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

Pip Thornton
Feb 22, 2017 · 7 min read

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

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As we reach out in desperation for some kind of metaphor to explain the post-truth era and the rise of fake news, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have been soaring. There have been references to Newspeak, the language of thought control and state propaganda employed to further the ideology and control of English Socialism (Ingsoc) in Orwell’s 1949 novel. It is a good analogy, but I think rather than a straight forward comparison to the misinformation and alternative facts seemingly employed before and after 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 the information mediated by search results, auto-predictions, filter bubbles and algorithmically generated social media newsfeeds, which can potentially influence elections, encourage extremism, hate crime and acts of terror.

The second issue concerns the limitations and restrictions of language that is so important to the idea of Newspeak, a language which “differed from almost all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year”. We can see echoes of this in the shrinking of the creative vocabulary of digital language in favour of the most popular keywords, which might be cheaper, easier to find, or more easily understood to both algorithms or human readers. Important here too is the control over what words can mean. Newspeak words could only be used for one purpose: “All ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged out of them”.

Likewise, when you search for a word in Google, it is likely you are being returned the most commercially viable version of that word. If you search for the words ‘cloud’, ‘crowd’ and ‘host’, for example, the results you are shown won’t relate to how they were imagined by Wordsworth in his Daffodils poem. Instead you will get results relating to cloud computing, crowd funding and web hosting. The key to this is that words are being used as tools for advertising in a way which favours their exchange value over their linguistic value, what Frederic Kaplan has referred to as Linguistic Capitalism.

Now if you take those two ideas — i.e. that words have a real effect on how we think, yet our online vocabulary is being shrunken and manipulated by the way information circulates in a digital age, then you can see how much power there is in being in control of language. Of course this is nothing new — the legacy of colonial power is still evident in the dominance of the English language — Queen’s English — on the world and local stages. What is new is that in today’s digital infrastructure, language is bought, sold and auctioned by private companies, and specifically one company — Google, and this control over the flow of linguistic capital is an enormous power to have.

As recent reports (in The Times and the Guardian) have shown, the way in which Google auctions off words to advertisers through its AdWords and AdSense platforms can have a serious effect on the spread of viral ‘fake’ news stories, political click-bait and the information returned from search queries.

While concentrating on exploiting language for money, Google have in effect let money control the narrative.

So what we have now is a new linguistic economy in which the overriding motive for the regulation of language is not state political control (as in Orwell’s dystopia), but of private capital gain. In the way the system works at the moment, with Google controlling the circulation of words, the potential for political influence comes often as a side effect of the economic incentive, through Macedonian teenagers exploiting AdSense with lucrative ‘fake news farms’, or through manipulation of the search engine optimization industry. While concentrating on exploiting language for money, Google have in effect let money control the narrative.

So what is the answer? Well the way I have been tackling it is through a creative project which aims to critique and make visible the workings of linguistic capitalism in a way people can really understand, while also highlighting the ongoing consequences not only on the political and cultural discourse, but also on language itself. While Orwell’s vision of Newspeak made it impossible for certain words to be used “for literary purposes or for political or philosophical discussion”, I wanted to imagine what literary language is ‘worth’ to Google. The project is called {poem}.py — which is a play on the fusion of poetry and code (.py being the file extension for Python code used in the project). What I do is copy and paste a poem from the web and feed it through Google using the AdWords keyword planner, which gives suggested bid prices for words to advertisers who want to compete in the AdWords auction. If they win the auction, the advertisers then pay Google the winning bid amount each time the advert is clicked on. Having collected the suggested bid prices, the poem is then reconstructed with the Python code and printed out as a receipt on a second hand receipt printer.

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{poem}.py : www.linguisticgeographies.com

As well as being little scraps of analogue art in themselves, commenting on the ‘value’ of creative language in an age of machine learning and artificial intelligence, the poem-receipts — and other experiments with the keyword planner such as recording the prices of poems or lyrics over a period of time — also help reveal the politics lurking beneath the algorithms. The suggested bid prices for words are constantly fluctuating, and differ dramatically from location to location, so a poem can be worth more or less at certain times and in certain places. Alan Ginsberg’s poem America has had an interesting economic trajectory over the course of the US presidential election, for example, but more specifically, very interesting things seem to be happening to the value of the word ‘prosperity’ (from Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars), which appears to coincide with a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign by the libertarian organization Americans for Prosperity.

