Book Review: Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View From Europe

Today being Sunday, I found myself at Book People, our local independent bookstore. The onslaught against the independent bookstore that started with Crown Books, continuing through Barnes & Noble, Bookstar, etc., and now culminating in is almost complete. (Nothing against my friends at Amazon, but I find it all rather worrisome.)

What enables the independent bookstore to survive is selection. Selection that caters to readers, selection that is the product of the mind of someone—often the owner, and often the owner who is found at or near the checkout counter far too many days in a row–who is themselves a reader, often a reader with an extraordinarily wide range of interests and depth of knowledge. This is something that the big chains can’t really offer as they must go after the most popular books, ordered by someone behind a curtain somewhere.

I was at Book People to buy a replacement for my copy of The Cult of the Amateur (Andrew Keen take note) and I happened to notice a little book on the shelf below where Cult lived that had an interesting title: Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View From Europe. No one who reads this blog will be surprised to know that my hand reached for the book immediately after one reading of the title.

I had a feeling I knew what was coming, but when I read the author’s name, Jean-Noël Jeanneney (president of the Biblioteque nationale de France), I almost didn’t need to read the book for I knew what it would say. And sure enough it was about Google Library and sure enough it was about the cultural collateral damage of Google’s war on copyright.

There was one copy and I bought it immediately. I’m so glad I did, for I found myself nodding and laughing as much as I was struck by the depth and importance of understanding of the survival of culture and the resilience of its protectors such as M. Jeanneney.

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I was recently a speaker at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on a panel with, among others, my friend Tim Westergren who is currently CEO of Pandora. I have had the greatest admiration for Tim’s accomplishments with the Music Genome Project since the early days of Pandora’s predecessor Savage Beast, and remain convinced it is one of the best music preference engines ever made or conceived. At one point in the discussion Tim posed the idea of a global compulsory license for sound recordings based on the U.S. copyright law known generally as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

I thought, forgive him, he knows not what he does. But I said, “Oh, the French will LOVE THAT.” Our live audience, being made up of older folk, who were presumably more traveled, understood what I was trying to sum up in a pithy comment: Here is the Ugly American 2.0, live from the Palo Alto Mall. Tim may as well have been strolling down the Champs Elyseés in Bermuda shorts and sandals, chomping away on a Big Mac with supersized fries and synthetic mayonnaise dripping down his face.

I didn’t really want to get a laugh at Tim’s expense, but what he was proposing was typical of the kind of reaction one gets from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who either don’t know or fail to see how damaging some of their ideas are to culture in general and ancient cultures in particular. Ancient cultures that survived the Romans, Carthaginians and Nazis, so don’t expect them to bow to the Great God Scale.

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When I was a young musician, I moved to Montreal for a few years and recorded and performed with the French Canadian pop artist, Diane Dufresne. Diane was a star not only in Quebec, but also in France, and particularly in Paris. (Paris, by the way, is a great place to have a #1 single.) My time in the Dufresne band was educational on so many levels, but it was an extraordinary vantage point for both the rise of the Parti Quebecois, and the reasons for its political success.

There are many who despise Rene Levesque, the leader of that party and later premier of Quebec, they lambast the pro-French laws and legal protections of the French Canadian culture that came to pass, but these condemners are also very often the people, or descendants of the people, who more or less got down on their knees and begged to have the English thrown out of power in Quebec by their treatment of the French Canadian majority in what is likely the last great revolution on the North American continent. Why? Because fundamentally the English Canadians did not understand that the French Canadians have a rich culture of their own dating back nearly 400 years in Quebec, and are also a part of the larger Francophone culture that is a foundation of Western civilization.

I fully believe that there will be a France and a French culture 100 years from now, 200 years from now, probably forever. And more importantly—they believe it, too. Anyone seeking to do business in Europe or seeking to do business with one of the world’s great cultures–particularly revolutionary cultures–ignores this fact at their peril.

