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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.

This encounter of semantics and statistical analysis is already a fruitful method implemented in social softwares such as del.icio.us or Flickr, under the form of tags.


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.


Powerofwords 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?"

Read the whole interview here and find the AdWords Happenings there.

Adword 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.

12:38 AM | Permalink | TrackBack

Verge - New media art symposium in Stockholm on April 8

Verne_1 An international symposium for New Media Art at  Moderna Museet in Stockholm on the 8th of April 2006.

The goals of the Collegium are:

To create an international and interdisciplinary forum at the Ph.D. level by expanding the field of artistic research in connection with art, the natural sciences, the humanities, and technology.

04:31 PM | Permalink

(Under)mining open source


A good thread has developed over the the last week on the iDC listserv (you can go here to subscribe) inspired by an Infoworld article titled "Opening Up iTunes U," in which writer Jon Udell discusses Apple's use of proprietary standards, such as the m4a files used by iTunes.  May find this practice is problematic, in part because Apple has struck deals with academic institutions to distribute podcasts of lectures through the iTunes store, but, because of Apple's "walled garden" standards, only Apple hardware and software can play the podcasts, striking down the academic notion of open collaboration and distribution.

Some posters on the listserv were unsuprised, noting Apple's history of designing software for its hardware, effectively shutting out much of the computing world.  There are many reasons -- financial and technical -- why they did this, but the fact remains that Apple doesn't have a long history of using or supporting open source or open standards.

What does this mean for the education world?  For one, we are in large part slaves to proprietary software.  Andrea Polli pointed out that "it is more and more apparent that digital art/media in academia has been hijacked by the software industry."  To be competitive, a program must be able to afford expensive software; the inability to stay up to date inhibits some programs' abilities to keep up to date with professional and aesthetic trends (I know this from the experience of my own graduate program).

Some have turned to FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open-Source software) to help alleviate these problems, but a conscious rejection of mainstream software raises important questions:

- How must we revise software budgets and our own expectations to accommodate the steeper learning curve and narrower expressiveness afforded by open source tools?

- What is the nature of a new media program?  Should it focus more on technical tools to help students get industry jobs, or should it center on arts education?  Trebor wrote about this for fibreculture.

- In Andrea Polli's words, "in our embrace of open source, can and should we expect students to learn commercial industry tools outside of school if they want industry design jobs or to take unrelated jobs until they are at an art  director/non tool-specific professional level?"

- If we do embrace FLOSS more readily, what resources must we devote to documentation?

As Tiffany Holmes mentioned in the thread, Apple offers the double-edged sword of pre-installed, easy-to-use software.  The problem is that although software like iMovie or Garageband possess shallower learning curves than Final Cut Pro or Pro Tools, and are thus more easily picked up by new technology users, they can also have the adverse effect of scaring such users away from learning programming or the FLOSS tools that, while free, are more difficult to use.

There's much more, and you should go to the thread to read it all.

08:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Email traffic patterns can reveal ringleaders

By looking for patterns in email traffic, a new technique can quickly identify online communities and the key people in them. The approach could mean terrorists or criminal gangs give themselves away, even if they are communicating in code or only discussing the weather.


"If the CIA or another intelligence agency has a lot of intercepted email from people suspected of being part of a criminal network, they could use the technique to figure out who the leaders of the network might be," says Joshua Tyler of Hewlett-Packard's labs in Palo Alto, California. At the very least, it would help them prioritise investigations, he says.


Emailcommunities Tyler and his colleagues Dennis Wilkinson and Bernardo Huberman, study email communication patterns and communities among networks of people. The trio wondered if they could identify distinct communities within Hewlett-Packard's research lab simply by analysing the IT manager's log of nearly 200,000 internal emails sent by 485 employees over a couple of months.


They plotted the links between people who had exchanged at least 30 emails with each other, and found the plot included 1110 links between 367 people. In a network as large and complex as this, the plot alone will not tell you which groups people are.


11:25 AM | Permalink

Couples in Conflict or Cooperation?

Sexselect <http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2006/03/overthrowing_darwins_number_tw.php>

Darwin's primary legacy, the theory of evolution, has robustly withstood years of scientific challenges. But now a team of Stanford researchers has published a paper in Science claiming they can top Darwin's second monster: sexual selection theory.

The Stanford group says sexual selection theory wrongly models interactions between the sexes as competitive. The group has a new theory, social selection, which models mate selection as a cooperative game where parties seek to maximize group welfare.

08:41 PM | Permalink