Here’s what I’m presenting on May 26 at the 2018 Computers and Writing conference at George Mason University. PowerPoint slides and PDF of text are available at the end of the post.
Yesterday was Veterans Day. It was a cold morning here in Pullman: around 20 degrees, and we still have a few nasturtiums left in the front flowerbed. I’d listened to the NPR news piece about poppies and Flanders Fields and Remembrance Day in Commonwealth nations, and it occurred to me briefly that poppies would look nice when I opened the front door and went to put out the flag. With my hands so cold, I didn’t think long about poppies.
First Lady Michelle Obama had marked the occasion the day before by honoring women veterans at Arlington, and by announcing several technological initiatives related to careers and education. I think that’s a good thing, but I also had some difficulties with the ways military service and higher education were framed. As the White House’s strategic communications officer COL Steve Parker put it, “[t]o support veterans in their transition to meaningful employment, the First Lady announced two significant public-private partnerships with LinkedIn and Coursera that will help military members find and land the jobs they want.” For the sake of COL Parker’s ongoing career satisfaction and that of other servicemembers, let’s not talk about that “transition to meaningful employment” phrase, but the “public-private partnerships” are interesting in what they reflect about who we consider to be public and who we consider to be private. I see LinkedIn as the Facebook of the job search world, in both good and bad ways, and LinkedIn shows perhaps even more than Facebook how some efficiencies favor employers rather than would-be employees: as the axiom goes, if you’re not paying, you’re the product.
I have somewhat more difficulty with Coursera as a “partner” in a “public-private” partnership between veterans and American taxpayers as the “public” and a for-profit educational enterprise as the “private.” Coursera, as one might imagine, is very happy about an arrangement by which “[t]he VA will endorse Coursera to 21 million US Veterans” in the name of “expos[ing] Veteran learners to industry relevant education.” It’s a familiar trope: praise those wonderfully selfless irrelevant dopes who we all seek to honor, in the name (not spoken too loudly) of profit. If you’ve read Google Chief Economist Hal Shapiro’s early-oughts Harvard Business Press infocapitalism primer Information Rules, you’ll recognize it as coming straight out of that playbook: what Coursera has done, quite masterfully, is to achieve distance education lock-in of a captive audience. With the public aid of the VA and American taxpayers, Coursera is increasing its private profits.
Coursera specializes in MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, a recently-touted solution to what regimes of increasing privatization and profit have spuriously manufactured as an economic crisis in higher education. As Charles Lowe puts it in his introduction to a recent edited scholarly volume on MOOCs,
Millions of dollars of grants have funded many experiments with a variety of MOOCs based on different theoretical principles and using different interactive tools. Elite colleges are creating MOOCs to enhance their own reputations, although ironically not offering college credit for the courses themselves. Politicians, looking for yet another route to cheap education, are pushing MOOCs upon public institutions, with commercial entities determined to monetize the MOOC equally prodding the debate in favor of MOOCs for higher ed. (xi)
Jeffrey T. Grabill acknowledges that “the ‘great recession’ of 2007–2008” was why he and his colleagues “were thinking about MOOCs at Michigan State in 2012” (40). Nick Carbone characterizes MOOCs as “just another business venture seeking to promise educational efficiency—more students served—at lower per student costs” (193). Efficiency trumps all, and in a political and rhetorical environment where we know that the price tag for veterans’ post-9/11 GI Bill is US $9 billion, perhaps MOOCs and their increased efficiencies of education offer an answer.
And so, in response to Michelle Obama’s initiative with the VA and Coursera and distance education, we might well ask Cicero’s question: cui bono?
In his co-edited volume, Charles Lowe traces the advent of MOOCs to the early 2002–2008 work of George Siemens (ix) and to MIT’s 2002 OpenCourseWare project. The MIT project resulted in discussions that led to UNESCO’s work with online Open Educational Resources (Lowe x), which I was grateful to make use of and share with Afghan English instructors when the United States Military Academy deployed me to Kabul in 2011. As Lowe observes, the notion of Open Educational Resources carries “an idealistic vision of creating freely available educational opportunities for anyone with Internet access, educational opportunities equivalent to the traditional classroom which would particularly help those in developing areas of the world” (x): an apparent public good, worth contrasting to the harvest of private profits from public service.
More to follow.
Carbone, Nick. “Here a MOOC, There a MOOC.” Krause and Lowe 193–203.
