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Language in a meme economy

DOI: | Issue 5 | October 2020

Ami Clarke


Artist Ami Clarke traces some of the complexities, multi-temporalities and scales, that coalesce around some new, and some very old power relations, that come of, and are revealed by, the technologies associated with the interdependent ecologies of social media, finance, and the environment.

Her work traces hyper-speculation that came of the semiotic boom, where the loss of the referent in both language and the economy is shared across the trending behaviour of neoliberal/free market dynamics in finance, as well as emerging media ecologies.  Here, inconsistencies in claims of ‘fake news’ amidst rights to ‘freedom of expression’ converge in the shortcomings of colonial practices of extraction, and new hyper-networked digital colonialisms, as the futures markets meets behavioural futures across the interdependencies of a reputation economy that comes of online news and social media, and the forms of finance driven by this.


Pre-empting many of the conditions brought into sharp focus by the pandemic, she touches upon how the insurance industry reveals the catastrophic flaw of investing in the neoliberal myth of the market, as ‘unprecedented’ events become increasingly every-day. A state of contingency, that no longer promises an opportunity to ‘write the future’, but instead, is felt through the mechanisms of disaster capitalism as churning markets across both the financial sector, and the mediasphere, as a means by which to game not only who has the authority to speak, but democracy itself.


Cries of ‘fake news’ characterise these very particular times, but fake news is anything but new, with words and language having long been weaponised. Whilst researching the Leveson Enquiry in 2011/12, it became apparent to what degree the British press, politicians, and police, were all in each others pockets, very publicly pouring doubt on anything approximating a free press. What also became clear was that the British press was 80% owned by right wing billionaires with a recent analysis in 2019 by Open Democracy showing that UK media have a concentrated ownership structure ‘with six billionaires owning and/or having a majority of voting shares in most of the national newspapers’. In light of these already highly compromised relations, I began an in-depth enquiry regarding the changes in news production that came of the drift online by traditional journalism, and what that meant for the news, as well as the new forms of reportage opened up by this.

Low Animal Spirits was a work made in collaboration with Richard Cochrane in 2014, that took its cue from the then oft-mentioned loss of the referent in both language and the economy, speculated about wildly after the economic collapse of 2007/08. It deployed a high-frequency trading (HFT) algorithm written by Cochrane who was once a Vice President of Goldman Sachs, that ‘deals’ in words sourced from global news feeds for virtual ‘profit’, whilst speculating on their usage. The analysis produces new phenomena in the form of speculative headlines tweeted from the twitterbot @LowAnimalSpirit. The projected visualisation shows what is about to trend (not what is already trending), with a glimpse into the HFT algorithms buying and selling activity, as it accesses 994 English Language global news feeds ‘live’, and acts upon the data as if it were trading in the global market place, analysing words in terms of the potential for a virtual ‘profit’ to be made.

The accompanying twitterbot @LowAnimalSpirit tweeting live speculative headlines from the HFT algo’s ‘portfolio’ as it speculated on what was about to trend. The analysis produces new phenomena in the form of headlines generated with the help of Natural Language processing algorithms.
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And we chose to apply HFT to the news because it seemed to epitomize the speculative, short return, and unfettered free market ideology of neoliberalism, in an activity closer to ‘sifting’ than market making in and of itself.

And, because, quite unlike poetry - news matters precisely because of its indexical link to the truth.

A social production interwoven with a history of technological innovation, from the era of the printing press to present day hybrid strategies that include both print and digital platforms, that has an underlying requirement for a need for language to be tethered to an instance based on fact, and consequently a focus on how truth may be defined.

As Wikimedia, the new media theorist Mercedes Bunz, and Hannah Arendt all attest, access to knowledge is a basic fundamental right with reliable information known to be a key driver for social and economic development, “with the evaluation of truth and information shifting from the beliefs of the middle ages, to reason, during the Enlightenment, precisely because information and knowledge become an essential means of production, underpinning economics itself’” (Bunz, 2013). A taxonomy underwritten by the extractive relations of colonialism and slavery, that established a very specific order, in which ‘the construction of Europe was based upon the concept of racial superiority”, as a ‘discrete, racially pure entity, solely responsible for modernity” through the very conceptualisation of blackness (Jameson, 1983). The socio-political and economic technologies of capital production would later go on to inscribe the binary relations necessary to underwrite capitalism further, with the unpaid labour of 50% of the population.

Shoshana Zuboff’s fieldwork, today, shows how the new knowledge territories emerging alongside the capacity to analyse processes and behaviours, also resulted in political conflict over the distribution of knowledge, as: “Surveillance capitalists … declared their right to know, to decide who knows, and to decide who decides. Meanwhile, the constantly changing landscape of digitalization has meant that “Algorithms are [also] frequently updating the fact, with the outcome that it is being altered endlessly” suggesting that, whilst “the digital fact has never been more accurate, it also has never been less durable” (Bunz, 2013).

“it becomes obvious that the digital fact is relating to truth in a new and different way than the fact of the industrial age, for truth and facts aren't the same but share a rather complex relationship newly adjusted by technology” (Bunz, 2013).

The means by which this comes about, and ‘who’ gets to contribute via ‘the constantly updateable fact’, whether via citizen journalism, twitter, facebook, medium, buzzfeed, and so on, begins to challenge some of the ‘absolutes’ that come of empire, through a newly vocalized multitude of voices, as “the shape of the truth seems to be related to the technical means we use for approaching it” (Bunz, 2013). Finance afforded a glimpse of a highly volatile, and paradoxical model of mass-behaviour, with the figure of homo economicus already a deeply in-debted subject “as (increasingly) the lifeworld became a system for the notation of market trend data” (Philipp Ekardt , 2014) within the highly quantified protocols of platform capitalism.

