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Keywords in the Information Age

Let us consider Google’s rules of dialogue with the world. According to these rules, every question has to be formulated as one word or a combination of words. The answer is given as a set of contexts in which this word or a combination of words may be discovered by the search engine.
In the above quote taken from his short essay Google: Words beyond Grammar Russian intellectual at-large Boris Groys explains the basic functionality of text based search engines, and Google’s in particular. Across the essay Groys’ thesis is that the search engine model is damaging grammar, syntax and, ultimately, language, because it encourages the consideration of words as disparate units within ‘word clouds’ and not as modules dependent on the power of sentence structure in order to be activated, energised, and to become semantically resonant. There are some strikingly inaccurate and dated observations in this text – wishful thinking masquerades as intellectual insight when Greys maintains ‘Google plays the role that was traditionally fulfilled by philosophy and religion’, and there is of course no mention of the semantic web anywhere in the text -, but the suspicion propelling his arguement, that search engines have altered something linguistically speaking, is definitely on the money.

‘Encyclopaedias and dictionaries tried to define the privileged, normative meanings of individual words’ Groys continues later ‘ these encyclopaedias and dictionaries made the next step in the history of the liberation of words from language’. Again pretty vague, contentious stuff dressed as matter of fact observation, but Raymond William’s Keywords, in as much as it can be described as a dictionary of sorts, did try to block the perfidy of semantic idiosyncrasy by attempting to provide stable, normative, meanings of individual words used in the employ of socio-cultural debate. Keywords can be seen as an attempt to fix the word as a language unit in place.

What the text based search engine, described by Groys above, has done is return words to a world of possible associations and linkages, to return them to uncertainty. The search engine is an indication of how accelerated the assignment and redundancy of definitions and meanings has become. What is also implicit, but unsaid in Groys’ text, is that the ‘language’ being talked about is English; English English, but also American English, international and pidgin English. Within all these sub categories of the language lay further subsets, slang derivations and regional idiosyncrasies. Once one enters the relatively centreless space (geopolitically speaking) of the World Wide Web, typing a word like ‘bounce’ into a search engine could pull up a world of possible associations. So what the search engine has shifted is the meaning of ‘keyword’; no longer a unit of language in specialised debate, the keyword has become the single root leading off into a world of associations, meanings and contexts.