Category Archives: Rhetoric

Hegemony and hypertext

Hegemony is designed into objects

  • The object is discursive.
  • Designers must engage semiosis.
  •  Ideologies hide in tech writing.
  • *The UX* is *the sales pitch*.
  • Hypertext is no escape.

Englebart Display SystemConsider how a device or program carries or even enforces a hegemony or ideology. The object is discursive. It makes an argument, it makes a claim, it is grounded in particular warrants. The ideology is encoded in the object, which makes the values designed into the object invisible but decipherable. Feenberg calls this the technical code – cultural hegemony design into the object.

We can see how these values get encoded if we take a design perspective. Your design brief is to Devise a new application to, say, navigate through an airport. The brief itself encodes the values implied in the design: a traveller, in a new space, who needs or wants independent assistance in moving through it. Why does one need this? To move safely? Quickly? Unthinkingly? through. The user has a smartphone, carries it, uses it. Is this an appeal to convenience? That’s telling. An appeal to efficiency? Telling again.

Now consider an alternative brief: an app to navigate through Tehran. Or one to help explore the Notting Hill-Maida Vale-Paddington districts of London. Or rather than an app, consider that the design brief calls for a 16 page booklet – with local advertising designed into “appropriate” pages. The appeals to convenience and efficiency are now more openly at the call of commerce.

With each shift, the values change, the ideology shifts. The object makes a different claim, grounded in different warrants.

One manner with which to approach such questions is through Andrew Feenberg’s concept of “technical code” that he describes as the “background of unexamined cultural assumptions literally designed into the technology itself.” This background of assumptions is a crucial mix of values, ideas, concepts and cultural norms that are essentially part of the technology itself both in terms of material form and application. A given piece of technology, such as a Palm Pilot, for instance, is thus more than a handy new tool but rather a discursive and ideological object that speaks to the cultural, economic and political voices that went into its creation. What does the Palm Pilot “say”? For one it is a testimony to the changing nature and experience of space and time in the twenty-first century where the boundaries between work and leisure time have blurred into one constantly connected present. Second, it speaks also of the dominant values of our postmodern, post-industrial information society where mobility, access, media convergence, information and time management are paramount for a socially and economically successful life. Accordingly, the Palm Pilot and a host of other technologies effectively confirm the values and mind-sets of the dominant social order, which in the case of most Western societies can be represented by global capitalism. For Feenberg, this means that the technical code can be linked to what is known as the hegemonic forces within a society, which is another way of describing these dominant values that determine, often “invisibly,” how we live out our day-to-day lives.

The UX is never neutral. It rarely (never?) places the agency of the user’s needs and desires at the center of attention. The UX defines the user’s needs in its own terms: the command to consume.

Capitalist social and technical requirements are thus condensed in a “technological rationality” or a “regime of truth” which brings the construction and interpretation of technical systems into conformity with the requirements of a system of domination. I will call this phenomenon the social code of technology or, more briefly, the technical code of capitalism. Capitalist hegemony, on this account, is an effect of its code.

technical code and hegemony

To some, Feenberg may seem to be overstating his case, especially through the use of such loaded terms as “conformity” and “domination.” Most of us, I think, would balk at the notion that we are controlled by our technologies or that we are all just pawns in a world ruled by evil capitalists. However, it is important to consider how Feenberg is using such terms and also how concepts such as “power” and “capitalism” are being framed within his argument. Similar to another philosopher, Michael Foucault, concepts such as power, capitalism, conformity and domination are not necessarily being employed as negative terms but rather as descriptive indicators of how the world works. Consider, for example, the concept of “power”as used to describe human relationships. To a large degree the manner in which we define and understand our relationships with one another is based on a balance of power: a mother has power over her child in a manner that she can control the child’s circumstances in order to make sure that the child avoids injury, learns important skills and so forth. One could describe teacher-student or doctor-patient relationships on a similar basis. Even a simple friendship is structured by power relationships in which one friend may take on certain “roles” that grant him a measure of “authority” over activities and exchanges. In terms of technology, similar mechanisms are at work insomuch that “social purposes are ’embodied’ in the technology” and are, thus, more than just the practical results of a neutral tool:

The embodiment of specific purposes is achieved through the “fit” of the technology and its social environment. The technical ideas combined in the technology are neutral, but the study of any specific technology can trace in it the impress of a mesh of social determinations which preconstruct a whole domain of social activity aimed at definite social goals.

and hypertext

Hypertext doesn’t (can’t) escape encoding. That’s clear to see (from today’s distance) in The Englebart Demo of NLS (youtube). A commercial hegemony is encoded into the NLS from the beginning.

