NEWSPEAK 2019: Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 2019

Installation by PIP THORNTON & RAY INTERACTIVE at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 2019.

Building on artist and researcher Pip Thornton’s existing Critique of Linguistic Capitalism work and {poem}.py artistic intervention, Newspeak (2019) visualises the words of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as if they were commodities being shown on a stock market ticker-tape, with prices for each word based on their fluctuating economic value as the keywords which buy advertising space on Google’s search results pages.

Using live data scraped from Google Ads (formerly AdWords), the text of the book scrolls across the InSpace City Screens in Edinburgh, projected from inside the building by seven linked projectors. Stock-market style red and green arrows indicate whether the words have gone up or down in the linguistic market since the last time they appeared in the text.

  “The Google algorithm becomes the surveillant reader of every word we put through the search engine”

Evoking Orwell’s vision of Newspeak as a language that “could only be used for one purpose” (i.e. in this case, a commercial one), the project is a political critique of the power held by Google as mediators of information. The installation is based around the idea of ‘linguistic capitalism’ (Kaplan 2014), which is the process by which Google auctions words to advertisers in return for the top spots on the search engine results page. Every time a user searches for a word on Google, a mini auction takes place, and the advertiser with the highest bid wins the auction and pays Google the price of the winning bid every time someone clicks on their advert. Prices shown in Newspeak 2019 reflect the ‘suggested bid prices’ provided through Google’s keyword planner tool, which is used by advertisers to guide their entry into the auction.

This monetisation of language is how Google earns its money. Every word which passes through the search engine is stripped of any other meaning, context, or authorial intent apart from the most commercially viable version of that word. It is impossible to search for words in the context you intended. Indeed, every result that comes out of the search engine has been infused with market logics, as the words can only be realised in an economic context. Even so called ‘organic’ search results are infused with these market logics, as Google’s Keyword price predictions are used as SEO tools to create more effective online content.

Using Orwell’s 1984 as a text is therefore a critique of how powerful Google has become through this control over the context and value of language. The control of language in 1984 by the Big Brother state has strong parallels with the way Google mediates the flow of data and information through the search engine. The Google algorithm becomes the surveillant reader of every word we put through the search engine, with complete control of the context in which those words are used.

The installation was shown as part of the Design Informatics DATA LATES exhibition at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019. The text of 1984 was displayed periodically in the hours of darkness throughout the Festival, with one complete run through of the book on the final day, which took over 20 hours.



Visual and technical development: Brendan McCarthy and Sam Healy, Ray Interactive

Video credits: Lucas Chih Peng Kao 高智鵬

(additional clip: Michael Sturrock @MichaelSturrock)

Photo credit: Maxime Ragni

Project support from Creative Informatics with EFI Research Award funding

DATA LATES was produced by Dave Murray-Rust, Jane Macdonald and Suzy Glass.

Nineteen Eighty-Four copyright © the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell, by permission of A M Heath & Co Ltd.


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