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Finance had long been the site of cognitive bias research with the title Low Animal Spirits pointing to the paradox that Keynes discovered during the Great Depression, in which an inherently herd-like mentality to the market was simultaneously reliant on the concept of the heroic individual spontaneously acting of their own ‘free will’. The term 'animal spirits' was drawn from the Latin 'spiritus animals' to describe an elusive energy, or spirit, at the time thought of as a fluid that drives human beings, associated with Hume’s concept of spontaneous motivation. Gambling and games of chance, with all the romantic heroism of the autonomous subject, pitted against mathematical determinism, drove the quest for ever better odds, as the C18th study of celestial mechanics developed complex new mathematical tools, for deriving probable outcomes. Across several different branches of science, visual perception was overtaken by what Maxwell termed as ‘the true logic of this world ... the Calculus of Probabilities, which takes account of the magnitude of the probability’. It is significant, he writes, that: ‘this branch of math ... is generally thought to favour gambling, dicing, and wagering, and therefore highly immoral’ (Bender and Marrinan 2010, 178 footnote 79). The arena in which these ideas arose, was of course heralded for the very concept of ‘free will’ coming into being, and as Hayles notes; an evolving subjectivity that emerges through market relations.

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Breaking News Flash Crash

The financial sector was also of interest because they really weren’t shy at forging ahead with automation in ways that displaced even the most trusted wisdom of human operators.

Breaking News Flash Crash depicted the moment that the Associated Press's twitter account was hacked with the tweet: Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barak Obama is injured - with the press reporting "Hackers caused a mini stock market ‘flash crash’ this afternoon after sending a bogus tweet from a hacked Associated Press (AP) Twitter account". The market recovered particularly quickly in this instance, as there were no other corroborating stories, and the Associated Press were quick to shut down their twitter account. The entire event lasted less than 5 minutes and it’s worth noting that what happened was not due to a broken part, a mis-behaving algo, or a computer running crazily out of control, but precisely because the algorithms operated as designed to do, at speeds far beyond human cognition.

In a 2015 analysis of the flash crash event Tero Karppi and Kate Crawford draw attention to the Dataminr software that mines Twitter’s ‘firehose” and delivers what is deemed relevant into the hands of traders. “Dataminr combs through 340 million daily tweets on Twitter and its algorithms quickly seize on abnormal and actionable signals that can be analyzed and confirmed as a relevant event for a client. This could be anything from an assassination or general instability in certain countries to government sanctions, natural disasters or on-the-ground chatter about products or trends.” Citing journalist Michelle Price in the Financial News, they write that this sophisticated scoring of the relationships between words in play, can uncover grades of expressed ‘emotions’ and produce more than just a sentiment analysis of Twitter data: Here, value is accrued through an opaque, but meaningful process of assessment, in that the analysis in no doubt fuels decisions made by financial operators happening at speeds of data processing far beyond human capacity. A phase transition in cultural research, social scientists now analyze patterns in the massive datasets used to study emotional sentiments on Twitter, to deconstruct narrative tropes in the media to allegedly identify anger, fear, disgust and sadness. ‘Emotion detection’ has grown from a research project to a $20bn industry.

Karpi and Crawford suggest that: digital innovations generally, and software code specifically, are codes also in the sense of being able to shape human conduct. “Thus, computer code is seen as performative, in that it creates specific types of social (but not necessarily human) beings (Introna, 2011; Mackenzie and Vurdubakis, 2011) or as governmental (Thrift and French, 2002), because it shapes human conduct. (Karppi and Crawford 2015, 49).” They argue that: “Twitter and social media are becoming more powerful forces, not just because they connect people or generate new modes of participation, but because they are connecting human communicative spaces to automated computational spaces in ways that are affectively contagious and highly volatile”.

The Eye That Remains Of The Me That Was I

Error-Correction: an introduction to future diagrams developed from a fascination with diagrams as a capacity to draw together complex entangled threads that could reveal something of the processes, conditions, and relations of power flowing through today’s human/technological assemblages. A writing that emerges as a script reflecting on the influence of calculus, in which each articulation is just one of many takes, constantly re-edited, that references and includes openly appropriated texts, contemporary commentary, news items, anecdotal evidence; culminating in an interrelated convergence of many interwoven threads, whereby the voice (through language), is constituted between someone else's thoughts, and the page. The work attempts to acknowledge the multitude of influences contributing to how thought might be arrived at, with an emphasis on any subject to speak of (as questions of authorship, also arise) emerging in synthesis with their environment.

I was interested in the complex ways that the body receives and processes multiple sense data, in everyday human technological assemblages, and took a cue from the physician and physicist Herman von Helmholtz’s research into mathematics of the eye, that led to probability theory, who suggested: “human perceptions, so prone to error, are at best, an approximation, an estimation even, that 'operate(s) within the protocols of instruments” His premise was that human eyes have: “a hard-wired, involuntary drive to minimize perceptual errors - and discovered error-correction in the very nerve endings of our bodies” (Bender and Marrinan, 2010).

Here, error is no mistake - but the driver of probable outcomes.

I was also interested in the way that the body was in question in this assemblage, acting at several simultaneous scales and temporalities, whilst the script denied any primacy of the voice, or identifiable subject, which is all the while being constituted through other people's words.

Error-Correction met Low Animal Spirits as a new assemblage in a serendipitous and entirely unexpected moment, and the scripting of language and code conjoined in a suspect ‘liveness’ of performance, that included the eye that remains of the me that was I - myself as ‘automated reader’.

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A nonlinear text, that doesn’t sit adjacent to what came before, as proximity no longer presupposes contiguity, and causality is no longer possible in the ordinary sense of the word. Reliant on syncopation and semantic rhythm to drive the score, the axiom, or recipe (Cramer, 2012) that dictates the form, is betrayed by a pornography of language (Rule & Levine, 2012), as earworms seep, until they crystallize in thought. Any subject to speak of emerges from this assemblage via an untrustworthy body with faulty equipment, produced in synthesis with it's environment, that feels through prosthesis, with a body that matters, without mattering.

