NYFF51 Spotlight: Doublethinking “Google and the World Brain”


Ben Lewis' Google and the World Brain

In the 54 years since George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” has ensconced itself in pop culture vernacular and, as we descend deeper and deeper into the digital revolution, it becomes even more prescient. Google is one of the reigning kings of this new landscape, but it is developing a startling hold over surprising aspects of our everyday life. Ben Lewis' documentary Google and The World Brain investigates how the search engine has earned comparisons to Big Brother through a peculiar case linked to the gigantic firm.

Focusing on the Google Books project, the film probes the questionable moves the company made as they sought to create a “universal library.” Fellow science fiction author H.G. Wells originally proposed this idea of scanning all books in the world to form a comprehensive source of human knowledge.

The project began in 2005 but received considerable scrutiny as time went on. The filmmaker paints a stark portrait of the company's tactics as they conducted several revealing interviews with dozens of libraries, authors, and other bastions of the written word who provided troubling responses to the partnership Google had established with them.

Code-named Project Ocean, the film paints a damning portrait of Google as it negotiates with libraries for their archives, manipulates copyrighted content, and goes to war with the publishing industry.

Combining techno-thriller intrigue with an informational tone, it's hard to look away as Lewis' doc brings to light how technology is invading our privacy. Google and The World Brain is a harrowing Orwellian portrait that should not be missed when it screens as part of the Applied Science section of the 51st New York Film Festival.

Google and the World Brain
Director: Ben Lewis

Section: Applied Science
Screens: Sunday, September 29 at 8:30pm + Wednesday, October 2 at 2:30pm

NYFF51 Official Description:

In 1930, H.G. Wells envisioned a "World Brain" that would store every word ever written and theoretically dwarf the power of any nation. Seventy-five years later, enter Google, with a project to digitize every book ever published and make them all available on…where else, but Google. Ten million books had already been scanned before authors, publishers, and the heads of some of the world’s great libraries screamed copyright and intellectual property infringement. Is Google’s project utopian or is it primarily for the benefit of its own algorithms and, maybe, the NSA? Superb editing plays the hubristic, naïve young Googleteers against the protectors of renowned university and national libraries, who are aghast and infuriated but who also wish they had Google’s deep pockets and technological expertise. Director Ben Lewis has assembled a marvelous cast of characters to tell a story that will make you laugh, maybe till you cry.

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