New GeoHumanities article – A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism: provocation/intervention

My article A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism: provocation/intervention has now been published online first in GeoHumanities :

There were 50 free eprints available at, but for anyone without institutional access, the accepted manuscript is attached below (as per Taylor and Francis guidelines). I can share the published PDF privately on request.



Language Redux

I have a new short piece about the value of language in the digital economy out in APRJA Research Values, ed. by Christian Ulrik Andersen & Geoff Cox. I use {poem}.py (my artistic intervention into Linguistic Capitalism & Google AdWords), to re-work Christian and Geoff’s introduction 3 ways:

This issue is the result of the Research Values workshop at the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies (ZeM) in Potsdam earlier this year, during which we also had the opportunity to present at transmediale festival for digital art and culture in Berlin.

The whole workshop/festival experience was amazing, and I got to test out an early version of some new work on the subject of Subprime Language, which I hope to be writing up shortly in collaboration with John Hogan Morris.

There are some fantastic full papers and interventions in this issue too from Furtherfield’s Marc Garrett, Tega Brain, Lea Laura Michelsen, Luke Munn, Francis Hunger, César Escudero Andaluz & Martín Nadal and Dionysia Mylonaki & Panagiotis Tigas and many more….

All papers can be found here:


geographies of (con)text: language and structure in a digital age

Geographies of (con)text: language and structure in a digital age is an article I published last year (2017) in Computational Culture: a journal of software studies. It began life as an AAG paper called The Production of Context and Digital Reproduction of Language, presented in one of the Geographies of Software sessions organised by Nick Lally and Ryan Burns in 2016. The article talks about structural bias in language as it is digitised and monetised by tech companies such as Google and Apple. It includes some of my work on linguistic capitalism, a brief reference to my {poem}.py project, and the story of the Google search which launched my thesis…

This paper puts forward the concept of ‘geographies of (con)text’ to critique the metaphors and materialities of ‘the digital’, concentrating on the physical constructs and constraints of language on the web. A landscape of words as opposed to a landscape of code (Thrift & French, 2002), language-as-data becomes material in ways very different from both print and spoken word; its physicality represented in bits, bytes and circuitry, and its limits and variations mediated and governed by the processes which order, sort, move and index it. By virtue of their reproducibility and enhanced means of dissemination, digitised words can have paratextual – and often political – agencies and excesses beyond their linguistic function. Using examples of online search, dictionaries and translation, the paper will imagine how context as a kind of space might be produced, constructed and limited, how competing actors contribute tactically (de Certeau, 1984) to the (in)visibility and (im)mobility of the linguistic data in the searchable database, and how these actors negotiate the conflicting interests of money, efficiency and truth (Lyotard, 1984) in the geo-linguistic spaces of the web. With a geography of (con)text thus imagined, the mathematical and binary logics that construct and mediate the language within it are also clearly exposed. The paper goes on to discuss how creativity and originality might be restricted by ongoing processes of quantification and monetisation of language, before concluding that digitised language falls somewhere in the middle of a structuralist/post-structuralist critique; being at the same time both free from and constrained by the geographies of context.

Figure 1. Google search wives and girlfriends sexist, screenshot February 20, 2014


The Meaning of Light: Seeing and Being on the Battlefield

I haven’t always written about algorithms and digital capitalism, but I have previously used poetry as a lens through which to expose the politics and asymmetries of technology and space. The Meaning of Light: Seeing and Being on the Battlefield (cultural geographies Vol: 22 issue: 4) is a paper I published in 2015 based on my experiences as a reservist soldier in Iraq in 2003. It’s about vision, affect, bodies, materiality and the (often imperial) politics of terrain on the battlefield. It all started with a poem I wrote about watching illuminating shells lighting up Basra before an artillery attack.

Light Discipline (2013)

In a blackout we adjust our sights

by touch and cup our smoke against

the desert, waiting for the light.

At long last the barrel scrapes

into place and the night is instantly

exposed. I cover my ears and watch.

In the distance a fitful city crouches,

seared eyes raised to the floating

arc above, waiting for the strike.

First written for the Sensing War Conference organised by Kevin McSorley in London in 2014, I subsequently presented the completed paper at the 2015 AAG in Chicago in a session on Terrain organised by Stuart Elden and Gaston Gordillo.

