Google and the World Brain: Sundance Review

"Google and the World Brain"
Doc offers convincing reasons to pay more attention to Google's utopian schemes.

Ben Lewis' documentary shows how Google's enormous book-scanning scheme isn't a purely altruistic project.

PARK CITY -- Google might be intent on making all the information in the world freely available, but it's awfully hush-hush with Ben Lewis, whose Google and the World Brain revolves around the company's mammoth book-scanning project but is completely denied access to its workings. That plays along with the testimony of observers who see sinister implications in the project, resulting in a doc that, though it might not be quite what viewers are expecting, feels like a useful step forward in a conversation most of us don't realize we should be having.

Of course, you might be as skittish as Google if you'd spent untold millions on an effort to scan the holdings of the world's great libraries, only to have the world jump down your throat when you tried to make that knowledge available. What World Brain does well is explain how such a utopian-sounding enterprise might be problematic.

Beyond questions over how to deal with copyrighted work -- manageable, one imagines, however tricky the negotiations -- lie bigger worries. There's privacy, obviously (a universal online library will always know what you're reading) and unintended consequences, like the reshaping of global culture: If searches for Proust and Goethe prioritize English translations, will the originals fade from view? Like anyone acquiring great power, Google trusts itself to handle these issues wisely. But observers note a tendency within Google (seen in the Wi-Fi-collecting scandal tied to Street View) of building tech first and worrying over consequences later.

Talking to the directors of world-class libraries -- some who worked with Google; some, like the very entertaining Jean-Noel Jeanneney of France's National Library, who've waged war on it -- the filmmakers dig into some of the implications of allowing any entity, public or private, to undertake something like this. Other interviewees speak more directly to Google's history and self-image: One suggests it "thinks it's an NGO that just happens to make a lot of money," others illustrate how having a monopoly on information might be useful to the search giant.

Most of this testimony comes via conventional talking heads. Lewis resorts to distractingly hokey animation when including opinions drawn from published op-eds or court records.

The biggest question raised here is that of artificial intelligence. We're told that the closer computers get to understanding natural language (as opposed to programming code), the more putting centuries' worth of books online becomes a project to create a near-omniscient artificial being.

If and when such a thing becomes possible, can a single company -- or government, for that matter -- ever be trusted to hold the reins?

Production company: Polar Star Films, BLTV
Director: Ben Lewis
Producers: Bettina Walker
Executive producers: Carles Brugueras
Director of photography: Frank-Peter Lehmann
Music: Lucas Ariel Vallejos
Editor: Simon Barker
No rating, 89 minutes