Is That a Hand? Glitches Reveal Google Books' Human Scanners

Google Books contains more than 25 million volumes, disembodied like spirits from their spines. They were digitized by data entry workers who flip the pages for machines, working so quickly their hands and fingers sometimes get caught by the scans.

These glitches, collected in Andrew Norman Wilson's Scan Ops , reveal the old-school manual labor that still supports the digital age, even at the Googleplex. "It's quite Fordist ," Wilson says, "press button, turn page, repeat."

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Wilson learned about the scanning operations in 2007, while working as a contract video producer on Google's Mountain View, California campus. By his account, the data entry workers had different colored badges and were denied privileges others enjoyed, like riding the Google Bikes, eating the free gourmet meals, and taking the shuttles home. He critiqued this social stratification in a 2011 film that shows the cog-like workers filing out of their building after shifts—a pastiche of the Lumière Brothers' Workers Leaving the Factory from 1895, updated for the information age.

That got him fired. But after the video went viral, a friend emailed him a page from Google Books containing a scanning operator's finger. Intrigued, Wilson began scouring the web for similar glimpses of a human presence, whether whole hands or blurred pages captured mid-turn. He eventually discovered more than 900 in titles ranging from Mother Goose's nursery rhymes to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations .

The images expose the disconnect between how Google Books is experienced and how it's produced. But the process is constantly evolving. Are these the last vestiges of manual labor before automation and artificial intelligence take over? Or maybe, a sign that in the digital future, digital work—in the five-fingered sense—will always be around?

Images from Scan Ops are on view at in the exhibition All I Know Is What's On the Internet at the Photographer's Gallery in London through February 24.

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