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…

http://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/kultur/medien/882818_Stichwortgeber-der-Datenmaschinerie.html

 

reclaiming poetry from the algorithmic marketplace

cropped-fullsizerender_1I’ve been playing around with some ideas for my upcoming presentation at the Research in Real-Time – Practice in Progress conference at NUI Galway next month. I’ll be using some material from the Engineering Fictions workshop I did with CONNECT writer in residence Jessica Foley in Dublin in February, where we experimented with writing the most expensive and cheapest love poems using Google AdWords suggested bid prices. We then sent the poems to each other via GMail in order to ‘expose’ the words to the algorithms, before processing them through the AdWords keyword planner and the {poem}.py code, and printing them out on a receipt.

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Ode-Love: Winner of the cheapest love poem prize (photo: Jessica Foley)

The workshop was great fun and also extremely interesting methodologically. By creating poetry manually, and in the firm knowledge that the words which pass through Google’s advertising and search platforms are always already infused with algorithmically and economically mediated ‘values’, it felt like we were able to reclaim some of the artistic agency from the algorithms that increasingly second guess our linguistic intentions. We were able to second guess the second guessers, and it felt really liberating! Jessica and I plan to write the experience up in full very soon.

In the meantime, I have returned to the poem that started this whole project off – my favourite poem – William Stafford’s At the Bomb Testing Site (1960), which was the first poem I ‘valued’ as part of my {poem}.py project. When I first ran the poem through AdWords last year, I used the Ad Groups function of the keyword planner to try to reverse engineeer the logic of the bid prices Google suggests for each word, and for the poem as a whole. This feature suggests other keywords, phrases and topics which might help enhance your advertising campaign, but it also provides a glimpse into what the algorithms ‘think’ you are trying to advertise and as such is a fascinating insight into what words ‘mean’ to Google. Last year, references in Stafford’s poem to a curved desert road, hands gripping and tense elbows, generated suggestions that I was trying to advertise road biking. The phrase ‘ready for change’ had the algorithms thinking I was planning a well-being or recruitment campaign.

stafford
http://www.poetryfoundation.org

This year, the road biking suggestions have gone, but other even more fascinating semantic assumptions have appeared. To Google, at this moment in time, At the Bomb Testing Site conjures up Carl Jung, gastric bands and Californian Republicans. So in the spirit of reclaiming the poetry from the algorithmic marketplace, I decided to rewrite Stafford’s poem using only the suggested advertising categories and potential related search queries offered to me by Google when I put the poem through the keyword planner. With apologies to the estate of William Stafford, here is the result:

At the Bomb Testing Site (2017)

By Google AdWords (after William Stafford)


I’m feeling stuck.

Atomic trinity:

anger, depression, ego

and archetype elbow pain after fall.

California republican

delegates latest nuclear test.

Popeye syndrome.

Who invented the hydrogen bomb?

Carl Jung’s shadow?



I don’t like myself.

Business goals,

data entry jobs,

weight loss surgery in mexico.



I am ready to change my life

Self referral mental health

define psyche.

Inner self crossword clue.

Feel joy! Wellbeing,

core beliefs,

gastric bypass,

bikini island.

Ready steady:

be yourself.

 

Politics, Poetry and Google: The Value of Words in an Age of Linguistic Capitalism

An alternative angle to the fake news and Google Ads debate. It’s more poetic, but by no means less political.

“Control of language equals control of thought, and it is private capital and tech companies who are at those controls.”

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I recently published a short piece on The Medium about the similarities between language in the age of Google and Orwell’s Newspeak in 1984. It uses Orwell’s text to critique linguistic capitalism and the political power of language, and imagines the rise of Google as a neoliberal thought police.

The full article is here:  Politics, Poetry and Google

 

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

SUBPRIME LANGUAGE: The Precarious Value of Words in an Age of Linguistic Capitalism, Digital Advertising and #FakeNews

As the value of words shifts from conveyor of meaning to conveyor of capital, has Google become an all powerful usurer of language, and if so, how long before the linguistic bubble bursts?

I’m giving a talk at Trinity College Dublin next week as part of the CONNECT centre and Engineering Fictions. I’ll be using a lot of the material from the talk I gave at NUIG a couple of weeks ago, but I also want to try out some of the new ideas I’ve been developing around the idea of subprime language and linguistic liquidity. Below is an extended abstract/intro for the new stuff. It is work in progress – any thoughts are welcome…. I hope also to develop these ideas at the AAG in Boston and at the RGS-IBG in London later this year. 

