Vaidhyanathan: When Google announced in 2004 that it was scanning in books from university libraries and that it was going to try to perform the services of a library for the world, there was a lot of hyperbole coming out of all sorts of corners. These days you don’t hear so much hyperbole because people realized, down the line, that Google actually wanted to create a huge used-book store. That left us with this tantalizing possibility: We now have the technology to create a global, digital collection of knowledge, one that could be easily and cheaply accessed by people all over the world.
The Human Knowledge Project is a way of sparking a conversation: I want to get a whole bunch of smart people thinking about what it’s going to take to create this universal library of knowledge. We need to get a lot of smart people to consider the impediments—what are the legal, political, and technological obstacles—and then to try to figure out a way out of them. And we might decide the problems aren’t worth solving—the cost and effort of solving them could be too great. But either way, I’d rather have a rich political discussion than just throw up our hands and let Google do it.
Slate: Smart people together in a room. That’s a better alternative to algorithms?
Vaidhyanathan: Totally. Especially if there’s beer.