Grabill, Jeffrey T. “Why We Are Thinking About MOOCs.” Krause and Lowe 39–44.
Krause, Steven D., and Charles Lowe, eds. Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Online Courses. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014. http://www.parlorpress.com/pdf/invasion_of_the_moocs.pdf
Lowe, Charles. “Introduction: Building on the Tradition of CCK08.” Krause and Lowe ix–xiv.
In his discussion of William Gibson’s Agrippa, Kirschenbaum notes that “while the title _Agrippa’s_ immediate referent is to a brand of photograph albums, it also hearkens back to Renaissance mage Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim” (230), and while the reference is appropriate, it apparently overlooks what I believe is a much more relevant reference: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and his son Agrippa Postumus, so named because he was born after the death of his father. Agrippa the senior was elaborately memorialized by Augustus, while Agrippa Postumus was executed following the death of Augustus, and his step-father Tiberius became emperor. These figures seem much more closely connected to the subjects of Gibson’s ephemeral poem in their representation of father-and-son relationships and in their relation to memorialization.
But perhaps such contestation is part of the point Kirschenbaum makes: a reading is always only ever a reading, informed as much by the reader’s material and social and historical contexts that she brings to the reading as by the forensically unique allographic textual artifact itself. On page 185, Kirschenbaum uses a screenshot of multiple windows running different electronic versions of Michael Joyce’s _Afternoon_ to demonstrate how digital texts are not purely virtual, and so shows us what revision means, in its re-use, re-reading, and re-attending to a text from a position located within and conscious of a particular material context. Revision is always situated in a kairotic moment. In Kirschenbaum’s words, “formal materiality. . . serves to fetishize via the computational distance (or torque, or simply effort) necessary to. . . access certain objects in certain ways. In my own case, the first time I successfully opened a first edition of _Afternoon_, I was exquisitely self-conscious of something very much like bibliophilia, precisely because I had to couple the file itself with the right Macintosh operating system and the right version of Storyspace, thereby imposing a formal regimen on the binary object that was _Afternoon_, which then led it to execute, consume system resources, and ultimately present itself for my inspection and manipulation. This kind of access and recovery will, I suspect, ultimately prove more enduring th[a]n a collector or connoisseur’s sensibility, which seeks to acquire and possess” (186). If formal materiality is effort or work, Kirschenbaum’s example also demonstrates that it can be pleasure, as well. It’s both the process and the kairotic/phenomenological moment of the experience of a text that remediates it and reforms/performs/deforms it within a specific material context, to and from which there are specific material and textual inputs and outputs that negotiate between different levels of textual, social, and technological systems. In other words, the process Kirschenbaum describes is economic: value and labor are circulating, and in texts just as in computers, “[v]ersioning. . . exposes the cumulative labor that attends a piece of software” (202). The process is an instance and an example of the economic aggregation problem, by which we cannot measure all the inputs and outputs of any economic activity.
This is what happens, then, “whenever process collapses into product” (Kirschenbaum 253): the forensic imagination takes the meaning of a text as its material form and that form then takes on secondary meaning and value in its aestheticization and commodification. Such a move is also performed by the corpus of composition pedagogy (in its theorized condition) does.
I share some of the concerns Steve Krause and Alex Reid have expressed about the five-week E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC offered by the University of Edinburgh in which more that 41,000 people are participating. Alex notes the reductive ways in which the introductory readings are framed, pointing out that the engagement with “Prensky’s digital immigrants and digital natives” terminology “is an unproductive and even damaging perspective” but observing that “as with the utopian/dystopian discourse, perhaps the concept is to move people away from these positions.” I’m with him there, and I’ll add that this is a strategy many of us have used in our own teaching: to begin from a perhaps obvious and engaging perspective and then to gradually complicate matters. I’m not sure I agree with his complaint about the content of the readings, though, particularly in his assertion that “[w]hile technologies do not determine culture, they clearly participate in shaping the world (both naturally and culturally if you wish to make those problematic distinctions)”: well, depending on what positions you’re coming from, as the readings (even in their very basic and introductory nature) suggest, that’s a position that’s open to debate. I would argue the same about his statement that “[w]e could say that technologies are market-driven, but we wouldn’t want to mistakenly believe that the market overdetermines technology. As if the market were some uniform entity. As if the market were not capable of error.” The market had nothing to do with the Internet: that was all government and university-driven. Ditto for the space program. I’m not disagreeing with Alex for the sake of disagreeing, but simply to say that disagreements about positions offered by readings in the course are different from disagreements about how the course is conducted, and I suspect that the course leadership might have some idea about the types of engagement they were trying to promote and the range of positions they were offering for examination.
