Sundance Review: 'Google and the World Brain'

Sundance Review: 'Google and the World Brain'
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By Lucas McNelly

There's a killer moment in Ben Lewis' fascinating documentary Google and the World Brain where the filmmakers, after traveling to the Monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia, ask the library's guardian Damià Roure what would happen if all this priceless information they've given away in the pursuit of knowledge were to be used for commercial gain. It's something he seemingly hasn't considered and at that moment, time stops. Or, perhaps more accurately, time races forward at break-neck speed, rendering everything this man knows and cherishes obsolete. He pauses, considering the ramifications of the question before mumbling something about not being able to speak about that. It only takes a few seconds, but it's a stunning moment, a collision of ideals that perfectly illustrates the tension at the heart of Lewis' exploration of Google's attempt to digitize all of the world knowledge through their Google Books project.

It's a complicated project, to be sure. Imagine your public library. Or your local bookstore. Imagine scanning and digitizing every page of every book in that building. Then realize your local library sucks compared to, say, the library at Harvard. The scope and ambition of something like that is stunning.

And pricey. Estimates in the film put the cost of the Google Books project in the nine figure range and even that seems conservative. This forces what is essentially the film's central question: why would a company with stockholders and investors spend that much money if they didn't have an expectation of a return? Regardless of what Google's mission statement may promise, they are a corporation, a point brought up rather ominously in the film's second act. Yeah, this realization of H.G. Wells' World Brain sounds fantastic, but at what cost?

It doesn't help that Google won't say. Nor will they show anyone their operations (seen here in what the film says is the only known footage that exists, all 6 seconds of it) or even talk about their agreements with the libraries supplying the books. If that sounds very ominous and Orwellian then that's the point.

Google's motto is "don't be evil". What starts off as something altruistic--a world brain project that'll put all human knowledge quite literally in your pocket at no cost--morphs into something much more sinister, shrouded in secrecy and rationalized into existence by a creative reading of Fair Use law. The film makes the case that Google isn't nearly as innocent and naive as they appear, that they are in fact a villain that may or may not be attempting a monopoly of information.

It sounds outlandish on the face, sure, but the film makes an argument, criss-crossing the globe to speak both to advocates and opponents of Google Books, from competitors in China to writers for Wired to librarians in France and Germany to understandably angry authors with a vested interest in copyright law.

The film is beautifully shot by Frank-Peter Lehmann, the reflected skylines alone are wonderful. The libraries are portrayed as hives of wisdom, architectural marvels full of books. And the score. I would buy the score right now if I could, a dystopian, ominous work that brings to mind the scoring of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It infuses the entire film with a sense of dread, putting you on edge and getting down into your bones.

Lately, Sundance has become the first date on the Oscar calendar and with Google and the World Brain we have our first entrant into the documentary derby. I'll be stunned if this doesn't end up on the Oscar doc short-list. The film is endlessly fascinating and engaging. It's probably the best documentary you'll see all year. It's the best one I've seen since a certain graffiti artist may or may not have made one.

Google and the World Brain, directed by Ben Lewis screens Jan 21, 23, 25 and 26 as part of the Sundance Film Festival.

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