Author: Kotryna Zukauskaite
Degree: MA Arts and Cultural Enterprise
University: Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London
First published as Assessment Evidence for Unit 1 (unredacted): 2017
My take on Groys, B. (2012) Google: words beyond grammar. Hatje Cantz. dOCUMENTA (13): 100 Notizen.
GOOGLE'S VERSION OF WORD MEANING
“Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination”
– Wittgenstein (2009, p.7, N.6)
The purpose of this review is to critically evaluate different approaches toward the meaning of words in the context of the Google Search engine. In order to do so, the paper puts Google in a broader context of language philosophy, including recent literature on the subject, as well as most acknowledged and utopian ideas about the use of words from the pre-computer era, supporting and contradicting Google's self-defined and no less utopian mission of developing a “perfect search engine” (Google, 2017). The review will mostly focus on individuals’ use of words in the Google Search engine; its role in curating and shaping the meaning of words in an algorithmically defined context; and how Google affects its user, especially their creative capacities. These issues are important pieces in understanding the use of language in the digital era and who controls it— pre-programmed media or a user of such media. However, the review will not explore commercial aspects of the issue, including Google Translate’s role in (re-)defining word meanings in between different languages.
Firstly, it is important to define the Google Search engine. It seems that everyone has fallen into their own traps of interpretation of meaning when it comes to the words Google Search. For example, Groys convicted it for “betrayal of [the] utopian dream of word liberation” (2011, p.14), while Pariser's hopes of transparent, “freewheeling global Utopia” (2012, p.10) were smashed by his own investigation into the logic of the Google Search algorithm. However, Google has been incautiously open about its own utopian vision: until recently, the company's official webpage defined its mission as developing an algorithm that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want” (Google, 2017). This very sentence—no longer accessible on Google's renewed webpage—could be taken as an admission of subjectivity by Google and its turn toward the radical personalization of meaning (Pariser, 2012).
Secondly, it should be noted that the issue of personalized results in the search for meaning was investigated long before Google. Wittgenstein raised the question of understanding what another person means as follows: “But do you really explain to the other person what you yourself understand? Don't you leave it to him to guess the essential thing? You give him examples – but he has to guess their drift, to guess your intention. – Every explanation which I can give myself I give to him too. – “He guesses what I mean” would amount to: “various interpretations of my explanation come to his mind, and he picks one of them”. So in this case he could ask; and I could and would answer him” (2009, p.90, N.210). At first sight, in the digital era, this elaboration sounds like a “dialogue with the world primarily via the Internet [...] predominantly defined by Google” (Groys, 2011, pp.4-5). But the controversy is caused by the fact that, in opposite to the language users defined by Wittgenstein, Google users are not completely free to pick their own meanings, as the results are being algorithmically manipulated (Pariser, 2012; Groys, 2011). There is no equal dialogue, as users have no tools to give any feedback to Google. In other words, the use of words in Google Search does not exactly correspond with their use in spoken language (Groys, 2011).
There seems to be a general consensus on Google Search’s algorithm being a manipulative curator of words. However, Groys focuses on the general conspiracy of Google being a powerful though opaque curatorial machine, threatening the “free migration of liberated words through the totality of social space” (2011, p.16) and surprisingly neglects the publicly accessible information about Google's algorithm being centered around users’ own search histories since 2009. Meanwhile, Pariser (2012) narrows the focus down to this very key element. The metaphysical search of truth advocated by Groys (2011) is fundamentally re-defined by a deeper look into Google's role in trapping its users into a “filter bubble” (Pariser, 2012, p.15)—personalized and yet limited meanings of words, not breaking the boundaries of users’ own expectations, presumptions, and stereotypes: “What you've clicked on in the past determines what you see next—a Web history you're doomed to repeat. You can get stuck in a static, ever narrowing version of yourself—an endless you-loop” (2012, p.20). So it could be argued that Wittgenstein's thesis, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (2009, p.25, N.43), is transformed into “the meaning of a word is its previous use in the language” by Google Search.
Moreover, Pariser (2012) argues that meaning defined by one's previous search history is the opposite to a creative process, which is a “context-dependent trait” (2012, p.84), because being always led back to one-sided, self-based contexts leads to a “kind of invisible propaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar” (2012, p.19).1 On one hand, such pre-programmed curatorship of meaning based on Google’s idea of its users is a direct opposite to the radical definition of the creative process by Marinetti, setting a utopian goal of “imagination without strings”2 (1912, n.p.), based on “words-in-freedom” (1912, n.p.) and also advocated by Groys (2011). On the other hand, such filtering of meaning partly correlates with Wittgenstein's definition of the creative process as solving problems “not by coming up with new discoveries, but by assembling what we have long been familiar with” (2009, p.52, N.109).3 In the context of this review, Shirinyan's poetry based on Google Search results and collages made of recycled words by Goldsmith are perfect examples of such reassembling.4 One could even say that the appearance of a curator by definition is a sign of a creative process in progress.
According to the literature sources reviewed, it could be concluded that Google curates the meaning of words (Groys, 2011; Pariser, 2012) and as a result shapes users’ worldviews and creative capacities (Pariser, 2012). But it is also common knowledge that there is more than one way to be creative, so it might be too early to surrender to the newest utopia, as powerful as it seems. Ironically, Marinetti's radical outcry for “imagination without strings” (1912, n.p.) may be as relevant as ever in the era of the Google Search engine.5 Therefore, the battle for control over meaning (and hence, over imagination) expands from dealing with syntax to taking control of the algorithm, and so without being able to provide any feedback to Google Search, what tools are its users left with? Maybe by accepting the logic and limitations of the algorithm, one could push the boundaries of the engine, rather than become overpowered by it. Accordingly, further research could focus on ways to use and build one’s search history creatively in order to shape Google Search, rather than be shaped by it, and investigate if there is a chance for an equal or at least less unilateral dialogue. The question stands, though, if Google reaches its goal to develop an absolute version of itself, would its users be provided with a more powerful tool or would they be tapping into the radical phase of the uncanny valley6 of meaning?
1This is also a definition of being a “Narcissist—a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves” (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2017).
2Strings is equated here with syntax.
3 This juxtaposition between liberating words and creatively reassembling accessible words into a new meaning opens the door to a potentially larger discussion about liberating words versus, for lack of a better word, socializing them in order to guarantee “the equality of words” (Groys, 2011, p.14). This controversy is even more obvious in the issue of the algorithm behind Google Translate (Pariser, 2012), though this review will not investigate it in greater detail.
4Because of the limits of this review, the paper will not explore the creative process by Shirinyan and Goldsmith in greater detail.
For further reading on the topic, please see Upright Script: Words in Space and on the Page by Amarath Borsuk (2011).
5 It is far faster than the electric engine, initially inspiring futuristic ideals (Marinetti, 1912).
6“Uncanny Valley—Used in reference to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.” (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2017).
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