The paper in cultural geographies is available here, alternatively you can get an open access pre-print from my Royal Holloway PURE page here.

light Screenshot 2018-03-21 17.40.17

What is Orwell’s 1984 really worth?

£58318.14 to be precise. In theory anyway… to Google.

1984endI’ve been playing around with running longer texts through {poem}.py and eventually managed to process (and price) the whole of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I use the idea of Newspeak in my critique of Google’s monetisation of language, so I thought it made sense to use the book for this particular experiment.

The book took 7 minutes and nearly a whole till roll to print. I find it quite mesmerising to watch, so I filmed it. The end/climax is almost balletic. You can watch here:

I’ll be doing some live demos over the next couple of weeks – first as part of the Museum of Contemporary Commodities session at the RGS-IBG on Friday 1st September, then as part of the Inter/sections exhibition at Mile End Arts Pavilion from 3-8th September, where I will be showing a framed collection of the receipts for the very first time. Finally, on 2nd October, I’ll be presenting alongside the brilliant Louise Amoore and Pip Willcox at the Testing Turing event at the British Library in London. Exciting times!

Politics and ethics in media & art technology | Exhibition & Symposium 3-8th Sept Mile End Arts Pavilion


I am very excited to be a part of this event at Mile End Arts Pavilion in London next month. I will be displaying my {poem}.py project at the exhibition (3-8th Sept), and also giving an artist’s talk at the symposium on the 8th September. The exhibition also features computer artist Will Hurt and designer Yosuke Ushigome.

From the website: Following the rise of unprecedented activism and political protests in the past year, Inter/sections 2017 explores how artists and technologists use different networks, databases, and systems to raise awareness of ethical and political issues around technologies. Inter/sections culminates in a Symposium on Friday 8 September. This is a day-long event for discussion and exchange between academia, industry and activists. Featuring keynote speakers who are experts in emerging trends in science and media, the Inter/sections Symposium creates a space to debate new ethical frameworks for emerging technologies.The Symposium includes…

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Buying Brexit: the politics of Google ads & the general election

By Pip Thornton

I have been doing some work about the Tories and Labour buying Google adverts for ‘dementia tax’ in the run up to the General election. It is fascinating to me as it shows so clearly what I am trying to critique in my work about the politics and economics of the search engine, and the neoliberalistion of language and discourse through Google’s AdWords marketplace. The potential tainting of the search engine with advertising is of course something Google’s creators Sergey Brin and Larry Page anticipated and indeed initially tried to avoid. This is evident in an appendix to their 1998 paper, on The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine, where they noted that ‘advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers’. Last week’s debate about the use of paid Google adverts by all…

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How the Tories wrote my thesis: the political economy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine

brinpageScreenshot 2017-05-28 00.40.45

Sergey Brin and Larry Page invented Google as students at Stanford in 1998. They knew from the beginning how advertising could interfere with the efficiency and integrity of their proposed search engine. In an appendix to their paper, on The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine, they noted that ‘the goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users’, and that ‘advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers’. They weren’t wrong, yet they had to fund it somehow, and after nearly two decades of conflict between advertising dollars and organising the world’s information (as per Google’s mission statement), a typical search engine results page (SERP) today is surely unrecognisable from what Brin and Page could ever have imagined, infused as they have now become with the neoliberal logic of a linguistic marketplace. There is of course an ever-expanding literature critiquing the political, economic and epistemic implications of search engines, initiated in part by Introna & Nissenbaum back in 2006. This body of scholarship is one which I aspire to contribute towards in my final thesis. In the meantime, I saw a search result this week that pretty much sums up that thesis, and I think I might have Theresa May to thank for that.

