Right now I have two scholarly/professional interests, and I’m wondering how they intersect. On a general thematic level they appear to share a lot as they are both about digital technologies and communication/rhetoric. However, they also represent two very different segments of digital culture. I’ve been writing/speaking about both recently on this blog. The first has to do with the role of artificial intelligences as rhetorical agents. From speech synthesis to natural language processing to negotiating deals, AIs occupy rhetorical spaces. Their rhetorical behaviors are interesting for two reasons. The more immediate one is that we humans are increasingly interacting with AIs, having rhetorical encounters with them. The other reason is that the rhetorical actions of AIs might tell us something about how rhetoric functions outside human domains. If we think of rhetoric as a thing or process or capacity that is in itself not human but with which humans interact, then understanding how rhetoric interacts with other nonhumans might give us some broader insight into rhetoric itself.
The second thing I’ve been musing about is the emergence of digital genres, particularly over the last five years or so. Sure vlogging, podcasting, infographics and so on have longer histories than that, but these are all things that had limited cultural roles a decade ago compared to where we are now. It’s hard to imagine that much of that wasn’t driven by the adoption of smartphones with the capacity to both deliver and produce video and audio content. Anyway, as I’ve been saying, even those these formats have been around for 15 years (and build upon decades of video, film, radio, and so on), they are still relatively immature in terms of the genres built on them. I think this is especially true as one looks at professional and academic genres. I find it hard to imagine that we can go another decade without these genres become more prevalent.
So how do these things intersect? The first answer that comes to mind is that AIs will become increasingly able to help people make and access media, starting with the technical qualities of image and sound. With natural language and image processing, one has the potential of creating indexical access to audio and video, as in “Show the part where there are monkeys” or “Go to where they talk about monkeys.” Then there are all the possibilities for using AI to help identify fake news and other bad actors. In short, there are a range of procedural-rhetorical ways in which AI will shape the composition, circulation, and consumption of video and audio.
In short, there are a number of places to start, and these are all viable. However, it’s not quite what I’m thinking about. For me, the interesting intersection is at once both more abstract and more material. Video/audio capture the environment in which one composes, starting with one’s body. Even with staging, editing, and such, that environment is always there in a way that it is masked in text. (BTW, that doesn’t mean the environment doesn’t shape textual composition but only that it’s less visible/harder to trace.) My interest in AI rhetorical actors is similarly what they can tell us about our shared rhetorical environment. If we think about this from a “cognitive ecology” (or a cognitive media ecology) perspective then sensors (cameras, mics, IoT, etc.), data storage, composing/editing applications, AIs, humans, networks, mobile tech, etc. form an expansive environment. All the media compositions in which humans get actively involved–as vast as that is–is a thin veneer on the massive amount of expressive data of machines reporting and circulating their sensations. Similarly the rhetorical negotiations involving humans will soon become a minor part of the larger conversation. We represent a small population of moving parts in this rhetorical environment.
Of course, the “always already” argument is always already available to us. We’ve always been immersed in a denser and richer rhetorical environment. It’s just that we’ve been too anthropocentric (perhaps unavoidably) and too sure of our privileged, exceptional ontological condition in the universe (less unavoidably) to recognize that immersion. While that observation is valuable (for purposes of humility if nothing else), it’s also necessary to recognize the shift that we are experiencing (without falling into the hype of that either).
Recognizing that our rhetorical capacities emerge from our participation in populations of assemblages within a cognitive media ecology is a fruitful starting point for describing the particular capacities that arise among us. And that’s fine for a broad research agenda that has legs. But it’s not the kind of thing I can teach to undergraduate students or even to graduate students–at least not without a larger curricular structure to support it.
One answer is re-separating the chunks. I.e., teach some media production in one place and some media theory some place else. Of course it’s all Eternal September stuff with no curricular follow-up or through. I mean there aren’t many English departments where students can systematically develop digital rhetorical/compositional
knowledge, skills… let’s call it phronesis in say the way they can march through a series of literary-historical periods. That said, if there was some follow-through structure then at some point you could start to think about how the construction of emerging genres is a structural-environmental conversation we’re having with these digital nonhumans. In other words, even for those who weren’t going in a scholarly direction in relation to these questions, there is usable knowledge to be gained here.