As tech companies such as Google increasingly mediate and monetise the informational landscape through search and advertising platforms such as AdWords and AdSense, the ongoing effects on and of the language they auction, sell and exploit are becoming more and more palpable. In the viral spreading of fake news and political click-bait, and in the daily battles for exposure, it seems that words are being lent against a narrative so tenuous as to make their linguistic function negligible. Infused with a neoliberal logic which favours advertising dollars over truth and the systemic bias of algorithmic processing, the discursive side-effects of this semantic shift reveal a deep-rooted weakness in the linguistic marketplace which reaches far beyond the linguistic sphere and into the political, with powerful and potentially devastating consequences. Were it not for an overriding metanarrative of neoliberal logic, this evolution in the ontology of digital language may seem like an obvious manifestation of the postmodern condition. But as the value of words shifts from conveyor of meaning to conveyor of capital, should we be thinking of Google as the all powerful usurer of language, and if so, how long before the linguistic bubble bursts?

In this paper I set out some recent thoughts about the idea of subprime language – asking questions such as how much and how often language can be bought, sold or ‘borrowed’ before it becomes exhausted of meaning and restrictive of expression and understanding. How resilient is language to a quasi-capitalist operating system, and what happens if/when linguistic capitalism crashes? And finally, knowing the historical and cultural power that a control of language can have, the fragility and unpredictability of the economic system which now seems to underpin it, and with a growing awareness of the power wielded by technology companies such as Google, should we not be more aware of the the potential dangers in these techno-linguistic shifts?

In recent weeks the fake news debate has been evoking numerous references to Newspeak, the language of thought control and state propaganda employed to further the ideology and control of English Socialism (INGSOC) in George Orwell’s 1984. It is an interesting analogy, but I think rather than a straight forward comparison to the misinformation and alternative facts seemingly employed during the Trump campaign, there are deeper problems within today’s informational infrastructure that a more thorough reading of Orwell’s text draws out. Firstly, there is the assumption in Newspeak that “thought is dependent on words”, a somewhat problematic yet entirely relevant causal linkage when it comes to debates about search results, auto-predictions, filter bubbles and algorithmically generated social media newsfeeds, which can be instrumental in the cultivation of extreme views and hate crime.

The second issue concerns the limitations and restrictions of language that is so important to the idea of Newspeak, a language which “differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year”. We can see echoes of this in the shrinking of creative vocabulary of digital language in favour of words which might be cheaper, easier to find, or more alluring either to algorithms or to human readers.

The third point I want to explore takes the culmination of the first two – i.e. that words have a real effect on how we think, yet the way information flows through the digital spaces encourages the shrinking of our online vocabulary and discourages non-normative language – and complicates this already worrying formula with an overriding motive not of state political control (as in Orwell’s dystopia), but of private capital gain (as in advertisers and tech/media companies). In the digital networks of information and communication we have created, the potential for political control comes often as a side effect of the economic incentive, or as a manipulation of a system which allows language, and therefore thought, to be so dependent on and subject to a neoliberal logic which is itself so precariously mediated by algorithmic systems and networks.

 

 

PODCAST: Pip Thornton – Critiquing linguistic capitalism, Google’s ad empire, fake news and poetry

Algocracy and the Transhumanist Project

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My post as research assistant on the Algocracy & Transhumanism project at NUIG has come to an end, and I will shortly be returning to Royal Holloway to finish writing up my PhD. I have really enjoyed the five months I have spent here in Galway – I  have learned a great deal from the workshops I have been involved in, the podcasts I have edited, the background research I have been doing for John on the project, and also from the many amazing people I have met both in and outside the university.

I  have also had the opportunity to present my own research to a  wide audience and most recently gave a talk on behalf of the Technology and Governance research cluster entitled A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism (and an artistic intervention)  as part of a seminar series organised by the  Whitaker Institute’s Ideas Forum,  which…

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Talk at NUIG 25th Jan – Linguistic Capitalism – technology & governance research cluster

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I’m giving a talk at NUI Galway on Wednesday 25th January as part of the Whitaker Institute Ideas Forum seminar series.

It will be an explanation and exploration of all things Linguistic Capitalism, with a demonstration of my {poem}.py  project, as well as some new ideas about the role of Google advertising in the fake news debate.

Most exciting of all is a guest appearance from Galway poet Rita Ann Higgins who will be reading some of her poem Killer City, to help illustrate the talk.

Being Human | Human Being: a panel discussion of Ex Machina

Ex Machina panel: if Ava was trained on search data, how come she doesn’t try to sell Nathan the pair of trainers he googled months ago? And other insights….

Algocracy and the Transhumanist Project

exmach-poster

Back in March I co-curated a Passengerfilms event in London which used Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina to provoke a panel discussion about what it means to ‘be human’ in a world in which the digitally -or algorithmically – processed ‘virtual’ is increasingly experienced in the actualities of everyday life. I wrote a post on my own blog about the event at the time, but have now had the chance to edit the audio recording of the panel discussion, which features thoughts on the film and on the wider discourse from John Danaher (NUI Galway) and myself, as well as Lee Mackinnon (Arts University, Bournemouth), Oli Mould (Royal Holloway) and Mike Duggan (Royal Holloway).

