Making the Spinplant Relevant: more from Friedrich Nietzsche

On: October 9, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here

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http://www.whateverbutton.com/blog    

<update> See bottom of the post and the comments </ update>

About a week ago there was a small-scale furor on this blog and a Nettime-NL thread surrounding the spinplant. Laura (one of the very creative members of this blog) wrote a Wikipedia entry on the fictional plant, complete with a taxonomic category and a high-resolution photo. The article was deleted within the hour.

While this was basically a good thing for Wikipedia – a kind of anti-Siegenthaler moment – the reason given for the deletion was not. It turns out that the Wikipedian responsible simply queried ‘spinplant’, found no corresponding hits in Google, and that was that. Soon critics brought up the question: what happens when an encyclopedia relies so heavily on a commercial search engine, especially one with worrying censorship ‘issues’? When it comes to Wikipedia, or even Web knowledge more generally, does Google deal in capital-T truth?

In short, my answer is no. Firstly, it is unfair to tag the Wikipolice as lazy or uninformed. Anyone who spends their free time reverting bad edits on Wikipedia cannot but hold ‘exhaustiveness’ as a virtue.

Second, and more importantly, Google does not deal in truth at all. Like the cognitivists, the search engine giant has taken the pragmatic view that truth is immaterial – relevance is where it’s at.

On Google, the search for meaning ends when some presumption of relevance is satisfied (a feat normally achieved within a range of 10 hits) and not, say, once every option has been reviewed. Google has relevance theory, or something like it, at its core. There is a constructivist turn in the famous PageRank algorithm, too: Google bombs make it clear how contextual clues like anchor text (the words attached to a link) are ultimately what defines an object – that is, barring any manual editing. And the power John Battelle attributes to the database of intentions does not require searchers to become epistemologists, but simply to click on the link that looks good enough.

But pragmatic realism (if I’m using the appropriate term) is still realism. Google makes no claim about serving us reality, but nonetheless manages to produce ‘reality effects’. And Nietzsche still hates it:

Only as creators!— This has given me the greatest trouble and still does: to realize that what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are. The reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for—originally almost always wrong and arbitrary, thrown over things like a dress and altogether foreign to their nature and even to their skin—all this grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in it, until it gradually grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body: what at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence and is effective as such! How foolish it would be to suppose that one only needs to point out this origin and this misty shroud of delusion in order to destroy the world that counts for real, so-called “reality”! We can destroy only as creators!— But let us not forget this either: it is enough to create new names and estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new “things”. — The Gay Science, Book II (section 58).

In ditching ‘Truth’, Google is able to present itself as a demystifying agent, a poster child for a techno-libertarian worldview. But as Nietzsche says, we can destroy only as creators. So the question is not about truth, but what exactly Google has created in its place.

How relevant can we make the spinplant? [Try this: link to the non-page http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinplant with the anchor text ‘spinplant‘]

Update — “But let us not forget this either” … Premediating a Wikipedia entry is not the only way to get things done, and Laura has created some more pages for us to link to.

spinplant [http://www.lauravdv.nl/spinplant.html] and spinplant [http://home.student.uva.nl/laurina.vandervlies/spinplant.html]

24 Responses to “Making the Spinplant Relevant: more from Friedrich Nietzsche”
  • October 10, 2007 at 1:08 am

    Good, as always, Michael. I linked. easteregg packaged. sort of.

  • October 10, 2007 at 10:04 am

    Nice piece :) And I linked it too, ofcourse. Wait silently for my new post ;)

  • October 10, 2007 at 11:35 am

    Willen jullie ook naar de volgende paginas linken:

    http://www.lauravdv.nl/spinplant.html

    home.student.uva.nl/laurina.vandervlies/spinplant.html

    meer volgen!

  • October 10, 2007 at 11:53 am

    To really pull of this scam we’ll need to make sure that if you query Google for sp1npl4nt our discussions to actually make it a scam do not pop up as results. I propose we rename all previous mentions of sp1npl4nt into sp1npl4nt so we still now what we are talking about and can let Google index the real thing. BTW, to make the linking really effective make sure the plant’s name is in the anchor.

  • October 10, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Helemaal mee eens! :)

  • October 10, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    But this is not a scam! Seriously. We’re operating on a presumption of relevance, otherwise we would not be doing this or linking to the relevant Wikipedia page. It all fits in Google’s logic. This shouldn’t be about getting Spinplant in Wikipedia, but getting past the middleman and going straight to the source of Webtruth.

    Hiding our tracks is not necessary if you ask me.

  • October 10, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    @michael: so you don’t want the wikipedia entry on spinplant to be about the spinplant but about the discussion of the relevance?

  • October 10, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    nice

  • October 10, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    @erik: I would like the top hit for ‘spinplant’ to be an empty Wikipedia article, followed by at least 9 other relevant links such as the ones Laura just created and the discussions we’re having here.

    The spinplant is getting more real by the hour, but it’s up to the Wikipedians to figure out the truth of the matter :)

  • October 10, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    @michael: the truth is gonna be quite easy to figure out when they read our – mostly Dutch – discussion. It would be funny though. More a Google scam than a Wikipedia scam :)

  • October 10, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    […] — see bottom of the post and the discussion at Masters of Media. — […]

  • October 10, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    How about a business plan for this :)
    Creating Truth Inc.

  • October 10, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Stephen Colbert beat you to it, twannage

    he claims that truth is now a democratic commodity, i.e. that if enough people say some thing is true, it IS true. In that same vein he urged his zealous audience to mass troll on wikipedia to edit the entry on elephants to make it say that the elephant population tripled in recent years. Apparently it got him banned :D

  • October 10, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    That rascall Colbert! I think we’re going to need to redefine ‘truth’. Any suggestions?

  • October 10, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    I’ll repeat mine: relevance :)

  • October 10, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    It reminds me of something Marijn once said “I like to hold on to a working definition of reality… just for the sake of argument”

    Let’s create a new definition of truth before we continue this argument :)

  • October 10, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Evidently, the story on the spinplant has also been spread on the fertile ground of my weblog (http://dontbsquare.wordpress.com/2007/10/10/de-spinplant/) and my homepage (http://www.digitalehippies.nl ).

  • October 11, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Instead of ‘love is…’ lets do… truth 2.0 is:

    Truth 2.0:
    1. Relevance
    2. Opinion of the masses

  • October 15, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    […] one of the Masters of Media contributers, Michael Stevenson, reacted with a blogpost titled ‘Making the spinplant relevant: more from Friedrich Nietzsche‘. With this post he tried, with some help from Nietzsche, to change the terms of the debate, […]

  • October 16, 2007 at 10:42 am

    […] when one of the Masters of Media contributers, Michael Stevenson, reacted with a blogpost titled ‘Making the spinplant relevant: more from Friedrich Nietzsche‘. With this post he tried, with some help from Nietzsche, to change the terms of the debate, […]

  • October 23, 2007 at 3:02 pm

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  • October 28, 2007 at 5:00 pm

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  • December 1, 2007 at 3:08 pm

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  • December 4, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    […] discussed and questioned the influence of Wikipedia and Google to check if certain topics (like the spinplant) are relevant and viable. As it turns out the general opinion is that if it’s not featured on […]

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