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.

One Response to “Cheating”

  1. Eric Nystrom Says:

    The Internet Archive has been pursuing digitization of out-of-copyright texts as well, though not with the gusto of Google. However, IA has a far greater commitment to Openness, and their digitization projects produce much higher quality output. I always check there first, and sure enough, they have Sprat. Lately some Google-digitized books have been showing up in their listings, but IA-generated content is available too where it overlaps, as does Sprat.

    An additional thought here — what Google giveth, Google can, and has, taketh. I’ve long been in the habit of grabbing every old digitized book I think might eventually be useful, and so have spent, at times, many hours downloading runs of old technical journals (for example) from IA and Google Books. I recently went back to GB to fill in some gaps in a series I’d downloaded a couple of years ago, and was a little surprised to find that some of them weren’t available any more in Full Text — they had been moved to Snippet View or even made unavailable.

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