Error-Correction takes it’s title from the theory of least squares by Adrien-Marie Legendre and Carl Friedrich Gauss (1805), and its subsequent application in celestial mechanics ‘formulating true statements in advance of experience’ in the work of John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier. The mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace at the École Polytechnique, championed the possibility ‘to determine the probability of causes lying behind events by working backwards from observations’ (Bender and Marrinan, 2010, 160) in his 1812 Théorie analytique des probabilities. The script speaks of the development from perspectival drawing, to projected geometry, and further, beyond the human sensorium via mathematics to calculus, leading to probability theory and being able to speculate the future.

It suggests that just as Euclidean geometry was surpassed by calculus, perhaps within the current diagram of power, another strategy might be necessary, oscillating somewhere between remaining visible, whilst also hidden, within the potential of becoming multiple, as it became clear that the protocols of platform capitalism relied entirely on a ‘freedom’ of expression drawn out by highly addictive and sophisticated scripting mechanisms, as you uploaded exactly what was on your mind, 24/7. Over the past few years these ideas have become less conspiracy theory, more mainstream media, via the revelations regarding Cambridge Analytica, amid a more widespread acknowledgement of, if it’s ‘free’, you are the product.

As ‘freedom of expression’ gets caught up in protocols that grant access to platforms that rely inherently on ‘you’ as the product, a currency to data emerges, that buys participation through the protocols of platform capitalism. An outrageous paradox, in which the important drive to become ’visible’ in terms of political representation, becomes distorted, when data, extracted willingly, or otherwise, leads to wrongful or reductive analysis and categorisation, adding further to unprecedented levels of surveillance and contributing to often systemic practices of discrimination. A phenomena not without considerable historical precedent, with Adolphe Quetelet (among others) applying statistical analysis to social data, producing an estimation of the ‘average man’ in his writing in ‘Sur l’homme’ in 1835, rendering statistical quantification as a form of power, through taxonomy and scientific categorisation.

The critical theorist Simone Browne author of Dark Matter: On The Surveillance Of Blackness, notes that in simple terms, ‘biometrics is a technology of measuring the living body’, and that most surveillance, as David Lyon suggests, is: “practiced with a view to enhancing efficiency, productivity, participation, welfare, health or safety,” leaving social control “seldom a motivation for installing surveillance systems even though that may be an unintended or secondary consequence of their deployment.” Browne points out that “Fiske argues that although Michel Foucault and George Orwell both conceptualized surveillance as integral to modernity, surveillance “has been racialized in a manner that they did not foresee: today’s seeing eye is white.”“

“How to act in a techno baroque condition” critical theorist Paul B Preciado asks, the likes of which today are characterised as ‘modulative’ (Deleuze, 1992) that “work through the manipulation of the flows which move bodies, and the thresholds across which they must cross” (Coley, Lockwood, 2012) as data becomes ‘a strategic asset and a behavioural surplus, underwriting in turn, a monetary surplus for the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon with a colonising ruthlessness’ (Zuboff 2019). Questions regarding the currency of data emerge with platform protocols, just as data as a currency might still unfold. Much like the wages for housework movement noted, historically, it really doesn’t matter if you want to think of human interactions and emotional responses as quantifiable, or not, it’s happening anyway.

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Repetition: A Radical Unoriginality

Driven by an increasing urgency to think about what it might mean to ‘act’, within increasingly pre-emptive outcomes, with the media-sphere fast on its way to becoming as volatile as the markets, Ami Clarke: Author of the Blank Swan, was a conceptual work as publication, that emerged via the French Lebanese financier and philosopher Elie Ayache’s book ‘The Blank Swan’. A book on derivatives, where he suggests that ‘writing’ has an equivalence to ‘pricing’ due to the contractual nature of the derivative that ties the past to the future through writing. He asks if there were a technology that might be available “to get inside the very process of history and do something more active than to watch passively as history unfolds: altogether different from the conceptual activity consisting in predicting and outguessing history.”

He draws on Borges story of ‘Pierre Menard; Author of the Quixote’, a fictional writer and critic who spends his time writing chapters of the C17th Don Quixote, several centuries on from when the text was published. Interpretations of this have tended to focus on how ‘reading’ brings about difference, through a Barthes like emphasis on the true locus of ‘writing’ as reading. Conversely, Ayache’s focus interpellates Borges’ fiction with the apparatus of the derivative contract that implicitly relies on writing, bringing about a different emphasis on the ‘writing’ – of a previously existing text – as a truly contingent act.

Taking him up on his challenge, with each word that I wrote of ‘The Blank Swan: Chapter 4, Writing and the Market’, one dismal winter break with a snivelling wretched cold: there was simply nothing that could guarantee that any given word would necessarily follow the next.

The artist Elaine Sturtevant back-dates her artists book: Sturtevant: Author of the Quixote, published in 2009, via a letter written to Borges in the introduction, to 1970, around the time of her early practice of making works of other artists works. As Patricia Lee notes, thereby “pushing the codification of artists to specific signifiers” in relation to the structures and systems of art. Reducing the artists’ work to a sign; a brand: an easy meme producer, percolating myths of genius, and so on, that could be seen to have more to do with the market, than whatever other values might be claimed for art at any given time in history.

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Sturtevant’s emphasis on “the brutal truth of the work is that it is not a copy” is shared in Ayache’s thinking when she claims “the dynamics of the work is that it throws out representation” (P. Lee 2016). Ayache writes “Only through the writing/trading performance and not through the realization of a theoretical stochastic process, that is framed in representational thought, can the writer or trader of contingent claims exceed the saturated context and move to the next – i.e. he can trade.” What this brings forth in Ayache’s terms, is the trading room and a performative capacity that is singular and non-reproducible.

