digital rhetoric

fields, streams, and other media ecologies

Collin Brooke has a recent post revisiting an old CCCC presentation (I was there and posted about it back then. Collin updates his thinking in response to Anil Dash's talk on "The Web We Lost" and hereJeff Rice also writes about Dash. All three offer views on what we've lost or gained as culture or discipline in the ongoing churn of digital media networks. Collin in particular talks about fields and streams–the disciplinary field in relation to the social media stream of middle-state publishing (Twitter, FB, blogging, etc.)–and thinks about what his graduate students need from him in balancing the more traditional content of the field with tendencies toward the stream. 3 years ago perhaps there was a greater need to recognize the stream; today maybe the stream has become a flood. 

I like this ecological trope and want to play it out. It's easy enough to say that our media ecology has experienced its own kind of climate change. The streams have moved, and the fields that once flourished have begun to dry up. But there's new life elsewhere. Fields and streams are part of a larger climate system. To incorporate Dash into this metaphor, we need to add the concept of cultivation, and, by extension, property. 10-15 years ago, the web operated by a far more open architecture than it does today. The corporate spaces of Facebook and Instagram have pushed out the more open blogging and Flickr. As Jeff points out, we can experience nostalgia about the early days of web 2.0 or web 1.0 or even the days before the web, when our discipline's research and pedagogical paradigms still made sense. Of course it's just as easy to have a romantic view of the future. For Jeff this begins with recognizing that the web does have an integral set of values toward being "open" or "closed." Open and closed systems are part of the same ecology though. All interaction requires a degree of openness, an openness to affect and be affected. Developing strategies for closing and redirecting streams might be understood as means for survival and reproduction (to stay with an ecological theme). Dash argues that we have lost something in moving from open to closed systems, even while we have maybe also gained something in the production of better, though closed, applications. Collin also wonders about what is gained or lost in the shifts from field to stream and back. For Jeff I think the question of what is gained or lost is not the right question, even though clearly we must all make decisions based upon values. Collin needs to decide about the curriculum for his graduate course. Elsewhere, we need to have conversations about the values that drive web practices. 

The danger with the ecological trope is to mistake this as naturalizing a situation that we should insist on viewing as cultural or social. However, given my Latourian view, I am not inclined to accept the natural-social distinction. Instead, I am trying to get at a sense of the actor-network operating here. What is it that the closed system of Facebook makes us do? (To use Latour's phrase,"makes" meaning not compels us but rather composes us; this is not about determinism in a zero-sum game where either the individual or society wins.) 

From my perspective, the interesting question is what is it that our students need to know or be able to do? Or in Latourian terms, what do they need to be made to do? We can start this question with graduate students, as Collin does, and ask what do students today, graduating in 2020, need? But we might as easily begin with undergraduate education, since today's grads are tomorrow's professors (hopefully): what will undergrads need to be made to do? Or perhaps one wants to think of this in terms of the citizens or professionals those students are and will become? However one phrases this, part of the answer has to be an ability to understand how these digital media networks function, what they do and do not do, and what the consequences of these choices might be. We might think of this as the procedural rhetoric of digital media. The informational-communicational world is far more complex today than 15-20 years ago. Figuring out how to learn to live in it… that's a task for the humanities. Not that humanists should tell people how to live (oops, too late), but rather that the humanities investigates this question and the ways we answer it.




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