What then are the technical codes of hypertext and more specifically what does the history of hypertext tell us about the meaning and potential direction of such codes? Think back to the topics covered in this chapter’s brief historical overview:

  1. The oral/literate distinction and the manner in which hypertext is often linked to certain characteristics of the oral tradition as well as compared to the revolutionary impact of the first printing press.
  2. The tendency to situate the creative use of hypertext within the experimental traditions of modem and postmodem literature.
  3. Vannevar Bush and the memex.
  4. The visions of pioneers such as Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart and Andries van Dam.
  5. Equally pioneering applications such as Intermedia, Storyspace, HyperCard and Mosaic.
  6. The use of hypertext by publishers, educators and creative writers and how such individuals describe and characterize such use.

In the first case hypertext as a technology is often linked to a particular historical trajectory that for the most part is progressive in nature. In other words, hypertext represents an important evolutionary development that is not only more appropriate for current conditions but also represents a marked improvement over previous technologies and practices….

Hypertext cannot be the revolutionary mode we want to cast it as. The augmentation of human intellect is still focused on a hegemony of commerce that defeats itself. It’s a bootstrap.

Kitzmann, Hypertext Handbook, p 26-28.  Also in Slate.

McLuhan on the Headline

Head Line: a primitive shout of rage and fear

  • Wares and rumors of wares in a time of Trump.
  • The story content becomes the merchandise.

[T]he headline is a feature which began with the Napoleonic Wars. The headline is a primitive shout of rage, triumph, fear, or warning, and newspapers have thrived on wars ever since. And the newspaper, with two or three decks of headlines, has also become a major weapon. …

Any kind of excitement or emotion contributes to the possibility of dangerous explosions when the feelings of huge populations are kept inflamed even in peacetime for the sake of the advancement of commerce. Headlines mean street sales. It takes emotion to move merchandise. And wars and rumors of wars are the merchandise and also the emotion of the popular press.

From The Mechanical Bride

Update 11 Dec 2017: Any kind of excitement.  In a post-simulacrum world, the quote itself is verification enough.

“Think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”  

Trump, as reported, in the NYT

 

 

digital image as interface for viewer production of the real

Or Image for semiosis.


As interface or instrument, the image does not comprise a representation of a pre-existent and independent reality, but rather a means for the new media user to intervene in the production of the “real,” now understood as a rendering of data. “New media,” Manovich concludes “change our concept of what an image is – because they turn a viewer into an active user. As a result, an illusionistic image is no longer something a subject simply looks at, comparing it with memories of represented reality to judge its reality effect. The new media image is something the user actively goes into, zooming in or clicking on individual parts with the assumption that they contain hyperlinks….”

[W]e must fundamentally reconfigure the image. Specifically; we must accept that the image, rather than finding instantiation in a privileged technical form (including the computer interface), now demarcates the very process through which the body, in conjunction with the various apparatuses for rendering information perceptible, gives form to or in-forms information. In sum, the image can no longer be restricted to the level of surface appearance, but must be extended to encompass the entire process by which information is made perceivable through embodied experience. This is what I propose to call the digital image.

Hansen, New Philosophy, 10.

Hansen’s conception becomes a basis for aesthetics as epistemic AND a basis for a rhetoric of experience. The viewer becomes a creator influenced by material context of the perception. This conception does not neutralize rhetorical aims and moves but disperses or distributes them between context, object, perceiver and makes them cognitive or material operators or procedures that shape the making of perception. “Enframe something (digital information) that was originally formless” 11.

This is “a fundamental shift in aesthetic experience from a model dominated by the perception of a self-sufficient object to one focused on the intensities of embodied affectivity. ” 12-13.

This is social semiotics from another angle. The artifact primes the viewer and provides the resources for creating semiosis. v Kress

rethinking threadmode – it’s not for fedwiki

SCRABrrRRrraaNNG. Filipo Marinetti. 1919.

I confess: I don’t care much for ThreadMode (aka discussion) in wikis. When I first brought the traditional wiki into the classroom, I embraced the strategy. I embedded it into our StyleGuide. I saw it as rhetorical invention – a way of collecting ideas to be developed further. I saw it as foudational to using a wiki: pages develop from threads to documents. Right? Right? Not right?

