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



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