There's a European alternative to Google Books. Quaero, a Franco-German co-production, takes on the Americans with a new generation of search engineby Tim King / June 25, 2006 / Leave a comment
Skimming the French headlines over the past year, anyone would assume that France is a torpedoed ship with only one way to go. Many French people are starting to agree. However, luckily, France is greater than the sum of its politicians. Ideas have always been its strength, and nowadays, harnessed to Europe, they have provided unmatched technical marvels, from the highest viaduct to the largest aeroplane. Current projects are centred on internet technology like Quaero, a French-driven project to develop an internet search engine using images and sound, where the present generation depends on text. Play a sequence of notes and you’ll get every similar guitar riff; say “Rivers of blood” and you’ll hear Enoch Powell’s speech as well as receiving the full text and all subsequent references to it; scan a photograph of Carette and you’ll be able to watch, on your television if you like, every extract of every film in which that pre-war French character actor appeared. Hours of fun for the terminally bored perhaps, but Quaero will also have enormous applications for the cinema, television and music industries. The French firm Thomson, which is co-ordinating Quaero’s research, is already an established force in Hollywood post-production.
Officially launched by Jacques Chirac in April, Quaero is a Franco-German co-production. Its development budget of €250m combines public subsidy and money from a consortium of French and German private enterprise, universities and research establishments. The fact that France is willing to mix private and public money should not surprise even those who see the country as the last outpost of lumbering state monopolies. Competition, especially against Anglo-Saxons, is thriving: if institutionalised French anti-Americanism serves any useful purpose, it is to stimulate bold, creative, off-the-wall thinking.
In December 2004, Google announced that it would put 15m books online within six years: specifically the entire contents of two major American libraries and sizeable chunks of three others, including the Bodleian. “The first reaction could be purely and simply jubilation: all the world’s knowledge freely available to the entire planet,” said Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF). “But beyond that is a deeper concern, the risk that overwhelming American domination will determine how future generations form their world picture.” The example he gives is the French revolution, whose bicentenary celebrations he organised. “It was harmful, hateful to go and search for an account or an interpretation in the English…