A capacity to write the future, seemingly shared across the blockchain in so far as a technology that exceeds probability through the time-stamp. Driven by the same writing technology as the contract in the derivatives market, Benjamin Bratton notes, blockchain amounts to little more than insurance. Developed notably from a libertarian perspective to facilitate trade online without the necessity of a bank as an external source of trust, blockchain also brought forth the most volatile of markets, with Goldman Sachs in on the action from early on, and the historical trader pitting themselves against the mathematical determination of the markets with all the heroics of high animal spirits, soon to follow. As Hayles notes, similiarly “Ayache’s vision of the market’s ontological power is a neoliberal fantasy run wild, fuelled by Quentin Meillassoux’s (2010) philosophical argument for the absolute nature of contingency and applied by Ayache to finance capital” (Hayles, 2017, 148)

Florian Cramer picks up something of Sturtevant’s critique in his essay Crapularity Aesthetics, 2019, describing how “the signature dichotomy of contemporary art is kept in place, by a series of measures that keep it simultaneously abundant and artificially scarce: (a) through the economics of the single-copy artwork in gallery art (b) through the illusion of autographs in Zombie Formalism and its meta-joking, digital institutional critique derivatives, or (c) through the limitation of the number of mutations and the use of digital crypto signatures and owner authentication stamps on memetic blockchains, such as in the proverbial Rare Pepes that, according to their creator Altpeter, demonstrate the ability to enforce digital scarcity for the first time”.

Blockchain, is, after all, only a tool, and just as a pencil is only useful in so far as what you choose to write with it, so is the potential of decentralised ways of working. The most urgent and compelling aspect of the equation, for me, then, is who gets to write the future in this new calculus.

The Marketplace Of Ideas

Events in recent years have heralded in several seemingly unimaginable futures, unless of course, as Whitney Phillips points out in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, you were already in a position of being aware of the discriminatory nature of western culture, often articulated through casual ‘banter’, as its wont to be called, happening on a daily basis.

In 2013, the Amsterdam based design collective Metahaven asked:

Can Jokes bring down governments?

whilst in 2017 we might have asked:

Can jokes bring down democracy?

A seam of cruel jouissance that comes of hunting in packs was given expression alongside the emphasis on the individual as consumer par excellence, drenched in narcissism and resentment through the mechanisms of social media, the dynamics of a meme economy, and a trickle down theory of economics, that does anything but. High on animal spirits it seeped through the retreat from empiricism to the post-truth political landscape of truthiness – that describes “the belief in what you feel to be true rather than what the facts will support”.

New (old) strategies of ‘disinformation’ also took hold, an old tactic, as mentioned, but one now built on unprecedented access to data, alongside psychological profiling made possible by platform capitalism’s inherent business model, borne of data analysis, psychological profiling, and targetted advertising. Chris Wyllie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, points to how these strategies differ from general election campaigning, saying: “…Obama didn’t win because of disinformation. The fundamental difference between standard political targeting and information operations is this idea of informational dominance.”

This quote is particularly interesting if considered alongside the observation made during the presidential campaign that Trump acted much like a hungry algorithm, deliberately (in so far as intention goes with him) searching out weak points to attack. Rupture appears purely for the sake of it, saturating the churning infosphere and thus enabling an affective capture in a highly competitive economy of attention. The analytics firm Mediaquant estimated that between October 2015 and November 2016, Trump received $5.6 Billion dollars in “free” earned media from this strategy, three times his nearest rival: “The more outrageous his words, the more coverage he received’.

Rupture, or transgression, perhaps, is of particular interest as a tactic that resonates throughout the disruption of language; of logos, and the undermining of ‘meaning’ through various avant-garde art movements invested in it’s radical political potential, that can be traced through the non-sense of DADA to the no sense of the cut-up, where nuclear dust radiates through mimetic media, to more recently a psyops driven ‘un-sense’ (Srnicek, 2018) - whereby, I would extrapolate, the complete lack of meaning, evident in the first place, is actually quite difficult to subvert. There’s little point in making ‘non-sense’ of Donald Trump - he’s doing very well on his own.

Perhaps this points to the fact that previous avant-garde strategies that deployed rupture and transgression as a tactic, and not without considerable animal spirits, work only in relation to more entrenched societal behaviours of the time, historically, that meant that the tactic of ‘shock and awe’ wasn’t an everyday occurrence, prior to the ontological collapse of semiotic capture. Perhaps more pertinent to the post-causal, ‘post-truth’ dimension of politics, would be that the persuasive rhetoric of logos is distorted through the outrageous claims of advertising - in itself profoundly productive through psycho-analytical readings of the populace. The practice of publishing entirely untruthful claims, tailored to target very specific vulnerabilities, does the work of seeding the lie, regardless of the later retraction. Much like the press acts as Trumps marketing team, equally out-moded tactics of over-identification also serve only to spread the contagion that much more effectively, within a furiously fast economy of attention whilst normalising and relativising both hate speech and aesthetics.

The liberated first person narrative, meanwhile, is co-opted into complex behaviours of addictive upload, reliant on the construction of ‘you’ as the product, whilst cognitive, non-cognitive, conscious, and unconscious, bots, recogs, and other automated voices, driven by machine learning and Artificial Intelligence - contribute to a cacophony of ‘un-thought’ (Hayles, 2019). All, or any of these, describe Literat and van den Berg in their paper “Buy memes low, sell memes high” (where the community on Reddit’s MemeEconomy centres around the appropriation of stock market jargon to discuss memes as investment-worthy commodities), might then be a means to contribute to the collective construction of value in the digital age, rife with exclusionary dynamics, whilst boundary policing, identity constructing,⁠⁠ and accumulating cultural capital all the while, that far surpasses the logic of creating error, glitches, gaps, and rupture, purely for the sake of it.


