I am teaching a survey course on Science and Technology in World History, sort of a 30,000 foot view of world history with an eye on “science” and “technology” as unifying themes. Today we watched a video on Isaac Newton, Alchemist and Theologian. Tomorrow we talk about Baconian science and the Royal Society. Thomas Sprat wrote a history of the Royal Society in 1667, a mere 7 years after it came into existence (and my colleagues make fun of people who do recent history….); one of the reasons it is valuable is because it contains accounts of experiments. These accounts tell us many things, including (a) what questions they were asking, (b) how they recorded their forays into experimentation, and (c) that experimental natural philosophy was a collaborative effort. I thought it would be nice to talk about a couple of the zanier examples in class, and I recalled seeing a full text copy of Sprat’s history online, so I asked my new friend hakia to find it for me. Several minutes later, no dice.
I thought to myself, I KNOW I’ve seen it recently, probably last semester, when I was doing the same exact thing. So I cracked and went to google books. Sure enough, boom – full text of the 1722 3rd edition.
Is this a story searching for a moral? The book is in the public domain; hence it was a target of Google’s scanning project. And for that I am grateful (although I need to come up with a better in-class example than the history of salt-peter). But I also feel weird that I can’t get to it unless I go through Google.
And that is part of the big underlying concern that I have. For now, for things like this, Google is a virtue. They have brought this valuable text into the digital age, hence allowing me to bring it into the classroom–because I am guessing that the Stevens library doesn’t have a copy. But in bypassing the older generations of gatekeepers, hasn’t Google simply become the new gatekeeper? Sure, it’s fine for now – but what happens when a virtue becomes a vice?
If the organizational ethos of our age is decentralization and modularity, and we all (at least the older ones) understand we got to this point because of our overwhelming suspicion of the big bad old monopolies… not for the first time in American history, mind you…. then why are we worshipping at the feet of the new big centralized information broker?
My answer, for tonight, is because it gives us what we want, and I WANT IT NOW.
In the end I downloaded the pdf from Google and, after looking at some of the (interesting) “related links” down the page, once again closed my tab on google. Something tells me I’ll be opening another tab quite soon.