digital rhetoric Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition

English Studies in the post-digital world

Though there are some ongoing conversations about the notion of a post-digital world (including Justin Hodgson’s Post Digital Rhetoric and the New Aesthetic and Mike Flatt’s discussion of post-digital poetics), I’m starting here with the mildly disturbing corporate speak of Accenture on how to be competitive in the post-digital world.

Accenture identifies five elements of this post-digital era (their written report if you’re interested).

  1. The apparently un-ironically coined acronym “DARQ” technologies, which are
    • Distributed Ledgers (i.e., block chain)
    • Artificial Intelligence
    • Extended Reality (a combo of AR and VR)
    • Quantum Computing
  2. The privacy busting capacity of corporations “to learn more about consumers and use a customer’s digital identity to better connect with them.”
  3. Understanding employees as “human+,” which means seeing them as increasingly integrated with digital networks, AI, robotics, AR/VR and so on. In other words, it’s an increasingly distributed-cognitive cyborgian workforce.
  4. Cybersecurity: it’s fairly obvious that the more that digital media ecologies become the material platform the more crucial securing it becomes as well. But here this turns to a media-ecological perspective where, as they say, corporations are not victims but rather vectors. As such, it’s not just about securing your own stuff, but the value of a herd immunity (if we are to continue the metaphor).
  5. Logistics turned up to 11 to where corporations can gather and analyze consumer data to be ruthlessly predictive. Or as they put it “Digital tech means businesses are no longer able to just capture markets. They can capture moments.” How nice for them! Though another line of thinking might take up the old advice that the best way to predict the future is to make it. That is, in the post-digital world, corporations might not seek only to predict “moments” on a granular consumer level but to enact a precession of emerging events.

So that’s all fun stuff. To be fair, it’s no worse than religious fundamentalist extremism or nation states playing global thermonuclear war, but lucky for us, we don’t have to choose: we get to have all three at once!

But I digress. The basic principle of the “post-digital” is that we now take certain characteristics of modern life (at least in much of the first world) as given. For me this is an era that takes off in the late 2000s, when the iPhone arrives and fundamentally alters the way people interact with and through digital media. It’s also the moment when the number of IoT devices first exceeds the size of human population of the planet. Then we move into the zettabyte era in this decade. So we have billions of devices collecting, transmitting, analyzing, and acting upon massive amounts of data, with billions of humans continuously connected during their waking lives through the smartphones that are forever at their sides (with more than 5 billion people owning mobile devices and about half of those being smartphones).

So I don’t think there’s anything too shocking there, and you might reasonably ask, “Well, what does any of that have to do with English Studies?” And the equally reasonable answer would be “just about nothing,” which is obviously the problem. Or, at least it’s a problem for anyone hoping for some disciplinary future.

I read through ~100 assistant prof jobs for rhet/comp on MLA this year. The trends were fairly predictable. They were dominated by departments looking for people who can do professional-technical communication, digital rhetoric, and/or administrative work. What the post-digital world ought to suggest to us is how these three areas have overlapped.

Professional-technical communication: on the one hand, there is a proliferation of PTC specializations here across industries; on the other hand, many PTC practices have diffused into non-specialist and public discourses. Just as once upon a time only an expert would have worked on a computer and now middle schoolers carry them in their pockets, the softwarization of culture (to use Lev Manovich’s term) has turned us all into media producers. We also engage in all manner of previously professional and technical genres: encyclopedia-style entries, instructing sets, product reviews, journalism, etc. But it’s not so much about the genres (which keep changing anyway) as it is about the composing practices, the communities we reach, and the technical-mediated means we employ. So in many ways I see much of what we have conventionally understood as PTC as part of a general public approach to digital communication (which means it should inform our general approach to teaching rhetoric and composition).

Digital rhetoric: I really don’t know what this means anymore, as opposed to what, “print rhetoric”? And I’m really not interested in policing the use of the term. For many scholars I think it means studying rhetorical practices that primarily involve online communication in one form or another. Methodologically there is often little difference from the study of print rhetorics. I.e., it’s some flavor of cultural studies. Even more so than PTC, virtually all rhetoric is digital now–in composition if not also in distribution. For my money, the interesting part of digital rhetoric is studying the rhetorical operation of the media itself. It’s those DARQ technologies plus the nascent phase state change that is emerging from the intensification of data/media as more IoT devices (including smartphones), better AI, more data and increased speed come together. We are coming to a boil.

Administration: it may seem this one is out of place in this list, but admin work is where this all comes back on us in material ways. And there’s a few ways of thinking about this:

  • Curriculum design: how to we shift our courses and pedagogies to adapt to the realities of post-digital communication?
  • Hiring and professional development: how do we support faculty, instructors, TAs, etc. as they adapt to these changing conditions and become part of this “human+” workforce? As far as that goes, how do we want to shape the qualities of that human+ condition? I don’t think we can just ignore it.
  • DARQ instructional and compositional technologies: (and yes, I’m getting some sardonic enjoyment out of using that acronym). The power of these technologies to gather data and support both instructors and composers continues to grow. Researching and evaluating these tools as they emerge. Figuring out if, when, and how to deploy them. Supporting instructors, getting buy-in, etc.
  • The g-d-damn logistics!: from intervening on the granular student assignment level to campus wide program assessment, figuring out how to make “data-driven” decisions that are ethical and pedagogically effective. Can we “capture the moment” that is decisive for our students and instructors and give them what they want/need right when they want/need it? Is that a direction in which we wish to go? Do we really have a choice otherwise?

I don’t mean to suggest that these are all strictly technical matters. There are issues of cultural and human differences (access, rhetorical practices, identity formation/representation, etc.); material-ecological impacts; legal and political debates; psychological and cognitive effects; etc. I certainly cannot create an exhaustive list. Since I don’t think that the emergence of digital media has solved any particular rhetorical problems we’ve had in the past, I’d imagine that all those matters can continue to be studied.

That said, it would horribly naive to imagine that those matters are not transformed through their entry into the post-digital era. So I don’t see how there’s a path forward that doesn’t include understanding the media at work. In the 20th century that understanding was implicit in the print media ecology. We no longer have that implicit understanding. No one can because it’s moving some quickly.

Hypothetically, having disciplinary expertise–scholarly, pedagogically, administratively–to adapt to the shifting post-digital conditions of rhetoric would give English Studies a seat at the table in the future of higher education. It quite obviously isn’t going to happen. And I don’t mean that as some reverse-psychological ploy. It’s not happening. Instead, we’ll go with the strategy of arguing that there is always a place for the intellectual version of the old man shouting at kids in the neighborhood about the old days.

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