The proliferation of networked mobile phones, social media, and search engines has helped shape our lives in the twenty-first century, yet many users remain unaware of the forces that work discreetly behind the wall of content that we see every day. The watchful, calculating features that we don’t immediately notice when accessing new-media platforms are algorithms, designed to collect our data and analyze our every online move. Originating in computer science, algorithms can be simply described as sets of “if–then” rules (Dholakia, 2015). The uptake of online activity has enabled marketing companies to find an astonishing variety of ways to employ algorithms to track and measure customer behaviors. Algorithms are now assisting marketers to utilize customer-specific data to craft customized offers and deliver them to internet users in the form of ads.
London-based artist, Erica Scourti, creates visual artworks that highlight the role algorithms, and the codification of self, are playing in our twenty-first-century lives. Scourti’s works consist of performative actions and audio-visual pieces that deal with the notion of self-mediation. In 2013, Scourti completed a Master of Research degree in Moving Image Art at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design where “her area of research was the figure of the female fool in performative video works and the mediated subject of networked capital” (Scourti, 2013). Scourti states “she is interested in the patterns that structure language in the Web and their capability to influence the self-determination of the users in a complex context of an individual but networked experience” (Burugorri, 2014). Much of Scourti’s work appears to reflect on image and text associations that appear natural, yet show a discreet learning process. Scourti’s works detail, with herself as the object of a subtle satire, attempts to “self-exploit, self-semiotise and self-better”, through the lens of a technologically mediated/ networked life (Rourke, 2013; artwork, n.d.)
In 2012- 2013 Scourti produced an internet based work titled ‘Life in AdWords’ which demonstrates the customized advertising and codification capabilities provided by Google’s AdWords algorithms. In ‘Life in AdWords’, Scourti wrote and emailed her diary to her Google Gmail account each day and produced a series of webcam videos in which she read out the keywords attached to suggested ads that were appearing in her web browser. Scourti explained in a (2013) interview with Marc Garett that she wanted her work to make visible the way algorithms are being deployed to codify personal information into data profiles that advertisers can then access to produce customized, targeted advertising. Scourti employs a mix of spoken language and Internet technologies to encode the mediation of personal (and collective) experience created by Google’s algorithms. The result is highly confessional, autobiographical codification; the work depicts the codification of personal information that Google’s algorithms and advertisers have abstracted from users. In the process, Scourti manages to address “the mediation of personal and collective experience through language and technology in the networked regime of contemporary culture” (Garrett, 2013).
Scourti is able to show the workings of Google’s codification/ algorithmic system by bringing attention the language produced by AdWords, whilst simultaneously employing subtle humor to get her point across. The flattening out of all difference between objects/ feelings/ places (e.g. work-related stress, cat food, God, Krakow); and the lack of shame the software displays in tallying bodily and mental malfunctions (blood, poo, mental health issues) are all quite humorous, yet manage to show the robotic, non-human aspects that are prevalent in Google’s codification software. This technique exposes cultural issues with the invasiveness of technology and its ability to confuse algorithmically produced language as our own. (Garrett, 2013).
Google is not a tech services company. in 2012, 95% of the company’s revenue was derived from advertising (SEC, 2012). The ads that the company provides are tailored to individual users by employing algorithms to learn their interests and habits across Google’s many services, as is evidenced by Scourti. Subscribing to Google’s products requires the user to hand over the authorial agency of their information. The company combs through user’s email, calendar, and web browsing history, and it even tracks routine locations – for example, the user’s daily commute in order to collect and codify data that is then passed on to advertisers (Travica, 2015). As stated by Scourti (2013) “We are commodities delivered to advertisers, which keep the Web 2.0 economy ‘free’.” By comparing her emotive diary entries against the personalised ads she received after sharing her diary with Google, Scourti reveals the invasiveness of Google AdWords and the company’s ability to translate people’s personal experiences into code.
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