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.


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

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.

{poem}.py : a critique of linguistic capitalism

How much does poetry cost? What is the worth of language in a digital age? Is quality measured on literary value or exchange value, the beauty of hand-crafted, hard-wrung words, or how many click-throughs those (key)words can attract and how much money they earn the company who sells them? But haven’t words always been sold? As soon as they became written down, moveable and transferable words entered the market place, and then necessarily the political sphere. But these words gained an exchange value as integral parts of a text – a story, a poem, a book, for example. Removing or reordering these individual words – or ranking them based on external influences would change the meaning and devalue the text as a whole, in both a literary and monetary way. Can language retain its integrity once it becomes part of the digital economy? Is there even such a thing as the ‘integrity of language’?  Certainly the words Google auctions off have referential values unanchored to narrative context, and it is this new context and the politics surrounding it that I am attempting to examine and expose in my new project which I have called {poem}.py.


The project started out when I was required to provide a poster for the Information Security Group (ISG) Open Day at Royal Holloway later this month, which always make me nervous as – unlike most of my PhD contemporaries in the Cyber Security CDT – I don’t have a load of mathematical formulas, graphs and data to fill out the required poster template. So as I was thinking about how to represent and explain my PhD topic to an audience of cryptographers, mathematicians and computer scientists, I decided to see how much my favourite poem ‘cost’ if I put all the words through the Google AdWords Keyword Planner and outputted the results on a mock-up of a receipt – which I thought might look nice on a poster. In this way I discovered that, at 4:39 PM on 7th May 2016, my favourite poem At the Bomb Testing Site by William Stafford cost the princely sum of £45.88 (before tax).

bombtest_receiptTo explain the logic behind this – the keyword planner is the free tool Google AdWords provides advertisers so they can plan their budgets and decide how much to bid for a particular keyword or key phrase to use in their advert. Google gives a ‘suggested bid’ price for each word, giving an advertiser some idea how much they will have to spend to win the mini auction which is triggered each time someone searches for that keyword. When an advertiser wins the auction, their advert will appear as a ‘paid’ (as opposed to organic) search result right at the top (and now right the bottom too) of the rankings with the small yellow ‘Ad’ box next to them. The advertiser then pays the winning bid (which, like eBay, will be one penny/cent above the second highest bid) each time someone clicks on their advert. Phrases such as ‘cheap laptop’ or ‘car insurance’ can cost as much as £50 per click. This is the basis of how Google makes its money, a form of ‘linguistic capitalism’ (Kaplan: 2014) or ‘semantic capitalism’ (Feuz, Fuller & Stalder: 2011) in which the contextual or linguistic value of language is negated at the expense of its exchange value.

One of the first problems I encountered with this method was that once I had fed the words of a poem through the keyword planner I then had to put them back into their narrative order to make the receipt ‘readable’ as a downward list, as Google churns the words back out according to their frequency of search rather than in their original order. With my test poem, I had to order the words back into the shape of the poem manually, which was time-consuming and fiddly. I have since been working with CDT colleagues Ben Curtis and Giovanni Cherubin using Python code to automate this  process. This union of poetry and code is where the project title {poem}.py comes from – .py being the file extension for Python.

Once I had a spreadsheet with the poem back in narrative list order, and with the corresponding ‘price’ of each word – including duplicates – I added up the total cost of the poem and then created a template which mirrored a paper receipt.

This first attempt revealed several really interesting points which not only illustrate what I am trying to examine and expose in my thesis, but it also gave me ideas about how I could use the project as a quantitative method of gathering data and also as a creative practice and artistic intervention.  A section of my thesis examines how the decontextualisation of words in the searchable database leads to anomalies in search results and autopredictions which not only reflect, but also therefore perpetuate stereotypical, sexualised, racist or sexist search results. The words of the poem on the receipt have likewise been taken out of context, and are instead imagined as how well they will do in the context of an advert. Their repeated use by advertisers and confirmatory clicks by users will also presumably increase their frequency within the wider database.

