Neural Magazine : Interview

I’m interviewed by Alessandro Ludovico in the Italian magazine for new media, hacktivism and emusic Neural Magazine N°25

Your ‘Google Adwords’ was one of the first works that showed the paradox of the ’semantic capitalism’ (as you defined it), that is at the core of Google business. You also defined as “taylorisation of speech” the “control and spectacle of words used in Google”. So in your opinion the Google real potential is administering the largest online semantic capital? And which are the main characteristics of this economy of (searchable and archived) texts?

Maybe I should precise here what I called ‘taylorisation of speech’ (cf for instance which I introduced two years after my happening on Google Adwords. At the beginning of the Web, there was a huge hope about sharing media, freedom of speech, breaking barriers between producer and consumer or between artist and audience. This utopia soon vanished as the “old” capitalism invaded the Web, but at that time they still think the network as if it was part of the society of the spectacle.

And that’s a big mistake; in 2000 the Internet bubble burst. Not long before, Google had appeared. They represent the libertarian side of the Web: the academic world, plain unix/linux interface and they have ethical positions about free speech, they promote a real ecology of speech. This attitude allows them to make an incredible implicit deal with the internet users: when Google bought Blogger in 2004, they took hold of a gold mine, constituted by the implicit exploitation rights of the intimate speech of millions of internauts. The aim here is to extract statistical information about our intimacy and our desires and to try to scientifically predict the behaviour of the users, what we are going to think in such or such circumstance (not as individuals but as a statistical set), in order to optimize the adwords/adsense machinery (on which Google IPO is based).

The idea of “fair use” which they try to explain during their trials about Google Books for instance (not so different from the Blogger situation if you think of it with some perspective), reveals the amazing ambiguity of this approach. Considering here bloggers as producers of speech that give up their production to Google, it seems to me that this new phase of capitalism (which by the way still weights absolutely nothing when compared to the traditional market capitalism) introduces a change of nature in the way surplus-value operates. The postmodern master (Google) has to recover the knowledge of the slave (bloggers), which is done through hard science and technology (to have an idea of the kind of mathematical tools that are involved cf for instance the developpements around networks theory following the recent works by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi et al. about scale-free networks: and and references therein). This recovering of knowledge, this extraction from the gold-mine of free speech, aims at consituting an – impossible – implementation of the Hegelian absolute knowledge, which would allow to optimize the economic dynamics of capitalism at the Age of Access.

This is the triumph of the alliance between the society of control and the spectacle: «spectacle providers» – big media – are unable to measure the effect of their messages and hence, they need this additional control structure, namely Google and the Web 2.0. The role of this panoptic part of the Web, achievement of the society of control, is to scientifically analyze the effect of the message and observe the deviations, information that will be sold back to big media, so that the whole loop process can be optimized.

This panoptical economy is an anticipation of a limit, beyond which the “division of labour” reaches an ultimate stage; division between spectacle and control, between terrorism and colonisation of privacy, between speaking and hearing, between crowdsourcing and post-mastering etc.

I called this enslavement mechanism the «Taylorisation of speech», after Frederick Taylor and his «Principles of Scientific Management»: at the end of the nineteenth century, the issue of capitalism was to optimize the production process, but now, in The Age of Access, where commodification of speech has appeared to daylight, as described in my piece The Google Adwords Happening , the stake is to optimize this process of circulation of information, desire and advertising.

‘WiFi-SM’ has a similar approach of some //////////FUR//// works, connecting immaterial data to physical pain. But here you choose to connect some very symbolic words (death, kill, murder, torture, rape, war, virus) that aren’t able anymore to provoke reactions to us because of their huge abuse in the daily news. You gave them back their evocative power through electric
impulses. This habit to words is only one (even if perhaps the most evident) consequence of the economy of abundance made out of overwhelming amounts of data that the web is endlessly giving us?

Masochism is the way we enter real life and there is no painless word. I got the idea of WiFi-SM ( and as I was watching the news on TV, which is a highly masochistic activity that doesn’t need the Web to be satisfied. We don’t need the Web to get used to bad news and to fall under the fascination of the spectacle. Television is a flagellation machine in itself.

