People looking at an LED board showing the cost of each word in George Orwell's 1984

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What are our words worth in the digital age?

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Dr Pip Thornton’s work examines the economic, political and cultural impact of Google’s monetisation of language.

Parasocial, textspeak, hygge, makerspace, crowdfunding, cancel culture and silver fox are just a handful of words that were added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 2022, but they’re symbols of a much larger lexical explosion. Technology is changing how we read, write and reason with online culture not only producing new words, but giving old ones new meanings.

Dr Pip Thornton, a Chancellor’s Fellow in the University’s School of GeoSciences, has spent the past decade examining the power held by tech giants as mediators of information, and whether the printed word has lost its value in the digital age.

dr pip Thornton
Dr Pip Thornton

Dr Thornton took an unusual route into academia, completing a part-time Open University degree in English and then a master’s at Kings College London while serving as a police officer in London.

Also a reservist soldier, in 2003 she got mobilised to Iraq and when she came back, she started a project on the representation of the military in cities.

“I found coming back from Iraq a really unsettling experience,” she says. “The public opinion had changed, and I had this idea that the experience of being a living soldier at home is obviously very different to being in the theatre of war, but also very different to being a dead or memorialized soldier in London.”

Dr Thornton wrote a PhD proposal called ‘Soldier in the City’ and worked with Peter Adey – a Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway in the University of London – to source funding for the project.

Dr Thornton was accepted onto the first cohort of PhD students at the Centre for Doctoral Training in Cyber Security. During that time there was a Royal Holloway project called ‘Social Media and the Military’, which examined cybersecurity concerns such as family members posting where their relatives are being deployed in Afghanistan, and involved a conference at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think tank.

“When they were discussing this topic, they weren’t talking about friends and families being the problem. They weren’t even talking about the actual soldiers being the problem. They were saying wives and girlfriends, which I took exception to because it’s WAGs and it’s a stereotype,” says Dr Thornton.

“It’s misgendering to assume that friends and family are all going to be female. I was a little bit incensed about it, but too afraid to put my hand up and say something.”

After the event, Dr Thornton typed ‘wives and girlfriends sexist’ into Google but the search engine changed the results to ‘wives and girlfriends sexiest’.

“It didn’t say ‘did you mean sexiest’, it literally just changed it,” Dr Thornton explains. “It was 2014 so I thought I’d put ‘David Cameron sexist’ into the search engine and he remained sexist but if you put ‘David Beckham sexist’ in, he got changed to sexiest as well.

“I realised the power the search engine has in manipulating and contextualising the words that you put in – it’s basically saying that David Beckham cannot be sexist and removes that from the whole discourse.”

Mediating information

Dr Thornton started researching the topic and soon came across Frederic Kaplan’s concept of linguistic capitalism and found out that Google makes its money by selling the words users put through the search engine.


Google generates its advertising revenue through its Google Ads platform where advertisers can display adverts, product listings and service offerings across the search engine’s network (such as properties, partner sites and apps) to web users. Last year, Google made 224.47 billion US dollars through this process.

Dr Thornton’s doctoral thesis ‘Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction: A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism’ examined how Google reacts to literature and poetry such as William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’.

She says: “The word ‘cloud’ is really expensive, and I quickly realised the value of it isn’t Wordsworth’s cloud, the host of golden daffodils and the Cumbrian springtime – it’s cloud computing and cloud technology. It was a lightbulb moment for me because I realised you literally cannot search for the Wordsworth cloud.

“The idea that Google makes money by selling words it doesn’t own, with advertisers bidding on words every time you search for something, fascinates me. If you can’t talk or communicate or have a flow of information that isn’t manipulated by these market forces, then all these algorithms, how can you even start talking about cyber security?”

Dr Thornton purchased a small thermal printer, a device commonly used to print temporary documents such as receipts and tickets, and worked with a fellow PhD student Ben Curtis who wrote some code which would allow them to print off receipts showing the value of different words to Google. The receipts have a date stamp as the value of the words can fluctuate at different times of the year. Each word is assigned a price with a total at the bottom and a ‘thank you for shopping at Google’ message.

The politicisation of art

Dr Thornton became particularly interested in how the Google algorithm would interpret George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four which features Newspeak, a language used in Orwell’s fictional totalitarian state Oceania with simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary designed to limit the individual person’s ability to think critically.

rolled up paper

In 2017, this was presented with the whole text of Nineteen Eighty-Four shown as a stock market tickertape on LED panels, with the word prices fluctuating according to live data from Google Ads in collaboration with Ray Interactive as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Data Lates programme.

“Newspeak is a language where words can only be used in a way permitted by the party, so you can’t choose the context for the words – it’s frighteningly exactly the same as Google,” Dr Thornton explains.

“For example, you can use a word like ‘free’, but you can only use it in the context of ‘this dog is free from lice’; you can’t use it in terms of being politically free or being liberated or anything like that. There’s this control of language which is similar to what Google is doing.”

Dr Thornton is cynical about the panic surrounding ChatGPT, the AI-assisted chatbot, taking over our jobs: “I’m a bit of an AI cynic in terms of the whole it’s not artificial and it’s not intelligent type school of thought. It’s created by humans, and it doesn’t have intelligence. I’ve had to start thinking ChatGPT but it’s frustrating that it’s all coming to light now.

“When I was doing my thesis, I was talking about how the machine just puts words together so it puts wives and girlfriends closer to ‘sexiest’ than ‘sexist’, because that’s where they are in the big database, which is very roughly how ChatGPT works. It’s the basis of these language models like Google Translate and stuff like that which has the same problems because it’s just processing, it’s not reading the words.”

Dr Thornton points to a paper written by Alan Turing in 1950 called ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ which considers the question ‘can machines think?’ and involves prompting a computer to analyse changes to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day).

“What really interested me is that Turing was talking about this stuff back in 1952 about the computer not getting the poetic context, and it’s like people have been reinventing that wheel ever since and Ch

Rejecting the quantification of language

Dr Thornton purposefully keeps her work offline – she says she doesn’t want to “reenroll the research into any kind of digital system” because it resists the commodification of words.

She says: “You can’t go online and do one of these receipts yourself. If people ask for them, I’ll print them off and send them in an envelope wherever in the world they’ve asked for a receipt.

“It’s very basic – everyone’s got a receipt in their pocket or the bottom of the bag. It’s an everyday item that is managing to be really incisively critical about the whole economy of which it’s a part so it’s a bottom-up intervention in that respect. It’s not using great flashing lights like the more recent AI or digital artworks that are around.

“There’s an almost delicious penny drop moment when I talk about this stuff and I say it’s not Wordsworth’s cloud that has the value, it’s cloud computing so that’s why I really like this method.”

However, Dr Thornton says keeping her work offline has its challenges, particularly during the pandemic when society increasingly relied on the internet.

“The biggest challenge has been this constant battle against everything being online and this wasn’t just because of Covid, it was happening before,” she says. “I was adamant that the research is analogue, it’s a physical visual thing.

“It was tricky being the one who said no, to being on camera and constantly having to justify why I didn’t want to be recorded. I felt like my voice was taken away because I wouldn’t do online seminars.”

Dr Thornton says she feels most at home during art exhibitions and Fringe shows: “I get so excited about the work because I think it’s important and I love having means of disseminating it that are beyond academia. I am very lucky that I enjoy it and it’s not a chore at all.”

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