And that’s why I find myself liking the generous-but-skeptical way I see Steve Krause thinking about the course leadership’s methods when he observes that “Knox et al seem to be attempting an alternative to the ‘drill and grill’ approach, though it remains to be seen if they’ll be successful. 40,000 people have signed up for this MOOC, and I have to wonder if many/most of them will understand the dispersed learning experience. And I have to wonder if this dispersed kind of learning is ultimately scalable.” This experiential mode is a good thing, I think, and I’m curious to see how my fellow participants find their own ways through the material. With 41,000 participants, there’s way more activity and interaction than I could ever take in, but I’m starting to get a handle on which threads I might check in on — journalism has long demonstrated, and web discussion fora have long confirmed, that the ability to write a kicky and informative headline and lede can sometimes give you an idea about the quality of the discourse within.
More importantly, though, and what ought to make folks like Cheryl Ball rejoice, is the way the course leadership have designed and characterized the final peer-evaluated project that determines one’s performance in the course: as they put it, in a language and conceptual approach likely familiar (and that’s not a bad thing) to many of us in computers and writing,
Text is the dominant mode of expressing academic knowledge, but digital environments are multimodal by nature – they contain a mixture of text, images, sound, hyperlinks and so on. To express ourselves well on the web, we need to be able to communicate in ways that are “born digital” — that work with, not against, the possibilities of the medium. This can be challenging when what we want to communicate is complex, especially for those who are used to more traditional forms of academic writing. Nevertheless, there are fantastic possibilities in digital environments for rethinking what it means to make an academic argument, to express understanding of complex concepts, and to interpret and evaluate digital work.
That open-ended and multi-modal approach to a final project has a lot of people in the course nervous, but also makes me really excited: there’s finally starting to be some big, widespread recognition of and engagement with (and even validation of?) the affordances of new media composing. Even if 90% of MOOC participants drop out, that’s still 3100 new media compositions to be excited about. Anybody looking for a possible Kairos Topoi submission? I’d love to see a big-data approach to assessing that corpus of new media compositions. Talk to me.
I’m enrolled in in the “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” MOOC (#edcmooc) that the University of Edinburgh is offering through Coursera, and it’s offering an interesting bit of synchronicity with some of the other things I’m working on, including taking part in a reading group with five graduate students as we work our way through Marx’s Capital volume 1, and teaching the spring-semester iteration of a 300-level WSU course (DTC356) called “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” As you might imagine, reader, there’s a bit of overlap, and some curiously shifting perspectives.
In the reading group, we just finished the notorious Chapter 3, the chapter on money, and the dialectical back-and-forth got a bit head-spining. It’s the first chapter where Marx mentions accumulation, and the impulse toward accumulation, but it’s also an amazing analysis of how capitalism when it works perfectly inevitably tends toward crisis because of the way it works perfectly. The chapter takes Marx’s foundational work with the commodity (and its instantiation of frozen socially necessary abstract labor: in other words, the first way we see labor undertaking its transformation into capital) as its starting point and then investigates the curious and contradictory ways that money functions, winding its analysis toward the function of paper money and credit as a human-created technology. Marx notes that there are some items that possess value (in that they are frozen labor) and a price, and that there are other items that possess no value in his technical sense of the term (because no labor went into them: his examples are honor and conscience) but that do possess a price. I’ll leave my quibbles with that second half of the definition for later — I believe that social constructs like honor and conscience themselves require labor to produce even if we are seldom conscious of that labor — because the important thing to note is that there are some things that have prices but that do not have values. I would extend this to say that there are some things that have prices but that have negative values: for example, the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs) that were intentionally crafted to be so mathematically complex as to be beyond understanding and so to be able to hide the so-called “toxic” mortgage loans that were incorporated into them, with that complexity allowing bankers to sell them to investors while those bankers simultaneously bet against those instruments as investments, and thereby profited from the collapse of the product that they had sold knowing that they had designed them to fail. Those CDOs and CDSs are human-designed technologies of capitalism, and they carry prices as mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth (from sucker investors to savvy bankers, apparently), but I’m still wondering whether or not they fulfill Marx’s definition of a commodity as carrying the value of the abstract social labor that went into their production.