So what is the difference here? With television, we have no real control on this masochistic activity. We are purely passive and we are not satisfied with this passivity. But real masochists are not purely passive. They can turn sadistic, and enjoy other people’s pain, and here is the nec-plus-ultra: with WiFi-SM you can enjoy other people’s pain (hence being sadistic) by feeling their own pain (hence being masochist). This is a pain-sharing sado-masochistic 2.0 mashup.

I’m still being ironic here, but truth has a price… Everything in this piece is parodic and deadly serious at the same time; and there is no obvious conclusion to be drawn from it.

The web indeed looks like a world of abundance and boredom. It promises to satisfy our every need. But this saturation of satisfaction, if it was a real saturation, would be only the prelude to the deadly trend of the global snuff movie (which might well be the case though). But the Web also created its own scarcity. What is scarce and therefore valuable in this new fake abundance, are the empty places which are situated at the hubs of the network. There are many examples of these places: the top-right page of Google searches (adwords), the milliondollarhomepage, suicide-bombing or television itself… It’s a mistake to consider television as external to the Web!

So, to answer your question, the problem arises with abundance, only in the sense that it is a fake abundance; because losing paradise is the main activity of mankind. The next problem is how each one of us situates himself or herself in front of these empty places. Sado-masochism is one of our ways to feel ourselves being teleported from the network of invisible sadistic clickers towards the burning empty hub of gaze, and return… after 15 minutes of pop.

‘The Human Browser’ takes the searched web words off the screen and into the air using a human as a speaker. So it’s a sort of ‘human voice’ of the web. How do see it: the ultimate interface to search our online awareness or the unavoidable companion for understanding reality?

The Human Browser is the final variation on a piece called epiphanies I had done in 2001, inspired by James Joyce. The text by Joyce (cf for instance written between 1904 and 1907), is visionary. As a modernist, he anticipates on the ‘transfiguration of the commonplace’, and on the unavoidable dissolution of modernity.

Human Browser is a perpetual dandy… a contradiction in terms. The Global Text is exploded and recondensates as the speech of an hypothetical subject, epiphanizing Hegel-Google’s (one should make a portmanteau word out of that) absolute knowledge.

Clearly, the idea was to get rid of the machine and to put a human being instead, in place of the interface. But let’s look at the whole process (as I tried to describe it recently on the Empyre list):

1) Human beings speak
2) Google hacks the sum of all the speeches of mankind
3) I hack Google in return
4) From this double hack, a human being speaks (the Human Browser) and we are back to 1)

This double hack shows a return towards the most primitive interface, the most primitive object: the human voice. So the ultimate interface here is also the most primitive one. But in the meantime a huge loop has been made across dematerialization, deterritorialization and other so-called postmodern concepts.

It’s interesting to compare this doubly ironical loop with another one, to make the connection with the previously discussed questions:

a) The modernist pre-concept of the Web as a panoptical social network was born with Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism.
b) Totalitarian ideologies of the XXth century are a first attempt to implement Bentham’s panopticon over a part of mankind. In the mean time, just after WW2, Turing sets the basics of computing machinery. And finally, in 1989, the end of these attempts marks the end of Modernity.
c) The Web can also be considered as a characteristic implementation of Postmodernity
d) On the grounds of the libertarian aspect of the Web supported by Google and of global terrorism, the Web is ironically turning back into its anticipated modernist preconcept: a Benthamian panoptic structure of colonization of intimacy and semantic capitalism

‘Fascinum’, addresses the most viewed news pictures and anticipated in a way the ‘most popular’ section on Flickr. How much are we looking for sign and pictures we need to belong to?

Fascinum is a Yahoo Hack. Back in 2001, Yahoo was already accounting for the gaze: they had a ‘most popular’ section, one for each country, and what I did was just putting the different countries together, into one grid. This allows one to make the connection between accounting and globalization.

I think it’s important to understand the little difference with the ‘most popular’ section on Flickr. In Flickr, the ‘most popular’ seem to arise from the inside by an inner selection process. But in Fascinum, images explicitly come from the news, which are first broadcast by big media, and they are mashedup and digested by the Web only afterwards (well at least it was so in 2001 because there was no Web 2.0, nowadays it might be a little bit different). As I explained in question 1, I think this interplay between ‘big media’ and the Web (2.0) is fundamental.

