Matteo Pasquinelli: Are We Renting our Collective Intelligence to Google?

On: November 16, 2009
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About Liliana Bounegru
I am a Research MA candidate in Media Studies, University of Amsterdam, and Project Coordinator at the European Journalism Centre, Maastricht. I work on new media and digital culture, specifically the intersections between news media and the digital environment, with a special focus on open data and data-driven journalism, which is the topic of my master thesis. I published on the potential of contemporary interactive media art projects employing urban screens to generate meaningful individual engagement and agency, and on multimodal metaphor in editorial cartoons. On my blog (, you can find some of the work I’ve been doing at the University of Amsterdam during my master in New Media and Digital Culture, and now as part of the Research Master in Media Studies. The posts cover topics such as: blogging, networks, search engines, Google, locative media, protocol, augmented reality, and media art from a media theory perspective, as well as classical media theory.


Matteo Pasquinelli’s presentation this Friday at The Society of the Query conference organized by the Institute of Network Cultures lead by Geert Lovink, was based on his paper, Google’s PageRank Algorithm: A Diagram of Cognitive Capitalism and the Rentier of the Common Intellect. The paper can be downloaded from his website.

The essay and presentation of the Italian media theorist and critic focused on an alternative direction for research in the field of critical Internet/ Google studies. He proposed a shift of focus from Google’s power and monopoly and the associated critique in Foucauldian fashion developed within fields such as surveillance studies, to the “political economy of the PageRank algorithm.” According to Pasquinelli, the PageRank algorithm is the base of Google’s power and an emblematic and effective diagram for cognitive capitalism.  

Google’s PageRank algorithm determines the value of a website according to the number of inlinks received by a webpage. The algorithm was inspired by the academic publications’ citation system, in which the value of an academic publication is determined by the number of quotations received by the journal’s articles. Pasquinelli takes this algorithm as a starting point in order to introduce into critical studies the notion of “network surplus-value,” a notion inspired by Guatarri’s notion of “machinic surplus value.”

The Google PageRank diagram is the most effective diagram of the cognitive economy because it makes visible precisely this aspect characteristic of the cognitive economy, namely network value. Network value adds up to the more established notions of commodity use value and exchange value. Network value refers to the circulation value of a commodity. The pollination metaphor used by the first speaker, Yann Moulier Boutang, is useful in understanding network value. Each one of us as “click workers” contributes to the production and accumulation of network value, which is further being embedded in lucrative activities, such as Google’s advertising model.

While in the knowledge economy a particular emphasis is placed on intellectual property, the notion of cognitive rent to which Matteo Pasquinelli draws attention becomes useful here. Google as “rentier of the common intellect” refers to the way in which free content produced with the free labour of individuals browsing the internet is being indexed by Google and used in profit generating activities.  From this perspective Pasquinelli challenges Lessing’s notion of “free culture” in that Google offers a platform and certain services for free, but each one of us contributes to the Google business when performing a search, data which is being fed into the page ranking algorithm. The use of the notion of common intellect or collective intelligence in this context is however debatable, as shown in the discussion session which followed the presentation, because there is only a certain arguably limited segment of individuals – the users which contribute content to the web – , whose linking activity is being fed into the PageRank algorithm. The prominence of the PageRank algorithm as generator of network value has also been questioned, as the algorithm is not the only ranking instrument. As the posting on Henk van Ess’ website shows, human evaluators also participate in page ranking.

What is there to be done about Google’s accumulation of value by means of exploitation of the common intellect? Or to use Pasquinelli’s metaphor, are there alternatives to Google’s parasitizing of the collective production of knowledge? How can this value be re-appropriated? As the speaker suggested, perhaps through voluntary hand made indexing of the web? Or an open page rank algorithm? Or perhaps a trust rank? The question is still open.


You can read more about what happened at The Society of the Query on the event’s blog.

10 Responses to “Matteo Pasquinelli: Are We Renting our Collective Intelligence to Google?”
  • November 16, 2009 at 2:30 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jeanlucr: Are We Renting our Collective Intelligence to Google? Brilliant analysis by Matteo Pasquinelli

  • November 16, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Despite this good and interesting teaser post, Pasquinelli’s article brings very little value to the debate over Google.

    I won’t spend too much time discussing the factual inaccuracies in the article (how is PageRank ‘semantic’? p.3), the amount of italics the author used is revealing enough.

    That said, I must point out that, according to Google, PageRank is *not* at the heart of its ranking algorithm (

    Pasquinelli essentially says that Google creates no value and parasitizes the web. The assumption here is that value lies in content alone.

    Now, the cost of publishing online are so low that anyone can produce and publish content. This results into too much content being available, therefore pushing its relative value downwards. That’s online media economics 101.

    Therefore, real value lies not in content production, but content organization.

    Second, Pasquinelli says that Google is renting our collective intelligence, going so far as to compare Mountain View with feudal landlords.

    What can be a good argument in the realm of services (eg Maps, Docs etc.) is simply not true of search. Google does not own PageRank, it simply reads documents and derives meaning from them (the ‘network value’).

    Nowhere in this process does Google capture content or value. Both searchers and content providers are left free to switch search engine or refuse to be indexed.

    Other aspects of the algorithm could be considered a rent, like the data Google collects when we click on a result (a click on a result is counted as a ‘vote’ for a page by Google). But then again, all the value Google gets from this accumulation of user-produced data is redistributed in the form of free and precise search.

