Is Google good for Writers?

This issue of whether Google helps the writer and the researcher seems to me a more important question, with a more clearly positive response, than the bugbear which is apparently agitating Nicholas Carr “Is Google Making us Stupid?”. Nicholas Carr quotes various pessimists. For example, Maryanne Wolf who, perhaps worried that the web is encouraging intermittent and chunky reading, posits that “Deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking”, or Richard Foreman who suggests that under the pressure of information overload we are losing our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance”. Foreman suggests we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

These worries are fashionable, but they are border-line silly. This suspicion that we may be losing the ability to engage in “deep reading” or “dense inner repertories” really needs to be set against the question: How does the web (for which “How does Google?” is a surrogate) help us to engage in better writing, and deeper intellectual inquiries? If it does that, it is arguable that our dense inner repertories can look after themselves.

Does Google help the researcher and the serious writer? It seems blatantly obvious that it must. If so, the readers will benefit and some of them will read deeply of the results. But it is still rather early to tell how, and in what ways, a program such as Google Book Search may help the researcher, the serious reader and the serious writer, to write. Peter Brantley, in a discursive, inconclusive and even rambling, blog, raises many interesting questions about GBS as a reading system.

What is difficult here is intentionality. It is extraordinarily difficult to determine what a user’s intentions are as they navigate and browse through a sea of text. It is relatively easy to give them intellectual “snack food” – places cited in this book; a timeline; historical figures. Those might drive clicks, and ultimately ad sales, but they might not actually help the user in their quest.

We are dumb animals after all, most of the time. We click on bright shiny objects, and are easily distracted. Designing a product to best meet the diversity of a user’s intentions is very different than designing a product to maximize revenue. (Brantley: Book Search as a Product)

I have the impression that Peter may be expecting too much of GBS, and too much of Google. Google Book Search may well turn out to be a less than ideal platform for reading (which may happen if we are distracted magpie fashion by too many shiny objects), but it is surely shaping up to be a wonderful platform for research? Some of Google’s critics suppose that the aim of the GBS project is to capture, corale and deliver to readers the whole of the world’s literature in a readable format. But perhaps the business goal has all along been to produce a complete searchable index of literature, not the monopolistic reading medium. I am sure that GBS, as currently conceived, will never be a satisfactory platform in which to present and therefore publish all that can be published. Writers, designers and (even) publishers are too creative for all literary products to fit ideally in one representational and ideal reading platform, with a common architecture and apparatus.

In the end Google Book Search may work best as index and as a search tool because it enables us to obtain access to many different reading and writing styles, and to search books in a variety of digital manifestations. That Google should confine itself to this important but rather limited goal may be one outcome from any negotiated solution to its legal battles with copyright holders. But it would be good to have more evidence that Google Book Search is already helping scholars to write wonderful PhD’s. It is a mild worry that the most credible example that I have seen of how GBS is helping scholarship is highly anecdotal and more than a year old (cited by Vielmetti in a comment on Brantleys’ piece). It would be pleasing to have some richer, more recent and more substantial examples. Or is Google Book Search still too unrepresentative to be completely useful as an index to 19th century literature? Perhaps it really is too early to tell.

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