Terms of Use

[NB: please cross-refer from 'Terms of Service']

John Cayley for a forthcoming Guide to Digital Textuality (please confer before citing)

As a matter of pragmatics and recent historical convention but in a manner that is usually only implicitly or cursorily acknowledged, textuality in the era of digital mediation is increasingly subject to 'Terms of Service,' also known, pointedly, as 'Terms of Use.' When one reads or writes with a computer, one is often in the position of 'using' hardware configurations and employing the 'services' of software applications. Merely by doing so one is highly likely to have have agreed to 'terms' set out by a corporate provider and governing one's use of their 'service.' Clearly there is also an inevitable regulation of the medium that is addressed by the service. In the instance that most concerns us, one's reading and writing is being mediated on terms. This situation had long been in place before the provision and effective promotion of network-based 'cloud' computing. As software and data move to the 'cloud,' both the tools we use to read and write, and the material traces of our textual practice come to be stored on systems that are networked but remote from us as readers and writers. We become increasingly dependent upon proprietary services without which we cannot gain access to our reading or our writing, and whenever we do gain access we must do so on terms. These circumstances have momentous consequences for textual practice and their careful consideration is crucial.

'Terms of Use' was chosen as the rubric for this article not only because of its commonly understood reference, duly introduced above, but also because of the phrase's association with 'terms' as in 'search terms,' 'key terms,' the 'terms' of an argument or discourse, and our 'use' of these terms and all others as an aspect of 'language use'—the 'usages' of all linguistic interlocution. Language is a commons, and yet, in contrast to the commons of the world's natural resources, it is a commons that is directly constitutive of culture while at the same time being incorporated 'within' any culture it enables. This is demonstrable in that there are only enculturated languages (plural), and thus, in each instance, a particular language is one of a plurality of commons, that welcomes any user of its specific, located resources. As a commons—radically co-constitutive of the cultures within which we dwell—in order to use language, we do not expect to agree to terms. However, counter to our expectations and, arguably, our rights, implicit agreements to terms of language use are being reiteratively ratified by the vast majority of us whenever we engage with digitally mediated textuality.

Google is far from being the only service provider that sets out terms of use for textual practice but, at the time of writing, it is surely the most significant. Google processes more text, more linguistic material, that any other computational service on the planet. Moreover, the particular service—page-ranked indexed searching—that established Google as a commercial and culture powerhouse is founded on textual analysis of web pages and their tagged links. It has, effectively, generated a or, perhaps, the prototype of the still emergent metatagged Web 2.0 and it will use—according to who's terms?—the data it has harvested and analyzed to dominate the cloud-computing powered world of Web 3.0. By then, perhaps, at least for the users of global English, Web 3.0 might already be better designated as Anglophone Culture 2.0 (beta). Google's and many other related services are still explicitly designed to be responsive to phrases of natural language composed by human writers who are wishing to find something to read, even if only with the goal of undertaking a commercial transaction or satisfying a desire. More intimately linked to this service provision than we care to acknowledge is is the question of how these and now many other interconnected services—provided by Google and other corporate entities—relate to the crucial institutions of literary culture in at least two ways: at a collective level through their effects on (not an exhaustive list) libraries, universities and publishers; and at an individual or collaborative level through their effects on aesthetic practice.

Digital mediation—as characteristic of the wide variety of media that are associated with specific material cultural practices—appears to be historically unprecedented in that, in so far as it presents itself as service or facility or catalog of affordances (such as word processing for writing), it quickly goes on to establish itself as essential infrastructure, and thus becomes remarkably determinative of practice and ideology (if not also of theory) while nonetheless continuing to be managed and developed as if it remained a service, most often a commercial service, and therefore, in a number of senses, seemingly optional or elective. This same syndrome plays out in the relationship between, for example, a university's management of its 'computing services' on the one hand and its academic and intellectual mission on the other. Before an institution like a university fully realizes and internalizes (administratively) the fact that practices demanding of digital infrastructure will be constitutive of its academic mission, its computing services are willingly swallowed up by more 'cost-effective' and more innovative services provided from outside the institution. These, as infrastructure, may then go on (in a more or less subtle manner) to reconstitute the institution. 'Google' swallows computing services at precisely the historical moment when digital practices swallow knowledge creation and dissemination. Hence 'Google' swallows the university, the library, the publisher.

