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{poem}.py : A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism

{poem}.py explores the concept of ‘linguistic capitalism’, the process of commodifying words on which Google’s vast wealth is built. Google’s AdWords platform auctions words to advertisers in exchange for prime positions in its search results. Opening bids are guided by algorithmically calculated ‘suggested bid prices’. Each time a word is searched on Google a mini-auction takes place, and the keyword is sold to the highest bidder. Google then earns the price of the winning bid every time the ‘paid’ search result is clicked on. This intervention makes visible the tension between the aesthetic value and the exchange value of digitised language. Words are taken out of context; allowed no other meaning but the most economically lucrative. In Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ poem, for example, the word ‘cloud’ is relatively expensive. However, its value relates not to Wordsworth’s vision of a Cumbrian landscape, but to ‘cloud computing’. The project thus argues that our vocabulary is controlled and restricted by Google, which has serious consequences for the integrity of online discourse and the dissemination of information through Google’s platforms. Fusing poetry and code and Google data, {poem}.py scrapes poetry from the web and feeds the words through Google’s Keyword planner. The now monetised words are then processed through Python code, and reformatted as a receipt, with a cryptographic key as an authorisation code. The poems are then printed out as analogue receipts.

Showcased at Beyond 2019, a collection of framed receipts were displayed. In addition, the receipt printer sits on a plinth and is powered by a hidden Raspberry Pi, which activates randomly to churn out poem-receipts, which spill onto the floor. As an exbibit/live demo, {poem}.py thus takes back control of poetic language, reclaiming it from the algorithmic marketplace, and re-appropriating it as art.

Pip Thornton is a post-doctoral research associate in Creative Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral thesis, Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction: A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism, put forward a theoretical, political and artistic critique of Google’s search and advertising platforms.

She has presented in a variety of venues including the London Science Museum, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Alan Turing Institute and at the transmediale festival of art and digital culture in Berlin. Her work has featured in WIRED UK and New Scientist, and a collection from her artistic intervention {poem}.py is currently on display at the Open Data Institute in London. A new exhibition was shown at the Glucksman Gallery in Cork, Ireland as part the 2019 Electronic Literature Organisation Conference & Media Arts Festival.

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