The French disconnection

Old European holdings, New World prism. Mark Liberman of Language Log recently questioned the back story to Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s call to resist Google’s plan to digitize a number of (U.S.) library holdings. Jeanneney claimed that Google’s library capture would be partial and informed by an ‘American’ point of view. Liberman wondered about the clarity of EU/French commitment to sharing copyrighted content, possibly as a result of his involvement with the market for linguistic corpora.

Well, the French press (and the blogosphere in general) picked up on the buzz created by that original publication in Le Monde (or perhaps the Language Log posting itself), and Jeanneney (President of the French National Library (BNF)) was interviewed in the same newspaper about his views on February 4.


The journalist asked the right questions: why has the BNF digitized so few texts in the last ten years; what is so bad about the Google project; indeed, why not contribute to the project as Google has asked, etc? The answers seem to reflect standard French geopolitical think, with that whiff of paranoia about its revolutionary sibling.

What still gets Jeanneney’s goat about Google’s plan to digitize large numbers of library holdings is the “hiérarchisation dans les listes (of English-speaking works which) vont êtres définies forcément à partir d’un regard singulier : celui de l’Amérique.”. Decoded: Google’s ranking technology will prioritize ‘American’ works – or more subtly, an American agenda – over French texts.

This opinion may be due to a misunderstanding about ‘ranking’. Bias in the ‘rankings’ of Google’s searches is plausible, and paid advertising could obviously play a role in skewing the presentation of search results. But if your Google language settings are adjusted to French, and you are looking for, say, a digitized first edition fascicule of Larousse’s Grand dictionnaire universel from 1870, the chances are you will receive results on French texts, rather than ‘anglo-saxon’ (French code for “English speaking”) ones cunningly or brashly shoving their way in. If an ad for holidays in France supports that search result en français; would it be such a bad thing for the French economy?

I remember attending a demo in the early pre-web 1990s given by Cap Gemini (or whatever the IT services company was called at the time) which had been charged with designing a ‘scholar’s workstation’ for the brand new BNF, looming with its four monstrous bookend towers and damp wooden platform over the Seine opposite the old wine depot of Bercy. The idea was to offer serious readers digitized and bitmapped versions of books from every age, allowing both access to the text as a corpus, and as a set of specially designed original pages. All wonderful stuff, yet predicated on a massive digitization campaign. However, as Jeanneney admits today, the BNF has managed to digitize only 80 thousand works in a decade, compared with Google’s project of 15 million in about half that time. Why so few?

Jeanneney claims a lack of funds in France. But why didn’t someone persuade a company like Vivendi in its heyday to throw a few million euros at the project, instead of buying a New York hide-away apartment (or private jet or whatever) for its overweening boss? After all, the ultimate objective of Vivendi at the time was to become the premium electronic content publisher. Who knows what educational and other benefits might have come from having a digitized French library at the tips of every child’s fingers? Even in a country where private money is rarely channeled into public endowment, the government could have launched a “scan a thousand books” campaign for the likes of major industries, demonstrating the virtues of collective sponsoring for a noble project at reduced cost for the taxpayer. A massive failure of leadership, perhaps, in a library that failed to win the hearts and minds of the people right from the start.

But for Jeanneney, if digitization is indeed financed by the tax payer, it ensures that culture escapes the consumer-sensitive rankings of a search engine such as Google. His idea would be to federate Europeans in an act of resistance against the hyperpower of Google rankings, and maintain that famous “multipolar” world, wherein other options prevail beyond the profit motive. The irony here is that the French would probably seek to dominate a European ranking of digitized culture in just the same way the Americans are criticized for dominating the rankings at global cultural level.

Reducing the perceived hyperpower of Google is best achieved by people power working with Google – multilingualizing it, multiculturalizing it, forcing it to handle a greater diversity of needs. It is unlikely that resistance is best served by inventing yet another Euro search engine with, inevitably, government backing. 

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Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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