“the cost of a word to Google relates to the size and wealth of the industry it plays a part in advertising”

Once I had run a few more poems through this process I started to realise that words relating to health, technology, litigation and finance were particularly expensive. In At the Bomb Testing Site, I was initially puzzled as to why the word ‘it’ costs £1.96, which seemed disproportionate compared to other words. I then realised that, to Google, the word is ‘IT’ (as in information technology) – hence its price.

In Wordsworth’s Daffodils, the words ‘cloud’, ‘crowd’ and ‘host’ are expensive not because of their poetic merit or aesthetic imaginings, but because of ‘cloud computing’, ‘crowd-sourcing/funding’ and ‘website hosting’. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est revealed that medical words such3Untitled as ‘cancer’ ‘fatigue’ and ‘deaf’ had relatively high suggested bid prices, while ‘economical’, ‘accident’, ‘broken’, in Anne Carson’s Essay on What I Think About Most are all over £5.00 per click, and the suggested bid for the word ‘claim’ is £18.10. Perhaps unsurprisingly,  it seems the cost of a word to Google relates to the size and wealth of the industry it plays a part in advertising.

But as well as pricing individual word and phrases, Google’s Keyword Planner also tries to second-guess what you are trying to advertise by the words you enter. In the case of At the Bomb Testing Site, the Keyword Planner thought I was either trying to advertise road biking (presumably the words curve, road, panting, tense, elbows, hands and desert suggested this), or some kind of life coaching, career management service which was prompted by the phrase in the poem ‘ready for change’. Put a question mark on the end of that phrase and it becomes a highly profitable key-phrase in an advert. Similarly the high price of the word ‘o’er’ in Daffodils is explained in the context of OER (Open Educational Resources). The AdWords planner also suggested I might be trying to market a product relating to Game of Thrones due to the Rains of Castamere song in which ‘the rains weep o’er his hall’.

As I played around with the receipt template, I added a CRC32 checksum hash value to the receipt as an ‘authorisation code’. A checksum is a mathematical blueprint of a piece of text which is generated to ensure that a transmitted text is not altered. The sender sends the checksum with the text and the recipient generates the same checksum to make sure it has stayed the same in transit. Using this as an authorisation code on the poem receipt is therefore indicating that when protected by code or encrypted, the poem retains its integrity, but when it is decoded, it is then subject to the laws of the market – as shown on the receipt itself. I also added N/A to the tax field as a little dig at Google’s tax situation in the UK.

But the more poems and texts I analysed in this way, I began to suspect that there is something interesting to be learnt from understanding the geographical, political and cultural logics which might dictate the economic forces which apparently mediate and control this linguistic market place. I ran words such as ‘trump’, ‘war’ and ‘blair’ through the keyword planner over a period of two weeks and noticed how the suggested bid prices fluctuated, despite them not being what you might assume to be very ‘marketable’ words. The keyword planner also allows the user to target their campaign by location, so I could then measure the ‘value’ of war, for example, in the US and in the UK, and even down to tiny areas such as Egham, and I could record these values over a period of time to see how key national and international events might influence word prices.


As well as recording the fluctuations of specific words and names, I am keen to capture the changing uses and values of groups of words based loosely around a theme, and have decided that continuing to use poetry is the best (and most apt) way to do this. So I have selected a series of poems which are somewhat tangentially linked to events which are happening in the UK and world over the next few months such as the Olympics, the EU Referendum, the release of the Chilcot report and the US Presidential election. Gathering this data over the next few months will enable me to conduct a quantitative longitudinal study into the geopolitical and cultural influences which shape linguistic capitalism, and therefore potentially also the composition and weighting of the wider linguistic discourse.

