As technology improves in leaps and bounds, it becomes increasingly necessary to acknowledge how systems of rhetoric define themselves within a new digital medium. In reading Jay David Bolter’s chapter “Writing as Technology” from the 2nd ed. of Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, four quotes stand out that seem to address this issue:
- “Ancient and modern writing are technologies in the sense that they are methods for arranging verbal ideas in a visual space” (Bolter 15). In this sense, digital interfaces seem to not have changed the overarching purpose of rhetoric; rather, they have just changed the spatial arrangements in which rhetoric is presented.
- “No technology, not even the apparently autonomous computer, can ever function as a writing space in the absence of human writers and readers” (Bolter 17). This connects to Aristotle’s assertions in “Rhetoric” (translated by W. Rhys Roberts) in which he states, “Rhetoric falls into three divisions, determined by the three classes of listeners to speeches. For of the three elements in speech-making–speaker, subject, and person addressed–it is the last one, the hearer, that determines the speech’s end and object.” Aristotle’s thoughts about what influences rhetoric still hold true in the age of computers, for, as Bolter rightly points out, a computer must still be influenced by a rhetorician and an audience.
- “Individuals and whole cultures do mold techniques and devices to their own purposes, but the material properties of such techniques and devices also impose limitations on their possible uses. There are many things we cannot do with contemporary computers, even things that some would obviously like to do” (Bolster 20). This is where technology leads rhetoric to deviate from its historic roots. A traditional rhetorician has the benefit of being able to expose his or her audience to vocal inflections, facial features, and gestures, none of which translates into type on an online forum.
- “The open architecture of the World Wide Web allowed individuals to create sites and add them to the Web without the approval of any authority” (Bolster 20). Essentially, this highlights the “gray area” that occurs as rhetoric moves into a digital existence. Prior to the advent of the internet, there were laws in place regarding what people could or could not say in a public forum or in print. However, the internet, in its infancy, proved (and still proves) to be a challenge in regards to determining what is appropriate and legal rhetoric.
My website project (see Final Website Introduction) really gained a lot of momentum thanks to these ideas. Although everything that is organized in a visual space appears to have just sprung up from thin air, there is a real person (me!) behind it all. Moreover, I recognized the limitations of the computer, which is why I have downloadables throughout the site. As the old fashioned person I am, I can’t completely abandon an opportunity to have a physical copy of something!
Because I find the chapter to be such a wealth of information, I have also included definitions that really enhance the potency of the text:
- Techne: “could be an art or a craft, ‘a set of rules, system or method of making or doing, whether of the useful arts, or the fine arts’ (Liddell & Scott, 1973, p. 1,785)” (Bolter 15).
- Literacy: “among other things, the realization that language can have a visual as well as an aural dimension, that one’s words can be recorded and shown to others who are not present, perhaps not even alive, at the time of the recording” (Bolter 16).
- Linear character of print: “the outcome of the constant interaction between the properties of the printed book and the decisions that Western authors and readers have made about how to exploit those properties… appropriate to print technology both because the printed page readily accommodates linear text and because our culture expects that printed prose should be linear” (Bolter 21).
- Remediation: “a newer medium takes the place of an older one, borrowing and reorganizing the characteristics of writing in the older medium and reforming its cultural space” (Bolter 23).
- Hypermediacy: “an intense awareness of and even reveling in the medium” (Bolter 25).
Although the reading is (need I say it?) technical, it provides insight into the continuous development of rhetoric. Since technology has not seen a slowing down in its development, it should go without saying that the study of how rhetoric is digitally transformed will not see a slowing down either.
At this point, I imagine a car salesman in a cheap suit filming a commercial and shouting at the camera, “But wait… There’s MORE!” I am the car sales(wo)man, and the MORE I’m shouting about comes from James E. Porter’s 2009 essay “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric.” Four quotes that stand out from this text which also highlight the relationship between rhetoric and technology are the following:
- “Is it possible to ‘gesture’ or create a bodily action online? Yes, of course, as we well know from the simplest and most well known of all bodily representations in online space: :)” (Porter 212). I pull out this quote because it is one that I would like to be so bold as to challenge. A shrewd reader might have noticed that this quote seems to contradict my response in the third quote on Bolter’s text (above), and I still maintain my opinion that the range of human emotions and gestures cannot fully be replicated in a digital forum. If I choose to put emoticons next to my online posts or texts, I am taking time to locate the correct emoticon, whereas a facial expression would have been instantaneous in real life. Additionally, emoticons are not an accurate reading of a person’s emotions; I could have read a text that really annoyed me, but responded with a laughing emoticon–who would ever know? It is much harder to mask facial expressions and reactions in a face-to-face interaction. In this sense, I maintain that digital interfaces cannot completely translate all of the intricacies of human behavior and presence.
- “These virtual worlds are becoming spaces for business transactions, for legal consultations, for political activity, for community support groups, and for training and education” (Porter 213). If we accept Aristotle’s idea that rhetoric is used as a legal, political, and community tool, then it is not a far leap to suggest that the shift to online platforms has not diminished the purpose of rhetoric in the slightest. The means have changed, but the end has not.
- “Approaching the problem from the perspective of audience access/accessibility means starting with audience need–and with the diversity of audiences–and then developing a rhetorical approach (or, more likely, a variety of approaches) to address that need” (Porter 216). I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again because it’s that important: Rhetoric is hardly rhetoric if there is no audience. Again, this connects to Aristotle’s idea that while many variables influence the effectiveness of rhetoric, audience is the most significant one. Thus, Porter’s idea to start at the end (considering audience need) and work backwards from there is intuitively effective.
- “And that drive of people to interact socially is a key feature of the new digital era” (Porter 219). No matter how much technology has changed since Aristotle’s time, one thing has remained constant: Humans are social creatures. Therefore, the effectual and practical implementations of digital rhetoric will need to ensure that it is not encouraging users solely to use new media, but to engage with other users via that new media, too.
My website project owes a debt to these ideas, as well. I created Shelf Scout: Literacy Project with the intent of catering to the education community and addressing a need for activities that support student learning (in a fun and creative way, no less). Many of the activities require that students interact with one another, therefore incorporating the social aspect that Porter deems so important.
In addition, I have included further definitions from this reading that are essential to understanding and applying the practice of digital rhetorical delivery that Porter promotes:
- Cyborg: “a hybrid metaphor that challenges the human-machine distinction and questions conventional body boundaries and notions of the writer as purely human” (Porter 213).
- Digital distribution: “refers to rhetorical decisions about the mode of presenting discourse in online situations” (Porter 214).
- Access: “the more general term related to whether a person has the necessary hardware, software, and network connectivity in order to use the Internet–and to whether certain groups of persons have a disadvantaged level of access due to their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, age, or other factors” (Porter 216).
- Accessibility: “the level of connectedness of one particular group of persons–those with disabilities” (Porter 216).
- Interaction/interactivity: “refers to how users engage interfaces and each other in digital environments” (Porter 217).
- Commons-based peer production: “refers to a mode of economic production in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated into meaningful projects, mostly without traditional hierarchical organization or financial compensation” (Porter 219).
The camera is no longer rolling. The car salesman is no longer yelling that there’s MORE. This is your vehicle of knowledge about rhetoric, and while it may not be shiny and new (it’s been written about since Aristotle’s time, for goodness sake), it’s still reliable and useful information.