The Darker Side of Digitization

As I was perusing the Google Book scans available at the HathiTrust Digital Library, I came across a couple of hands, inconveniently blocking the pages I wanted to read.

Google Books Fail

It turns out that other people have also run into these Google hands. In December, Kenneth Goldsmith of The New Yorker wrote an article called “The Artful Accidents of Google Books,” in which he notes a couple of people (Benjamin ShaykinPaul Soulellis, and Andrew Norman Wilson, to name some) who have studied Google’s “artful accidents,” or have even made art exhibits out of them. There’s also a Tumblr called “The Art of Google Books” that shares Google book-scanners’ mistakes. (A great interview with Krissy Wilson, who manages the Tumblr, is available at PBS NewsHour.) Oh yeah, and BuzzFeed recently featured a post called “21 Google Book Scans That Bring Surprising Intimacy to the Digital Book World.” Because, you know, nothing is truly legitimate until there’s a BuzzFeed post about it.

As cool as art exhibits and BuzzFeed posts are, though, I’d like to talk about something a little more serious. That is, I’d like to talk about whom these hands belong to.

Once you start looking at pictures of Google book-scanners’ hands, you’re bound to (pretty quickly) recognize a trend: most of these book-scanners seem to be people of colour. Women of colour, in particular. Just take a look at the picture above for two prime examples.

Andrew Norman Wilson (one of the dudes Goldsmith mentions) spent six months at Google observing the way the company treats its employees. I could paraphrase what he found, but I think his words speak for themselves. I stole the Wilson quotation below from an article entitled “Is the Tech Industry Racist?” from Clutch Magazine. I’ve bolded the most important parts:

“Thousands of people with red badges (such as me, my team, and most other contractors) worked amongst thousands of people with white badges (as Full-time Googlers). Interns are given green badges. However, a fourth class exists at Google that involves strictly data-entry labor, or more appropriately, the labor of digitizing. These workers are identifiable by their yellow badges, and they go by the team name ScanOps. They scan books, page by page, for Google Book Search. The workers wearing yellow badges are not allowed any of the privileges that I was allowed – ride the Google bikes, take the Google luxury limo shuttles home, eat free gourmet Google meals, attend Authors@Google talks, and receive free, signed copies of the author’s books, or set foot anywhere else on campus except for the building they work in. They also are not given backpacks, mobile devices, thumb drives, or any chance for social interaction with any other Google employees. Most Google employees don’t know about the yellow badge class.” 

(As a quick aside, Staffing Talk goes so far as to compare Google’s practice of badge-labelling to that of Nazi Germany, which is, you know, completely inappropriate. Three cheers for Godwin’s Law!)

After describing the yellow badge workers, Wilson mentions that most of them are people of colour. However, shortly after he started interviewing and filming the yellow badge workers (particularly the book-scanners) to learn their stories, Google fired him. Huh.

The situation gets even more disturbing. According to CareerBliss (warning: I’m not sure how reliable this source is), the average Google book-scanner earned $24,000 USD in 2008, despite the average Google employee salary being $71,000 USD that year. Interestingly (and unfortunately), if a Google book-scanner was the sole breadwinner for a household of five or more in 2008, this would mean that he/she was below that year’s poverty guideline. So not only do these yellow badge workers not get privileges, they also don’t get much money.

Even though Google has so much money that they don’t know what to do with it all.

Maybe book-scanners aren’t paid a lot because it doesn’t take much education or skill to scan things. I’ve been scanning things since I was 10. I scan things all the time at work.

And if I have to scan things for long enough, I end up temporarily hating life.

In short, I’m pretty sure that being a book-scanner must be the most unenjoyable job at Google. Book-scanning also probably requires the least amount of previous experience of any Google position (even if some of the books being scanned are extremely valuable and really should be handled by those who have been formally taught how to handle them). With that in mind, it makes sense that book-scanning positions would be saved for those who are uneducated and/or underprivileged. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, maybe Google Books’ coloured hands actually illustrate the racial achievement gap in the United States.  I mean, the official Google Books History page notes that “one can certainly argue that the [Google Books] project is as old as Google itself. In 1996, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were graduate computer science students working on a research project supported by the Stanford Digital Library Technologies Project. Their goal was to make digital libraries work.” So Sergey Brin and Larry Page have spearheaded Google Books. Cool. Note how both of them are white. And male. And highly educated. And from pretty privileged families.

Google Books’ developers are privileged. Google Books’ scanners? It doesn’t seem likely.

It’s worth mentioning that Google seems to have been drastically slowing down its scanning efforts, probably because of the numerous copyright issues it’s faced (even if Google’s scanning was recently declared “fair use”). Thus, maybe the company’s book-scanners will soon no longer be needed. For now, though, there’s a problem. And if Google reflects the general book-scanning industry, there’s an even bigger problem.

I’m not sure how to solve it. I’m also not really sure how it relates to book history, although I know it relates somehow. What I am sure of is that there’s a darker (ha!) side to one of the world’s largest digitization projects that has largely gone unnoticed (or ignored?).

Because I don’t think I can end this post with anything insightful from my own brain, I’ll leave you with something insightful from Kenneth Goldsmith’s: “Amusing and titillating as these images are, it’s easy to forget that they’re the work of an army of invisible laborers—the Google hands.”

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