CIO Today has an interesting article that outlines a cultural "counter-offensive" planned by French President Jacques Chirac to rally against Anglo-Saxon Internet culture. When I first read the headline, I imagined Chirac dressed as a medievel crusader charging against hordes of Vikings and British toy soldiers, but in fact, his fight is with Google's library digitization project.
Google, as you may know, is working with libraries across the US to digitize more than 15 million books so they can be made available on the Internet. Some of us see this as important step to ensuring equitable access to intellectual and cultural resources over the Internet. But to the French government, apparently, this project is the beginning of the end of French culture.
The concern, according to France's chief librarian Jean-Noel Jeanneney, is that the creation of an immense database of content from the United States will taint future generation's interpretation of history and culture, as more people rely on the Internet to learn about the world. If online libraries are dominated by "Anglo-Saxon" cultural content, the French cultural perspective could become buried and lost.
Jean-Noel Jeanneney writes in Le Monde:
The real issue is elsewhere. And it is immense. It is confirmation of the risk of a crushing American domination in the definition of how future generations conceive the world.
The libraries that are taking part in this enterprise are of course themselves generously open to the civilizations and works of other countries ... but still, their criteria for selection will be profoundly marked by the Anglo-Saxon outlook.
...It would have meant The Scarlet Pimpernel triumphing over Ninety-three (Victor Hugo's eulogistic account of the revolution); valiant British aristocrats triumphant over bloody Jacobins; the guillotine concealing the rights of man and the shining ideas of the Convention...
I find it very, very sad that French government officials are viewing the Google library project as part of a cultural war that needs to be fought against America or the English language in general. While too much of the Internet is English-only and society needs to make much greater investments in ensuring other languages and other cultures can prosper online, this doesn't mean that you should go after libraries just because they want to put their collections online.
There is no such thing as scarcity when it comes to how much information you can put online. It's not like there are only 100 terabytes of available space on the Internet that will eventually run out, preventing others from publishing content. This isn't Deadwood, the Yukon or the Comstock, folks; the gold in them thair hills ain't runnin' out. As long as companies keep building bigger and cheaper hard drives, there will always be more room for more content to be posted online.
So President Chirac, please go ahead and encourage Francophone libraries to put their collections online. But don't stop there. Encourage individuals and their communities to become content creators and citizen journalists as well. Encourage French universities to adopt open courseware initiatives, and fund French nonprofits to create community media portals like the new Ourmedia project. Bankroll Francophone nations in Africa to make sure their enormous wealth of cultural content can go online, as can their people, with the skills to become content creators in their own right. Please, go ahead and do all of those things. But don't frame this as a cultural war or counter-offensive against "Anglo-Saxon" Internet culture; giving all cultures the opportunity to share their knowledge, wisdom, literature and history via the Internet will benefit everyone, whether they speak English, French, Arabic, Vietnamese or Wolof.
The war shouldn't be against English-language domination. It should be against ignorance, illiteracy and attempts to control who has access to knowledge. By that standard, the Google library project is hardly an enemy; rather, it's one of the best allies we have. Bon chance, Monsieur PrÃ©sident. -andy