    The cost to the user is only the presence of ads next to the results, which are in any case much less intrusive than the display ads on ‘content’ websites.

    When it comes to search, Google would be better described as a cooperative than a rentier.

  • November 16, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    @Nicolas, very well formulated arguments you have there. The thing that Google does great is “selling free services”. That is everything they produce is a free service. And free is het magic word for the public. However it’s not free because they save and share almost any aspect of their internet behaviour with Google which makes a lot of money based on that information.

  • November 17, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    “Nowhere in this process does Google capture content or value. Both searchers and content providers are left free to switch search engine or refuse to be indexed.”

    Do you really believe that? How is relative invisibility an option for a website, unless obscurity is somehow a goal?

    According to a speaker at Society of the Query, Europe’s search engine usage is 90% Google. Saying people have a choice to opt-out of that system is, to me, like saying they have a choice not to participate at all.

    And I agree with Matteo’s biggest point, which is that the Big Brother/Panopticon concerns are secondary to investigating the power by which Google has reached the capacity for us to be concerned about such things. Do you think that Google’s Board of Directors would agree that their rankings (through PageRank or not) generate no value? It is an extractive process. To say it returns no value may well be false, as search is intrinsic to using the Web today.

    Yet looking at Google’s stock prices and profit margins, it seems insane to claim that Google does not capture value. If they are making that money, they are capturing value, pure and simple. Their inertia keeps you tied to their system, not to mention their “suggestions” for web page design.

  • November 17, 2009 at 3:58 pm


    I think you’re confusing value capture and value creation.

    Value capture occurs when an agent makes a profit at the expense of some other person. Typical example: A company sells cars with very poor mileage, makes huge profit, but the consumer/taxpayer will eventually have to pay for the consequences of climate change. (I’m assuming the company has more information about this than the consumer).

    Back to Google. How does it make money? By creating value for the advertiser without taking any value from the user. There are some ad-overcrowding issues on some popular searches (like hotels) but they’re not at the core of Google’s model.

    Now, concerning the choice for publisher to leave Google. As I said before, online content has almost no value. Value lies in content organization. The fact that no publisher will leave the index only proves my point (keep in mind that there are many alternatives to search to find a website: world-of-mouth, traditional marketing… If these don’t work half as well as search engine optimization, there might be a reason – see above my remarks on the value of online content).

  • November 17, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    I’d say it is value capture, rather than creation, for the very reason that Google is not “creating” anything–they capture the value inherent in the linking and popularity of sites. I have already stated that Google itself can no longer be removed from the process of popularity or of finding links. However, this is different than creating value. Is mining a “creative” process, or an “extractive” process?

    When Google makes money by placing an ad according to an algorithm that uses the data of users who are not getting paid for this (apparently very valuable) data, it does not seem in the least bit exploitative?

    I often hear that content is worthless online. This is only true as an observation of advertising business models, not of reality. Otherwise, content aggregators would be worthless as well, since they would be aggregating nothing of value.

  • November 17, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    @ Nicholas,

    It is clear, I think, that Google is parasitic because of the mere fact that they just harvest or capture the “link-work” being done by site-owners. Google does not decide whether a website is important, it is the collective work of all website owners. Google has “merely” created a tool for capturing that collective work.

    When you write “Back to Google. How does it make money? By creating value for the advertiser without taking any value from the user” you a. conflate money and value, and b. have a very individualist interpretation of value, as something which is only owned by individuals. Pasquinelli thinks from a meta-perspective, taking society as his point of departure. From such a perspective, it is clear that the users are doing the primary work (not the creation of content, but also the indication of how important that content is by linking to other sites, what you describe as organizing), and Google captures that result of that collective work. Does that mean that I as an individual site-owner “loose value”? No, of course not, but it is my activity that has created at least an indication of how important some websites are.

  • November 17, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    John, Jan,

    I think you rightly addressed the problem of value creation with the mining example.

    What’s the value of iron ore when it remains stuck under 35 tons of rock? Not much. What if you bring it to the surface? People will find ways to use it, they will value it. And I agree here that value and money don’t have the strong correlation we’re taught they have.

    The iron ore analogy can be applied to online content. What’s the value of a web page if nobody reads it? Not much. (I’m talking social value, i.e. value for everyone, not just for the content provider who, no doubt, regards her creation proportionally to the resources she invested in it.) It’s only when the page is read that value arises.

    Google, among other search engines, is a common way to find content online. In other words, the social value of online content can often be sourced to a search engine. A search engine skims through content and tries to understand it, so as to be most useful to those making queries. PageRank is a means for such goal. But the links a publisher shares are supposed to be there to enhance the text, just as words are (they, too, are analyzed by Google crawlers).

    If you consider that value is created for the reader when she finds the information she was looking for, you see that Google’s scraping information is part of a zero-sum game where all the data Google has over a page is given back to readers in terms of better, more accurate results.

    Money transfers occur only with advertisers. It’s only because Google had the best algorithm and the best results that it was able to draw this large audience, which, in turn, attracted advertisers. There are areas where Google might abuse its market position (hint: AdSense). But so far as search is concerned, talking about a feudal relation between Google and publishers is hard to prove.

  • December 21, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    By the way, the word rent has a double meaning in English:

    pay someone for using something or let someone use something in return for payment. Sorry, it took half an hour to understand the title, but at the end it makes sense!

    Pasquinelli uses ‘rent’ as in the Italian ‘rendita’, like in ‘monopolistic rent’…

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