Google and the World Brain: A Documentary Film Analysis

Published on May 3rd, 2019

A blog post by Graduate Research Assistant Iago Bojczuk.

Upon arriving in the Comparative Media Studies department at MIT, it did not take much time to realize how much students are encouraged to think about communication and media practices across historical periods, cultural settings, and methods in order to assess change, design new tools, and use media innovations to solve human problems. Although such engagement often assumes different forms––drawn from other disciplines such as computer science, history, anthropology, art, design, among others––graduate students in CMS are trained to analyze what we call “media texts” in relation to a variety of relevant issues of our world: from games to media infrastructures.

For this semester, I have been taking two courses on documentary filmmaking taught by Professor William Uricchio and by Professor Vivek Bald: the first in relation to technology tools and the latter in relation to social justice. As a matter of fact, I’ve always been interested in applying film and media production as a way to shed light on topics of personal and academic interests; thus, the combination of these classes has enabled me to think further about the work graduate students and faculty are doing in the GMTaC lab. But how can we think of non-fiction film––or, in other words, documentary––as a tool to think about the issues that our lab addresses? As an attempt to explore this question, I analyzed the documentary Google and the World Brain (Lewis, 2013), given the relevance of the topics it discusses, which partially overlaps with the ongoing Surveillance Pressure Points Research Project.

The Documentary’s Voice

Based on the premise that documentary films are a representation of reality embedded in a series of assumptions, biases, and histories––and not a mere nor an accurate reproduction of reality––film critic Bill Nichols argues that that a documentary’s voice (a voice of its own) is a question of how the film is conveyed to a given audience via the articulation of a set of logical storylines, arguments, and viewpoints. In this case, the documentary format is not rooted entirely in artistic expression, but also in biased framings of social realities. In this sense, when it comes to controversial topics, the documentary’s voice is a reflection of a filmmaker’s readings on the issue, accomplished through drastically different techniques or styles meant to emphasize unique angles that are relevant to the overall story communicated to the viewer.

According to Nichols, the interpretations of what constitutes ‘the voice’ in a documentary is closely related to what he defines as the ‘triangle of communication.’ That is, in every documentary, there are at least three stories that intertwine: the filmmaker’s, the film’s, and the audience’s. As the voice of documentary speaks with all the means available to its maker, each voice thus retains a uniqueness which “stems from the specific utilization of forms and modes of techniques and style in a given film and from the specific pattern of encounter that takes place between the filmmaker and the subject.”1

The Making of the ‘World Brain’

In a 1937 essay, the science-fiction writer H. G. Wells imagined a “World Brain” containing all of the world’s knowledge, accessible to all people, that would be “so compact in its material form and so gigantic in its scope and possible influence”2 that it could transcend even nation-states and governments. Through the lens of British art critic, author, documentary filmmaker, and television presenter Ben Lewis, Wells’s archival footage and audio at the very beginning of Google and the World Brain elucidates what slowly emerges as the filmmaker’s broader statement: the importance to be aware of the growing danger and controversies in monopolizing the world’s information. In an intuitive way, the filmmaker connects Wells’s materials to Google Book Search Project, which one could easily argue that is only one of many steps to accomplish the company’s broader mission in “make the world’s information available for all.”3

By juxtaposing interview materials with subjects from many countries and different languages, coupled with footages of libraries around the world, the filmmaker establishes a global discourse that directly speaks to the major topics the documentary address such as intellectual property, fair use, and surveillance. When analyzed chronologically and in terms of the narrative arc, the film reflects three recurring frames that exist in the news media coverage of policies debates about technology: morality/ethics, conflict/strategy, and an alternative path. It is through the combination of these frames with techniques of film that Lewis builds the tension that leads the viewer to the fierce legal battle against Google and the dramatic courtroom showdown in 2011, giving the audience the information to reflect on the future of world’s knowledge as our technologies and intricate relationship with corporations that claim such ambitious endeavors.

The 90-minute length documentary Google and the World Brain was first premiered during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. Due to the successful reception, the documentary received awards nominations for about sixty film festivals around the world.4 As a co-joint transnational production by BBC, Polar Start Films, ARTE, Televisió de Catalunya (TV3), among others, the documentary shares the voices of an array of scholars, lawyers, and personalities from various nationalities, including well-known figures such as the German chancellor Angela Merkel and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, to provocatively shed light on the implications of Google’s plans to digitize all the world’s books.

