Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The visible hand

Things on the internet are not made by magic; they're created by human labor. Who pays for that labor, and to what ends? Often, private corporations like Google pay for it. Wherefore?

Siva Vaidhyanathan's recent piece in the Chronicle argues that "Our uncritical dependence on Google is the result of an elaborate political fraud. Google has deftly capitalized on a decades-long tradition of creating 'public failure,'" which is to say, setting public projects up to fail so that private interests can swoop in and save us from our "broken" public sector:
Public failure may occur when the public sector has been intentionally dismantled, degraded, or underfinanced while expectations for its performance remain high. [...]

In such circumstances, the failure of public institutions gives rise to the circular logic that dominates political debate. Public institutions can fail; public institutions need tax revenue; therefore we must reduce the support for public institutions. The resulting failures then supply more anecdotes supporting the view that public institutions fail by design rather than by political choice.


Google officials, promoting their effort to scan millions of books purchased with public money [e.g. University of California, University of Michigan --N.C.] and donated by shortsighted universities, claimed they were trying to preserve libraries and perform an essential public service—just the sort of service that our great university libraries could have been working toward had they been allowed to succeed. Publicly supported institutions fail, so we leap into the arms of the private actor, ready to believe its sweet nothings.

Google Books is certainly read by most as a sort of public service that happens to be provided by a private corporation. Remember when the Bibliothèque Nationale de France resisted Google's digitization offers, only to later concede that they lacked funds to carry out their digitization project (the excellent Gallica) on their own? "La BNF se laisse séduire par Google," Le Figaro reported, using the language of sexual danger that Vaidhyanathan picks up in his Chronicle piece.

I'm largely persuaded by Vaidhyanathan's argument, although the persistence of this language of seduction (all literary critics know what comes next: betrayal) probably warrants further cogitation.

That Lovelace Google has practically unlimited funds to pour into whatever it wants is widely taken for granted, and it's well known as a place that is generous with said funds, especially with its workers. But despite its much-touted mission of non-evil (evil is such a strong word, isn't it?) its practices seem increasingly disturbing, including when it comes to digitization. Via Ryan Shaw, I recently came across the bizarre narrative of Andrew Norman Wilson, who says he was fired from a Google contract after inquiring into, and trying to document, the working conditions of "ScanOps":

They scan books, page by page, for Google Book Search. The workers wearing yellow badges are not allowed any of the privileges that I was allowed – ride the Google bikes, take the Google luxury limo shuttles home, eat free gourmet Google meals, attend Authors@Google talks and receive free, signed copies of the author’s books, or set foot anywhere else on campus except for the building they work in. They also are not given backpacks, mobile devices, thumb drives, or any chance for social interaction with any other Google employees. Most Google employees don’t know about the yellow badge class. Their building, 3.14159~, was next to mine, and I used to see them leave everyday at precisely 2:15 PM, like a bell just rang, telling the workers to leave the factory. Their shift starts at 4 am.

They are not elves; I repeat, not elves. Today Glenn Fleishman tweeted the picture below (via @GreatDismal):

hand spotted in a Google Book by Glenn Fleishman

Whose hand is this?

The image reminded me of Caleb Crain's post on encountering the finger of a Google technician in a translation of a Kant essay. As he wrote in a review of Adrian Johns's recent book on copyright and piracy,
... Kant didn't think that an author could mount a strong legal case against piracy based on property rights in words. After all, even after pirates copied an author's words, the author himself still had them. It was better for an author to argue that his book was not an object but an exercise of his powers which "he can concede, it is true, to others, but never alienate". In other words, Kant explained - in a passage partly obscured by the fingers of the Google technician who turned the pages in the scanner - a pirated book was not to be understood as property that had been stolen; it was rather a speech act that had been compromised. The business arrangement that an author made with an editor might make it look as if words could be traded like watches or pork bellies, but it just wasn't so. Could there be a fitter representation of copyright's contemporary plight than the fingers of a Google technician obscuring Kant's defence of writer's rights? An author's consent, Kant cautions in a footnote, "can by no means be presumed because he has already given it exclusively to another", yet Google is struggling to effect exactly this sort of transfer of consent today, as it attempts to win approval for a legal settlement in the United States that will allow it to republish works whose copyright owners have not come forward. I couldn't have read Kant's essay so easily without the Google technician's labour - in fact, without Google, I might not have got around to reading it at all - but her fingers were nonetheless in the way. The internet's attitude toward Kant's words is ambiguous, combining respect, appropriation, liberation and accidental vandalism.
hand spotted by Caleb Crain

This scan is particularly ghostly, the hand covered over with a second hand reasserting the text of the Kant translation.

The hand--always the synecdoche for the worker (the mediator between the head and the hand, we learn in Metropolis, must be the heart)--is inserted literally into our view of the text, disrupting for a moment our sense that Google Books are, quite simply, books that have been "put online," as if books themselves could simply leap media and enter a disembodied realm. The intrusion of the hand shows us that these are photographs (of a sort) and that someone must have made them.

In an inversion of our usual intuition that images are less mediated than text, these hands make us realize that Google Books made us feel as though digital texts were unmediated--were the books themselves. In contrast, the awareness that the digital object is an OCRed image of text--a photograph of its own scene of production, complete with visual evidence of the hand that wrought it--forces us to acknowledge the strange backwards ekphrasis (text to image to fallen, "corrupted" text--OCR is a silent diplomatic edition) in a Google Book, the labor by which it was created and uploaded, and the person who labored, now knowable only through the operative, synecdochal appendages that both create and corrupt the digital object.

This is not to argue for some kind of metaphysics of book presence wherein only a paper book is a real book, not haunted by ghostly disembodied hands. Our tendency to efface the digital laborer, as well as the work of editors, designers, etc., is precisely what enables the widespread belief that e-books are necessarily cheaper to produce than paper books, as if the cost of the book lay in the printing. At least with the heft of paper one is reminded that there was, somewhere, a scene of labor. A Google Book effaces the medium of the medium, until a latex-draped finger appears before us, as if to reassert the tactile element always running beneath the digital.

Obviously, this is a Blogger blog, i.e. run on Google resources.
More on GB hand scans:

1 comment:

petelangman said...

Ah, yes indeed, top stuff ... the digital compositor, no less.

Does History of the Book cover this? I suspect so ... just wait until Randall McCloud gets his hands on this topic!