Torching the modern-day Library of Alexandria

It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages – to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time – and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.

I asked someone who used to have that job, what would it take to make the books viewable in full to everybody? I wanted to know how hard it would have been to unlock them. What’s standing between us and a digital public library of 25 million volumes?

You’d get in a lot of trouble, they said, but all you’d have to do, more or less, is write a single database query. You’d flip some access control bits from off to on. It might take a few minutes for the command to propagate.

You know those moments, when reading about history, where you think “how could these people have been so stupid? Why didn’t drinking from, defecating in and washing in the same body of water raise a red flag? Why did people think slavery was an a-ok thing to do? Why did they sacrifice children to make sure the sun would rise in the morning? Were these people really that stupid?”

A hundred years from now, people are going to look back upon the greatest library of mankind, filled with countless priceless works that nobody has access to, fully indexed, ready to go at a push of a button – this invaluable, irreplaceable treasure trove of human culture, and think, “how could these people have been so stupid?”

34 Comments

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