With a runaway production aspect attached to the value of the documentary, the filming locations spanned from traditional libraries at prestigious institutions such as Oxford and Harvard, but also libraries beyond the English-speaking world to places as far as France, China, Mexico, among others. Likely due to Ben Lewis’s academic training in history and art history from Cambridge University, it is clear that Google and the World Brain follows the tendency one finds when analyzing his filmography which, as Lewis discloses some of his feature documentaries to be “highly topical subjects that have provoked public debate and influenced political decision making.”5

From the very first beginning, Lewis’s engagement with the subject clearly appears as a fixed statement that slowly unfolds as the plot progresses through interviews. The opening of the film starts with ominous bass and a high-pitched drone that lead into historic footage of H.G. Wells describing the “World Brain” as a “complete planetary memory for all mankind.”6 In a creative way that pays tribute and enough attention to the science fiction of the pre-internet era, Lewis uses Wells’s original video and voice as a powerful entry point that enables the audience to immediately create a parallel between the so-called “World Brain” and its relationship to Google as a corporation that thrives in our contemporary neoliberal-driven society.

Whilst not clear at first to which extent Lewis’s views of a corporate “World Brain” would really mean for the ordinary citizen, this points the viewer to his main argument that Google Book Search operates as part of a data-driven endeavor that is powerful enough to improve the company’s services and, potentially, its AI-related projects. It is clear that the Lewis is careful enough not to share his viewpoint all at once, which could potentially compromise the viewers’ interests in finishing the film or come off in a fairly pessimistic or technophobe tone. On the other hand, Lewis creatively relies on Wells’s arguments as a way to create paratext for meaning-making, for it removes the voice of the filmmaker from the scene as substitutes Wells’s sayings and beliefs rather than his own. After all, it is, in fact, Wells’s views of the pre-internet world that informed us on the warms of what a “World Brain” could accomplish should it become powerful enough to displace governments and monitor all citizens.

Such panoptic and dystopian view of a potential Google-controlled world becomes the main argument that sustains the narrative throughout the duration film, often relying on additional footage and audio featuring Wells’s ideas. To accomplish that, the filmmaker weaves together the emerging tensions involving the emergent technologies and interviewees’ diverse points of views, ultimately portraying the growing implications in policies, law, regulations, and so forth.

Tools and Techniques of Film

In order to convey his major argument, Lewis’ tools and techniques of film play with interviews, speeches, archival material as well as footages of libraries, cities, and data centers around the world. By assembling a group of diverse subjects––from librarians to authors and form Google representatives to professors and others––the director connects the rich, nuanced, and biased interview content with three linear goals that the film advances in the following sequence.

First, the interviews coupled with historical images of books, footage of libraries, scanners, and what arguably conveys the Google-way-of-being lay out the foundation in which the audience needs to stand in order to grasp the global scale of the Google Book Search; that is, an ambitious profit-oriented project to acquire data in a refined form to not only advance Google’s mission but also to train its algorithms for future services and products.

Second, the cuts, CGI and cartoon-like remakes of news media coverage, as well as a speech by a university president focus mostly on the controversial nature of the project on a legal scale; on the one hand, the authors whose books have been digitized emerge in the film to claim their intellectual property and share their sense of dissatisfaction with “Googlization” that intrinsically appears as the dark side of our Google fantasies, while on the other hand a few interviewees believe that the project holds the potential to make knowledge available across institutions of knowledge around the world.

Third, the combination of these two aforementioned techniques of storytelling organization plays out toward the final part of the documentary when the film reaches its a climax with the Google Book Search Settlement Agreement, which emerges as a response to a lawsuit by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. By structuring the narrative in this rough three-part sequence, Lewis creates enough tension to position the final part of the documentary as a highly relevant and exciting move, as the copyright case litigated against Google poses fundamental changes to the fate of all knowledge or, in what is repeatedly said in the film, the “World’s Brain.”

