The key to data processing

I had an unexpected (and puzzling) email a few weeks ago which said how much the author had enjoyed my article in the Wiener Zeitung (The Vienna Newspaper). This was news to me. I’m having trouble publishing anywhere, let alone in an Austrian broadsheet – but after some investigation I found the article in question. It is a lovely piece by Adrian Lobe entitled Stichwortgeber der Datenmaschinerie (The Key to Data Processing), in which he really engages with my work critiquing Google’s exploitation of language for profit and also the methodology I have been developing through the {poem}.py project.

The article is written in German (obviously) – but here is a translation* of the last two paragraphs:

The criticism that Google reduces everything to its marketability and sees in information above all advertising potential, is not new. Many Internet critics have already referred to this, and it is not what Thornton’s project is about. It’s about what Google does with our language. What techniques does Google use to highlight specific terms, which does it hide? How is language structured within algorithmic orders? Is a Google search about communication at all? Any language or search input lands immediately in a server farm and is there evaluated by algorithms and deprived of semantics and ambivalence. Are our search queries perhaps only keywords for data processing?

Thornton reverses this non-dimensional information flow (and thus the advertising logic) by making machine output itself the starting point of (her) own, human investigations. It is also about the eminence of our own narrative. Frank Schirrmacher once wrote that we are no longer described in words but in mathematical models and formulas. Thornton’s project makes an important contribution to reflect our own speechlessness in the face of algorithmic agenda setting and automated text production.

I particularly like the last line, and will continue striving “to reflect our own speechlessness in the face of (an) algorithmic agenda” as I begin to write up my thesis.

*as a (very relevant) aside, this episode also highlights just how indispensible Google has become for so many of our daily tasks. I tried translating the article through a few different on-line tools, but Google had by far the best translation. It wasn’t perfect, however, so I dredged up my rusty A-Level German and dusted off my Collins Gem to fill in the gaps. I also would have had trouble locating the article without Google News. I know Google is not the Internet, but it really does feel like it sometimes…



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