The truth is—the English Canadians actually made it very easy for Levesque. But Quebec needed a Levesque to make that point. The moment still must find its leader no matter how ripe. A leader to exploit politically the unbridled hubris and cultural blindness of generations of English Canadians who largely ignored the French Canadian culture, that which was uniquely quebecois. Sure there were large swaths of low culture both in the city and in the country, or people who were trying to be part of the larger culture but not quite making it—like the piano tuner we were sent in the little town of Roberval who tuned to a concertina. At the same time, there were extraordinarily well educated, cultured geniuses such as Luc Plamandon and Andre Perry who brought Quebecois culture and musicians to the international stage. Not surprising for a city that boasted two music conservatories teaching in French only classes.

So when I encountered the Google Library project, I thought to myself that there is not a single person involved with this project that has the standing in the world community to make this anything but a typically American enterprise that is more likely to destroy world culture than to have the sensitivity to address the extraordinarily delicate issues of cultural preservation that present themselves in the hierarchy of search. When you consider that the idea for Google Library apparently evolved from a science fiction story, it is easy to see that the consideration given the planning of the project has about as much depth as a child writing a book report based on a Classics Illustrated comic book.

This was the thought process behind my panel with Register of Copyrights Marybeth Peters at SXSW in 2007: Can Art Survive Google? Had I read Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge at that time, I would have changed the title to Can Culture Survive Google? Set aside the extraordinarily bizarre interpretations of law that Google supports to feather its nest, set aside the simply weird lawyers and advice the company seems to court, set aside the soullessness that could permit Google to “honor” the censorship requirements of the Peoples Liberation Army in China—for this is how Google does business and this is how they would “organize the world’s information”—is there not something about Google’s methods that is destructive to culture? If left unchecked….We Americans are often too quick to accept a market solution to all problems due to the relative homogeneity of our commercial culture. Due to our vast markets and focus on assimilation (an idea that was originally focused on the assimilation of immigrants), we often lack the self-examination sufficient to anticipate the effect that our vast commercial influence will have on cultures other than our own—and it would be nice to anticipate this phenomenon, rather than to continually be reactingto criticism of our failure to address it in our dealings with others.

Thus–there is a huge difference between copying the world’s information into a database, and organizing the world’s information in methods relevant to the world’s cultures. One is an administrative task, the other intellectual. Google is good at copying things other people create. Whether they are also good at the intellectual task of organizing cultures remains to be seen, but they are off to a very, very poor start. So far, I haven’t seen anything in the way of public statements or actions by any officer of Google that suggests to me that the company has attracted leaders with the intellectual sophistication to even understand the task they have set for themselves. And there’s no reason why Google, aka the world’s biggest advertising agency, would attract the kind of leaders who would appreciate what M. Jeanneney is concerned with as such folk typically are not sellers of soap.
One can just imagine ad men high fiving the Googles–you finally figured out how to put advertising in books!! Right on, dude!! Let’s go for a scooter ride!

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Fast forward to 2005, and I again found myself in Paris (although Bruno Coquatrix [who first booked us in his L’Olympia], Eddie Barclay [who released our records in Europe], and some of the other grand old men of the French music business whom I’d had the pleasure of knowing, were regrettably gone). This time I was working on legislation to protect authors and record companies from the ravages of illegal p2p. In the course of these meetings I spent time with the cultural leaders of France, both in and out of government. I was struck by the strength of a perception I’d not realized had taken hold—the Internet was a threat to the French culture (and in fact all non Anglo-American cultures) the likes of which no one had ever seen. And now it was not just the U.S. record companies, music and film, but now it was Apple and Microsoft, too. Soon it would include Google.

I have often said that the only thing French about Google France was the terms of service. This is unfortunately true of too many U.S. based companies doing business abroad, and has, of course, been a big problem for American companies doing business abroad since the end of World War II. I can remember a time when there were no McDonalds in France, when the Champs Elyseés was an entirely different looking place than it is today. When McDonalds opened a store on the Champs Elyseés I stood in front of it and cried for I felt something deep in the country’s zeitgeist had just been forever violated, a battle lost and that the sheer symbolic arrogance of putting that thing on this street was a poke in the eye to French culture and that nothing good would come of this.

Google, of course, is the direct descendant of that McDonalds.

M. Jeanneney does an excellent and insightful job of describing his concerns, most of which I think any right-thinking person would share, in their historical context and addressing a larger point that bears much repetition—if you devote your life to making money from the most popular sold to the lowest common denominator, you will miss everything that is interesting about life and culture. It is also important to note that he reaches his conclusions about what to do about Google in the context of French resistance to American culture dating back to the Marshall Plan—government intervention is required against the Leviathan. And I don’t blame him a bit.

