Pip Thornton – Subprime Language: the changing value of words in an age of digital linguistic capitalism

SUBPRIME LANGUAGE: the changing value of words in an age of digital linguistic capitalism

This paper/presentation takes Frederick Kaplan’s concept of linguistic capitalism (2014) and extends the financial metaphor to imagine that the language flowing through the portals and platforms of the web has become so infused by the logics of the neoliberal market, that it risks becoming subprime.

As tech companies such as Google increasingly mediate and monetise the informational landscape through search and advertising platforms such as AdWords and AdSense, the ongoing effects on and of the language they auction, sell and exploit are becoming more and more palpable. In the viral spreading of fake news, political and cultural click-bait and in the daily battles for exposure, it seems that words are being lent against a narrative so tenuous as to make their linguistic function negligible. Infused with a neoliberal logic which favours advertising dollars over truth and the systemic bias of algorithmic processing, the discursive side-effects of this semantic shift reveal a deep-rooted weakness in a linguistic marketplace in which the value of language has shifted from conveyor of meaning to conveyor of capital. In this marketplace, words have taken on their own economic value and circulate as commodities, or more accurately as derivatives, giving rise to new levels and types of performative agency, whereby potentially dangerous narratives and content are created and spread as collateral side effects to the ad revenue and SEO industry. In this respect, companies like Google have taken on the role of language brokers – a situation which has potentially grave linguistic and political consequences.

In this paper, I aim to question and expose the neoliberal and potentially dystopian narratives created in this process, asking questions such as how much and how often language can be bought, sold or ‘borrowed’ before it becomes exhausted of meaning and restrictive of expression and understanding. Has language become so infused with economic logic that it has lost the liquid qualities of creative language? How resilient is language to a quasi-capitalist operating system? Can language in this way be seen as ‘subprime’, ‘illiquid’ or ‘toxic’, and – perhaps more provocatively – what happens if/when this linguistic bubble bursts?

As is well known, Google’s wealth and power as a company is primarily a result of the success of its AdWords platform, which auctions keywords and phrases to advertisers in return for the top spots on the search engine results page. This is a process which Frederick Kaplan has called ‘linguistic capitalism’ (2014), where Google monetises – or commodifies – language in a way which perhaps elevates the exchange value of words ahead of any underlying aesthetic, or ordinary value it might have. While not entirely unproblematic, I want to extend the financial metaphor of linguistic capitalism further. Taking Arjun Appadurai’s suggestion that the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was ‘primarily a failure of language’ (2016) in a different direction, the paper unpacks what terms such as value, derivative, liquidity, velocity and subprime mean in an age of digital linguistic capitalism, using them both as tools of critique and also perhaps as means of metaphorical redemption. Following Derrida, the paper will argue that the underlying value of language is differance. In other words, the value of language lies in its liquidity – a constant deferral and transferability of meaning. It is this polysemic quality that gives language the capacity and richness for argument, ambiguity, wordplay, or poeticism, for example. In this way it could be said that language has always been derivative – its value is  – as Roland Barthes and others have concluded – always realised in a particular context that is not necessarily the one in which it was written. In his book On Poetry and Finance, Franco Berardi states that ‘debt is an act of language’ (2012) – it is, like Appadurai suggests – performative. But it works the other way around as well. Language is an act of debt. Its value is realized through a spectrum of debt and credit, and is as such always already a derivative based on a precarious system of trust.

The concern then, is what happens to this performative value when the word is transformed into an economic derivative, which is what happens when language becomes digitised and monetised in the linguistic marketplace? Governed by an economic derivative value, the fluidity of words, or what we might call their linguistic liquidity, is on the one hand increased by virtue of its dissolution into data (which accelerates its circulation), but is at the same time tied to an economic promissory transaction that becomes indifferent to the underlying value of language. And this is where the risk lies. As Randy Martin writes, ‘disaster ensue[s] when derivatives escape[d] from their rightful place and inundate[d] other quarters’ (2013). The economic derivative value of words has become indifferent to their underlying value just as housing bonds (and those that traded them) became indifferent to the underlying value of the real estate market. Always already derivative, digitised words have now taken on economic derivative value (a kind of hyper-differance perhaps), but the problem comes when the economic value takes over; when words become illiquid, tied to the version of themselves which promises the most profit, a process that brings into existence dangerous narratives as collateral consequence.