Scene Analysis

After two Google employees discuss their positive outlooks on the project, a scene taking place in the 11th-century library of the Monastery of Montserrat in Barcelona, Spain, particularly reveals the director’s engagement with the issue, followed by an intriguing cinematographic intervention. In this scene, Father Damià Roure, a library director of the Monastery of Montserrat, wanders along the library’s hallways surrounded by wooden bookshelves while the camera follows him.

Once a sense of place is conceived to the viewer, he explains that when monks first arrived in the library, they needed books for prayers and spiritual readings. From establishing to medium, and then a close-up shot, the priest goes on to show the camera the “Spiritual Exercises of Father Garcia de Cisneros,” one of the first books digitized by Google at that library. With images of statues and Christian saints in the background, the priest explains that “on the Internet, you can surf from one web page to another without deepening your knowledge.”7

While he holds that book in his hands and shows the old and yellowish pages, he says, “this book could be interpreted as a call not to flit from one page to another without your spiritual understanding.”8 Accordingly, Roure seems positive and expresses his gratitude, saying that after scanning nearly twenty-four thousand books from his library, he sees the Google Book Search as a way of spreading his culture to others. As the camera captures detailed shots of books on a particular shelf, Roure goes on to say that the project gives them great satisfaction, as the books are becoming available to everybody. Largely speaking, the voice and argument of the director were not quite evident until that scene.

As this particular scene comes to an end, however, the documentary hints the audience about the film’s keen intervention, preparing the viewer for clearer communication of the director’s persuasive voice and, consequently, a call to action for the importance of ordinary citizens to become aware of the often-invisible circumstances dictating global capitalism. Upon sharing his great satisfaction about the project and the hopes that digitization can be a powerful tool to help people achieve a spiritual understanding of the Christian faith, the scene then captures the interviewer’s audio confronting Roure’s previously stated answers. Without any cuts and while the camera still has Roure and his facial expressions on focus, the interviewer immediately replies, “Google didn’t pay you to scan your books – was that fair? What happens if someone turns all this into a business and makes a profit from it?”9 The camera kept on recording Roure’s inability to answer or rebuke the interviewer’s question, despite a few seconds of silence. This scene ends with Roure replying the question in a bewildered tone, “I am not in position to comment on anything other than the digitization and the access to these books from wherever that might be.”10

It is in that particular scene that the director gives the audience a feeling that while Roure’s may think of Google as an organization with good intentions in the world, he may not understand the enormous dimensions and consequences of having Google as the only digitizer of the world’s books; therefore signaling the director’s position as a critic of that practice but also empathetic enough to include voices of others who may think like Roure.

Scene frames analyzed from Google and the World Brain (from 0:22:00 to 0:25:00) Monastery of Montserrat in Barcelona, Spain

In addition to the dominating filmmaker’s use of techniques to convey his message about the much-touted Google Book Search, it is also crucial to address how the usage of music functions in relation to three specific aspects related to the mise-en-scène support the author’s voice: the color palette, L and J cuts, and the powerful use of still images as cutaways between locations and subjects around the world.

Throughout the film, it is obvious that the music adds dramatic tension to the interviews as well as establishing, medium, and detailed shots. Although in most interviews the subjects’ voices are communicated in isolation, the usage of sounds frequently come in conjunction with CGI, on-screen texts, and establishing shots of data centers or rooms with computers, or even in the transition from one interviewee to the next. The song enhances the filmmaker’s sensationalist view of the issue of emergent technologies and the role of Google as a growing monopoly in assembling, organizing and distributing the world’s information. Given the transnational nature of the film, the color pallet in indoor locations provides the audience with a sense of something that is secretive, hidden, and obscure, regardless of the interviewees’ language, place of origin, or object in the mise-en-scène.

For instance, the high contrast of the still and moving images present in many of the indoor scenes coupled with the intense light from the scanning machines illustrates the filmmaker’s goal in speculating Google’s hidden secrets and opportunistic goals with data mining and global surveillance. Furthermore, the combination of the color palette adds an important layer of meaning-making, as it leads the audience to experience the secrets that happen to be underlying and often invisible forces in the tech industry.