Here’s an analogue for that question: given enough computational and analytical power — or, in other words, given enough human labor translated into the digital capital of financial systems analytic software via lines of code written and accounting formulae written and aggregated study and expertise all operating on machines designed by teams of engineers and experts who relied on previous insights and innovations going back even prior to the invention of the transistor — could the ways that CDOs and CDSs contributed to the Crash of 2008 have been anticipated or prevented? Did CDOs and CDSs as technologies of capitalism determine that such a Crash *must* have happened at some point? In the DTC356 course I’m teaching, we’re reading about Claude Shannon as an information theorist who believed the necessary step to decode information was to discard meaning: we don’t care about meaning, Shannon argued. We care about the signal, about the code. Focus enough on the code and discard the context and one can decode any information. In this sense, I suspect Shannon was largely a technological instrumentalist of the sort produced by the first half of the 20th century, particularly if we understand “technology” to exist as a field that includes “tools, instruments, machines, organizations, media, methods, techniques, and systems” (“Reification”). Technological instrumentalists believe technologies to be use-neutral and subject only to human intention, even as their invention seems to demand their use, even as they seem to exist as autonomous entities divorced from us, apart from society, simply things laying to hand to be used.
To my mind, though, what Marx helps to show is the ways in which human social arrangements give rise to systems that blinker us in specific ways, that point us toward certain ways of being and certain technologies, so that in a capitalist system CDOs and CDSs make perfect sense even as they precipitate crises that demolish enormous amounts of actually-existing value (as instances of frozen human labor). I don’t (or won’t) identify as a technological determinist (although I tend much more easily toward an overdetermined technological determinism than toward a technological instrumentalism), but when I look at the intersection of social, political, and economic habits and practices with technologies like computers, cell phones, CDOs, and CDSs, I can’t help but think of the end of the classic Raymond Carver story “The Bridle” and its attitude about technologies like the bridle: Marge looks at the bridle — that instance of frozen labor, that commodity, that technology — after all that has gone on in the story, and thinks, “If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you’d catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you’d know it was time. You’d know you were going somewhere.” That circumstance at the end of the story, though, seems to me to point to the same circumstance that finally happened, however inexorably, in 2008: the overdetermined combination of heterogeneously massed human intent and reified technologies that some understood better than others produced a perfect crisis. We socially design our own technological affordances, and often, as with the bridle, we elect to wear those affordances.
This semester I’m excited to be teaching a 300-level elective cross-listed in the English and Digital Technology and Culture majors as “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” I’m thrilled to be teaching the material, and it’s let me do some cool stuff in the classroom that I haven’t done before. We’ve been reading some selections from James Gleick and elsewhere about Claude Shannon and information theory (which fit together in interesting and provocative ways with Lessig’s thoughts in Free Culture on piracy on the one hand and with Michael Joyce’s hypertexts and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” on the other), and grappling with Shannon’s idea that information and meaning are separable — which led me to put together a lesson plan that (1) used some technologies in the classroom that I’d never taught with before and (2) was fairly highly multimodal in its incorporation of graphics, sound, and interactivity.
I started by posing a question, telling students: I’ve got two songs in mind. One is an old song by a band that I grew up listening to and liked a lot, and brings back memories of hanging out in my friend’s attic room. The other is a newer song with a nice beat that’s at once quirky and catchy — maybe an information theorist would argue that those terms imply each other. Which song is better? (Yes, I acknowledged it was a rhetorical question, meant to highlight the subject of the day’s work.)
I then showed the two songs again, in graphical form
and asked: Which one is better? Can you tell how they might be different? Do these images carry more or less meaning than my descriptions? Would I be illegally pirating music by sharing the spectograms of their waveforms at sufficiently high resolution? What would the RIAA say?
That got some discussion going. The next step was to play the songs: I had both an iPhone and an iPad with me, one for playback and one for listening with Soundhound, a song-recognition app similar to Shazam, which functions in the way outlined by Claude Shannon: by measuring patterns (moments of peak frequency and amplitude) against an axis of time or frequency and then compared to a hash table linked to a sufficiently large database. The props worked, of course, identifying the songs in a few seconds each. (YouTube videos are linked from the above images: yes, I got to play “Gangnam Syle” as a part of a lesson.)