In an attempt to counter the rise of ‘fake’ news, the founders of Civil, a site for journalism built on Ethereum, as a “marketplace for great journalism’, operates as a peer-review economy with the CVL token used in transactions as a means to “economically incentivize and promote good behaviour that helps the platform grow and thrive, whilst keeping bad actors off it”. Most importantly it recognizes the damage to journalism by the lack of an adequate business model as advertising revenue drifted online. They write that they’re ‘committed to introducing a new funding model …to focus on journalism, not satisfying clicks-over-quality mandates from third parties like advertisers and publishers’. If nothing else, a micro-payment system might evolve. More tellingly, the multiple modes of verification, reputation building and so on, implicit in Civil’s manifesto, attempt to address a waning grasp on reason and truth, core values of the enlightenment, closely aligned with individual liberty, and contributing factors to what has been reductively called the ‘post-truth’ landscape, but not all. As a system that attempts to deal with the drift in journalism from the one to the many, to the many to the many, which has an opt-in at point of entry, CIVIL risks being a silo of truth, amongst a sea of churning indifference.

And herein lies the problem.

The magic sauce that seeps through online civic life as jouissance ripples through the networks, means that many people don't much care for whether it's true or not, whilst investing in a freedom of expression born of victimhood, that’s curiously unaware of it’s own privilege. Conservative newspapers have been particularly quick to decry the post-truth landscape, whilst investing in a very particular sort of truth, notably, that props up their own agenda. An insidious argument that utilises analytical philosophy with claims of what amounts to the ‘truth’, as a means of gaming who has the authority to speak, when in actuality the “hate speech of the few silences the voices and threatens the lives of the marginalized many.” Here the inconsistencies in claims of ‘fake news’ amidst rights to ‘freedom of expression’ converge in the shortcomings of older colonial practices of extraction, and new hyper-networked neo-colonialisms. 

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Magic Sauce Meets Secret Sauce

The Underlying attempted to grasp, fleetingly, something of these complexities as they converge in the upcoming environmental challenges ahead, that come of, and are revealed by the interdependencies between the mutual ecologies of the reputation economy, that comes of online news and social media, and the forms of finance driven by this.

The contractual condition of the derivative, and insurance, central to risk management, was key to thinking about environmental concerns, as a means to consider how models of probability reveal the catastrophic fault lines of capitalism in relation to the environment, as ‘unprecedented’ events become increasingly every-day, and a state of contingency becomes a modus operandi. 

The work co-opted the financiers tool of live sentiment analysis regarding mentions of BPA’s (Bisphenol A) in online news production, and social media, to consider how surveillance, rather than a rogue element of capitalism, enmeshes with the effects of market forces upon the environment, happening at a molecular level.

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Visitors to the VR work Derivative arrive just outside the iconic striped postmodern landmark of 1 Poultry, immersed within a dusty crystalline maze, in which familiar landmarks merge with multiple fractured views reminiscent of popular ecological disaster sci-fi’s such as Bladerunner 2049 and Netflix series Mars.  Asking just how 'virtual' the effects of the markets are on the environment, as data from sentiment analysis software influenced the sandstorm polluting the landscape at the financial heart of the British nation state, born of the ongoing financial oppression of tax evasion and offshore banking. The work emphasised an important aspect of the climate challenges ahead will be to address present inequalities borne of colonialism.

Particles escaped from the virtual landscape as an enormous drift amassed up against the windows of the gallery, where outcrops of spawn-like eyes: The Prosthetics, reminiscent of surveillance capitalism, remained evocative of collective potential. Lag Lag Lag reminiscent of financiers monitors, enmeshed human cognitive as well as non-cognitive processes, blurring human/animal in-distinctions with soft computing, the molecular structure of Bisphenol A, and live data production.

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Co-opting these technologies, our pricing model utilised a financial quantitative model with BPA sentiment analysis, weather futures contracts, the FTSE, and local pollution data from the longitude and latitude of the gallery to contribute to a speculative view into the rise and fall in reputation of the top 100 companies responsible for over 70% of emissions, as public opinion turns, and insurance companies lose their appetite for underwriting companies dealing in the production of pollutants. Oldridge points to three key areas identified by the Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority:

The first is physical impact risk, relating to the increasing frequency and severity of

extreme weather events with substantial costs of repairs rendering places prone to

these already uninsurable (home insurance in areas liable to flooding).

A second area of risk, also happening already, relates to legal liability, as litigation

cases related to the climate are beginning to become reality - potentially leading to fossil fuel divestment.

The third area of risk relates to investment and stems from the fact that the insurance industry is one of the world’s biggest institutional investors in fossil fuels.

As public opinion turns, it increasingly renders investments stranded assets, as coal, gas, and oil, suffer sudden and unexpected drops in value - rendering the bulk of the insurance industry’s investments worthless. As ‘unprecedented’ events become increasingly more every-day, so too, the historical loss records that traditionally guide underwriting and pricing risks, start to lose their value. Whilst, in the meantime, ex-derivative trader Jen Elvidge assured me of the multiple ways you can hedge the impending climate crisis, generating huge profits in the short term.

This is where the current moment crystallizes around wealth derived from a relation that inscribes ongoing inequalities. Where the magic sauce of memetic media meets the secret sauce of right wing billionaires, underwriting political campaigns to facilitate a wholesale move to the hard right, as various survival strategies emerge as the planet continues to heat up, facilitated to a greater or lesser degree by the ‘freedom’ that blockchain supposes in terms of citizenship, as progressives and the alt-right meet, and Davos man doubles down for the long game, to ride out the winter of democracy altogether.

A state of contingency that no longer promises an opportunity to ‘write the future’ but instead, is felt through the mechanisms of disaster capitalism as churning markets across both the financial sector and the mediasphere, as a means by which to game not only who has the authority to speak, but democracy itself.