In terms of style, Lewis also uses a similar approach when using nearly-still images portraying the view of different cities as cutaways shots to avoid jump cuts between locations around the world. From Barcelona to Tokyo, the view of the cities used to transition between interviewees, issues, and far-flung locations reveal the filmmaker’s attempt to create a unifying sense of global community supporting the voice that communicates in the documentary.

Moreover, these 3-second shots of the city’s view appear in conjunction with its own reflection on the surface of the water, which creates a mirror-like effect framed on the lower part of the screen, turning the picture upside down while connected to its original, physical, and real counterpart. Speculatively speaking, one could read these city views as the director’s goal to show elements mirroring what we perceive a ‘rea/physical’––e.g. reflection on the water, for example, reflecting skyscrapers. Therefore, this can be read as a stylistic choice to contrast with Google’s ultimate goal of not only photographing, assembling, and distributing knowledge, but also creating (and even distorting) reality or bits of knowledge in a digitized and data-driven world.

Framing Science and Technology in Media

In order to convey his powerful critique to viewers, Lewis heavily relies on a combination of three particular frames that communications scholar Matthew C. Nisbet described in Framing Science: A New Paradigm in Public Engagement: i) morality/ethics; ii) conflict/strategy; iii) alternative path.11

Source: Framing Science: A New Paradigm in Public Engagement (Nisbet, 2008)

Nisbet argues that there are particular frames that consistently appear across policy debates. Having said that, it is through the morality/ethics frame the director exposes the tech-related issues of digitizing all the world’s books in terms of right or wrong as well as in terms of respecting or crossing limits, thresholds and boundaries.

In the conflict/strategy frame, Lewis also makes it clear that although it is Google the leading figure in such digitizing endeavor, there are indeed companies such as the Chinese Baidu interested in executing the same practice, placing more extra importance on the relevance of the documentary’s topic across national and cultural borders. Finally, the alternative path frame makes sense in relation to the documentary’s climax when the New York District Court Judge Denny Chin’s choice of whether to approve the settlement to allow Google to continue scanning copyrighted books or not.

In fact, these three dominating frames oppose Google’s framing in the news media that communicates its operation as exclusively for social progress. Although Lewis uses the Google interviewees to showcase the company’s overall position that it is improving the quality of life by assembling the world’s information and making it accessible to anyone, his goal is also to demonstrate that such argument is incomplete in the midst of the ongoing debates of surveillance and, consequently, laws and sociocultural protocols to address them.

Final Thoughts

Through a documentary film analysis, I showed how Lewis uses a series of techniques of film to tell the story involving the Google Book Search Project and the various concerns it generated for authors and critics of the company’s model of data acquisition for profit making. From editing to mise-en-scène choices, the director weaves the scenes and interviews content intertwined with H.G. Wells’s historic footage and audio which not only creatively connects the circumstances of the present with a science-fiction story of a pre-Internet era, but also deviates the documentary’s voice from the director’s engagement with the issue, positioning himself as one of the many critics of global capitalism and “Googlization.”

Despite the sensationalist tone enhanced by the soundtrack, high contrast of cutaway shots with mirror-like effect of global cities’ skyscraper as a metaphor for the film’s thesis (copying the real/copying the books), and a few opposing opinions of interviewees reacting to Google’s project, Google and the Human Brain successfully offers insights into broader debates surrounding data-mining and privacy, copyright, morality of fair use, as well as topics of surveillance and intellectual property.

Nichols, Bill. “What Gives Documentary Films a Voice of Their Own.” Introduction to Documentary (2001): 46.

Wells, Herbert George. “World brain: The idea of a permanent world encyclopaedia.” Encyclopédie Française 18 (1937): 24-11.

Google Mission Statement. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.google.com/search/howsearchworks/mission/

“Google and the World Brain.” IMDb. January 18, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2551516/.

5 “Profile – Ben Lewis.” March 13, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.benlewis.tv/wp/profilenew/.

Media Education Foundation, & Kanopy. (2016). Google and the World Brain. San Francisco, California, USA]: Media Education Foundation (MEF).

7 Ibid., passim.

8 Ibid., passim.

9 Ibid., passim.

10 Ibid., passim.

11 Nisbet, Matthew C. “Framing science: A new paradigm in public engagement.” In Communicating science, pp. 54-81. Routledge, 2009.