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


<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 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 [] and spinplant []

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