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I’d been reading Sylvia Winter’s writing, and it struck me anew, how important it was the stories people were telling right now. Derivative draws from the popular imaginary of blockbuster film productions, but located amongst the City of London’s financial district, for something more akin to ‘Bladerunner 2019: the burnout’ in the year the first film was set. The replicant in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner had been important to me growing up as a construct - one that was left ambiguous - as Deckard’s status is never revealed, whilst the 2049 film lost this nuance almost entirely. Fascinated by Bisphenol A as oestrogen left me during the menopause, it took me back to adolescence where I was prescribed synthetic oestrogen at the Tall Girls Clinic: Department of Growth and Development, Great Ormond st Children’s hospital, in a desperate bid to limit my growth. As I emerged via biochemical prosthesis, I was aware of a plasticity in stark contrast to any biological determinism.

If nature is unjust – then change nature

Here, the alienation inherent in being a cyborg (replicant, or post-human), as a machine aware of being a machine (Preciado) leads to an understanding of identity as a construct, that hence can be constructed anew, whilst foregrounding how technologies such as synthetic hormones, for example, lead to a writing technology of choice.

“We need to become aware of the technologies that we take that are producing

the subjectivities that are being produced through them”

Conversely, and, at the same time, Preciado’s reworking of Foucault’s history of sexuality (for Foucault is no feminist, let us not forget), describes the necropolitical regime as it enters biopolitical forms of government, with the regime of hormones in the pharmaco-pornographic era making progesterone and oestrogen the best sellers in the history of pharmacology, and key elements of global capitalism. In this update to Foucault’s panopticon, molecular entanglements enmesh with Deleuze’s modulatory control of data, as sentiment/emotion analysis mines Twitter and online news, uncovering grades of expressed emotions as well as importance and social meaning in order to predict the present, and thus transform social media signals into economic information and value.

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Covid19 has drawn into sharp focus all these conditions and worse, with existing inequalities, bias, and discriminations coming to the fore fast. A state of contingency – a chaos of churning markets and mediasphere – providing maximum opportunity “to exact ‘emergency measures’ with minimum scrutiny for oversight - in the pandemic version of “disaster capitalism”” writes Rachel Shabi in her article” The Pro-Privatization Shock Therapy of the UK’s Covid Response.

The ‘unprecedented’ nature of the pandemic reveals the structural weakness of a neoliberal ideology, that has shewn away the state as insurer of last resort for the sake of the myth of the market. Through decades of deregulation, austerity, and the lessening of governmental obligation to those it is supposed to serve. Whilst advances in technology draw out existing bias and discriminations like a poultis, the crisis reveals how these are underscored by economic realities, that to a large extent, determine who bears the brunt of the pandemic.

But, whilst the future might seem like it’s coming up incredibly short, what this could also suggest is an end to doing things in these ways, as the pandemic forces many to recognize that problems of this magnitude can only be solved collectively, amidst calls for a radical overhaul of capitalism that prioritises people’s welfare, to such a degree, that it is entirely unrecognizable as capitalism at all.


[1] Media Reform Coalition: New Report, Who Owns the UK Media in 2019. The Media Reform Coalition produced its first comprehensive report on media ownership in the UK back in 2015 when it argued concentrated ownership was a significant problem for any modern democracy. Four years later, it has produced an updated version that suggests that, not only does concentrated ownership persist but that the problem may be getting worse.

[2] For more information and critique on HFT - see: Low Animal Spirits by Ami Clarke - Journal Of Visual Art Practice, 2016. VOL. 15, NOS. 2–3, 145–160

[3] “In this way they have come to dominate what I call “the division of learning in society”, which is now the central organising principle of the 21st-century social order, just as the division of labour was the key organising principle of society in the industrial age.” Zuboff – Surveillance Capitalism.

[4] Reported by The Washington Post, NY magazine, and Andrew Yoskowitz in After Dawn news.

[5] The first time the work was presented at DRUGG (Diagram Research Use and Generation Group) diagram conference, at the Slade - was in the form of an audio recording, captured ‘live’ on the platform at Hackney Downs. The work in part, is my struggling to read the script as the audio-scape of trains / rail announcements carry on regardless, around me. Someone asked if I’d chosen to do it in this way because I’d wanted to remain hidden - which was interesting to me, as I hadn’t realised at this point that this was what I was doing.

[6] An online app – one of the many written ‘takes’ of the script Error-Correction, produced for the exhibition Snow Crash, Banner Repeater, London, 2014

[7] There seems to have been little governmental interest in scrutinising the role that tech plays in undermining and gaming democracy – until absolutely forced to do so. One might wonder if this might be due to, who, thus far, this has benefitted. Meanwhile there are many who have been critically engaged with these concerns for at least a decade and more.

[8] “Insidious - The Body Mass Index. Invented nearly 200 years ago by Adolphe Quetelet, during the early 19thC identifying characteristics of l’homme moyen – the average man - whom, to Quetelet, represented a social ideal. Quetelet believed that the mathematical mean of a population was its ideal, and his desire to prove it resulted in the invention of the BMI, a way of quantifying l’homme moyen’s weight. Initially called Quetelet’s Index, Quetelet derived the formula based solely on the size and measurements of French and Scottish participants. That is, the Index was devised exclusively by and for white Western Europeans. By the turn of the next century, Quetelet’s l’homme moyen would be used as a measurement of fitness to parent, and as a scientific justification for eugenics — the systemic sterilization of disabled people, autistic people, immigrants, poor people, and people of color. While Quetelet’s work was used to justify scientific racism for decades to come, he was clear about one aspect of the BMI: it was never intended as a measure of individual body fat, build, or health. For its inventor, the BMI was a way of measuring populations, not individuals — and it was designed for the purposes of statistics, not individual health”. Article by Your Fat Friend,

[9] Browne writes also of how the artwork Keeper Of Keys machine (kk) developed by Marc Böhlen (aka RealTechSupport) in the context of the Open Biometrics Initiative, could engender a critical biometric consciousness, beginning from the position, that: “understands all body data as probabilistic. By taking seriously the idea that identification and verification of fingerprint biometric data through computational means relies on probability—that a match is more akin to an approximation than a confirmation—the Open Biometrics Initiative designed the kk to subvert the notion that biometric identification technology is infallible.” Browne notes, interestingly, that the kk is “designed to re-imagine, beyond the confines of security and repression, notions of machinic identity control and biometric validation.”

