The Power of Words and "Semantic Capitalism"
Research in semantic web and in text processing provides some very useful tools of classification that happen to become tools of criticism, as recent new media works have demonstrated recently.
Tags are an alternative to traditional data classification as a real-time visualizer of how language is used in communities through keywords: a keyword (and the ideas and objects behind it) has a reality only to the extent that it is picked up frequently. The more people choose a keyword to tag their pictures or their bookmark, the more likely the tag will appear on a "popular tag" page. From there, it will be picked up more frequently due to exposure; thus it will grow bigger among other tags.
The access to information in these social softwares is determined by trends and rhetoric. It is always a surprise for me to find out that a picture of my cat playing with my swimming suit and that I tagged "bikini", as been visited 10 times more than any other of my exquisite pictures. See del.icio.us most popular tags and Flicker's tag page.
Two important blogs have recently accounted for such experiments in semantics and statistics, but with a critical perspective, with an application to the rules of web searching, or to the rhetorics of political speeches.
On the Information Aesthetics blog, the visualizer project called "The Power of Words, a Text Analysis of Political Discourse During Times of Crisis" by MMEDIA: a textual analysis visualization of keywords mentioned during famous speeches (ranging from G.W.Bush to W. Churchill). The visual display breaks down the rhetoric, takes the words out of context, & treats them at face value in order to analyze the breakdown of content. Each group of metaphors (e.g. decline, controversy, war, imagination) is color-coded, & sized based on frequency.
On We-Make-Money-Not-Art, an interview of French net-artist Christophe Bruno who defines his work as "diverting global symbolic structures like Google search engine or the blogosphere [using] language as a medium". His has gained recognition for the Ad-Word Happening project (rewarded at the 2003 Ars Electronic festival). In this interview he asks "What is speech at the "age of access", at the age of globalization and "taylorization of discourse"?". Here are a few quotes:
"It's clear to me that the history of Internet goes from utopia to dystopia. It started with a hope about sharing ideas, sharing media, free speech etc. and ended (well it's not over of course) with the commodification of language. On the political point of view, there is a clear will, from any power, to lock some of the libertarian aspects of the Internet. But what interests me are the economic dynamics that are in play here and how they interact with the political and social context. For instance, the relation of Google to free speech is very interesting: in fact free speech is the precondition for them to track and analyse the intimacy of the millions of bloggers. In other words Google's ethics of free speech (although they sacrificed this rule in China) lies in its economic dynamics, they need it to optimise their adwords/adsense system. (...) I called this loop mechanism between control and spectacle, the "Taylorisation of speech". (...)
Google.art, let's call it like that, brings its own questions about the promethean myth of the separation between man and machine, which is nothing but the long term question: what is the Subject of speech?"
Christophe Bruno AdWords Happenings plays with the rules of the Sponsored Links service proposed by Google. He wrote little " spam poems" in the ad boxes that appear selectively to the user according to his personal search. (better picture of this here).
Clicking on these links would of course redirect the user to Bruno's website. Bruno then collected enough data to draw tables rendering the values of a number of keywords: their price relatively to their use (you click, he pays). After being rebuked by Google for not playing the game of advertisement, Bruno was then able to figure some of the rules of what he calls a "generalized semantic capitalism".
This is interesting in the light of Theodor Adorno's definition of the jargon: "The jargon has as its disposal a modest number of words which are received as promptly as signals" (The Jargon of Authenticity). The idea of signal points out to this other idea that a message is encoded. This encoding can be seen as the digital form of jargon: the rules of encoding do promote something, but it is not see-through, thus it can easily become a medium of control (cf. Benjamin's critique of the use of cinema and radio under authoritarian regimes). Adorno was criticizing the social values and political implications behind the jargon, and Christophe Bruno, in the era of spam, is interested in the economic values:
"One of the most interesting fact is that we have reached a situation in which any word of any language has its price, fluctuating according to the laws of the market."
These experiments play, to some extent, with the idea of early wittgensteinian idea of language as image - a proposition shows the structure of what it is stating, the factuality of it. But in these cases the artists deal with a language that has been devoided of factuality (let alone of reality): what they state is just an empty structure, a mere rhetoric. In these two works, the rhetoric hides a very complex structures of vested interests that gain efficiency through a visual manipulation of words. The text dimension of the Internet becomes literally a space in which you find your path, or where you are forced into routes, through smart visual manipulations.
Both Bruno and MMEDIA work on unraveling these hidden structures.They seem to take the idea of fact, by interpreting factuality in discourse, as an ideological event. The notion of event is indeed highly ideological in the sense that it is based on social conventions and political or economical rules. The Wikipedia entry for "Event" sums it up: "A significant occurrence or happening", i.e. an arbitrary meaning meshed into language and action. Our textual navigation is determined by these pseudo-events, thus shaping our habits.
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