The idea behind a wiki is to collectively develop ideas over time, which requires that participants revisit pages, making changes and revisions as they go. They turn from readers one moment into writers the next. That’s the idea, anyway. And ThreadMode seems to serve that idea pretty well because it lets a drive-by user jump in and add something quickly. Other users, who are more engaged in the wiki or invested in a particular page, are supposed to then synthesize the thread into a DocumentMode, which is what we’re really interested in getting to. The movement is from ThreadMode to DocumentMode by way of RefactoringPages.

I saw ThreadMode as a way for students to safely and confidently add to a page without tinkering with the document mode. Users can be timid as they enter a new writing space. Adding a comment or a response to a thread seems like a low-threat way of entering the space. And I still see ThreadMode as a way of gathering alternative perspectives which are then synthesized into DocumentMode. The idea of synthesizing alternative perspectives, it seems, lead to proposing set of rhetorical patterns to guide that synthesis. Things like DialogueMode, DialecticMode, even YesBut and IfSoButOtherwise. The list of patterns isn’t endless but it can be tedious – for general use. Disciplines have preferred discipline-specific patterns for abduction and synthesis and it’s good practice to make them explicit. Like showing your work.

The problem is that too many pages on the course wikis I work with never get beyond ThreadMode. Some pages do. Some students are interested enough in what we’re doing that they step back and synthesize a document from the thread. I’ll do it when I get a chance, or when I want to demonstrate how it’s done. But many pages are a summary of that might be on the page, followed by loose threads of comments that could be useful, if someone want to use them. No one comes running out of the bushes calling, “Let me! Let me synthesize that thread into a readable, useful document.” The work is too hard, it’s easier just to skim the thread for the comments, and move on. Students are more likely to start a new page and draft a document (typically following Wikipedia) than synthesize an evolving document.

Students say they don’t like “tinkering” with another’s prose – in part because they don’t know what to do with it. I take their reticence as a rhetorical deficit: they don’t have the rhetorical strategies to synthesize the ideas of others into their own prose when those others are acquaintances. Doing so requires not just synthesis of content but the rhetorical grace to not piss off your sources. My mistake: When all you have is a hammer …

Bill Seitz brought some clarity to my thinking with this observation:

Giving your “friends” the power to edit one of your pages to have a Thread Mode discussion within a page doesn’t smell right, as ultimately you want to converge that page in your own Sense Making direction, therefore comments another person sticks in there tend to get wiped/merged/edited by you, creating tension/conflict between you and them. Wiki Web Dialogue

The dynamic between acquaintances – students thrown together by little more than taking a course – probably has something to do with the threadbareness of ThreadMode, but Bill’s observation suggests that I was getting hung up on the dynamic rather than looking at the location of the ThreadMode. The confounding stuff is right there in the damn page, getting in the way, materially and emotionally, making hash of rhetorical concentration. (Comp/Rhet people might re-read Elbow’s “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience”.)

Regardless of the dynamic, the presence of ThreadMode can confound the act of sense making (composing the document) at the wrong moment. Better to get a full, synthetic draft of a document on the wiki and revise it later, by way of discussion or comments or feedback hosted elsewhere – not in the page itself.

Wikipedia handles the problem of collective writing by designating a Talk page, where a culture of negotiation developed over time. During the FedWiki Happening #2, the subject of having a separate space for discussion came up. We used Twitter and an email list rather than thread mode in pages. I recall noting then that FedWiki didn’t make a good space for discussion: given forking, the thread mode discussion got even more in the way than in a traditional wiki. (Fork, then edit out the discussion). We were thinking traditional, centrally located writing space (wiki, blog, news site) rather than a federated, distributed space.

I’d have to Just Say No to ThreadMode in FedWiki. But then the problem is, if we don’t use ThreadMode as strategy for invention, what might we use instead? 

getting a start on rethinking composing in fedwiki

The cat, her chair, and her greenhouse.

I finally made a start on Composing in FedWiki, with Rethinking Composing in FedWiki. The premise: FedWiki presents a rhetorical context unlike that of traditional, commons-based wikis. So it’s an opportunity to rethink some of the compositional moves developed for the traditional wiki.