[10] Zuboff writes further: Google the company, preoccupied with growth, handled data as a strategic asset: where the imperatives of expansion suggested that it ought to be shared with other tech companies, it did so without hesitation, giving access to Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo, and even Apple (though Apple denied their involvement). Under capitalism, who gets to appropriate behavioral surplus is of only secondary importance; what matters is who gets to appropriate actual surplus—and to thereby remain in the position of doing so over the long term.

[11] See also N K Hayles’ writing on Ayache’s work in her book Unthought (2018) – pages 145 - 147

[12] Neural 60 Interview with Ami Clarke, Sept 2018.

[13] Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design and Politics by Metahaven 2013.

[14] Emily Nussbaum’s “How Jokes Won the Election” article: how many of Trump’s outrageous statements during the campaign had the structure of jokes. A lot of people have made a lot hay out of the “seriously”/”literally” dichotomy breaking down, but Nussbaum focuses instead on how it limits your ability to react, especially when you’re the subject of the “joke”: The political journalist Rebecca Traister described this phenomenon to me as “the finger trap.” You are placed loosely within the joke, which is so playful, so light—why protest? It’s only when you pull back—show that you’re hurt, or get angry, or try to argue that the joke is a lie, or, worse, deny that the joke is funny—that the joke tightens. If you object, you’re a censor. If you show pain, you’re a weakling.

[15] Back in 2004 Ron Suskind’s article Without a Doubt in the NY Times magazine describes the moment an anonymous Bush aide told him that “guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' “I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality— judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”.' The most outstanding example of course, the faulty case for war in Iraq, presented to the U.N., to Congress and to the American people, which the press had failed to detect, debunk, or resist.

[16] Stephen Colbert coined ‘truthiness’ in 2005, for an episode of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”

[17] Conspiracy theories bloom wildly in this volatile churning vacuum, as truther communities gather together via ‘outsider status’, often holding several contradictory beliefs all sharing certain overarching similarities: the disdain or disinterest of mainstream institutions. The pandemic lays bare the strange convergence of environmental activists and alt right truthers, forming bizarre alliances via the anti-vax movement, all bound up with freedom of speech.

[18] 3.5 million Black Americans were profiled and categorised as ‘Deterrence’ by Trump campaign – voters they wanted to stay home on election day. Revealed: Trump campaign strategy to deter millions of Black Americans from voting in 2016 - 28 Sep 2020 report by Channel 4 News Investigations Team.

[19] Ioana Literat & Sarah van den Berg’s paper “Buy memes low, sell memes high: vernacular criticism and collective negotiations of value on Reddit’s MemeEconomy, Information, Communication & Society”, in 2017, describe how in a particularly self-reflexive corner of Reddit called r/MemeEconomy; “thousands of so-called meme traders spend their time discussing the ebbs and flows of the ‘meme market’. Members post requests for meme ‘appraisals’, and commenters respond by sharing their insider knowledge of meme trends and advising on whether it is safe or risky to ‘invest’ in particular memes. Numbering over 250,000 members and quickly growing, the community centres around the appropriation of stock market jargon to discuss memes as investment-worthy commodities. Unlike the stock market, though, no real money is involved; rather, the reward lies in being able to craft and participate in collective assessments of value, while cementing members’ status as meme insiders or connoisseurs.”

[20] Reports by the Southern Poverty Law Centre show – an American nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation.

[21] The underlying references the material assets, or rather, the price – ie the ‘performance’ of the underlying, that drives the derivatives markets.

[22] Bisphenol A molecule, the synthetic oestrogen and pollutant, produced alongside the manufacturing of plastic since the 1930’s, that has seeped into the entire planets water supplies

[23] Shoshana Zuboff positions the ‘problems’ she encounters within Surveillance Capitalism as a rogue condition in an otherwise tolerable capitalist system, rather than focussing on the predative extractive relations that capitalism is predicated upon.

[24] The work points to the ancient semi-alien entity lodged inside the British nation state in the form of the City of London Corporation – that exists outside of parliament’s normal legislative remit – an offshore city within a city – that facilitates a third of all tax evasion in the world today. Dragging the past into the future, the works point to Britain as by far the biggest enabler of global corporate tax dodging, ground-breaking research by the tax justice network: The Corporate Tax Haven Index finds. The research highlights a widely acknowledged, but fundamentally unsolved situation that points to “the role of the UK and its network of Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies in undermining the ability of other countries, including some of the poorest in the world, to provide for the most basic rights of their citizens.”

[25] with the help of ex-derivatives trader Jen Elvidge and programming by Rob Prouse.

[26] The environmental law firm Client Earth has already targeted the UK's biggest pension funds with a warning that they could face legal action unless they properly take account of risks to their investment portfolios posed by climate change - approximately 900 other climate related lawsuits are now underway in 24 countries, according to a survey by the United Nations Environment Program.

[27] as can be seen with the volatility in the markets generated by Brexit, and Covid for that matter - as hedge fund managers the world over make millions out of our volatile times.

[28] On Being Human As Praxis – editor Katherine McKittrick published by Duke University Press.

[29] A quote by the Xenofeminism group Laboria Cuboniks – tempered by the considerations focussed upon in After Geoengineering, Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration by Holly Jean Buck, and others.

[30] Crucially, the work embraces complexity, and emphasises a shift to thinking about potential ways to shape things differently, that refutes any notion of natural versus artificial, or indeed, any binary at all, prioritising a hybrid approach in all things. Accompanied by a necessary scrutiny of the contributing factors to specific assemblages emerging throughout history, that construct gender, race, class, sexuality, and ableist bias’ and discriminations – troubled with a crucial criticality that questions the humanist project for only ever having afforded some humans rights, and not others.

