I don’t know enough to assert one way or another whether the Google Books ruling is ultimately a “good” or a “bad” decision. What I do know is that it is fascinating.
US District Judge Denny Chin’s decision is, to my mind, far more interesting than a legal ruling has any right to be. I say this because at the core of the legal decision is a mind-twisting idea:
The display of snippets of text for search is similar to the display of thumbnail images of photographs for search or small images of concert posters for reference to past events, as the snippets help users locate books and determine whether they may be of interest. Google Books thus uses words for a different purpose — it uses snippets of text to act as pointers directing users to a broad selection of books.…
Similarly, Google Books is also transformative in the sense that it has transformed book text into data for purposes of substantive research, including data mining and text mining in new areas, thereby opening up new fields of research. Words in books are being used in a way they have not been used before. Google Books has created something new in the use of book the frequency of words and trends in their usage provide substantive information.
Google Books does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read book. Instead, it “adds value to the original” and allows for “the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.” Hence, the use is transformative.
Think about that: turning text, already one form of “data”, into another form of data is “highly transformative”. It’s a translation of sorts, but if translation is a kind of chemical reaction, then the source material here is both reactant and catalyst, the thing being changed and the thing left untouched.
It’s as if on a printed page you have letters and words functioning one way, and then underneath it, as a kind of a trace, is an entirely separate code system that contains meaning temporarily invisible to the reader. It’s a palimpsest of code!
Now, here’s what I’m wondering: What are the narrative possibilities of a text that is always operating in two, mutually incompatible but still comprehensible languages — as if a printed page or a section of text always has hovering just above or below a holographic page of code? What might a book look like or do if it put itself forth in two distinct ways, as always both prose and programming language, narrative and the database?
In a sense, we have something like an analogous precedent. You could, if you wanted to, read Ulysses utterly unaware of the sprawling network of references, focusing on the ostensible narrative. “Underneath” — or perhaps more accurately, alongside — is another sign system of meaning, working its way “invisibly” through the text. Diving into that set of code opens and up and eluciates the text in no end of rich, meaningful ways, situating the novel in both its aesthetic and ideological context.
Can we do that with code? What I do not mean is an executable hidden in the margins, opening up a game or a movie about the book. Instead I’m talking about bits of meaning, marked out in inconspicuous ways that only reveal themselves if the interpreter approaches them in the right “language” — patterns, repetitions, cadences, or rhythms, only readable by the machine but full of human possibility.
Imagine a novel about a musician that reveals its off-kilter time signature through measured instances of the word “beat”, or a text about the immigrant experience that ran unseen contradictory interpretations of key moments backwards through a narrative.
Have we been going at the connections between literature and code all wrong? Should we instead be focusing on an interrelationship between the two that is as constitutive as it is invisible, unreadable?