In addition to those two songs — which have meanings, obviously, beyond their meaning to me or beyond their waveforms — I then pulled out a ringer: Girl Talk’s “Oh No,” which Soundhound could only identify as either Black Sabbath or Ludacris. The point I was trying to demonstrate from Shannon was concerning the profound difference between information and meaning, and some songs (or texts, broadly construed) have more meaning than others, which can interfere with analyzing them as information. I also made the point that by such a definition, when one is doing the “electronic research” to which the course title refers, one is not looking for meaning, because one cannot a priori do so: instead, we look for information, which we convert into meaning.
That was as good a job as I’ve done this semester of stirring the pot and provoking discussion, and it turned into a really good, energizing lesson. Now to figure out how to do more stuff like that.
After a summer of upheaval, I’m starting to get settled into the new gig. I’m excited about both courses I’m teaching, and I’m keeping a courseblog with my students for one of them, an undergraduate elective (DTC 356) titled “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” It’s interesting: I get to look again at material and concepts I’ve become pretty familiar with in the past 10 years or so, stuff I have some ostensible expertise on and that I’ve been thinking about for a while and that I know other scholars in the field have considerable familiarity with, and yet this is the first chance I’ve had to teach a course like this — and so my courseblogging feels like a weird mix of old material, new insights, and responses to re-framings I hadn’t considered before. That’s a good thing, and I’ll post now (and continue to cross-post) some of my entries for the course, as a way to continue getting settled into the routine of the new gig. Plus I’ve got about eight billion thoughts about the big thing I’m working on that I want to share, and there are only tiny corners of it here, but that’s OK: there’s time.
So in thinking about recent applications of the Labor Theory of Value to the so-called information economy, one of the questions I posed to the students in DTC 356 was: how much of a role does effort play in how we interact with digital technologies? (Cross-posting begins here; longtime followers of this blog will notice the change in intended audience in relative degrees of explicitness.) In one DTC356 blog post, a student wrote,
When I think of a world without the social media and technology we have now, I imagine a world that was connected in only a few ways instead of a million ways (twitter, facebook, blogging, etc.) to communicate with each other. Could you imagine having to listen intently to clicks or beats? Technology would not have ever advanced as far as it has today if it weren’t for these signals, tones, and phrases that began centuries ago.
The point about “having to listen intently” is important, because of the ways digital technologies seem to make communicating information so easy. Brown and Duguid talk about “the conduit metaphor” and how “[b]asic ideas of sending and receiving make digitization, for example, seem easy. You distill the information out of book or articles and leave the paper residue behind” (184). The problem is, though, that there are other important aspects of the act of communication that we often ignore: as Brown and Duguid go on to point out, “[i]t’s not pure information alone, but the way the information was produced that supports interpretation” (185). This is what Lessig is getting at in his discussions of the borrowings of Steamboat Bill, Jr. and doujinshi, and what we were getting at in our discussion of cover songs and Girl Talk: so much of information is context. You don’t fully appreciate a cover version of a song unless you’ve heard the original (think about the 33,000+ covers of Gershwin’s “Summertime”), and part of the reason that Disney movies resonate so much (as Lessig suggests) is that they’re built on stories that our culture knows really, really well; stories that resonate with us. (Why so many Batman and Spider-Man movies, right?) So there’s this ideal that we have of some sort of pure, easily transmitted information — just a few 1s and 0s to decode, and if you know about logarithms and exponents, you can derive meanings from tables of numbers that others might not be able to see — but that ideal isn’t actually the way things work.
Information transmission isn’t, in fact, efficient. That’s the point of the story about talking drums (“allocate extra bits for disambiguation and error correction” [Gleick 25]) and the story about Clytemnestra receiving word of the fall of Troy 400 miles away in Mycenae: “To transmit this one bit required immense planning, labor, watchfulness, and firewood” (Gleick 16-17). Transmitting information is expensive, in terms of labor and in terms of capital — and in an information economy, context is kind of like capital. (Actually, in terms of the factors of production described by the old political economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, context is probably more similar to land than to capital.) One student asks, “Could you imagine having to listen intently to clicks or beats?” and of course that’s what we all do, all the time.
