mon 23/09/2019

Storyville: Google and the World Brain/How Hackers Changed the World, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Storyville: Google and the World Brain/How Hackers Changed the World, BBC Four

Storyville: Google and the World Brain/How Hackers Changed the World, BBC Four

Two very different perspectives on internet culture and trends

We are legion: the masked 'hacktivists' of Anonymous

At what stage will the trend among journalists and documentarians to regard anything relating to the internet with suspicion or, worse, ignorance come to an end? Although I recognise that my relationship with information technology has never been exactly typical, this stuff has been easy enough to access for more than half of my life now. And I’m not exactly young.

Google and the World Brain, the first of this week’s two technology-themed instalments of BBC Four’s usually excellent Storyville international documentary strand, argued that attempts to preserve the entirety of human knowledge and experience in one place have been ongoing since ancient times. The global search giant’s troubled Google Books project, which began as an attempt to digitise as much of the written word as it could but - several legal battles later - now resembles something more akin to yet another digital storefront, is frequently likened to the famous Ancient Library of Alexandria. There’s a crass joke in there about them both now being in ruins, although documentary maker Ben Lewis is in no doubt which one remains a seat of considerable power.

Much of the original project still shrouded in secrecy. Indeed, only six seconds of video footage from Google’s own scanning facilities has ever been made public, obliging the film to use much stock footage of giant Chinese processing plants. So there should be plenty in the story of Google Books to hold the attention for an hour and a half. The project has been subject to copyright claims in the US, Europe and China from authors who claim their books were indexed without their knowledge; and a controversial settlement agreement between Google, the Authors Guild and the publishing industry in the US was overturned by Circuit Judge Denny Chin in 2011.

Google and the World BrainRather than present a coherent narrative, however, Lewis instead played with heavy-handed imagery to present a distinction between the old and the new world order. Authors, librarians and even monks (pictured right) waxed lyrical about this strange company where grown adults maintain a childlike state by sitting around on brightly-coloured plastic balls, and court rulings and articles for which there is no audio were rendered via dubious cartoons of Larry Page and Denny Chin with the automated voices of those Xtranormal bears that were a YouTube sensation a couple of years back.

As a meme - a cultural idea which quickly replicates across the internet - those cartoons probably began on 4Chan, the infamous message board where the even more infamous “hacktivist” collective Anonymous started out. How Hackers Changed the World - We Are Legion was easily the more informative of the two documentaries, not least because the majority of its contributions came from since-unmasked members of the group itself and not ponderous attempts to be clever. The documentary was fairly even-handed in its treatment of the group’s hits and misses, from an early campaign against a neo-Nazi shock jock and the campaign against Scientology that crossed over into the real world and landed some of its members in jail to the role of online activists during the Arab Spring. A bit of warning before flashing some of 4Chan’s more horrific contributions to internet culture onto the screen would have been nice, but that would probably have gone against the point.

Attempts to preserve the entirety of human knowledge and experience in one place have been ongoing since ancient times

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