I have been researching Google Search and its various distortions for a few years now, but until last week I have never come across an example that has so crystallised the potential political implications and social consequences of a monetised and market-dominating ‘large-scale hypertextual Web search engine’. This example brings out the many powerful themes present within my research; organic vs paid SEO, linguistic capitalism, digital democracy, neoliberalism, power, discourse, politics, money, social inequality, digital economics, philosophy, epistemology, alternative facts and more…

THIS is the search result I am tempted to submit in lieu of my PhD thesis:

3partyScreenshot 2017-05-22 14.19.22

The background

On Monday morning (22nd May 2017), Google search users first started noticing that the Conservatives had taken out an advert with Google about the dementia tax. Despite dismissing the term ‘dementia tax’ as a ‘so-called’ phrase in the hyperlinked advertising copy, the Tory media machine apparently had no problem embracing, harnessing and indeed purchasing the phrase in order to exploit its commercial capabilities on Google’s AdWords platform. As a Tory spokesman said:  ‘It is quite right we take steps to tackle the misinformation and fear being spread by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’.

The first I heard about the whole thing was when a friend and colleague Andrew Dwyer suggested on Twitter that if the Tories were paying Google per click (PPC, or Pay Per Click is how the AdWords system usually works) in order to control and dominate the narrative around their controversial policy, then we should all be continuously searching for ‘dementia tax’, and clicking on the link the Conservatives had paid for. The AdWords platform is the original and fundamental source of the wealth and power Google enjoys today, but advertising this way can be expensive – and ultimately unsustainable – if your advert attracts clicks that you are unable to convert into sales. So hacking the system by clicking on the Tory sponsored dementia tax advert could theoretically cost Theresa May’s campaign dearly. The process is in fact much more complicated than that, however. For example, the more successful click-throughs an advert generates, the higher its ‘quality score’ becomes, thus driving down the cost of each click.

Although AdWords is based on an auction model, quality scoring and other algorithmic ranking factors also help to determine which bids ‘win’ the top spots on the search page, and it is not necessarily the highest bid that comes out top. Advertisers can also buy bundles of ad placements for a fixed price (called PPM – Pay per Impression). This would normally be used for customers who just want their brand or message to have more exposure, and do not necessarily need people to click-through. In addition to this, Google has systems in place to detect and counter apparent click fraud, whether automated or part of a physical campaign, and there are numerous independent anti-click fraud companies too. Google AdWords is a very complicated and confusing economy, which is why an enormous multi-million dollar Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) industry has grown up to sustain and perpetuate it.

But despite this, the potential financial implications of the Tory’s advert (if the clicking went viral and unchecked, for example) along with a nagging scepticism about the possible manipulation and loop-holing of free ‘charity status’ Google advertising through the AdGrants scheme, initially made me think that the overtly political adverts for ‘dementia tax’ had somehow bypassed the standard commercial (and ostensibly market driven) AdWords procedure. As I have written about elsewhere, it used to be the case that the free AdWords ‘donated’ to Not-For-Profits (NFP) through the AdGrants scheme could not be used for political or religious purposes, but Google dropped that caveat when it started allowing NFP groups to take part in the ‘Redirect Method’. Born out of criticism from government over the spread of extremist literature and sites through platforms such as Google search, The Redirect Method is a scheme spearheaded by Google’s innovation centre Jigsaw (but the method is open to anyone with the right charity status) which uses free AdWords to ‘buy up’ keywords and phrases which might be used by would-be extremists to search for sites, videos, forums or manuals relating to terrorism. Keywords such as ‘Join ISIS’, or ‘Jihad’, would be simple examples, although the whole list is far more detailed and nuanced than that. Instead of being returned a page of ‘organic’ results relating to their search terms, the would-be jihadist instead sees adverts at the top of the page which link to specially curated sites and YouTube footage which aim ‘to confront online radicalization’ by ‘redirecting’ the user to alternative sites. As its brochure states, The Redirect Method:

focuses on the slice of ISIS’ audience that is most susceptible to its messaging, and redirects them towards curated YouTube videos debunking ISIS recruiting themes. This open methodology was developed from interviews with ISIS defectors, respects users’ privacy and can be deployed to tackle other types of violent recruiting discourses online

It is a similar narrative-altering motive and methodology to the Tories’ rationale for using AdWords in order to ‘tackle the misinformation and fear being spread by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’, which is why my cynical mind wouldn’t have been surprised if the dementia tax adverts turned out to be exploiting some charity status loophole to obtain such a dominant position on Google, or indeed had been initiated through a non-official channel. This scenario would of course have meant that Google was not profiting from click-throughs, although the company can and does use these ‘in kind’ charity donations against their tax bill. On a more practical level, AdGrants accounts take many weeks to set up – and almost certainly longer than the period of time it took for the phrase ‘dementia tax’ to gain enough political traction (thanks in part to a Financial Times front page) to warrant the Tory’s need to ‘tackle’ it.

