Almost 10 years ago, the digital artists Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico launched an ambitious, subversive project: They developed a network of fake Web pages that would generate revenue from Google’s ad platform, AdSense, and then used the money to buy Google shares — effectively forcing the search giant to “eat itself” in a gutsy commentary on Internet monopolies and the corporate interests that rule us.
Much has changed on the Internet in the decade since, but Cirio and Ludovico’s work remains as relevant as ever. Case in point? Despite the fact that the project and its accompanying Web site, googlewilleatitself.com, haven’t been active since the mid-aughts, both flared up unexpectedly this week, earning hundreds of tweets and the top spot on the popular tech site Hacker News.
Cirio and Ludovico also remain concerned about the shadowy power structures of the Web economy. Cirio, whose controversial projects on tax havens, privacy and cybersecurity often involve illegal hacking, is currently working on a secretive piece about “digital currencies and algorithmic trading.” Ludovico edits the Italian art magazine Neural, which focuses on hacktivism and the “conceptual use of technology in art.” If anything, they say, the problems they first observed 10 years ago have only gotten worse.
In fact, asked which tech companies concern him now, Ludovico said “there’s plenty of them, you name them … All the platforms giving you apparently free services are, of course, taking advantage of something else.”
Cirio, Ludovico and I recently chatted about their work by e-mail. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
First off, any ideas why Google Will Eat Itself is back in the news lately?
Paolo Cirio: It’s indeed interesting how the project became viral again after 10 years — it seems like a mutation of a virus, a meme that found a fertile environment for propagating itself.
I think that in recent years, the collective consciousness regarding economic models increased due to the crises and the rise of new business strategies and the alternative economy. Nevertheless in the last decade, the Internet penetrates a wider demographic of users, and Google monopolized most Internet infrastructures.
Alessando Ludovico: This seems to be a typical Internet memory process. We perceive the Internet as a host of infinite content, and as long as we can’t visually grasp the whole of it (as we can do with any library, for example, even the Library of Congress), anything that seems slightly *new* or *original* to enough people actually becomes new.
Somehow the resurgence also says quite a bit about how visionary the project was in 2005 — that it can still be perceived as brand-new today. The involvement of Google in the NSA scandal, and Google’s admittance that they ‘read’ private e-mail, has only reinforced their monopolist role in a number of services, yet they’re publicly quite accepted. It’s the Google Paradox: the more it becomes popular, the more it can exploit its predominant position and the privacy of its customers, the more it increases its popularity.
And the ‘porcelain interface’ Google adopts is stronger than ever, with the pop doodles, the slick graphic design and the recurring warm colors of the logo. If you visit a Google office, you’ll notice how those colors recur all the time all over the place in subtle ways. Its brand recognition and power is undisputed. So the GWEI original project is only reinforced by that. As Herbert Marcuse said once: “It is the strange fate of certain individuals and certain arts to hold out the possibility of future truth.”
Does that mean you don’t actively monitor GWIE anymore?
Cirio: No, the project ended several years ago. For us it was an artistic experiment that only worked for a few months. I see it as an online performance. In most of my projects there is a time when the hack really exploits the vulnerabilities and backdoors, and then it’s hard to keep going when the target of the intervention counteracts.
During the time of this performance, Google disabled several of my AdSense accounts when I generated fraud clicks with my bots. Eventually Google was able to detect me even before opening new accounts, almost in a scary surveillance way. I could keep developing new tricks, but that would have required a full time commitment to an endless war between Google (which tries to identify fake clicks) and hackers (who are always able to improve their bots).
Also, at the time of the project, we didn’t consider Google’s estimated value, or the fact that Google’s shares were getting more expensive. We would have needed hundreds of thousands of people to join the program and help with AdSense accounts over several years in order to buy the entire company with its own money.
And Google grew so much during that time. Did that impact your theory or your motives at all?
Cirio: Well, Google already ate itself. It became so big and influential that it could be considered the Internet itself. The money Google generates is reinvested and reused in the same Internet economy, until it reproduces itself in a circular, auto-referential model. This is normal for large industries that are able to fully control the markets in which they operate. However, history and democracy should remind us that media conglomerates aren’t healthy for society as a whole. For instance, the Internet hasn’t improved its security and decentralization, which should be its natural evolution. Those are negative consequences of this corporate cartel.
When we look at Google as a company that provides, we should understand that because it is a monopoly, Google has been able to hire all the best engineers to work on technologies that are bought and designed only for Google’s interest. While the company brands itself subtly as a public service, it’s actually exploiting and privatizing a large quantity of public information and infrastructures. So in short, the motivation and the theory behind the project are stronger than ever.
What worries you about Google now?
Ludovico: In 2005 we defined Google as “the funny dictator,” and that still seems quite appropriate. But Google seems to have joined “the G7” of online social industry platforms — including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, WhatsApp and Pinterest — in a unique, continuous and unstoppable personal entertainment system.
This self-gratifying distraction system has terrifically affected our social behaviors. It has monopolized various ways of interacting for social, viral, professional, editorial and purely visual purposes. The funny dictator has been ‘friended’ by many now.
A lot of the work from both of you has involved the “dark side” of the Internet, which maybe wasn’t so well-understood five or 10 years ago – but which the general public is very aware of now. How has that attention impacted your work and your focus, if at all?
Cirio: The general public’s attention to these dark sides of our economy and daily activity are reinforcing the aims and the prepositions of these type of artworks. As an artist, it’s an exciting time, in terms of opportunities for engaging a wide audience with new material, structures and relationships that can affect society with great impact. It’s the same power that hackers and whistleblowers have, but for art performances. So, individual artists are now able to creatively reconfigure and distribute sensitive information and its social and economic value, which can challenge apparatus for control and dominance.
Yet the focus for the artist is not only the political discourse, but the potential to give new forms to the material — producing new relationships. That’s why even if these performances unveil truths and lead to social change, they still remain conceptual and don’t pursue a final end. Ultimately, they are artistic visions with the aim to inspire people.
Ludovico: Right, we consider it a conceptual artwork. If you see the tradition of conceptual art in the sixties, it had similar results in using language and gestures to break the daily routine and free public imagery. This project has raised similar questions.
How many times do we use Google every day? And how many times do we just feed its unstoppable machine?