the failure to understand digital rhetoric


A brief round up of a few articles circulating my social media gaze:

I don’t want to paint these all with the same brush, but there is a fundamental conceptual problem here, at least from my perspective. The emerging digital media ecology is opening/will open indeterminate capacities for thought and action that will shift (again, in a non-determining way) practices of rhetoric/communication, social institutions, the production of knowledge, and our sense of what it means to be human. In other words, its roughly analogous to what happened when we became literate and moved beyond oral cultures. I understand that’s a lot to take in. It’s likely to cause (and does cause) all kinds of reactionary commentary, and clearly we regularly struggle with figuring out how to behave in relation to digital media. So that’s the general point, but let me work through these individually in reverse order.

The Weiner piece is about the enduring value of paper. It’s now a familiar cyber-thriller trope to note that paper is good because it can’t be hacked. I think we still attribute a kind of privacy and intimacy to writing on paper (Kittler discusses this). Weiner discusses recent research about how students who handwrite notes do better on tests than those who use laptops. The key point though seems to be that handwriting forced students to synthesize information more, where laptop users were able to write more quickly, which meant more recording and less synthesizing. So it strikes me that what we’re saying is that we need to learn how to use our laptops in a more effective way… just as we learned, once upon a time, how to take handwritten notes, right?

Jones’ piece is more reactionary. He writes of emojis “After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age, with a big yellow smiley grin on our faces.” I suppose it’s the kind of copy that gets attention, so job well done there. But comparing emojis to hieroglyphs makes little sense beyond their superficial commonalities. I actually don’t know who should be insulted more by this comparison, the ancient Egyptians or the contemporary emoji user. Ultimately though this argument imagines symbolic systems as independent from the larger media ecologies in which they operate. Binary code is just ones and zeros without the ecology in which it operates.

The McWhorter article though is maybe the most interesting for its basic assertion that we are undergoing a return to orality. He suggests, “Let’s consider that we are seeing a natural movement towards a society in which language is more oral—or in the case of texting, oral-style—where written prose occupies a much smaller space than it used to.” He seems equanimous about the prospect, but I doubt he his. It’s more like he is resigned to living in a world where the art of essay writing is passing. And I agree with that. Essays are a genre of print media ecologies. Today we have something else, remediated essays on their way to being something else. When McWhorter observes Kardashian’s problematic tweet, what he should be seeing is our continuing struggle to figure out the rhetoric of digital spaces. It may be the case (it certainly appears to be the case) that Kardashian lacks a certain print-literate sophistication, that maybe all emoji users do, that the speed of digital communication cuts out the deliberative, synthesizing cognition of print media.

I know that through Ong and McLuhan we can get this idea of a kind of secondary orality in the conversational style of Facebook, Tweets, and blogging. But it’s wrong to deduce from this some kind of devolution, as if we are going back to an oral culture or a culture of hieroglyphs. Similarly it would be misguided to infer progress from change. Instead, we should recognize an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, for invention.