But apart from the quantitative side to this project (which can be harvested in data spreadsheet form), I want to use the output of the receipt as an artistic intervention or critique to make the issues and politics around linguistic capitalism and the way Google treats language more visible and accessible. If there is a politics lurking within the algorithmic hierarchies and logic of the search engine industry (which I believe there is), then it is a politics hidden by the sheer ubiquity and in some way the aesthetics of the Google empire. My thesis is based loosely around Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction essay, and as such, views the various ways in which Google controls, manipulates and exploits data (linguistic and otherwise) under the guise of ‘free’ tools and accessories as a kind of aestheticisation of politics. Following Benjamin, therefore, the final chapter of my thesis will examine ways of turning this power back around, and ‘making art political’, or more specifically to this project, reclaiming language as art.

I hope to be able to speak to and engage with various academics and artists who have attempted ‘Google Poetics’, Adwords ‘happenings’ (Christophe Bruno: 2002) or creative resistance (Mahnke & Uprichard: 2014), (Cabell & Huff: 2010), (Feuz, Fuller & Stalder: 2011) to explore the difficulties and successes of working within or without of the Google framework to produce interventions. It is in this chapter that I also want to use {poem}.py as my own artistic intervention and act of political art. I am aware that I am in effect mixing quantitative data gathering with qualitative methods and creative practise here, which is something I need to think through.


As I mentioned in my previous post, last week I co-organised a workshop on Living with Algorithms which aimed to let participants be creative and provocative in thinking about everyday life and algorithms. For my own contribution to the workshop I asked participants to send me their favourite poems in advance. I then bought a second-hand receipt printer and set about monetising their poems so I was able to print them off for them ‘live’ during my presentation at the workshop. At some stage I would like to use this group of poems to form the basis of an actual art exhibition, but this method has also proved really helpful in terms of beginning to answer some of the questions I asked at the beginning of this post. Because I didn’t tell the participants why I wanted them to send me a poem, some of them were only available in formats which unintentionally resisted the process of commodification so I had no option but to print out VOID receipts for two of them.  The first was an amazing spoken word poem called Bog Eye Man, by Jemima Foxtrot which is only accessible on YouTube or Vimeo. As the actual text of the poem does not appear on the web, I was unable to ‘scrape’ it. The other poem was contained within a Jpeg file from which I could not copy and paste. These two examples show how we might begin to envisage a way to maintain the integrity of poetry in a digital age dominated by linguistic or semantic capitalism, the example of the spoken word poem in particular harks back to Benjamin’s description of the loss of aura when a work of art becomes ‘reproducible’. For the time being, Bog Eye Man remains resolutely unmonetised (at least until spoken data starts being algorithmically scraped anyway…), and retains – as Benjamin wrote ‘its presence in time and space’.

But back to the poster, where all this started. This isn’t the one I’ll be presenting at the ISG open day – it doesn’t conform to the strict template and colour scheme – but is one I made for the Humanities and Arts Research Centre poster competition, which is a bit more aesthetically pleasing…


Living with Algorithms workshop

Mike Duggan and I have convened a workshop which will take place in London tomorrow (9th June 2016) on the subject of Living with Algorithms. A couple of people have been unable to make it at short notice, which is a huge shame, but it now gives me the opportunity to present and get feedback on a new project I’ve been working on called {poem}.py.

I will blog about it more after the workshop… I don’t want to spoil the surprise! Outline and final program is as follows – it looks like it will be a really good day…

The Living with Algorithms workshop is sponsored by the RHUL Centre for Doctoral Training in Cyber Security (CDT) and the Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC)