We held the event in the downstairs area of The Book Club, an East London club venue, so some of the audio is accompanied by a booming bassline from the upstairs bar. I have tried…

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A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism: a short podcast from Pip Thornton

Algocracy and the Transhumanist Project

I started work as the research assistant on the Algocracy and Transhumanism project in September, and John has invited me to record a short podcast about some of my own PhD research on Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction. You download the podcast here or listen below.

bog-eyeThe podcast relates to a project called {poem}.py, which is explained in greater detail here on my blog. The project involves making visible the workings of linguistic capitalism by printing out receipts for poetry which has been passed through Google’s advertising platform AdWords.

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I have presented the project twice now – each time asking fellow presenters for their favourite poem or lyric which I can then process through the Keyword planner and print out on a receipt printer for them to take home. I often get asked what is the most expensive poem, and of course it depends on…

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NEWS | Curating (in)security at AAG 2017

Great write up from Nick Robinson in anticipation of our AAG2017 sessions

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Boston waterfront Skyline of downtown Boston from the pier (bostonlogic.com)

Every year, nearly 10,000 academics converge on one particular U.S. city in the name of all things geography – Boston, Massachusetts being the location of choice for the annual AAG (American Association of Geographers) conference in April 2017.

With a vast array of potential sessions, panels and presentations – the AAG has something for everyone: from Geographies of Bread and Water in the 21st Century  to subjects pertaining to aspects of Physical Geography, Geopolitics, and even Cyber Infrastructure!

Visiting the AAG has long been a personal ambition of mine since beginning my own undergraduate degree, and this year finally presents an opportunity after my paper (and preliminary thesis title) – “How to Backup your Files Nation-State in a Digital Era: The Estonian Data Embassy” – was accepted onto a fantastic looking double-session titled: Curating (in)security: Unsettling Geographies of Cyberspace. (see…

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Curating (in)security: Unsettling Geographies of Cyberspace CfP AAG 2017

Curating (in)security: Unsettling Geographies of Cyberspace
Call for Papers
AAG 2017 Boston (April 5-9, 2017)

In calling for the unsettling of current theorisation and practice, this session intends to initiate an exploration of the contributions geography can bring to cybersecurity and space. This is an attempt to move away from the dominant discourses around conflict and state prevalent in international relations, politics, computer science and security/war studies. As a collective, we believe geography can embrace alternative perspectives on cyber (in)securities that challenge the often masculinist and populist narratives of our daily lives. Thus far, there has been limited direct engagement with cybersecurity within geographical debates, apart from ‘cyberwar’ (Kaiser, 2015; Warf 2015), privacy (Amoore, 2014), or without recourse to examining this from the algorithmic or code perspective (Kitchin & Dodge, 2011; Crampton, 2015).

As geographers, we are ideally placed to question the discourses that drive the spatio-temporal challenges made manifest though cyber (in)securities in the early 21st century. This session attempts to provoke alternative ways we can engage and resist in the mediation of our collective technological encounters, exploring what a research agenda for geography in this field might look like, why should we get involved, and pushing questions in potentially unsettling directions. This session therefore seeks to explore the curative restrictions and potentials that exude from political engagement, commercial/economic interests, neoliberal control and statist interventions. The intention is not to reproduce existing modes of discourse, but to stimulate creative and radical enquiry, reclaiming curation from those in positions of power not only in terms of control, but by means of restorative invention.

We intend to have an interactive and lively discussion that we hope will be productive for a growing field of inquiry between disciplines. In light of this, potential contributions could combine or exceed those outlined below:

·         Algorithms and algorithmic governance
·         Alternative theories of space / cyberspace / cybersecurity
·         Artistic interventions / performances
·         Big data
·         Cyber / digital finance
·         Disciplinarity and knowledge production
·         Hackers and activism
·         Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)
·         Materiality and virtuality
·         More-than-human agency
·         Networks
·         Power and resistance
·         Precarity, affect and vulnerability
·         Privacy and surveillance
·         Surveillance and encryption

Session Guide

To submit a contribution, please contact one of the panel organisers. Abstracts should be no longer than 200 words and should be submitted by October 7th 2016.

Panel Organisers
Andrew Dwyer (University of Oxford, UK)
Email: andrew.dwyer@cybersecurity.ox.ac.uk

Pip Thornton (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
Email: pip.thornton.2013@live.rhul.ac.uk

In addition, if you wish to offer contributions that are not in a conventional lecture mode, please provide a brief description of what your output intends to be in addition to the 200 word abstract.