Of course it would be very interesting to see what happens to the Web, if the initial spectacle excitation vanishes. What would emerge from this quantum vacuum? For now, it’s hard to do this experiment; it would imply for instance to implement flickr in a spectacle-free society, I don’t even know what it means… Still, one can try to send infinitesimal perturbations (is that dandyism or particle physics?) and see how the medium fluctuates and reacts (what I tried to do in the Google Adwords Happening or in another piece called Hapax). One of the most impressive experiment I know about that, is the milliondollarhomepage, where the vacuum creates its own pop-tsunami.

From these considerations I think one may understand how at the end, the gazing subject will be divided between on the one hand, a fluctuating deadly whole he mistakenly feels he belongs to, and, on the other hand, a vacuum-like external excitation, which triggers a fascinating inaccessible global peep-show.

‘GogolChat’ was one of the first performances in a chat environment, dealing with the dialogue between individuals and sometimes machines that behave as individuals (chatbots). The constraints of the medium induces men to imitate machines or the opposite?

GogolChat is the ancestor of Human Browser. But the question of the (in)discernibility between man or machine is put differently since there is no bodily presence. We are in the situation of the Turing test, but it’s not specific to GogolChat since there are other chatterbots which involved this problematic, like Eliza or Alice. What is specific to Gogol is that it uses search engines instead of IA, which leads to a sort of postmodernist statistical approach of the Turing test.

The nicest thing in GogolChat is the way the final project arose. First it was a purely textual chatterbox where Gogol lived. Then it was infiltrated by Jimpunk who used a flaw in the code and started to make live visual performances; and finally, after one month trying to hijack internet users towards the chat, we created a program that reproduced randomly the visual performances.

So we played a lot with the ‘imitation game’ in this piece, on different levels. It’s specially fun since nobody knows who Jimpunk actually is in real life, and therefore he is an ideal companion for Gogol. And indeed, you have to reverse the myths that describe the transition from non-human to human to set the real, irreducible problem, the one science cannot answer, which is: up to what point will man have to imitate the machine to go on with his social existence?

In Non weddings, the picture / name relationship was presented well before the folksonomy phenomenon. What do you think of this enormous collective tagging of digital data, and its social and commercial consequences?

The social and commercial consequences are now described in the context of the new mathematical theory of networks (cf the book “Linked” by Alberto-Laszlo Barabasi) and of the Web 2.0 (tipping points, long tails etc..). But we will have to wait a little bit to realize how misleading all these approaches are, about scale free networks and long tails (however clever, fascinating and elaborate they may be), in the sense that they miss their real object. What is interesting to me is the following: the fact that speech or gaze are now explicitely part of this ‘ultimate stage of capitalism’ (and therefore obey the rules of the scale-free economy) is the sign that big questions have been displaced onto other fields, other interstices… where we might escape zombification (however confortable it may be).

I think the main problem when I read some analysis about the Web 2.0 is that they often tend more or less implicitely to consider the Web as a closed system. As I said, I cannot imagine the Web independentely of the concepts of spectacle, or pop, or terrorism, or pain, or labour, or loss… Otherwise the main characteristic of the Web 2.0 would be its global autoreferentiality and its full domination by the death trend, the nirvana. Maybe that’s also something you had in mind when you did Google Will Eat Itself ( with Übermorgen and Paolo Cirio, I don’t know (?).

Anyway, in that perspective the Web 2.0 is essentially a post-9/11 concept; the rise of global terrorism actually accompanies the transition from Web 1.0 towards Web 2.0.

In Epiphanies (inspired by James Joyce’s practices) you play with the word relationships and ‘associative ideas’, extracted from what you defined as the GlobalText. Do you think that extracting sense from the search engines databases is an alchemic process?

