

As I mentioned there, at least the "hero" in that story still managed to get access to the untracked library stacks. But will we be able to read online in the future without every page we access being noted and that information being retained indefinitely? There will be those who will argue, as some data retention advocates suggest today, that the more we know about everything that everyone does online at all times, the safer a society we'll have. Afer all, there are those persons who long for the technological aspects of Orwell's 1984.

Google Book Search can be an incredibly valuable resource, ushering in a new era of information access that will be the greatest literary-related feat since the establishment of the Library of Alexandria.

Or, the Google Book Search type of technologies could ultimately provide the means for a level of intrusive surveillance undreamt of by the worst of history's tyrants.

The outcome will be up to Google -- and society at large -- to determine. The time to consider the possibilities, for both good and evil, is right now.


Posted by Lauren at February 12, 2007 07:51 AM | Permalink
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