That’s also what computers do with 1s and 0s (true and false, high and low, fire or no fire). Computers use logic gates with transistors designed to let current through in certain ways and control other transistors, so that combinations of transistors with combinations of current going on or off through them according to how they’re designed to work in conjunction with each other — to signal AND, OR, or NOT, as well as more complex combinations like NAND, NOR, XOR, and XNOR — build up, store, and manipulate more complex numbers out of simple 1s and 0s. And because information-as-capital builds upon itself, computers have been able to get increasingly complex while their prices have dropped. Context builds on itself, and technology is a part of context. As Lessig points out, there was once a “distinction that the law no longer takes care to draw — the distinction between republishing someone’s work on the one hand and building upon or transforming that work on the other. . . Before the technologies of the Internet, . . . [t]he technologies of publishing were expensive; that meant the vast majority of publishing was commercial. Commercial entities could bear the burden of the law. . . It was just one more expense of doing business” (19). Now, though, because our technological context has become increasingly complex and avaiable to all, we’re all increasinly bearing that “burden of the law” and having to figure out how to revise our own social, legal, and political contexts to account for that increased complexity. Doing so requires not only attention to the alphabet and syntax and orthography and grammar of these 1s and 0s but also to the rhetoric: in moving from the high and low tones of the drums and the morse code of the battleship’s signal lamp to the mashup video of “Oh No” (if there had been a clip of Michelle Obama dancing to “Teach me how to Dougie” in that video, would it have been in the public domain?), we need to think about a rhetoric of remix wherein inventio is the current and the initiating spark, dispositio is the linking of gate to gate, elocutio is the purposing of the gates themselves whether NAND or NOR, memoria is the storage of what those gates arrange to produce, and pronuntatio is the moment of its transmission: the interface between machine and meaning.
I’ve been talking about what rhetoric means to me and about what digital rhetoric means to me. The subtext those posts has concerned the material effects of language use, with certain instances of language use itself very loosely defined as digital rhetoric. That too-loose definition begs the obvious question: if language use itself is digital rhetoric, then what’s the difference between rhetoric and digital rhetoric? In the introduction to My Mother Was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles characterizes “materiality” as “an emergent property created through dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and human intention” which therefore “marks a junction between physical reality and human intention” (3). That’s the distinction between our analog material lifeworld and our contingent immaterial persuasion-world I’ve been trying to draw. But rhetoric, aside from its distinctions and confusions with truth and coercion, can be analog as well as digital, embodied and experienced as well as symbolically and discontinuously represented. In fact, Hayles describes a perhaps reductive “binary opposition between embodiment and information” (3) that she’s grappled with in the past, and that’s the line I’m perhaps reductively following her in trying to draw. Digital rhetoric, in the useful ways that Richard Lanham points out — even as I disagree with him about the quantification of attention — abstracts. It calls our attention to the differences between the ways that, as Lanham points out, we look at things versus when we look through things.
Looking through the artifice of any text in order to become absorbed in the content or substance with which it concerns itself — in other words, being captivated or engrossed or carried away by how much a movie or book draws us into its world — is analog attentional experience. It’s a form of felt sense. We can’t untangle the emotions and thoughts and ideas from the experience. But as soon as we start splitting hairs, asking question, looking at how such books or movies or arguments are constructed, we’re using language and symbols to set up categories and sort things so we can subdivide and anatomize them into their individual bits and bytes and taggable sortable atomies of meaning. We’re abstracting away from embodiment and into information.
In 1987, I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. My mother was a librarian. Years earlier, in primary school, she’d brought me home Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books from the library, and I’d been fascinated and engrossed by how I could make choices in a book that would change the outcome — and of course, as soon as the novelty wore off and I ran into an unhappy ending, I started reverse-engineering the books, looking to the back of the book to see which choices led where. Cheating. Looking at rather than through.
My favorite moment in Gide is from The Immoralist, when the narrator Michel says, “Nothing can be told of happiness save what leads up to it and what follows it. And now I have told you everything that led up to it.” He’s yanking us out of the story, saying, “Watch what happens next: this is where it all changes,” while at the same time plunging us right back into it.
On a trip to San Francisco, my mother and father visited with a family friend who let me play some version (I don’t recall well enough, except for the “get Lamp” and “maze of twisty little passages” bits) of Adventure on his computer. Then my family bought our first computer, an Atari 800, and I found Infocom text-adventure games like Suspended. They were absorptive in the sense that Charles Bernstein draws our attention to, through rather than at, until I stumbled across the bits of syntax that would throw the engine and then found out about the verbosity commands, and played with those for a bit. Fast-forward to 1987 again, and somebody in the yearbook office let me borrow the 3.25″ floppy with a sticker on it that said afternoon: a story. I slot it in, it ka-chunks like those old floppies did in those old Mac Pluses, and the title screen comes up with its reference to “a long the riverrun” and I knew that was something about Joyce. And then it says, “I try to recall winter,” and continues evocatively to the end of the first screen, which asks: “Do you want to hear about it?”
