Sunday, July 08, 2007

The brightest searchlight

I met with Mr. Adam Smith, who is the product management director for the Book Search service at Google. Mr. Smith visited Japan on the occasion of the Tokyo International Book Fair, in which Google announced the launch of the book search service in Japan.

The informational qualities of books are in general superior to those of digital information on the internet. The reason being that people put much more energy when they write up a book. Living things tend to take seriously those information sent out with a lot of energy behind. Cost can be the effective measure of the importance of a biological signal. Digital information on the net are easy to publish. There is in principle no prima facie reason why information published on the internet should be inferior to those in the books. However in practice, the quality of information on the web is varied.

The serious defect of books, however, is inaccessibility. I remember the time I was browsing through the books in the Cambridge University library while I was doing postdoc there. For a special reason I was looking for some passages in C. D. Broad's writings. I do not think that many people were interested in those volumes at that time. I doubt any human fingers have touched the covers of some of the books I went through since I returned them to the shelves more than 10 years ago.
In this modern age of connectivity and accessibility, the intractability of gaining information from a forgotten book is something on the verge of an intellectual scandal. Legal issues notwithstanding (I am sure somebody can sort them out in due time), making the contents of books searchable is clearly the right way to proceed. Not only currently available copies but also "public domain" books now becoming obscure have a right to be known to the general public.

During the meeting, Mr. Smith mentioned that making all the books digitally available was the original dream of Larry Page and Servey Brin, before they founded Google.

Shedding light to the forgotten corners is a healthy exercise, in which we outgrow the limitations of the contemporary and gain deeper insight into the history of human thinking. The internet with its powerful search functionalities is the brightest searchlight that we possess, in many cases for free.