Workshop outline
It is clear that the spatial practices and experiences of the everyday are increasingly produced as configurations in which algorithms play a major part (Pasquale, 2015). Algorithms now permeate our daily lives in a huge variety of ways; from how we move, socialise, exchange money and goods, to how we engage politically, and even how we experience the world from the position of our embodied and corporeal selves. Amongst scholars from across the disciplines, Geographers have paid particular attention to the co-constitution of digital technologies and spatial practice (see Kitchin & Dodge, 2011; Leszczynski, 2015; Thrift & French, 2002) through detailing how algorithms, code and software increasingly come together to produce the spaces of everyday life. Yet there has been a lack of empirical attention to how this nexus is lived or experienced from the perspective of those living with it. As this field continues to develop we suggest that much more needs to be done here.
This workshop aims to bring together a series of short, provocative and critical papers of 5-10 minutes, which explore how everyday life, and the experiences of it, have been affected by the algorithms which increasingly come to produce them. In essence, we wish to use empirical examples to question:
–       What it means to live with algorithms in the context of everyday life?
–       In which ways do algorithms produce our daily practices?
–       What the pressing concerns of algorithmic living are? And why are they important now?
–       What is it specifically about algorithms that do work in the world, and how does this differ from the work of code, software and data?
In bringing together experts and doctoral students in this field for a round table discussion we seek to develop the notion that culture and technology are co-constituted in everyday practice by focusing specifically on the roles that algorithms play in everyday cultural practices. In the format of a day-long roundtable workshop based around a series of themes, we hope to begin to answer some of these questions.

Session One
Introduction from Mike Duggan
Pip Thornton, {poem}.py : A critique of linguistic capitalism
Sam Kinsley, An algorithmic imaginary: anticipation and stupidity
Philip Garnett, Vectorising the human
Andreas Haggman, In defence of imperfection

Session Two
Kui Kihoro Mackay, Black Twitter and Becky with the good
Olga Goriunova, The algorithmic production of the visual common
Carl Anthony Bonner-Thompson, No camp, no fem: masculinities,
sexualities and embodiment across Grindr
Lee Mackinnon, Emotion, emoticon, calculability
Andrew Dwyer, The kiss of death: an algorithmic curse

Session Three
James Ash, Digital interfaces and debt: algorithms and mobile
Clancy Wilmott, From coordinates to code: algorithms in everyday
mobile mapping practices
John Morris, Are my savings safer under the mattress? what do
algorithms tell me about the health of my bank?
Nat O’Grady, Technologising techniques of emergency governance
Sam Hind, Crypto-cartography and the pragmatics of forgetting

Feminist perspectives on global politics, in poems

I’ve been experimenting with a new method for my research which involves poetry. This is excellent – We need more poetry in politics !

feminist academic collective

IMG_0802-0Tiina Vaittinen & Saara Särmä

We have just finished teaching a course on feminist perspectives on global politics at the University of Tampere, with an international group of students with different disciplinary backgrounds. During the course, we introduced the students to a wide range of readings on feminist IR, and towards the end of the course Saara gave them a creative assignment, originally picked up from Elina Penttinen’s pedagogical tools. The results, based on the students’ readings of some of the contributors and/or readers of this blog, were so amazing that we want to share the work with you.

Here is the assignment that was given to the class:

1. Choose any text from the course moodle
2. Read it carefully
3. Construct a poem using only words in the text

The poem can be any length, but should capture the essence of the original text (the main argument etc.), write by hand or…

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Geopolitical Algorithms: you say Palestine, Google says Israel

If any more evidence be needed of the (geo)political agency of Google’s algorithms, then this – currently ongoing – incident is fairly definitive.

A couple of days ago, Kristin Szremski, a reporter and advocate for justice in Palestine, noticed that the names she had given to photo albums she had uploaded to Google+ had been changed without her knowledge or consent. Notwithstanding the privacy implications this brings up, the far bigger issue is what the albums were renamed as. As this Twitter screenshot shows, in 2010 Szremski had named two of her albums ‘settlements’ and ‘Palestine’, yet at some point these titles have been changed to ‘Israeli services’ and ‘Trip to Israel’ respectively.

