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

Matteo Pasquinelli’s presentation this morning at the Society of the Query 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.

Society of the Query

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.”

Society of the QueryThe 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 relatively 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? This question is still open.

Photos by Anne Helmond.