The paper/presentation goes on to use a number of empirical examples from Google platforms AdWords, Gmail and AdSense to illustrate how linguistic capitalism works, and how it might be risking the development of subprime language.

One of the integral parts of Google’s AdWords platform is how it ‘values’  – or capitalises –  language by assigning an algorithmically generated ‘suggested bid price’ to each word or phrase. This is a projection based on several variables. Historic search volume is one of them, but like Google’s other opaque algorithmic calculations, it is impossible to know exactly what data points are being used. While these bid prices are just meant to provide potential advertisers with enough knowledge to plan budgets and enter the market at a reasonable level, and are not necessarily the same as the actual cost per click, they are in effect the front-end valuations, and therefore have a degree of performative agency, value, and power in how they influence the words selected to populate the web as adverts, as articles or other optimized text and tags. Whether as data points for paid advertising or for organic search engine optimization, as Louise Amoore states about the data derivative, they are ‘scores that will go on to live and act in the world’(2011).

But this is what I see as the disconnect of language in linguistic capitalism.  Commodified words become ‘indifferent’ to their underlying performative value. Thus if you search for the word ‘cloud’, for example, in Google, the results will relate not to clouds in the sky, but to cloud computing, even if you had intended to search for the meteorological cloud. My thesis includes an artistic intervention called {poem}.py which exposes this disconnect by feeding poetry through the AdWords Keyword Planner and printing the monetised version of the poem out as a receipt.

Another example which illustrates this ‘indifference’ of language monetised in this way is an artistic intervention by Cabell and Huff (2013) in which they sent each page of the novel American Psycho to each other via Gmail. Knowing that Google scrapes [up until very recently] Gmail messages for the purpose of targeted advertising, they then recorded the adverts triggered by the words in the text using phantom footnotes, thus showing that scenes of torture and violent misogyny featuring the skinning and dismemberment of women, and the cooking of various body parts generates adverts for skin tightening products, teeth whitening, and microwave meals.

The advertising platform AdSense is where Google pays websites to host adverts, and pays for each exposure, so the website becomes more profitable the more times it is looked at. AdSense is closely linked to the AdWords platform, and some of its adverts are targeted to keywords in the websites they populate. What is of interest in terms of this paper, however, is the role of AdSense in the Fake News debate– and in particular in the run up to the US Presidential election, when ‘fake news factories’ earned thousands of dollars from AdSense by making up and circulating politically controversial and viral stories. Obviously, some of what is now being called fake news has political, rather than purely financial motives, but in today’s world the economic value of the words spread around the internet, can be completely detached from what the words actually say. The ‘value’ of the words is primarily financial; they become vessels, or tools for the circulation of capital around the web. This is essentially just another type of click bait, but when the content changes from celebrity gossip to the campaign trail, then the political fallout from the messages spread becomes a very dangerous by product.

What I have been trying to show with these examples is that in an era of digital capitalism, words have become financially valuable in a way disconnected from their linguistic function/agency. As commodities, or derivatives, the way they move and circulate as capital therefore becomes an important issue, especially as they now have more than one agential function (i.e. linguistic and economic). The important point I want to make here is that – as David Harvey writes – capital is a process of circulation, or – following Marx – it is ‘value in motion’ (2017). Fixed capital will depreciate in value, so to work it needs to be in ‘perpetual movement’, and the physical liquidity and potential velocity of language as data facilitates this movement in both an economic and narrative way. But this physical liquidity of digitised language is at odds with the liquidity of language as Derrida’s differance. In linguistic capitalism there is a risk that words become ‘toxic’, or ‘illiquid’- in some ways like the illiquid subprime mortgage securities that no one was able to value or wanted to trade. They might wear out as keywords, or they might become so that they cannot be liquid anymore; their meaning/value realisable in economic terms only (see the cloud example from above).

The underlying argument here is that the underlying performative (linguistic/narrative) value, and the derivative economic value of language, -distinct but not eviscerated from each other-  have different velocities.  For example, as the toxic, economic values of fake news content (or the disturbing advert carrying narratives that appear on YouTube)  increasingly circulate, the underlying value of words is lost – it becomes illiquid. The liquidity of one value is predicated on the illiquidity of the other value. And for one to thrive and be totally liquid- the other must have a crunch.