Palestine Google+Screenshot 2016-04-05 13.43.05

At time of writing Google have been in touch with Szremski ‘to help’ her with her ‘next steps’ on this issue, but she is still awaiting an explanation and – presumably- an apology. I will also be really interested to see how Google explains this one away (Kristin has kindly agreed to share their response). I’m guessing it’s something to do with how other visually (and possibly geo-locationally) similar photographs have been tagged, titled and categorised in the wider database available to the Google Photo’s organising algorithm. But it’s also hard not to suspect that there may be some inherent or learned bias within the system or the training data. Either way, I’m looking forward to whatever response is forthcoming…

Palestine Google reply Screenshot 2016-04-05 13.46.40

The Monster that ‘Google’ Created: some thoughts on EX MACHINA (2015)


Earlier this week I curated and co-hosted Passengerfilms’ latest event in London (quite aptly within a stone’s throw of Silicon Roundabout). Called BEING HUMAN // HUMAN BEING, the event featured a screening and discussion of Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina. The fact that we sold out before we even started advertising I think goes to show not only what an awesome panel we had in Lee MacKinnon, John Danaher and Oli Mould, but that the possibilities, ethics and potential dangers of Artificial Intelligence really are at the forefront not only of academic debate, but also of a wider public imagination.

Ex Machina is such an incredibly rich and provocative film that it was impossible to cover everything in one short night, so I wanted to write a few thoughts down here, some of which were raised on the night, but others for which there was no time, or of which I’ve only just thought…

The Frankenstein Angle

The more I think about the film, the deeper, and more sinister the Frankenstein analogy becomes. I’ve called this post The Monster That ‘Google’ Created, by which I mean that the AI that is Ava is quite literally constructed out of search data – presumably the questions we put into Google (the thinly disguised BlueBook in the film), as well as the answers we get out. As I mentioned on the night, I think this premise is flawed in that if you really did build an AI using a mass harvesting of search data, then it would be impossible to remove the commercial element from this data, and your AI would constantly be trying to sell you something you looked up months ago. As has been reported recently, Microsoft’s AI Twitter bot turned into a Hitler loving sex robot in a matter of hours, which for me illustrates how competing influences will always underpin, problematize and corrupt ‘live’ web data, whether it’s financial, political or social media capital being sought. But this aside, what’s really interesting is the comparison with how Frankenstein’s monster gains its intelligence. Not only does Mary Shelley’s creation spend months spying on a family through a hole in the wall from its hiding place, and therefore witnesses their daily interactions and conversations, but it reads books. And not just any books, but Milton’s Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Greeks and Romans, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Werter, carefully selected by Shelley to enable the monster to understand and ‘feel’ sympathy, love and anguish, the difference between good and evil, and to question the wretchedness of its creation and existence. Quite simply, from listening and reading, it learns to be human, with all the crushed hopes and heartbreak which that entails. In contrast, Ava has learned from the constructed, virtual, and unreliable ‘reality’ of linguistic search data. But however ‘intelligent’ or semantically aware a search engine can be, the language which flows through it is little more than a binary reduced, decontextualized jumble of words, reconstructed into recognisable language not by any laws of nature or ethics, but by mathematics and the laws of the market. You can’t replace theory with (big) data, and you can’t replace being human with it either.

And that is why, while I always feel hopelessly sorry for Frankenstein’s monster, I don’t share the sympathy or allegiance towards Ava which many (including Alex Garland himself) feel. She was offered kindness (in the form of Caleb), but chose to reject it. Frankenstein’s monster wanted nothing more than to be loved, but is rejected by society because of its appearance, and only then turns nasty. In Ex Machina, Ava’s desire to love and be loved is nothing but a ploy, which is arguably a ‘human’ trait too, but I think the desire to be loved and helped is perhaps a more basic one, and for me that is why Ava doesn’t pass the Turing Test.

Ava’s dress sense

I am aware that I’ve been calling Frankenstein’s monster ‘it’, and Ava (who I may as well go ahead and call Nathan’s monster) ‘she’, even though Frankenstein’s monster is most definitely a male construction with sexual desire for a female. This may be because Frankenstein doesn’t name his monster like Nathan does, and he also doesn’t provide it with handy array of manly wardrobe staples. But despite this, Frankenstein’s monster has a far more ‘human’ sexuality than Ava does – however well the sensors Nathan has kindly built between her legs might work. And so to Ava’s clothes… Now I realise that her clothes have been picked by Nathan, who probably drunk-ordered them online, but why have Ava choose the sexy dress and high heels for her escape? That’s not empowering – if that’s what Garland was going for – it’s just plain impractical. But then again, Ava has presumably learnt what will get her furthest in life in the outside world from the combined wisdom of web searches, which could explain the 6-inch heels. More inexplicable is why have her in mumsy floral dresses, woolly tights and a cardie in the Caleb ‘test’ scenes? And what does that say about Caleb’s pornography profile, on which her looks have apparently been modelled?