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What I think most people hoped the Internet would accomplish is an exchange of ideas among the peoples of the world. What is happening is not that so much—it is the imposition of American ideas on other cultures, through language, through music, through film and news, all of which we have seen before, but now also through search. And search means Google. And Google means hierarchy or algorithm, a uniquely American focused algorithm, and at that a “most popular” notion, kind of a Wikipedia approach to telling you where to find things.Being president of the Bibliotèque nationale de France, Jean-Noël Jeanneney probably could be said to hold the title “Least Impressed by Wikipedia” in an absolute sense. I would speculate that he is interested in Wikipedia as a cultural phenomenon, sort of like if you could enter a Mini Cooper S in a Monster Trucks competition that would be a cultural statement of sorts.

We don’t really have a U.S. equivalent in this country for his role as president of the Bibliotèque nationale de France, just like we don’t have an equivalent of the Panthéon. There is a certain responsibility to being a keeper of French culture, the national identity of a country—“responsibility” doesn’t quite cover it. It’s more on the “sacred trust” end of the continuum

When Google first announced it was launching the Google Book Search project, they met with the Stanford University librarian, naturally, since Google already owns Stanford, they can count on their charges not making waves. The also got Harvard and the New York Public Library to sign up, then a library at Oxford.

And then they stopped.

Now why in the world would they not have had the sense to reach out to Brussels, if nothing else? Gallica (, the Bibliotèque nationale’s own digitization project, had been around since 1997, as had many others (Jeanneney points to the Million Book Project at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as well as digitization projects in India, China, Spain, Chile, Argentina and many others). Given the intellectual tone deafness that we now knows goes hand in hand with Google and its dealings, it should not be surprising that the company’s hamhandedness has produced what M. Jeanneney describes as “…this movement against a globalization that not only would prove unproductive but would encourage bleak standardization.”

Read those words while standing in the Panthéon amongst the great luminaries of an ancient nation, and if you’re not ready to sing “Aux armes, citoyens!” and take up the gun against the Philistine invader from Mountain View, you have no soul.

For it is that very philistine hypercommercialism that is both the hallmark of Google and its greatest threat to culture. But remember—companies are people, and Google’s resources will be directed as its officers decide. So when we speak of Google as being a threat to world culture (remembering that it has one of the highest market capitalization of any company in the world so that’s not an idle threat), it is Google’s senior management who most embody that threat.

Recall Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s statements to the Wall Street Journal on the eve of the Viacom lawsuit: When asked to respond to the idea that “content” has intrinsic value, he said “prove it”. Which has to be one of the dumber, but yet illuminating, remarks to come from a Silicon Valley CEO on the subject of art and culture. No wonder M. Jeanneney tells us that “[t]he visit I received from several Google executives after the beginning of my campaign didn’t do much to reassure me.”

These statements echo and confirm one of the most important points raised in Google the Myth: M. Jeanneney writes, “What pays for the digitization of materials are linked advertisements from companies that have an interest in associating their image with old or recent works likely to promote that image. As a result, books will necessarily be hierarchized in favor of those best suited to satisfy the demands of advertisers, again, chosen according to the principal of the highest bidder [as is Google AdWords]. I wouldn’t want to see—although I’m amused by the thought—the text of Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit prince accompanied by an ad for a sheep merchant.”

For me, I recently was in Paris and visited the tomb of Saint-Exupéry and felt myself overwhelmed to be in the company of the great hero of Night Flight, the existentialist as a Free French pilot. These emotions are unanticipated and difficult to explain, but they are the product of a lifetime of respect for authors and the joy of creativity.

So, when you have a CEO like Eric Schmidt who sits atop the greatest potential culture killer of our generation but who admits that neither he nor his company recognize the intrinsic value of music (or presumably culture), I simply cannot imagine a conversation between that unexamined man and the president of the Bibliotèque nationale de France. You see, Dr. Schmidt, in France they have a Ministry of Culture. It’s part of the government. If you can’t figure it out any other way, that alone should tell you something. Wake up. Don’t walk down the Champs Elyseés with synthetic mayonaise dripping down your face. Particularly not in the country with the best mayoniase in the world.