Of course I want to hear about it. I’m hooked, immediately. I’m absorbed. Looking through to the emotional experience of Peter and his son, of fractal trees, octopi, poetry, the skated surfaces of ice. And yet as soon as I click a term, or click yes, I’m thrown out again, looking at rather than through, asking myself — in that dorm room 25 years ago — what am I doing here? What comes next? Is this a game or a story or something else entirely? And most importantly: how does this new thing work?
I was hooked on the experience and on the analysis at once. I emailed Michael Joyce a couple times. He was gracious, encouraging, generous. I emailed Mark Bernstein at Eastgate Systems, who was publishing hypertext and also gracious and encouraging and generous, all these years ago, not really knowing what I was doing but knowing that I was paying attention to how to read at and through and that there was some sort of important distinction between the two, even if I couldn’t put it into words or express it adequately. The at of afternoon wasn’t explicitly concerned with truth, I know, but it was showing me how it did something new via the through, and that was true. The structure of afternoon in the way it called attention to itself — the through — was the opposite of coercive except in the way that it forced you to make choices and thereby abstract yourself from the analog embodied experience of literary reading unconcerned with truth except as represented in the at of the text.
My mother was a librarian who tried to bring me all the books she thought might add to or broaden my experience. There is my experience, before and after her death. The digital concerns itself with making use of the gaps in our analog experience.
In my last post, I tried to explore some preconditions of a possible definition of or metaphor for rhetoric: rhetoric’s tangential relation with truth as the counterpart to coercion and its negotiation between lived materiality and the contingency of the provisional truths we construct about that lived materiality. I also expressed some reservations about what seemed to me to be a possibly reductive identification of digital rhetoric as rhetoric plus computers.
I’ve been thinking some more about that, and I’ll push my definitional exploration of what digital rhetoric means to me (#DRCBlogCarnival) a little further here: one doesn’t need computers to do digital rhetoric. One doesn’t need punch cards or vaccum tubes or transistors or semiconductors or microprocessors or even Babbage’s steam-powered clockwork-mechanical analytical engine to do digital rhetoric. One could do digital rhetoric with smoke signals or drums, if one so chose. The thing about digital rhetoric is that it’s digital, in the most basic sense of the term: it’s the opposite of analog. It’s discontinuous, and that’s a vitally important distinction. The digital exists in discontinuous quanta of information, rather than in the continuous and therefore infinite gradations of the analog. In other words, the defining characteristic of the digital is that it has gaps, and therefore that it’s finite especially as its users employ it to reproduce analog phenomena, and so that it’s lossy and therefore efficient. The fact that the digital is discontinuous, that it has gaps (between the characters of an alphabet, between ones and zeroes, between the digits upon which we count out numerals), is what makes it both malleable and reproducible — and those are the most defining characteristics, I would argue, of the digital.
But those characteristics are also what identify the digital as unnatural, and therefore as belonging to the human-constructed world of contingency, rather than to what we think of as the truths of the material or natural world. Even natural phenomena that bear some resemblance to the digital in their apparent discontinuity — the rhythmic radiation beat of a pulsar from light years away that’s more accurate than the most acccurate human-constructed atomic clock, the lub-dub pulse of a heart in which we might want to hear something like the ones and zeroes or ons and offs of the digital — come from continuous analog motion, not from discrete digital solid-state alternation. The lifeworld, the material world, is fundamentally analog. Human work with symbols is fundamentally digital, because it sorts and recombines discontinuous things.
(This also helps me figure out why I’m so excited and intrigued by yet resistant to the work Alex Reid is doing with object-oriented rhetoric that takes as its first assumption a flat ontology: if one is going to do the sort of Marxist-inflected materialist work I’m interested and that I’m trying to do here, that flat ontology doesn’t work. There are multiple types of things in the world, with different qualities and intentionalities and capacities. But I worry that in attempting to undertake this sort of materialist work, I’m simply reenacting a naïve form of old-school humanism. Not that, you know, there’s anything wrong with that.)