Gods, Machines and Nuclear Armageddon

enola gay Tibbets-waveI touched on this on Wednesday, but just wanted to expand and clarify a little. I’m really interested in why Alex Garland dropped the ‘Deus’ from the phrase ‘Deus Ex Machina’ for the title of the film. It could be something as simple as he thought it more catchy, but I think a close reading brings up some important issues. A ‘Deus Ex Machina’ is a plot device in which a divine/random/providential intervention saves or redeems a seemingly hopeless situation. From the Latin ‘God from the machine’, it stems from ancient Greek theatre when a ‘God’ would figuratively (or even literally) descend onto the stage to miraculously rescue or resolve an implausible or floundering dramatic plot. So in terms of Ex Machina, Alex Garland might well have thought – okay, so I want to make a film about an Artificial Intelligence which looks like a lady… now how am I going to do that and make it vaguely plausible? Enter Nathan – maverick, misogynistic tech billionaire with far too much time on his hands… And there you go – there’s Ava. To me, Nathan is the plot device that enables the story. There are more than enough references to Nathan as God in the film to support this theory; the nominative similarity of Ava to Eve, for example, but also the sequence when a wide-eyed Caleb states that if Nathan has created a conscious machine ‘it’s not the history of man… that’s the history of Gods’. Nathan then deliberately misquotes Caleb to make it sound like Caleb called him (Nathan), ‘not a man, but a god’. But if Nathan is the ‘god’ in the ‘god from the machine’, then why drop the Deus from the Deus Ex Machina? Could this be because a Deus Ex Machina is a last chance plot device… if you use it up/kill it off, then there is no longer any means of controlling what happens. Nathan’s monster, constructed and fed on the linguistic mutations of a humanity mediated by commerce and corporate power, has been let loose and there is nothing we can do about it. Which is, as I see it, an astonishingly accurate and astute critique of our dependence on (and faith in) big data, and the Google ‘machine’. And where I agree with Garland (and for this I can forgive him the heels), is that artificial intelligence without ‘humanity’ is potentially disastrous. The clues are there – the track Enola Gay is innocently played over Caleb unpacking in his windowless room, and the reference to Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb dropped by the Enola Gay over Hiroshima is even more explicit. Quoting Oppenheimer (who was himself quoting the Bhagavad Gita), ‘I am become death, The Destroyer of Worlds’, Caleb muses, while surveying Nathan’s empire with a nice glass of Chardonnay. It’s scary stuff, but then I suppose divorcing technology from humanity always will be.

Language Matters: ‘rabid feminism’ & the Oxford Dictionary

The work I have been doing around language in a digital age has mostly involved the algorithmic reproduction of language through search engines such as Google.

However, I have just come across an interesting (and very heated) debate taking place on Twitter involving Oxford Dictionaries Online, the digital version of the Oxford Dictionary of English which (amongst other things) supplies Apple products with their built-in British-English dictionary.

The argument appears to have started when one Twitter user noticed that the Oxford Dictionary’s usage example of the word ‘rabid’ happens to be ‘a rabid feminist’, and suggested the dictionary might like to change what could be perceived as a sexist example.

rabid unspecified

But instead of acknowledging the problem, Oxford Dictionary’s official Twitter account @OxfordWords instead defended its example by claiming that ‘rabid isn’t always negative’.

