Since antiquity, humankind has dreamed of a library robust enough to store, and distribute, all of our accumulated knowledge. And with every technological step forward in publishing, thinkers have dreamed of how that vast well of information, if easily available to common people, could change the world.
One of those great thinkers — who died nearly 70 years ago — was the writer H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine). He dreamed of a “World Brain” that could make all of human knowledge instantly accessible to the planet’s citizens, while also keeping tabs on everyone, too. Think of it: immediate answers to nearly every question, no more missing persons, and general peace. With the internet, it’d almost seem possible. And what if an ambitious company like Google were in the early stages of such a project? How might that change the world, and how might it also be cause for concern?
That’s where London-based filmmaker Ben Lewis comes in. His documentary Google and the World Brain explores the complications and questions that rose up when the search engine company began digitizing millions of books from some of the world’s greatest libraries. Harvard, Oxford and the University of Michigan were all institutions Google worked with initially in its massive (and extremely expensive) Google Books project, which sought to make vast swathes of literature available online. And, as one expert in the film puts it, Google just went along with its project and dealt with the consequences later.
The first consequence — and one that’s yet to be totally resolved — had to do with copyright. When Google started its scanning process in 2004, it scanned both copyrighted and non-copyrighted books. When some authors and publishers found out, they were outraged. This led to an international outcry, with authors feeling that their work was now meaningless (as it was held captive, in a sense, by this huge corporation) and various library officials thought that Google was conspiring, perhaps, to promote English as a global language. But those aren’t the most interesting concerns.
What Lewis’ film inherently questions is if we really want such a wealth of data — nearly everything we know or have experienced — a part of Google’s algorithm, a part of a for-profit company. While Google isn’t depicted as out-and-out nefarious in the film, there’s enough creepy electronic music to suggest that Google’s monopoly on millions and millions of copied books could have unintended, sinister consequences. The end of the film certainly leaves you thinking that the internet, with its means of potentially sharing everything, will eventually lead us to a place where some basic parts of the human experience are in jeopardy.
Even so, the film’s range of experts — from international library heads, to writers, to lawyers, to Google people, to technologists, to publishers — expose you to many views about the future of books and mankind’s relationship to knowledge. But, even with all the opinions on display, there are basically two camps people fall into: those for uploading everything to the internet, putting their trust in pioneers like Google; and those who are more cautious, who want to see a more gradual, communal approach to the dream of the World Brain. Lewis pushes you toward the latter camp, but leaves you enough space to figure out where you stand.
Google and the World Brain is playing tonight at the Northrop Auditorium at 6 p.m. This is the last time it will be screened at the festival.
3X3D (Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Greenaway & Edgar Pêra; France) Just to see one of the most iconic directors of all time use 3D is easily worth the price of admission. Despite being over 80, Godard’s work in this tri-pronged picture is, reportedly, just as stylish and sharp as ever. Even if one of the other directors involved has an abomination caboosed on the end, that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying innovative work from a true master. (4 p.m.; Walker Art Center)
The Starfish Throwers (Jesse Roesler; India & U.S.) Focused on world hunger, The Starfish Throwers is a documentary following a 5-star chef, a school teacher and a sixth grader as they work to combat that behemoth of food inequality. But even though their numbers are small, the fruits of their work appear vital, motivating and truly nourishing. (4 p.m.)
Throwing Starfish: A Panel On Hunger Relief Before the screening of the documentary mentioned above, there’ll be a (FREE!) panel on world hunger at the Aster Cafe (which is just a stone’s throw from the St. Anthony Main Theatre), featuring two of the film’s three subjects. This is the perfect opportunity to see what you can to do help those in the Twin Cities who are hungry while also learning about how the world might take on the problem of food access inequality as a whole. (12 p.m.)
Throughout the entirety of the 2014 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, we’ll be spotlighting one notable movie each day, along with other notable screenings. To see the WCCO Movie Blog’s complete coverage on the MSPIFF, click here.