The social implications of recombinant documents
In a recent post I spoke – perhaps too flippantly – of books talking amongst themselves. Crane – whom I cited – goes on in his article to speak of “recombinant documents” and “intelligent digital libraries”; indeed, of “Digital libraries, where books read one another in however a rudimentary fashion, [and which therefore] have already begun to separate intelligence and action from the human brain.” Elsewhere, it has been suggested that e-books could report to the site from which they were downloaded on the use being made of them, or on other texts in the library, in order to facilitate automatic delivery of relevant and appropriate new books.
The big digitization projects – Crane cites six, of which Google is probably the most written about – will digitize millions of books between them. It is not – apparently – a giant step to imagine these millions of texts activated within an infrastructure that allows textual enrichment, contextual migration, and concept fertilization. I first imagined this ‘books reading each other’ as enabling automated intelligent linking: some links might be ‘translation links’ and include a couple of arguments to specify source and target languages; other links might be ‘note links’, ‘similar topic links’, ‘refuting links’ and so on.
A stage beyond this – the stage, as it were, where we discover that bees can actually fly a little further than we thought and that the genetically-modified crop has started modifying neighboring crops – and one text might modify another. Actually, the adding of links is already modifying the document – but we might think of the next stage as modifying the content itself – perhaps first correcting spelling, much as word processors so annoyingly do (hence, neighboring above rather than neighbouring) so that we wake up one morning and discover that, worldwide, every Shakespeare, Blake or Hopkins had lost its essential English heritage (glister to glitter, tyger to tiger; windhover to – I don’t even want to hazard a guess, but vacuum cleaner seems likely!).
And so we arrive at ethics. It seems to me that there are three likely and possible levels in the modification of the DNA of e-libraries:
- indexing becomes ultra-granular, enabling rich retrieval of related documents (‘mapping the genome’);
- inter-document links are added automatically and semi-intelligently (‘plasmids’);
- notes or other insertions or corrections are added to texts, or texts are seamlessly joined (‘recombinant technologies’).
And it seems to me that each is a further step along a dangerous path. Ironically, ‘cloning’ – the non-invasive copying of documents – came first, and passed by without comment (although I have often written on the issue of version control). Even the lowest of my three levels, the most innocuous, removes much of the need for intelligent human analysis: in that dreadful phrase, “to separate intelligence and action from the human brain”.
Before mankind goes too far along the road to some Cultural Genome Project, creating an Internet with inherent intelligence and Web 2.0 or 3.0 capabilities, I think we have to ask ourselves whether society needs or wants this apparent adding of value to wealth. It is all too easy to add functionality simply because technology makes it possible. Even e-books – and I would be the first to put up my hand in their support of their value – arrived on the scene pretty much because computing advances made it possible and viable to publish books electronically. Without demonstrable user need.
Is instant access to a pre-digested, proto-analysed and ever-mutating version of the world’s literary culture beneficial? I doubt it. Search engines have done no more that teach a generation to accept unquestioningly the first answer supplied. Intelligent digital libraries will, in the same way, make for unintelligent users. Without arguing for plain-vanilla text, perhaps what we really need is just digital libraries with sophisticated yet straightforward access and manually added augmentation. Perhaps we should not move beyond human intermediation.
Biotechnology is governed by ethics committees, and rightly so. If some ultimate, sci-fi horror in which the books re-write themselves at will, destroying thousands of years of culture in a mad iterative process, is to be guarded against, perhaps – it may sound Orwellian – but perhaps an ethics committee to look after our cultural electronic heritage is needed.