Winners and losers in Linguistic Capitalism

I have been following the adverts for several days now, and am fairly certain that it is plain old ‘linguistic capitalism’, rather than any hidden hand, that is mediating the current narrative of the ‘dementia tax’. But this is not to say that the current politicisation of the word ‘dementia’ has not had an impact on its use in a social environment. On the contrary, shortly after the Conservative advert on Monday morning, a Labour one appeared, and then some time after that, a Liberal Democrat one. (NB – the screenshot above shows the paid-for Tory and Labour adverts, and an ‘organic’ Lib Dem one… more on that later…). And it was not just political parties getting in on the act – privately funded adverts began to appear too, all of them presumably bidding for the keyphrase ‘dementia tax’. One anonymous advert links to, a site created last Monday (22nd May 2017) ‘by a voter that really doesn’t want mayhem in power’. As I mentioned before, Google AdWords is a strange and opaque marketplace, but whatever its distortions, the bidding wars going on for ‘dementia tax’ this week have presumably significantly driven up the price of the words. This is potentially great news for Google, who get paid the winning bid price on the pay-per-click system (which is in effect 1 cent more than the second highest bid), but it is less good news for the dementia charities who rely on free AdGrants words (which are capped at $2 a click), and who may in effect have been priced out of the market.

I do not know the full amount the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems or the independents are paying Google for their political exposure, and neither do I know for definite that charities such as Alzheimer’s Society, MindCare and Carers Trust receive free AdGrants advertising. Google’s data and systems are of course proprietary and opaque. What I do know is that according to the Google Keyword Planner (KWP), which suggests appropriate bid prices of words and phrases to advertisers entering the AdWords auction, the phrase ‘dementia tax’ has been valued at zero from 22nd May 2017 to time of writing (29th May 2017). From work I have done on the KWP in the past, however, suggested bid prices – especially those for words or phrases fairly new to the market – take a while to start reflecting changes. I saw this when the suggested bid price for the word ‘Chilcot’ rose from zero to £1.86 the week after the Iraq Inquiry was released in 2016, which I suppose is both a testament to the ingenuity of the SEO industry, as well as a depressing confirmation of the postmodern condition (work forthcoming). I will be keeping an eye on the KWP price data on dementia/dementia tax over the next few weeks. Given what I found in the historic data on the price of ‘brexit’ (see below), I suspect any jump in price may already have occurred, although that would not explain why the suggested price for ‘dementia tax’ is still zero.

Suggested bid prices are of course not necessarily indicative of the actual PPC, and access to that data is only obtainable through a funded campaign. For many reasons, I am reluctant to start getting involved in fake Google advertising for the purposes of research, even if if would afford me better data, especially when the arena is both so political and potentially detrimental to charity organisations. If I can find a way of doing so unproblematically then I will (I have tried contacting the dementia charities concerned to see if they might share their AdWord data), but until then, my own methodology is to use suggested bid prices and an artistic intervention called {poem}.py to critique the system.

Of course, it is important to remember that the coveted phrase here is ‘dementia tax’, and not just the word ‘dementia’, which when searched still returns dementia charity results, and has only risen in price on the KWP by a penny over the course of this week. But there is a significant ‘bleed’ in the way Google monetises language. If the phrase ‘dementia tax’ is not enclosed in inverted commas in the search bar as a ‘verbatim’ search, then the component words become triggers in their own right. This is easiest to see if you search a phrase (without inverted commas) on Google. If there is no discrete match (or at least if none is selected by the algorithm), then the snippets of text under each result will highlight in bold the word that has triggered the hit. Thus the advert below for a dementia charity is served on the search term ‘dementia tax’, despite the word ‘tax’ not appearing in the ad:

Screenshot 2017-05-28 18.56.31

What is really both interesting and worrying is that this advert for Alzheimer’s Society appears alongside other dementia charities at the bottom of the second page of the search results, which in eyeball terms is pretty much oblivion. While a Huffington Post article speculated that ‘the best place to hide a dead body is page two of Google’, there have also been other more rigorous studies into browsing habits that show that people rarely scroll beyond the first page. The adverts for the 3 main political parties, however (and the Lib Dems had taken out a paid ad out at the time of this screenshot) have pride of place at the top of the first page. This economic and political hierarchy of results not only takes up valuable real estate space from the organic results, but reveals the real-time effects this politicisation of AdWords might be having.