Digital Literature, along with Digital Art, pioneered new cultural practices outside those paradigms that are directly under threat from such developments, but digital cultural practice is not, by that token, necessarily allied with the interests of new and unconstituted cultural 'services.' It is only now—at the time of writing, as Digital Humanities finally becomes an instituted reality—that a strong contradiction arises between new media as service provision and new media as fundamentally constitutive of cultural and critical practice, determinative not only of potential but also possibility. The point is that, unless we break out of this syndrome, unless we acknowledge and negotiate the constitutive power of digitally mediated 'services,' we will be unreasonably constrained by what they provide. At best, they can only give us back what they believe that we want. Since they have collected more of our data (in a recent paper Joanna Drucker rightly signals that much of this is more properly 'capta' Drucker) than any other entity concerning what we say that we want—through our searchings and our social networkings, our service providers are likely to end up suggesting that they know as well as we do what it is that we want. Clearly, at the moment, service providers are financially empowered by advertising revenue, even if they may also claim to be inspired by humanitarian agendas for research and development (often now expressed as 'labs'). Is this really how we want literary practice to be configured and propelled?

The question of how, that is, on what terms such services relate to literary culture also applies to the individual practitioner, to collaborative project-based groups, to the writer writing to be read. Even for those writers who may be in denial of any digital mediation of their practice, if Google, for example, is a point of reference at any moment in the composition of their text, then terms have (literally) been agreed and the writer has conceded that he or she is happy both to supply a search phrase to the service and then to interact with and receive results from algorithms that are only vaguely understood in their general behaviors even by experts, while the detailed workings of such processes are jealously guarded as proprietary and highly valuable (for reasons that may be entirely divorced or at odds with the intent of the writer's query). This is a very different kind of transaction from looking up a word in a dictionary. However the 'power' of the cultural vector represented by something like the Google search box is unprecedented. For practitioners of language as an aesthetic medium it is comparable to the invention of a revolutionary new optic allowing these artists to see, suddenly and spectacularly, further into the universe of language by several orders of magnitude. The writer can get a sense of the frequency and the range of usages for a word or phrase in living, up to the millisecond, contemporary language within a few keystrokes and clicks. This extraordinary facility— inconceivable until very recently—is presented as a freely open service, in the guise of what has already been cited as a cultural vector. (In Google's case it's stated mission is no less than "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." [author's emphasis]) However, that this momentous shift in no less than the spacetime of linguistic culture should be radically skewed by the terms on which it is offered reminds us that it is, fundamentally, motivated and driven by concerns that are distinct, if not in opposition, to those of art and the humanities. If language is a commons then what seems to be a gateway or portal to language is in fact—until it can be shown to be otherwise—an enclosure, and part of a non-reciprocal, hierarchical relation. Currently, service providers harvest freely from whatever language we publish using fantastically powerful and sophisticated algorithmic processes—popularly 'robots' and 'spiders'—but the user-practitioner-publisher is explicitly denied, according to terms of service, the possibility of freely using algorithmic processes to query this harvested data, even when imitating or assisting or prosthetically enhancing a human user. Why? For many reasons, some of which may be reasonable (logistically, for example), but the chief reason is that the harvested data might be muddied and rendered less effectively correlated with its primary purpose: that of representing, in a normalized form, the most frequently expressed and potentially most profitable (these are not necessarily the same) human desires, such that advertising may be associated with the harvested phrases, ideally at the very moment of harvesting, with human eyes to read not only a desired result but an intimately associated and immediately transactable new desire. Moreover Google's ads are made with sign chains that are orthothetically connected with the language we have produced. This also is unprecedented: that advertisements are made from something that belongs to its addressee. Makers of art from language might, one would hope, have a strong inclination to use such services both for research into their medium and to generate new language and new literary aesthetic artifacts with such extraordinary instruments of inscription. Some practitioners have made the attempt. In any case, it would seem to be impossible for artists or scholars to do so on such terms as are presently offered them—both for the sake of their art and for the sake of the future of cultural institutions. If we continue to accept terms as they stand, services like Google's will literally show us how to write and give us what its proprietary algorithms know that we want to read.




Drucker, Johanna. 'Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display.' Digital Humanities Quarterly 5.1 (2011): [Online http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000091/000091.html]