I have two ends here. One is to make wiki writing more substantive than it has been in the past:

Years of watching thread mode discussions go on at Weblogs and Wikis and the advent of FedWiki as a distributed system has encouraged me to re-think the old ThreadMode into DocumentMode pattern of composing. ThreadMode is an inventional technique – a way of locating and trying out the ways that an idea might be constructed and a document composed. But documents don’t get composed; contributors stay in thread mode. The reasons are complex, I’m sure, but little moves forward in thread mode.

And a second is to explore what federated composing can bring us:

Because each contributor owns her own iteration of the fedwiki, she – each of us – is responsible for her own refactoring – her own development of the argument, her own dissertation, which lives with her. A set of notes won’t do in this case. For a page to become part of the linked federation, the [[Chorus of Voices]] (an idea forwarded by Ward and now picked up by the community), it will need to be discursive. Or, put better, those pages that become part of the community will be discursive rather than threads.

What I’m doing in Rethinking Composing in FedWiki is looking at both street-level techniques and rhetorical strategies.

I’m setting aside some of the patterns from traditional wiki writing (ThreadMode, DocumentMode, the WikiWord, the fallback use of bullet lists) for patterns more aligned with the distributed nature of FedWiki. Even the pattern of moving from ThreadMode to DocumentMode goes away for a move from Dissertation to Discourse.

That is, we move [[From Dissertation to Discourse]] rather than from thread mode to document mode. In Radical Discourse, we place partially- or wholly-formed arguments in meaningful orders. This can be done as a set of paragraphs on a page, or as a set of links and stubs.

A few things are lost: WikiWords as topics, for instance, is a loss because it serves as such a quick way of creating a linked page, a quickness and facility that the wiki was named for. But that quickness is a feature of the new rhetorical context I’m addressing in Rethinking. Yeah, being able to create and link nodes with little effort is good. But what goes in the nodes needs some refinement to be valuable to one’s federation. We were taking the quick-to-create-a-node idea into quick and easy to create content. Rather than outside research and serious drafting, we would go onto ThreadMode-like freewriting. Even formatting is implicated in the drive for speed: bullet lists instead of formed paragraphs. We worked with the idea that someone else would come along and tidy things up.

The aspect of the commons also gets in the way of creating commonality. We were trying to negotiate all aspects and points of view on one shared page – a rhetorically difficult and sophisticated task. That difficulty is really worth working thorough, but the wiki, with its emphatic speed and shared commonality works against the task. Contributors leave pages in pre-draft states – pages of notes rather that of arguments and propositions that can be further built on. We never really get to enacting or presenting the multiple points of view.

I’m thinking about a different way of thinking about software tools. A move from valuing them for their Ease of Use to valuing them for their Augmentation. Using a tool for the augmentation of intellect is not easy to do, and it’s not easy to learn how to do it. In augmentation, at the very least the tool doesn’t get in the way of doing something new. At best, the tool changes understanding. I’m not looking at FedWiki as a typewriter-like tool, where work is selecting from a finite set of signifiers, so much as a painter’s brush and pallet, where work involves conceptualization and reconceptualization. Yeah, it’s an art rather than a transcription (which a lot of ThreadMode tends to be: a transcription of commonplaces).

The significant change in the rhetorical situation of writing with FedWiki is a move from a shared commons to a locally-owned federation. This move changes how we handle multiple arguments and points of view. It doesn’t eliminate them, but it seems they have to be more fully formed than a set of notes in order to work with them in a federation. The federated model is, perhaps, a more accurate – er, useful? – model of how knowledge is distributed in both its commonality and difference than the commons-based model. It could be more fragmented than the commons-based wiki seems to suggest, but it could also be that the commons is pretty fragmented already but tarred over to conceal the differences. The matter that interests me is the dynamic of local construction and public distribution. Each contributor architects her own iteration drawn from publicly shared elements – right down to the paragraphs! – and places that iteration in public circulation. There are rhetorical possibilities in these circumstances that are worth exploring.

Finally, to consider is the wiki not as an end but a space of creation and composition. A few weeks of The Teaching Machines Happening, and the articles, ideas, and posts that are emerging from that Happening (Hello, Audrey) made it clear that FedWiki needs supplementing by way of a blog, email list, twitter, or some other commons. The FedWiki might become a working space, where material is re-mixed and repurposed, until it is brought out of the shop and distributed.

So: Augmentation, Federation, Distribution. We’ll see where this goes.