2 Comments on Metadata: “Google Books is at Heart a Catalogue of Errors”

  1. The problem has two factors.

    One is that geeky culture and scholarly culture attach very different values to accuracy. Geeks are the guys who played video games in high school, blasting space aliens to bits. Scholars are the ones reading serious books even then. Detail matters to them. Blasting away matters to geeks.

    The second factor is money. Google wants its scanning process to be as cheap as possible. It hires people with no real interest in the work, pays them poorly, and doesn’t take the time to check the accuracy of their work. That’s why some pages show pictures of hands. Even the most casual of checks would prevent that.

    There’s nothing unique about Google’s failings. Amazon is also a ‘geeky’ company, and its information about contemporary books in often laughably inaccurate. Books with similar titles from different publishers are treated as if they are the same book. Comments by one publisher are included with similar sounding titles from other publishers.

    Like Google and scholarship, Amazon doesn’t really understand publishing. For Amazon books are no different from deodorant. They’re commodities to be processed and shoved out the door. That’s the great tragedy as Amazon crushes local bookstores whose owners really do care about books.

    The two, Google and Amazon, also tilt very heavily toward quantity over quality. They even share the similar attitude that the quality of their work doesn’t matter, that users/customers are the ones responsible for checking and letting them know about inaccuracies that never should have existed in the first place. That’s a bit like your doctor assuming his patients will tell him when the medications he prescribes are poison.

    I recently had clash with Amazon’s quarrelsome reader review bureaucracy over this sort of thing. Their petty foggers had complained that, when I reviewed a book, I posted the same review with both the hardback and paperback postings, an apparent no-no., although one they’ve only recently begun to enforce.

    I pointed out to them that their software does exactly the same thing. Reviewing a hardback will normally cause that review to be posted to the paperback edition. My multiple postings merely corrected the fact that their clueless database staff often didn’t take the time or effort to link the two. I was fixing what was, in effect, their problem.

    Amazon responded that I should report the error and wait for them to fix it. I replied that I wasn’t paid by them and wasn’t going to deal with their dreadful error reporting system to fix problems that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

    There’s a marvelous scene in the great 1983 flick, WarGames, where one computer expert, chubby but with a normal personality, has to tell his more geeky companion that he’s making his usual mistake of being clueless about what motivates people.

    Google and Amazon are like that. Google scans millions of scholarly books from university libraries without even being aware that those books are part of a culture that must be respected.

    In much the same way, Amazon sells books but uses a search algorithm that is so dishonest, it’s deliberately designed, Amazon’s lawyers have admitted to me, to conceal less expensive editions when a more expensive edition is available. That’s displaying a similar geek-in WarGames clueless about why people shop online.

    I worked for a time as a volunteer with kids who had autism and I’ve had some contact, through a job, with people who have Aspeger’s syndrome. I suspect there’s a continuum between those with autism, who in severe cases barely recognize that people exist, and the geeky culture of the major high-tech companies. Google and Amazon aren’t the only ones. Look at the self-destructive policies of Microsoft in the 90s. Look at what Steve Jobs’ recent biography says about his cruelty.

    To serve people, you need to get under their skins and walk in their shoes. That’s not something that Google and Amazon’s corporate cultures do well. It’s not something Apple did well with Lion when it tried to dictate major UI changes that make little or no sense.

  2. Katherine Falk // December 8, 2011 at 2:09 pm //

    It’s “Geoffrey”, not “Geoffery”. And that first link to his 2009 comments doesn’t work.

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