My thesis is primarily about linguistic capitalism as relates to Google, so in conclusion I have to ask – What is Google’s role in all this? I suggest that Google, with its power, reach and now near ubiquity in everyday life, is both bank, merchant and broker of language. It has a ‘bank like’ ability to create money and value in the form of debt, and it auctions and markets language it does not own. Google gives language economic derivative value through AdWords and linked systems because it bases future transactions not on underlying value, but on commercial value. So language becomes illiquid, untransferable, and less resilient. What is important to Google is how lucrative the words are, it has no concern with (and is indifferent to) the other values (we might say the values of differance) they might have. Google only makes money if the most commercially viable version of a word is returned in the search results – whether that is as a paid ad, an optimized text carrying adverts, or fake news spreading impressions and clicks. The liquidity of language is not what makes Google money, and therefore it is in their interests to keep ordinary language illiquid, defined primarily by its commercial value. I argue that this is subprime language, and Google are in effect betting against the liquidity of ordinary words. To take this to its logical conclusion, it could then be said that Google is in effect shorting the linguistic marketplace.

[This blog post is work-in-progress for a chapter of my PhD thesis on Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction, which examines the cultural, political and economic side-effects of the commodification of language by Google. A version was presented at the 2017 RGS-IBG conference, and featured contributions from John Hogan Morris]


Works Cited

Amoore, Louise. “Data derivatives: On the emergence of a security risk calculus for our times.” Theory, Culture & Society 28.6 (2011): 24-43.

Appadurai, Arjun. Banking on words: The failure of language in the age of derivative finance. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Berardi, Franco. “The uprising: On poetry and finance.” MIT Press Books 1 (2012).

Cabell, Mimi, and Jason Huff. “American psycho.” (2013).

Derrida, Jacques. Margins of philosophy. University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Harvey, David. Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Kaplan, Frederic. “Linguistic capitalism and algorithmic mediation.” Representations 127.1 (2014): 57-63.

Martin, Randy. “After economy? Social logics of the derivative.” Social Text 31.1 114 (2013): 83-106.







  1. Interesting and well constructed paper. I thought the combination of language theory with more ’embedded’ financialization theory was really productive and the AdWords examples gave tangible examples of how this plays out.

    For me the initial framing of language made subprime is a strong framing, but suggests (implicitly) that language pre-digital/google, etc was something fixed and stable – a solid ‘investment’ always connected strongly to its underlying value. But of course language is much messier than that, a point you make later with Barthes, Appadurui, etc. There’s context and there’s performativity involved. So for me it seems less of a “devaluation” (with moral cries of language is becoming meaningless, not that you’re going that far but it could be extrapolated) and more of a “revaluation”. In other words, the parameters used to measure words and phrases have shifted. And this shift seems– not exactly ‘productive’ — (I’m not a Google fanboy), but something that might be played with or performed as a set of new conditions. This is why your work and the Psycho piece were interesting. If the value underlying the derivative is basically undermined, then language is deshackled, free to do new things.

    The Fake news examples you brought up seem like another really interesting way to explore this. What might be good here is a couple specific examples – there was some great reportage on the Macedonian generators of fake content (e.g. https://www.wired.com/2017/02/veles-macedonia-fake-news/). What struck me was how ‘apolitical’ the writers are – “The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don’t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives.” They have learned how to ‘do things with words’, but those things (clickbait and income generation) are decoupled from the original remit of journalism (produce informed political subjects, educate, speak truth to power, etc). This is precisely your point, but perhaps ‘meaning’ on a meta level (articles, sentences, production and mediation of knowledge) could be nice to explore too. 🙂


    1. Hi Luke –

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, as you said, there is a tension between the fixed/unshackled values/potentials of language. My thoughts at the moment (and this is why I wanted to use this piece to see what others think) are that – as I say in the post – language has always been derivative and ‘unfixed’, but that now has become so infused with market logics, that it has become ‘reconstructed’. In this way, I’m probably more pessimistic about its ‘deshackled’ freedoms and potentials… I find alot of what might be called digital art that claims some kind of performative liberation quite uncritical. An example might be the poetry constructed from autocompletions which has a kind of surrealist or dada-esque feel, but is constructed through these kinds of quasi-economic logics that govern search technology – it’s like capitalism co-opting, or gobbling up counter cultural potential. But maybe I should be less cynical!