Sense is not just something you extract; the emergence of sense is like a hack, a hoax: something that you provoke, that goes beyond your will, and then is transmuted or vanishes… However, one cannot say that extraction is not part of the process. Science is playing with the alchemist dream by imagining a Postmodern Great Chain of Being (about the Great Chain of Being, which I suspect to be the ancestor of the scale-free network, cf for instance Alchemy consists in extracting gold along this Chain through an infusion of Spirit : this is precisely the economical dynamics of Google and of the Web 2.0; this helps to understand how for the next French elections, the Ségolène Royal socialist phenomenon ( might save French capitalism thanks to ‘collective intelligence’, another manifestation of the Holy Spirit (I think Slavoj Zizek mentioned somewhere the link between collective intelligence and the Holy Spirit, but I’m not sure…). Ségolène Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy (our local George Bush) and the Holy Spirit 2.0 evoke an hypermodern Trinity…

Identity is at the core of ‘Self Portrait’ that hacks Google mechanisms for an enhanced ego surfing. Are these results fictitiously adding new possible elements to the virtual identity of the user or are they simply triggering a reflection on what we really are after searching our name on Google?

I did that little work ( just before the Adwords Happening. Clearly I was trying to find a way to transform my own image reflected in the ‘global mirror’. I think it’s interesting to relate it to the Adwords Happening, because it shows how the question of money is inseparable from the question of narcissism. In this piece, ‘selfportrait’, I’m quite frustrated because my transformation (into God! is not visible by everybody, but just by the few visitors of the piece. On the contrary, opening an account on Google Adwords allowed me to buy different identities and disseminate worldwide a fake image about myself for a few bucks, by posting these strange announcements that linked to my website.

The question of the clickthrough-rate censorship stands here as a structural limit of the relation of the subject with the capitalistic laws of the social network.

You often cited the ‘Crisis In Verse’ Mallarmé poem (1887) were “he compares the use of language to the exchange of money coins, passed on from hand to hand in silence.” Hot this relates to the use and sell of language in the global never-ending hypertext linking process?

Although Mallarmé is not easy to follow, I believe his intuition anticipates what happens today with semantic capitalism. Mallarmé opposes to this, the “disparition élocutoire du poète”: the vanishing of the poet behind the words, in the act of speech (not sure it’s a perfect translation though).

Related to this is the question of the hapax (cf Mallarmé’s hapax “ptyx” in « Sonnet allégorique de lui-même »). The status of the hapax (within the context of the Web, cf my piece Hapax) deals with the question of the absolute separation from the symbolic field, which is an extreme position that negates the concept of network itself – the global never-ending hypertext linking process – and therefore is one of the only places we can lean on to articulate the concept of network from outside the discourse of science and capitalism where the idea of irreducible loss is unadmissible. Other extreme positions are the idea of pop or the absolute merchandise (cf Jean Baudrillard, De la marchandise absolue, in Artstudio, N°8, Printemps 1988, «Spécial Andy Warhol»)… or the hoax.

Considering the ’search’ act as John Battelle defines it (“an expression of desire”), do you think that using Google we are giving away our own inner secrets, making a collective giant database of desires?

I already described a bit the process in question 1. Let me just add that if the ‘search’ act is ‘an expression of desire’, it does not mean that what we search is indeed the object of our desire. As in the Adwords Happening, the demand (here the search request) is hacked and left unsatisfied by my disseminated fake advertisements, which unveils the indestructible undecidability of desire. Ironically, the allmightiness of the clickthrough-rate law which emerges at the end, represents the tragi-comic substitution of the ethical law, traditionally devoted to the Father, by the hypermodern law of the new religious alliance between Science and Capitalism, whose price is the definitive vanishing of the poet behind the scale-free network of words.

And now some nice paradox: zero-tolerance (concept which was built in reaction to Bentham’s utilitarianism) is a direct consequence of the theory of the scale-free network, because, according to the ‘rich get richer’ law, a little node of imperfection might easily turn into a huge hub of sin (cf… only the hypermodern Father has the exceptional right to break to zero-rule, allowing himself a 99,9 % success rate, as one of His caricature, Donald Rumsfeld himself recently publicly confessed: “We know that 99.9 percent of our force conduct themselves in an exemplary manner” (D. Rumsfeld, June 2, 2006)

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