Now I’m fairly certain I have never come across the word rabid used in a positive way. The word has the same origin as the disease Rabies:

early 17th cent (in the sense ‘furious, madly violent’): from Latin rabidus, from rabere ‘to rave’)

But ignoring this questionable defence for a moment, what really interests me in terms of my research is that the Oxford Dictionary further defended their example by stating that ‘our example sentences come from real-world use and aren’t definitions’. Delving further into how examples might be generated, the Oxford Dictionary website explains how the phrases are drawn from ‘a vast bank of more than 1.9 million example sentences (around 38 million words) of real English, extracted from the world’s newspapers and magazines, academic journals, fiction, and blogs’.

Just like the work I have been doing around the apparently sexist or racist stereotypical and offensive phrases which are often generated through Google Search and Autocomplete, it seems that the Oxford Dictionary’s examples are just a reflection of the (not always representative) linguistic data that exists online. The phrases generated as likely usage examples will therefore mirror the most likely pairings or orderings of already existing words based on the semantically irrelevant factors of frequency and proximity. It would therefore seem (rightly or wrongly) that the word ‘feminist’ is paired more often with the word ‘rabid’ than any other word in the corpus of available linguistic data, including – we must assume – the word ‘dog’, which is an interesting linguistic development in itself.

Where the Oxford Dictionary differs from Google, however, is that it seems to recognise that this ‘big data’ method of example generation might throw up some controversial results. There is a fairly comprehensive caveat on the website which illustrates this:

Please note: All the examples sentences throughout the site are real examples of usage. They are taken from a huge variety of different sources, from all parts of the world where English is used, and they reflect a wide spectrum of views and levels of language. Opinions and views expressed in the usage examples are the views of the individuals concerned and are not endorsed by Oxford University Press.

But while it might recognise the potential limitations of its methods, the Oxford Dictionary seems decidedly unwilling to mitigate the damage caused by their effects, and decided instead to exacerbate (and seemingly personalise) the problem by tweeting ‘If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism’.


As I write there are more and more examples being cited of Oxford Dictionary’s seemingly ‘sexist’ usage examples: a Doctor is always a ‘he’, the housework is done by a woman, and the ‘female psyche’ stands out as the most problematic.

Twitter / @OmanReagan

Again, it is much the same as when somebody noticed that Google’s response to a search for ‘she invented’ was to ask ‘did you mean he invented’.


Twitter / @OmanReagan

Perhaps what is most significant to my research, and in comparison to Google, is the reach and therefore the discursive influence that the Oxford Dictionary’s usage examples might have. As I mentioned earlier, the Oxford Dictionary supplies Apple with its British-English database of definitions and examples, which means that the compounding of linguistic stereotypes has potentially far reaching consequences. To paraphrase another Twitter user, with examples such as ‘rabid feminist’, the Oxford Dictionary is in effect ‘beaming a sexist lexicography straight to students’ iPads’.

Twitter / @bookmobility

My thesis will explore why things like this matter, and the influence large corporations have on language which is processed, organised and reproduced through digital spaces. It’s easy to blame an algorithm, technology or an empirical method, but the proprietary method in which online linguistic data is harvested, utilised and monetised should come with a certain degree of responsibility. After all, as the @OxfordWords Twitter header reminds us, Language Matters.

full unspecified



The Geopolitics of Context: Mordor, Russia and Google Translate

By Pip Thornton

“One does not simply walk into

the Russian Federation”

Over the last week several media outlets, and many more Twitter feeds, have been spreading news of a series of ‘glitches’ in Google Translate which saw the word Russia being synonymised with Mordor when translated from Ukrainian to Russian. Furthermore, Russians became occupiers and for a short time the name of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov returned the result sad little horse. 

vk-russia-to-ukraine Twitter / Vadim Nakhankov (wired.co.uk)

Noting that ‘the terms mirror language used by some Ukrainians following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014′, some suggested the possibility of foul play; that the algorithm was ‘hacked by spies‘, ‘jokers’ or ‘mischievous pro-Kiev activists’,  or that the words had been inserted manually by users as alternative translations presumably in order to ridicule Russia and humiliate Lavrov. Other sources referred to a ‘bug’…

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