Here’s one final step further: human attention, as an aspect of our material lifeworld, is analog. It’s continuous. There are no individual atomies of attention. Attention varies in scope, duration, intensity; it’s sometimes shared, sometimes individual. Because it’s analog and continuous, it’s necessarily infinitely subdividable, and therefore infinite. There is no quantum of attention. And for that reason, even as the digital information we produce is finite (albeit enormous in quantity), lossy, reproducible, our attention is not, and that’s where I think Richard Lanham gets it wrong. Attention is not scarce or zero-sum, but it is necessarily always incompletely expressible in our finite, lossy, manipulable digital human language of bits and bytes or smoke signals or drums or alphabets. So digital rhetoric, to me, means paying attention to that push and pull between the material and analog lifeworld and the informational and digital world of rhetoric, especially in the ways that the effects of one circulate into the other. Digital rhetoric means there’s always something not said, an icy surface skated over, something left behind: digital rhetoric as praeteritio.
Paul Muhlhauser at the journal Harlot has challenged people to #DefineRhetoric, and Naomi Silver at the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative has asked people to consider possible responses to the question “What does digital rhetoric mean to me?” and begun a blog carnival (#DRCBlogCarnival) centered around that question. Plenty of smart folks have responded to both prompts, and such concerns have been on my mind lately as well as I plan out the 300-level course on “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information” that I’m teaching this fall. I like the way Doug Eyman’s response invokes the definition offered by Mary Hocks, who suggests that “digital rhetoric” as a term “describes a system of ongoing dialogue and negotiations among writers, audiences, and institutional contexts, but it focuses on the multiple modalities available for making meaning using new communication and information technologies” (632), but I feel like such a definition doesn’t quite go far enough in terms of specificity, but instead basically says that “digital rhetoric” is rhetoric (“a system of ongoing dialogue and negotiations among writers, audiences, and institutional contexts”) plus computers (“the multiple modalities available for making meaning using new communication and information technologies”). Eyman, of course, goes further and offers some specifying examples and points of clarification, but comes back to asserting that digital rhetoric is “most simply defined as the application of rhetorical theory (as analytic method or heuristic for production) to digital texts and performances”: again, that doesn’t go much beyond saying digital rhetoric = rhetoric + computers — which is fine, but I think there’s more to it than that.
So two questions, then:
- What do we mean by “rhetoric,” and what do we believe to be its proper domain and concern?
- What do we mean by “digital” beyond simply waving our hand at those computery things upon which we do things with texts, and is it possible to do digital rhetoric without vacuum tubes, punched cards, or transistors?
In responding to Muhlhauser’s posing of the first question, I’ll acknowledge the obvious starting point being Aristotle’s definition concerning the study of the available means of persuasion, but also point out that some of the definitions Harlot has looked at have explicitly or implicitly contrasted rhetoric to coercion, force, or violence. That goes back to the whole thing about the open hand and the closed fist: rhetoric is the open hand, whether it’s contrasted to the closed fist of coercion, force, or violence, or whether it (as elocutio) is contrasted to the closed fist of logic, reason, or philosophy (as ratio). That already gets me into troublesome territory, though, because it suggests that rhetoric has a vexed relationship with truth. It in some way takes truth as its concern, because if it didn’t, it would be either poetics (which explicitly deals with things that are known to be not true, or at least invented, crafted, artificed), lies, error, or bullshit (bullshit here taken in the sense of the College English article from a few years back, as being a statement that has no regard or interest in its connection to truth, whereas lying is an act that is very much concerned with what is true and what isn’t true). Certainly, some can and have made the case that rhetoric need not concern itself with truth, but if it doesn’t and therefore falls into one of those other categories, then that doesn’t strike me as a terribly interesting object of study. Rhetoric as error, lies, or bullshit is for the most part uninteresting to me. But rhetoric as something that stands in relation to truth even as it seems to swerve away from truth at the last moment, as it becomes something other than logic, reason, philosophy, or coercion — that’s interesting to me. So a metaphor: rhetoric is an act, a doing, a verb, a process of skating on the thin ice of persuasion that rests between the materiality of our everyday social lives and the dark and cold waters of contingency, even as that thin ice is constituted by the frozen, solidified, embodied aspects of that contingency.
I won’t get to that second question tonight. So that’s something for tomorrow.