The project therefore not only shows how political words become monetised (the word ‘Chilcot’ rose from zero to £1.86 immediately after the Iraq Inquiry report was published in July 2016) but, as the comparison with Newspeak shows, also highlights the potential for money to influence the cultural and political discourse. If you wanted to argue against this theory, you could of course offer a similar response to that of the biased or stereotyped search results or auto-completions — i.e. it is just a reflection of society. Indeed, I have had people defend the AdWords model with a Hayekian argument that Google’s linguistic marketplace is merely an ingenious way of producing the knowledge and wisdom needed for the efficient distribution of goods. I think this is a really interesting point. The knowledge produced by a linguistic marketplace is really interesting, but equally as interesting is that the Hayek wisdom of markets argument only stacks up if the linguistic marketplace were to be seen as a free market based on unhindered competition rather than the centrally planned and monopoly controlled way Google oversees the market, for example setting lowest bid prices or censoring certain words.

Google’s marketplace of words is far from ‘free’ in economic terms. It’s not just the suggested bid price that determines the actual ‘sale’ price of a word. There are many other opaque ranking factors which decide the result of an AdWords auction and determine the monetary value, frequency and popularity of the language which populates the web. And there is also the added effect of Google AdGrants, an ostensibly philanthropic enterprise which gives millions of dollars (up to $10,000 per month) of free AdWords to around 20,000 non-profit organizations and charities. Organizations that qualify for AdGrants can only bid up to $2 a click for their words, and the system does enable small and poorly funded charities to raise their profiles on the search results pages, which it would seem churlish to criticize, but as well as being able to register this ‘in kind’ advertising as charitable (and therefore tax free) donations, Google recently removed its previously held caveat that this free advertising could not be used for religious or political purposes.

Is there anything more dystopian than a neoliberal thought police?

Today the linguistic market can in effect be undercut by organizations that hold charity status such as political think-tanks, the philanthropic arms of large corporations, and — perhaps most significantly — by government approved schemes to counter extremism which ‘redirect’ certain search queries such as ‘JOIN ISIS’ or ‘JIHAD’ by ‘buying’ hundreds of targeted keywords. The neoliberal logic behind these schemes is quite startling. The Redirect Method, which is run under the auspices of Google’s Jigsaw ideas wing, uses the AdWords system to serve adverts which aim to redirect would be jihadists to counter narratives and anti-Isis YouTube footage. Despite the distinctly dystopian name (which to me is reminiscent not only of Orwell’s thought police, but of the Ludovico Technique in A Clockwork Orange), Jigsaw sees no problem in:

“using the same tactic that businesses use to advertise to consumers….. the same way a shoe company might serve ads against the keywords “running” or “jogging”… while this method fuels a trillion-­dollar ecommerce sector, it’s hardly been used as a tool to provide alternative messages to people who are looking for extremist content online.”

As always with Google, it’s hard to judge the effect its systems and platforms have on society, politics and culture because of the technically impenetrable and opaque nature of its algorithms. But what my research shows, is that language, thought, and presumably actions are being increasingly driven and constructed with the logic of the market. Words have taken on different functions and different values, the agential and political effects of which we are only just beginning to experience.

Control of language equals control of thought, and it is private capital and tech companies who are at those controls. Going back to Orwell, can there be anything more dystopian than a privately owned, neoliberal thought police?

Pip Thornton @Pip__T


Pip Thornton

Written by

@Pip__T writing up PhD on Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction @ Royal Holloway, University of London. Blogs @ www.linguisticgeographies.com

Pip Thornton

Written by

@Pip__T writing up PhD on Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction @ Royal Holloway, University of London. Blogs @ www.linguisticgeographies.com

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