Abstract Pip Thornton June4 2018

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A critique of linguistic capitalism (and an artistic intervention)


In an age of ubiquitous digital technology and information exchange, the selling of words has never been more lucrative. Digitised words are capable of carrying far more than linguistic meaning, and as such are valuable commodities in the advertising marketplace. Nobody knows this better than Google, which made its fortune from the auctioning of words through Adwords; a form of ‘linguistic capitalism’ (Kaplan, 2014) in which the contextual or linguistic value of language is negated at the expense of its exchange value. But what are the residual cultural or political effects of this algorithmic exploitation of language? As the linguistic data we create and upload is tailored to court search algorithms, and keywords take on referential values unanchored to narrative context, digitised language has perhaps reached peak performativity (Lyotard, 1979); linguistic input narrowed and restricted in order to achieve maximum financial output. This paper seeks to explore what happens to language (and therefore the wider discourse) when its passage through digital space is mediated by money. But more than that, this paper is also an attempt to make the side-effects of linguistic capitalism visible through artistic intervention. The politics which lurks within the algorithmic hierarchies and logic of the search engine industry is often hidden by the sheer ubiquity and in some way the aesthetics of the Google empire. The paper will therefore also explain and demonstrate my own attempt to reverse this performative logic of production (Lyotard, 1979) in the form of a research/art project called {poem}.py which I hope goes some way in rescuing language from the clutches of the market; re-politicising it (Benjamin, 1936), and reclaiming it for art.


Pip Thornton is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Cyber Security at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is researching Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction, and is co-supervised by the Department of Geography. Her artistic intervention {poem}.py has been exhibited in Edinburgh and London , and was recently featured in WIRED UK.