Google’s Orwellian Streak

Riots in the streets. Dogs and cats living together. Will we point the finger at Google’s Ad Words advertising tool?

French Web artist Christ ophe Bruno thinks so. Or, at least, he believes AdWords may bring about nothing less than a “big event in the history of man kind.” All based on a little Web poetry he cooked up.

AdWords works like this: An adver tiser “buys” a word from Google that relates to its business (a basket maker buys “basket,” for example). Then, when a user searches for that word, an ad pops up linking to the company’s Web site. Google bills the company based on how many people click on the ad.

The concept intrigued Bruno—and he began buying words. But his ads were unusual. The first one, which appeared during searches for “symptom,” read:

Bruno also bought “mary” and “money.” Those ads read:

The poems got immediate exposure—12,000 impressions in 24 hours, all for less than $5, since hardly anyone actually clicked on them. When people did, Bruno achieved the more subversive goal of leading Web surf ers off-track, what he calls “a healthy breakup in the pro cess”—something he has tried with various Web art pieces.

“Imagine the Internet is a pool of words and search engines are thought processes,” Bruno tells Shoptalk. “I just reminded people that thinking is not as straightfor ward as we sometimes believe. This is the basis of advertising and psycho analysis, and it’s the least we can expect from poetry.”

But Bruno sees a sinister aspect to AdWords. The popular words cost more on Google, so the language becomes governed less by ethics and more by economics. “Words already had some kind of exchange value,” Bruno says. “If I insult some body, I will get something in return, such as a punch in my face. But there is no doubt any more. The word ‘sex’ is worth $3,837, the word ‘art’ $410.”

Poems like Bruno’s are assigned a value, too: Google took them down—not on moral grounds, but because of their low click-through rate.

“We are faced with a gen eral iza tion of market economy, applied to language,” Bruno concludes. “Imagine the day when a search engine will rule the whole textual content of the Web, in which the memory of mankind will be stored. Think of the power in their hands.”