ethos and the reputation economy

I've gone back and forth on a kind of anecdotal/example level with this question of assessment/badges/whatever. In the comments to some of my recent posts there are stories of how badges can do good things. These are echoed elsewhere in the web. Clearly I've offered some counterexamples illustrating how these things can go wrong. I think it's fair to say that just because something might go wrong that doesn't mean that it will (as long as it is fair to say the reverse as well). In that light, optimism suggests, let's give it a try.

So I want to move to a more conceptual/theoretical level to address these matters. I see the issues of assessment, reputation, and badges as being a fundamentally rhetorical issue, specifically an issue of ethos. Classically, ethos is an appeal that demonstrates to an audience that they should listen to this speaker now; it is a demonstration of moral character and expertise. When we are talking about badges we are obviously talking about communication: how can I communicate my authority, my expertise? It's the part of the trial where the expert witness' bonafides are introduced, the part of the keynote where the speaker is introduced with a recital of a vita, etc. Establishing ethos is regular feature of rhetoric. It's an integral part of how the relations among participants in a communication network develop.

Perhaps this is overly reductive, but for the purposes of this post, I will talk about two ways one can approach ethos, especially as it relates to badges. The first would be a decidedly Modern approach. In this approach, communication is fundamentally rational and controllable. Errors in communication are technical problems. Certainly people can speak irrationally and act out-of-control but these are, in the end, technical problems where people either need to learn to control themselves (i.e. become modern) and/or the system can identify and eliminate irrational communication. In other words, there is no fundamental epistemological or ontological problems with identifying authority/ethos. There may be technical problems but technical problems clearly have technical solutions. The movement toward alternative assessment is, in large part, an attempt to address injustice and inequality, to award value where currently value is not awarded. This first approach to rhetoric and ethos would view this as a technical problem. This is not to say that from this position one would simply believe that all is required is the right badge-awarding system, but rather that badges could be part of a future (political, cultural, economic) system where justice and equality are attained. 

I think this first position is fairly familiar to us. I imagine the second, forthcoming position is as well. But to extend briefly on this first position. I do think that in operating from this first position one could (and does) say that one doesn't have to have faith in the attainability of a perfect world in order to go about trying to make the current world better. That trying to perfect, even in the absence of perfection, is a pragamtic response while the response of those who raise concerns is idealist and impractical. In other words, one is obligated to try and make things better. 

However, I don't believe that those coming from this second approach would characterize their position as "idealist." I suppose you could call this postmodern but I prefer, in Latourian fashion, nonmodern. Basically, this approach would ask, "what happens when we recognize that communication is not fundamentally rational and controllable?" In that situation, the idealist position is one that adheres to a belief in rationality. And if one does not really believe in rationality then why stick to a problem-solving approach that relies upon it? Perhaps because developing a nonmodern rhetorical pragmatics is not easy and demands some real invention, which I know sounds like a knock, but what I mean is that it would demand a kind of conceptual turn that would be very difficult to make.

To begin, one would have to ask what a nonmodern ethos looks like. One could go back to classical rhetoric as a start, since that is clearly premodern at least. And I'm not going to answer that question, at least not in a satisfactory way, in this post. But what we might say is that ethos is a concept that attempts to explain how relations among objects emerge. We could limit this to symbolic behavior; rhetoric is typically limited to symbolic behavior. But some of us will want to think more broadly. Fundamentally though it would begin by realizing that no badge, no claim to ethos, has a predetermined universal value that can be measured by technical means. Instead, each claim is singular, each badge is not only unique to itself but is unique in each act of communication. Meaning or value cannot be given or awarded. What does a college degree mean? It might mean something to you as the person who undertook the labor to earn the degree. Each degree has its singular value in this way. But that value is not rational. Look at my vita and value me (or not) based on my credentials, but maybe I will tell you that it is my struggles more than my accomplishments that make me valuable (that's a common tale, right?). Give my a thousand badges and it will still take me, standing there, in a rhetorical appeal to ethos to claim my authority. 

That's not an argument against alternative assessment. It's an argument for it because it begins with recognizing the failures of the current system. It's not an idealist argument either. It's an argument that calls for abandoning a modernist idealism that cannot fail to reproduce itself. Instead, it is a pragmatic appeal that says that designing alternative assessement begins with understanding the real conditions of assessment beyond the lens of modernist idealism. And no doubt those understandings are only ever speculative and imperfect but that's a better, more realistic place to start than one that believes in perfectability or procedes as if perfectability is possible even though it does not believe it is.



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