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Till the content farm

Tyler Coburn, an artist-author obsessed with writers-for-search and cloud selves, speaks

While putting together the articles for #HackYourFuture week, one of James Bridle’s ideas struck a chord. Writing in praise of the poetry of the network, he raised the idea of an article about the phenomenon of content farming. The "content" refers to the online articles, videos and ephemera needed by us, provided by internet search engines. The "farming" refers to the feudal quality that media companies providing this material have – paying stay-at-home writers to turn around bushels of words on anything from "How to make a thermos flask" to "Chris Brown's latest outburst" to "Ten ways to save space at home" for less than minimum wage per page. It's intellectual property and language traded at market prices – a 21st century commodity produced by people whose labour relations have striking similarities to serfs. 

Funnily enough, we have been looking at Tyler Coburn's astonishing artistic output for a while. A young writer and artist, his most recent work is a piece called I'm that angel, a performance piece and book about the inner monologues of a content farmer that evolves into a server.  Written from hundreds of pages of notes, the text is broken up with quotations and homilies from the network itself – take a look at the scans above for a sense of the book's fractured, feverish power. It's being performed at data centres around the world, with a reading in London set for the Volta Data Centre through the South London Gallery, and we caught up with Tyler last week to get to grips with this dizzying moment.

So the book is written from the point of view of a content farmer so I was wondering if it was a personal experience that took you to into this? 

Tyler Coburn: I’m sure many of us have had the uncanny experience of searching for a trending topic on Google and finding the first two pages of results filled with articles from websites with eerily vague names like Associated Content. This uncanniness is really borne out of two things: a recognition that the buzzword-laden articles are primarily designed to trick search algorithms, and from an uncertainty as to whether their authors are humans or robots. In my research, I came to learn that their authors are largely human: content farmers, who work on assembly lines of article generation, practically compelled to write at the speed of information.

I was struck by this industrialized form of work and contacted a notable case study – a graduate of a creative writing masters who worked content farming night shifts for about a year.  From there, I began to explore the creative possibilities of this mode of writing.  An article requires a quota of trending terms, for example, leaving one to imagine what language might fill the space around that quota.

In my opinion, social media expects that we present seamless accounts of ourselves. As Mark Zuckerberg notoriously declared – and I quote in the book – “You have one identity...The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Relatedly, many of my protagonist’s apprehensions stem from a sense of obligation to fit the bits and bobs of his online identity into a synthetic, authentic self.

There’s one point in the book where you talk about when speaking will become obsolete. 

Tyler Coburn: That’s actually a reference to Kevin Warwick, who some consider to be the world’s first cyborg, as he tested much of his research on himself.  This section of the book is sited in the server farm and loosely adapts Dante’s Inferno: the protagonist is carried through a row of servers filled with notable posthumanists like Warwick, Kurzweil, Drexler and de Garis.  There are different models and endgames on offer, many entailing our ascension to a state of shared consciousness that would render actual verbal or written communication unnecessary.  For obvious reasons, I find this scenario terrifying!

One thing the book talks about is this breakdown between consumer and producer, the breakdown between work and leisure, bodies and clouds. Another aspect is the way that commercial and social uses of language blur with cultural capital. Would you like to speak on that? 

Tyler Coburn: By way of example, I recently performed at Google Zurich, which is the company’s engineering headquarters outside of the United States.  My readings are always followed by tours of a given facility, which usually highlight the server rooms and address issues of privacy, security, energy and maintenance.  At Google, however, the tour focused on the company’s role in developing what we might call Office 2.0, and several guests remarked that it was fascinating and unbearable in equal measure.

In what way was it unbearable?

Tyler Coburn: Well, we spent about ninety minutes touring all of the creative spaces at Google, from the “break out” nodes to the themed rooms, featuring everything from aquariums to jungles to Alpine cable cars.  Each room was filled with the same free food and free drinks as the one we had just come from, seemingly contributing to an office environment that provides so many perks and amenities that one would never need or think to go home for the night.  In other words, the benefits of having so much food and entertainment structured into your workplace are also the incentives that ensure you rarely leave the office – rarely stop working.  At one point, we ended up in an imitation underground bunker, where employees are famously allowed to spend one day of the week on their own work.  Inevitably, the conversation moved towards intellectual property.  While the guides were not total authorities on the subject, they both acknowledged that they would have a hard time wresting the fruits of this labor back from the company that sponsored their “individual” endeavors.

This tour resonated with the structure of my book.  In the first two sections, the character works as a content farmer and suffers the amazement and anxiety of having no limits in the virtual content that he can make into constituent parts of himself.  This anxiety precipitates the protagonist’s decision, in the third section, to become a server.  Better to have the certainty of one’s physical limits, he reasons, than to float in the diffuseness of the cloud.  Herein lies the book’s narrative twist, for the protagonist-as-server is a leasable space for virtual clientele.  He may now have the satisfaction and certainty of physical form, but he no longer knows which of his thoughts are his to think. 

This is part of a series of articles about creative online subversion, #HackYourFuture, on Dazed Digital. A different guest-editor will discuss a different discipline everyday. This piece is part of James Bridle's comment on new writing online.