No one will ever accuse Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the former Stanford students who founded the Internet search company Google, of a lack of ambition. Brin once said that he hoped Google could be "like the mind of God, everywhere and knowing everything." When the company went public earlier this year, the pair promised to organize all information.
At the time, most observers just assumed the boys were puffing up their product to encourage the best possible public offering for their company. It now turns out that they weren't just bragging. They meant exactly what they said. They really do want to organize all human knowledge.
Google recently announced a new project to digitize library books so that they can be searchable from the Web. The company is initially partnering with Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the New York Public Library. Paul LeClerc, the head of the New York Public Library, calls the project "one of the most transformative events in the history of information distribution since Gutenberg." And it seems his gushing praise is justified.
Google is forking out tens of millions of dollars to have employees on site at the libraries, scanning collections into Google computers page by page, then processing those scans so that they're fully searchable. From a financial perspective, the company believes that if it offers a better search engine with broader and deeper access to information, it will attract more users and therefore more advertisers. From a cultural perspective, it's hard not to think that the impact of this project, if successful, will extend far beyond a mere boost in the price of Google stock.
If the collective knowledge of the human race eventually becomes available to everyone online in the highly organized, efficient manner envisioned by Google's founders, the societal impact could be astonishing. Of course, God, as they say, is always in the details. We don't yet have any idea how Google's ambitious project will be executed, but we can be fairly certain that intellectual property laws will still prevent online information seekers from having full access to copyrighted materials. In other words, if you want to read a whole book, you're still going to have to either pay for it or find a hard copy at a library.
Yet the project should lead info hunters to the books they want—especially highly obscure or out-of-print books—that they never would've found otherwise. It should also allow them to judge the relevance of these books to their own individual research projects, narrowing down their reading to the precise passages they need. This alone is well worth getting excited about. The downside, of course, is that we'll be spending even more time frying our eyeballs in front of our computer screens.