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Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge is a must read for anyone interested in truly understanding the dominant impact of the Leviathan from Mountain View on world culture and the corrosive effect that an advertising, popularity based culture has on…well…culture. If we only did what was popular there would never have been an John Hammond (Stevie Ray Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Bruce Springsteen and the artist formerly known as “Hammond’s Folly”–Bob Dylan), Ahmet Ertigun (Ray Charles, Cream, Led Zepplin), Eddie Barclay (Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Quincy Jones, Mirelle Mathieu, Diane Dufresne, Johnny Halliday), Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss (Joan Armatrading, Sting, Garbage, Gillian Welch, Ozomotli), Chris Blackwell (U2, Cat Stevens, Bob Marley), Berry Gordy (where do I begin?) or Sam Philips (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash)—or a Tony Brummel (Taking Back Sunday) or a Martin Mills (Gary Numan, The Pixies). Neither would there have been an Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Jean Renoir—or James Joyce.

There is a world that existed before the 1s and zeros arrived, exists apart from them now, and will be here when they are gone. The question should be where does Google fit into that culture of our peoples, not where our peoples fit into Google–to Google’s profit.

If you have ever wondered about these things, you will find a friend, extraordinarily articulate fellow traveler and kindly mentor in Jean-Noël Jeanneney, who rigorously examines Google good and bad before reaching his conclusion, all in a manner befitting a person of great intellectual accomplishment (and political acumen, I might add).

“…Google Book Search even though its leaders have not yet publicly defined the details of their practices, already appears to be a poor model for schools, since it seems to lack any kind of classification established according to reasoned principles….Unless a culture organizes [its] information, society is condemned to accept the mere dissemination of information, harmful to intellectual clarity and to a rich and harmonious public life.”

“Make no mistake: without [the determination to find a local solution], not only will the common interest be threatened, but we will also see the global scales, in this realm as in others, tip toward the hyperpower of a dominant [commercial] civilization.”

And by the way Dr. Schmidt–you may think you do revolution pretty good, but you got a lot to learn from these folks. They invented it.
PS: A few excerpts from Google the Myth:

Staff of the Bibliotèque nationale de France pointed to numerous examples of scans with significant quality control problems from works of great significance to French culture. M. Jeanneney describes Google efforts as “mediocre” (a word of French origin, by the way as in “médiocre“)–and take it from one who knows, no one, and I mean no one, can cock a beady eye over their Gauloise and say the word “médiocre” with quite the disdain of a Frenchman.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View From Europe

  1. Good post. But you flatter Google to say it has the world’s highest market capitalization at 218 billion.Microsoft has a cap of 338 billion.It looks to be about #8. Here are the larger caps:ERIC LM ERICSSON ADR 559.26BXOM EXXON MOBIL CP 401.40BGE GEN ELECTRIC CO 373.09BTOT TOTAL S.A. 315.24BMSFT MICROSOFT CP 277.86BC CITIGROUP INC 252.39BBAC BK OF AMERICA CP 245.48B


  2. Chris, interesting post, and it brings up a question that predates Google: how can things that may have intrinsic value survive in a world that increasingly sees only commercial value? Somehow the music producers you mention were able to bring to the public artists that they personally believed in. Is this even possible today? Now it’s all about marketing departments and quarterly earnings reports.On one of the art blogs I read I came across a link to this speech (condensed) that art critic Dave Hickey gave at the Frieze Art Fair in Europe. He’s talking about the monetization of the art world, but it seems to be a similar issue.


  3. PS – Chris, I clicked on your link for Book People to see what part of L.A. they’re in, and it turns out they’re in… Texas! That’s way past Pasadena. Have you moved out of Los Angeles, or am I misunderstanding what you mean by “local”?


  4. Thanks, Dave. You make a point that I should have brought out more clearly–in a world where there’s less and less money to spend on fewer and fewer artists, the pressure to sell is greater than ever. With the exception of John Hammond who worked for a much different Columbia Records, all the impressarios I mentioned were entrepreneurs who came from the independent sector. All of them ultimately sold their labels to majors, and every single one of those labels had a struggle in the major label environment long before Google or the Internet.Most of them ended badly in the big company environment–do these historical facts tell you anything?


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