One of the projects I have been regularly pursuing (and I’m certainly not alone in this) is investigating the implications of rhetoric’s disciplinary-paradigmatic insistence on a symbolic, anthropocentric scope of study and entertaining the possibilities of rethinking those boundaries. I’ve been employing a mixture of DeLanda, Latour, and other “new materialist/realist/etc.” thinkers, always with the understanding that these theories don’t fit neatly together and with the understanding that I’m not in the business of building a comprehensive theory of the world.
I’m interested in rethinking how rhetoric works to maybe get a new way of approaching how to live in a digital world.
So take for example this recent piece of research from Experimental Brain Research, “Using space and time to encode vibrotactile information: toward an estimate of the skin’s achievable throughput” (paywall) by Scott Novich and David Eagleman, or perhaps just watch Eagleman’s TED talk where he asks “Can we create new senses for humans?”
As both the article and the talk discuss, the research going on here is built on using a vest that sends vibrations to the user’s skin that the brain is able to translate into sound. Thus it becomes an adaptive technology for the hearing impaired. The research article in particular is exploring what the “bandwidth” of skin might be; that is, how much information can you process this way? In part, it’s an engineering question as the answer depends on the way the vest, in this case, is designed. However, it is also a question of biology as human skin has a certain range of sensitivity.
One insight that is interesting to me here, in the TED talk, is Eagleman’s observation that the brain doesn’t know anything about the senses. In a manner analogous, to a degree, with a computer that only sees ones and zeros, the brain receives electrochemical impluses. As he says, if the brain is a general computing devices, each of our senses might be understood as a plug and play peripheral devices. So why not plug in some new devices? Or if not new hardware, then why not new software? One might certainly think of language that way. It doesn’t alter the visual spectrum of our eyes but it alters the capacities that are available to us via sight. Maybe like an app on an iPhone. Ok, enough analogies (in my defense, Eagleman started it).
Some of the suggestions in the video strike me as widely speculative (which is why I enjoyed watching it). And though they seem highly unlikely, to be fair, the same thing was said not long about about some of the adaptive technologies that are now available. Ultimately, Eagleman will only say that we do not know what the theoretical limits of the brain’s capacity to develop new senses, to expand our umwelt, might be. However, he seems most interested in the possibility of taking in data from across digital networks, data that now requires multiple screens and multi-attention for us to track, and giving us a way of simply sensing it.
I find that fascinating for its implications about the role of symbolic action in rhetoric. If you think about it this way, symbolic action is a way of accessing human brains, piggybacking on visual and auditory sensory data. But the throughput is fairly limited. That is, humans can only read a few hundred words per minute, and they can hear even fewer. What if, to give a completely pedantic classroom example, instead of having to read all your students’ discussion posts, you could just know, like you know if you’re sitting or standing right now, what their thoughts were about the assigned reading? What if, instead of doing all that research on your next car purchase, you could just know which one to buy? That’s the kind of stuff Eagleman is talking about when he suggests, in far larger terms, that one could get a sense of the stock market or know the sentiment of a Twitter hashtag.
Perhaps this sounds like it is verging on telepathy, put it isn’t that and could never be that. Telepathy implies immediate communication, without mediation. This is fully mediated by digital technologies. And that might be quite scary. What do you want to plug yourself into?
I wonder if early humans were similarly frightened by language. Once if you wanted to know something, you had to go see it for yourself. Now someone could tell you. You could become part of a larger collective. You were networked by symbols, given roles and rituals.
This reminds me of another recent scientific discovery of an ancient human-like species in South Africa, as reported by the BBC.
Ms Elliott and her colleagues believe that they have found a burial chamber. The Homo naledi people appear to have carried individuals deep into the cave system and deposited them in the chamber – possibly over generations.
If that is correct, it suggests naledi was capable of ritual behaviour and possibly symbolic thought – something that until now had only been associated with much later humans within the last 200,000 years.
Prof Berger said: “We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human. Have we been wrong all along about this kind of behaviour that we thought was unique to modern humans?
“Did we inherit that behaviour from deep time and is it something that (the earliest humans) have always been able to do?”
As I said at the outset, I’m not interested in building a grand theory of everything. I’m interested in developing a theory of rhetoric that works in the digital age. It has to be able to account for the naledi and for the technologies Eagleman is building. My way of thinking about this is to suggest that rhetoric does not begin inside symbolic action, inside the brain, inside culture. Instead, rhetoric is a kind of encounter with expression. As such it must be sensed. Out of those senses develop increasingly complex capacities for pattern recognition, thought, and, by extension, action.
I might answer Eagleman’s TED talk’s rhetorical question by saying that we have already expanded our unwelt. We already can see ultra-violet and infrared rays. I can hear and see things happening on the other side of the planet, hear and see things that happened years ago. And the naledi might teach us that homo sapiens were not the first or only creatures on Earth to be able to do so. If we are able to recognize that our current definition of our capacities for rhetoric, for symbolic action and thought, do not define our ontology (what we are and must be) but only our history (what we have been for some period of our species existence), then perhaps our rhetorical futures open up more broadly if perhaps more dangerously.