Returning to the original thesis-writing screenshot (thanks Theresa)… I hope to have illustrated how all the issues I have discussed in this post are implicit in that one search result (and I haven’t even begun to decipher the whole ‘alternative fact’ elements of the actual content of the ads). It tells some many stories. As well as what I have already discussed, the screengrab was taken from Page 2 of the search results. So not only does it reconfirm the Tories’ bigger spending power over the Labour Party (and that both parties have budgets big enough to reach beyond the first SERP), but that the organic Liberal Democrat result didn’t show up on the first page at all – it had been pushed to the second page by the paid ads. When only the Tory advert showed up at the top of Page 1, the organic Lib Dem result took up the last slot on the first SERP. Much the same seems to be happening to charities and NFPs who cannot compete against well-funded political campaigns. Political parties have of course always paid for advertising, but this new way of harnessing linguistic capitalism through Google AdWords speaks volumes not only about the state of digital democracy; a new fusion of politics and proprietary technology with strong and far-reaching collateral effects, but also about the nuances of individual campaigns and the political economy (and indeed the anatomy) of the search engine itself.



My essay The Death of the Reader has been published in Under the Influence magazine. It’s a special issue on the subject of SPEED, so the essay reflects on the implications of machine reading, and includes a brief description of my own intervention against the quantification of language (specifically by Google’s AdWords platform) in my {poem}.py project. A PDF of the essay is available here: Death_of_the_Reader_THORNTON.

Nasan Tur (UTI 2017)

I haven’t laid hands on the actual magazine yet, but it also features some artwork by Nasan Tur that I particularly like, an interview with Professor Judy Wajcman on Digital Capitalism, Speed and The Capturing of Imaginary Futures, and a variety of other fascinating and fantastic art, photography and writings.

The magazine can be purchased here.

The key to data processing

I had an unexpected (and puzzling) email a few weeks ago which said how much the author had enjoyed my article in the Wiener Zeitung (The Vienna Newspaper). This was news to me. I’m having trouble publishing anywhere, let alone in an Austrian broadsheet – but after some investigation I found the article in question. It is a lovely piece by Adrian Lobe entitled Stichwortgeber der Datenmaschinerie (The Key to Data Processing), in which he really engages with my work critiquing Google’s exploitation of language for profit and also the methodology I have been developing through the {poem}.py project.

The article is written in German (obviously) – but here is a translation* of the last two paragraphs:

The criticism that Google reduces everything to its marketability and sees in information above all advertising potential, is not new. Many Internet critics have already referred to this, and it is not what Thornton’s project is about. It’s about what Google does with our language. What techniques does Google use to highlight specific terms, which does it hide? How is language structured within algorithmic orders? Is a Google search about communication at all? Any language or search input lands immediately in a server farm and is there evaluated by algorithms and deprived of semantics and ambivalence. Are our search queries perhaps only keywords for data processing?

Thornton reverses this non-dimensional information flow (and thus the advertising logic) by making machine output itself the starting point of (her) own, human investigations. It is also about the eminence of our own narrative. Frank Schirrmacher once wrote that we are no longer described in words but in mathematical models and formulas. Thornton’s project makes an important contribution to reflect our own speechlessness in the face of algorithmic agenda setting and automated text production.

I particularly like the last line, and will continue striving “to reflect our own speechlessness in the face of (an) algorithmic agenda” as I begin to write up my thesis.

*as a (very relevant) aside, this episode also highlights just how indispensible Google has become for so many of our daily tasks. I tried translating the article through a few different on-line tools, but Google had by far the best translation. It wasn’t perfect, however, so I dredged up my rusty A-Level German and dusted off my Collins Gem to fill in the gaps. I also would have had trouble locating the article without Google News. I know Google is not the Internet, but it really does feel like it sometimes…