Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona : Misusing Technologies

Misusing technologies, summary of the transcript of a lecture given at CHIPS Seminar 2 (Consumer Hybrid Information Products and Services). Published in Report on CHIPS seminar 2, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona.

The “Google Adwords happening” was a web performance where text ad were delivered whenever someone entered search term like “symptom” on the Google search engine. In my website I outline my ideas about Semantic Capitalism, and show that the word “sex” is worth $3,837 and the word “art” $410. The underlying lesson, however, is both commercial and cultural. Words have value, largely because they connect potential customers to merchants selling what they are looking for.

In the past I have been a researcher in physics, but now I am a net artist. This means that I make art pieces which only exist within the network. The pieces themselves are fluctuating and ephemeral, they look different each time you look at them, and you can’t download them. I take material from existing technologies to examine what connects people to media and media to people.

This presentation describes a poetry happening which I launched on Google. I opened an account on Google Adwords for five dollars, which enables you to buy keywords and publish short text ads instantaneously on Google. It’s a very affordable system. I decided to divert this from its utilitarian function and to disseminate poetry on the web. I was alone in front of my computer, and I knew that I could address the hundreds of thousands of people on Google looking for resources. I didn’t want to do a normal literary enterprise, so I chose to publish text which was close to onomatopoeia or nonsense. Every time anyone entered “symptom” into Google they could see my poem. In all 12,000 people saw my poem for the first keyword. My objective was to target happenings precisely.

After a few hours I started to receive mails from Google, which told me that the content of my ads did not correspond to the content of my website, that the click rate was too low, and that I should rewrite the poems. After 24 hours my poems were definitively suspended. They could see that I was having fun with their system, so they threw me out. I was annoyed, but then I realised that this was an essential part of the piece. I realized that the censorship was purely based on economic grounds, not moral, and this led to the understanding that I had discovered a new relationship in which each word has a price which fluctuates on the market. The most expensive word, for example, is “free”.

I wrote this story and sent it to a net art portal (rhizome.org). It was then linked on slashdot.org and fhe first day 20,000 people saw this text, which I found very impressive. When I look at the diversity of my statistics then I realise that maybe I did something interesting in the interplay of many fields. Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page published a paper in which they describe their development of the Google search engine, and it is available at http://www7.scu.edu.au/programme/fullpapers/1921/com1921.htm

The Google News service which they built recentely analyses the news sources and decide what is important for you. To me this is a serious matter. Last year I did a piece called Fascinum. It shows the pictures which are the most viewed on the different national Yahoo websites.

Jeremy Rifkin has written a book called “The Age of Access” which is relevant to this. (http://resurgence.gn.apc.org/issues/rifkin207.htm). Nike, for example, is a research and design studio with a sophisticated marketing system, and basically it sells concepts. The price of words is also an achievement of the capitalist system. Language is the root of our being and we cannot go beyond this.

Two other pieces of mine also use Google’s technology. In Non-weddings the idea was to question the relation between words and images. You can change the words if you want, and the piece fetches images related to both words. There is a random aspect which is very important.

Epiphany is based on Joyce’s view of an epiphany, to show that the web is a sum of all the speeches of mankind. This program goes to fetch different pieces of text related to the input of the user and brings them back. The web is a pool of words and sentences and images, and I try to use them or misuse them.

Q: I couldn’t understand why the second comment from Google in response to the Adwords Happening gave you the idea that it was only commercial use. I rather thought that when you showed it that it was more for efficiency of the system.

Yes, but efficiency is directly linked to the value of the system. If everybody does what I did, then their system is devalued. Eventually it could have worked another way, if you had had links on the page to any kinds of pages meant in the idea. If you had a first level link which said, ‘languages for sale’, and then links, then you might make more links. The click rate being low is simply my being too low in the market of words.

Q: Another misuse is Google bashing. In this game the challenge is to enter two search terms into Google, and to find one unique reference, and then register your pair of words.

Yes, that’s interesting.

Q: Do you happen to know what clickthrough rate Google are expecting.

No, I don’t.

Q: It seems that you were relying on the lack of intelligence on the web. Then Google showed the start of intelligent organisation, and then cut you off. As the web becomes more intelligent, the games will change.

It is amazing what Google have done. They have made this quasi intelligent tool, and I was about to reach a blank point of this tool, and I discovered this to be interesting. To me the idea that words have a price is amazing. That the ultimate cultural foundation of what we are has become an economy is a reality which will become more and more important.

Q: Do you have some evidence that Google cut you off by hand.

I don’t have definitive evidence, but each time I saw people from Google I got an email. I should have been able to do more trials, but I was really cut off very quickly. There were a lot of trials between the search engines, so it was a sensitive moment. There was also the scientology search issue, buying words to get clickthrough. To me the important thing was that I was able understand that the censorship is based on economic grounds.

Q: I think Google are the best in taking advantage of social tools. The pages are rated according to how other people have made links. their software is not intelligent, it is well designed.

Yes, they have launched another system which is called Google answers, it is a giant forum with a market economy.

Q: What do you think will happen in the context of a more semantic web. Can you imagine what could be done to avoid this kind of default in the future. Isn’t that the same problem?

There will always be a blind point that the computer won’t be able to handle. I’m not specially interested in the semantic web. I don’t think it will add anything especially important.

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