[31] “Accordingly, for Preciado agency is accessible through prostheses: we are constructed through drugs, objects and representations, but we can also construct ourselves through them.” Transitional States – Hormones at the Crossroads of Art and Science.

[32] Public Lecture by Paul B Preciado. Testo Junkie: hormones, Power, and Resistance in the Pharmacopornographic Regime. Wellcome Collection talk 5th June 2018 – my notes. Transitional States: Hormones at the Crossroads of Art and Science.

[33] former Conservative Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy: Greg Clarke, Channel Four News, April, 2020.

[34] This follows Guardian data analysis which shows that across the UK, people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds are overrepresented in the sectors hit worst by the coronavirus crisis. Art & Design 5 August 2020 - Inside the Southbank Centre’s “laughable and terrifying” mass job cuts and shift to “start-up” culture. Europe’s largest arts centre will look to further commercialisation to recover from the coronavirus crisis. By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

BAME workers disproportionately hit by UK Covid-19 downturn, data shows. Exclusive: Guardian analysis finds BAME people overrepresented in sectors hit worst by coronavirus crisis. Niamh McIntyre, Aamna Mohdin and Tobi Thomas

Tue 4 Aug 2020


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Image citations

Image 1

The accompanying twitterbot @LowAnimalSpirit tweeting live speculative headlines from the HFT algo’s ‘portfolio’ as it speculated on what was about to trend. The analysis produces new phenomena in the form of headlines generated with the help of Natural Language processing algorithms.

Image 2

Low Animal Spirits

Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as a result of animal spirits – of a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities...Thus if the animal spirits are dimmed and the spontaneous optimism falters, leaving us to depend on nothing but a mathematical expectation, enterprise will fade and die; – though fears of loss may have a basis no more reasonable than hopes of profit had before. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes (1936) (VII chapter 12).

The projected visualisation is a glimpse into the HFT algorithms buying and selling activity. The work produced some unexpected results made visible via the visualisation process - where behaviour changes in the algorithm can be seen at a millisecond level as the words appear to ‘swarm’, producing a topology of value that points to the propensity for contagious viral behaviours. And never the more so than in a period of such Low Animal Spirits, post financial crash of 2008/9.

Photo Headstone to Hard Drive Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, 2015.

Images 3, 4, 5 (clockwise)

Headline from review of Low Animal Spirits by Phoebe Stubbs for ARTSLANT magazine.

Breaking News Flash Crash at End User, Hayward Gallery. Photo credit: Tomas Rydin.

Screen grab of the Associated Press twitter account hack 2013.

Image 6

‘Low Animal Spirits’ and ‘Error-Correction: an introduction to future diagrams’ performance for 'Liquidity: Art & Capital' - ICA London, 2016

Image 7

‘The eye that remains of the me that was I’ (Error-Correction: an introduction to future diagrams (take 3))

by Ami Clarke. Promo poster 2014. A whispered visual/audio work made available through a downloadable app that provides the ideal conditions for the work to be listened to – one to one, on headphones, kept in your pocket a little like a paperback. 

Image 8

‘Ami Clarke: Author of the Blank Swan’

installation for Annihilation at Lethaby Gallery, University of the Arts London, 2016.

Image 9

Ami Clarke, Author of the Blank Swan (2016) Ami Clarke, 2016 Published by Banner Repeater. Cover printed by Aldgate Press, ISBN 978-0-9929176-3-0 Screen capture of 3D render of clay cuneiform table, with astronomical procedure text for Jupiter: Mathematical rules for the area of a trapezoid.  British Museum COL: Model by British Museum Photographic Department. Elaine Sturtevant: Author of the Quixote (2009). Elaine Sturtevant, 2009 Editor: Udo Kittelmann Publisher: Walter Koenig

ISBN: 9783865604729 Installation for Annihilation at Lethaby Gallery, University of the Arts London, 2016.

Image 10

‘The Underlying’ by Ami Clarke, including Derivative (Virtual Reality, with live sentiment/emotion analysis re BPA's), Lag Lag Lag (video interface with live sentiment/emotion analysis re BPA's), and The Prosthetics (prosthetic optics, blown glass).

Exhibition: The Underlying by Ami Clarke: arebyte gallery, London, 2019. Commissioned by arebyte. Photo credit: Chris McInnes

Image 11

Derivative (VR work)

(Unreal Engine, Oculus Rift headset, 2 x Oculus Touch controllers, 2 x Oculus sensor, 2 x AA batteries, PC computer, HDMI cable and monitor, cable to connect to raspberry pi's processing sentiment analysis.)

Exhibition: The Underlying by Ami Clarke: arebyte gallery, London, 2019. Commissioned by arebyte.

Image 12

Lag Lag Lag by Ami Clarke (8 screen video interface, with live sentiment/emotion analysis re mentions of BPA on twitter and online news)

Exhibition: arebyte gallery, London, 2019. Commissioned by arebyte. Photo credit: Chris McInnes

Image 13

As the remnants of hurricane Ophelia made themselves known via the orange skies above London in 2017, everyone made the same Bladerunner joke. Screengrab of twitter feed 2017.

Exhibition: arebyte gallery, London, 2019. Commissioned by arebyte. Photo credit: Chris McInnes

Image 14

The Prosthetics (prosthetic optics, blown glass).

The Prosthetics drew reference from the Fates, the three sisters forced to share one eye between them. Suggestive of the surveillance that drives data analysis, they also point to the limited resources of a dwindling biosphere, but also to the collective approach necessary to face the challenges ahead.

[15hibition: The Underlying by Ami Clarke: arebyte gallery, London, 2019. Commissioned by arebyte. Photo credit: Chris McInnes[

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