      Re the Macedonian fake news factories – yes I thought I mentioned that in the post – the Facebook/AdSense/Fake News thing is one of my examples – the language used as click bait has an excess meaning/value. I’ll have a think about the more meta level though- not sure I’ve thought that big yet – thank you!

      Pip (comments on your piece upcoming!)


  2. Hi Pip,

    An insightful read, bringing another way in thinking around the contexts of Google, and advertising platforms such as AdWords and AdSense, “the ongoing effects on and of the language they auction, sell and exploit are becoming more and more palpable. In the viral spreading of fake news, etc”.

    I will definitely be referencing some of this writing in my own writings, in my latest essay ‘Unlocking Proprietorial Systems’, which I’ve have uploaded here. The larger version will include Hack Value (which I have been writing about since 2014), and how Interent users are digitally hacked by commercial companies and now political agencies and parties. And, your text around ‘Subprime Language: the changing value of words in an age of digital linguistic capitalism’, links strongly with some of the contexts.

    This also rings true in regard to how trump was supported by Facebook, as an advertising platform in 2017, “The Trump presidential campaign spent most of its digital advertising budget on Facebook, testing more than 50,000 ad variations each day in an attempt to micro-target voters” and, “Facebook provided Trump 2016 with employees who embedded in the campaign’s digital office and helped educate staffers on how to use Facebook ads, he said. Because he “wanted people who supported Donald Trump”, Parscale said, the Facebook employees were questioned on their political views.”

    Lois Beckett. The Guardian. Trump digital director says Facebook helped win the White House. Oct 2017. http://bit.ly/2yYQqmw

    Wishing you well.



    1. Hi Marc,

      Thanks for your comments. Yes, thank you, the Facebook/AdSense/Fake News election thing is one of my examples. I mentioned it briefly in the post, but will elaborate in full paper.

      I look forward to hearing more about Hack Value, and will give your paper the attention it deserves as soon as possible!


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Pip,

        Look forward to it as it is elaborated on more.

        This particular paper (although) related to Hack Value, is mainly about unlocking dominating systems that in various ways, hold many back in society. I may upload a new & sharper version of Hack Value online, by the time we meet in Berlin.

        Wishing you well.



  3. Dear Pip, thx for sharing!
    The strong idea of a derivative nature of language both as poetic drive and as reason (and possibility) of capitalization makes me think about the computational nature of language (at least the written language, its being a discrete notational system) as the reason for this transformation to happen smoothly. Bifo, which you quote, thinks that financial capitalism was invented by French Symbolic poetry, because French symbolic poetry manages to detach words from their meanings (and the world) – the same way financial capitalism detaches capital from world. This would confirm the poetic nature of language as the (unfortunate) source of linguistic capitalism.
    I was also wondering about liquidity and illiquidity and how the offline and online liquidity of language differs. Isn’t this difference the transformation of poetry into capital – which is actually what your beautiful piece literally shows? I was also wondering about the negative economy of this monetization of words, the economy of the words that cannot be used (they’re banned in certain countries, or simply they’re not monetized – is there any word that is not monetized at all? How is it possible to find them? Let’s write poetries with them. I would be interested in working on something like that because it connects well with a-googol, a reverse search engines I’ve built a while ago that archives all the combination of words Google cannot find a result for https://schloss-post.com/a-googol/. Looking forward to talk more!


  4. Hi Pip,

    This is an amazing framework to analyse what’s going on currently with the online ads feedback loop. To give some additional perspective which might be less relevant to your exact topic but definitely relevant to capitalism and language, there are spaces where words become more liquid than we would expect them to be. Measures, memorandum, growth and reform are examples of liquid words and this exact liquidity is that allows some other sort of circulation of capital. Of course, it’s very clear that you’re talking about something else, but that’s just a different perspective which might be the other side of the same coin, adding to the question “How resilient is language to a quasi-capitalist operating system?”.

    After the above question, you ask what happens when and if this linguistic bubble bursts. Do you have any thoughts on why and how this could possibly happen? It would be nice to give as a hint during the workshop or in a future longer text as this is obviously a short excerpt of your work.

    See you in Berlin,
    Dionysia and Panagiotis


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