the emergence (emergency) of electrate collective experiments

I’ve spent more than 15 years writing about digital rhetoric and pedagogy on this blog, so this seems oddly like business as usual. One of my pastimes is watching English football, and I read some blogs and listen to podcasts. Of course, there’s nothing happening right now, but many of those folks are pressing on, trying to find things to write/talk about whether they’re related to sports or not. I appreciate their efforts to keep going and recognize in them that I ought to be doing the same. So, admittedly, it feels odd to be doing this when there are more pressing concerns, but then again there are always more pressing concerns. In fact, as it turns out, there is a lot of discussion about online pedagogy right now. There’s a massive Facebook group and seemingly hundreds if not thousands of articles popping up.

Here, I’m looking at this situation from a broader perspective and I’m going to start with three broad categories of factors that shape our digital-rhetorical capacities, that is our ability to work, build/maintain communities and relationships, share knowledge, etc in digital media ecologies.

The materiality of digital media ecologies. This is the media infrastructure: the internet’s backbone, the last mile of your internet provider connection, the strength of your wifi or cell signal, the devices you have available, and the software on those devices. This is what we always have discussed as the digital divide, but now we’ll test the whole system and various parts of the system (like video conferencing providers). Hopefully the system will prove to be robust (enough), but for the near future, the intersection of classical rhetorical concerns regarding delivery and audience awareness must include some consideration of these material constraints.

“Functional digital literacy.” If you’ve read this blog much, you’ve probably encountered my dislike of the term digital literacy and my interest in Ulmer’s concept of electracy. Here though I want to use literacy as we have displaced that term to mean having a rudimentary know-how. (E.g., financial literacy means understanding how interest rates work.) So we get questions like “how do I record a video?”

I want to preface this by saying I do not mean this as an indictment of individuals but rather as an observation of institutional operations. We are self-evidently in a moment where 1000s of college professors, instructors, and teaching assistants are rushing to learn a fairly basic functional understanding of how to produce media, manage files, use a course management system, and so on. How did we get here? As institutions, disciplines, and professional organizations we’ve had 20+ years to develop and value a functional digital literacy. We make students and faculty jump through any number of esoteric, bureaucratic, and often archaic hoops in order to get where they want to be, but we failed to do this. Why is that?

Electracy. Having the functional digital literacy to record and upload a video is, in rhetorical terms, the analog of being able to write something in a word processor and print it. It doesn’t mean what you’ve printed is any good or even makes sense. Of course without the functional literacy to write, you could never develop rhetorical capacities as a writer to compose in specific genres for specific audiences and purposes. So you can kind of see the problem here, right? People who are just trying to get up to speed with some functional literacy are unlikely to be successful at digital-rhetorical practice (i.e. electracy). Of course, that’s not entirely fair. Most of us have a range of experiences with digital literacy. We are consumers of a wide range of media and genres. We write in social media and email. We take selfies and other photos and share them. Maybe we’ve made a few short videos for social media purposes. But now we are moving to new audiences, genres, and purposes. We are likely also taking up new software and maybe new hardware. And we will encounter the challenges of shifting to a new genre: giving a lecture in a classroom is not the same as recording a video lecture and putting it in a course management system. It’s obviously not the same in technical terms, but more importantly it’s a different genre with different rhetorical operations.

I have recently been using this jammed-together term, combining Ulmer and Latour: electrate collective experiments. As Latour writes, “the sharp distinction between scientific laboratories experimenting on theories and phenomena inside, and a political outside where non-experts were getting by with human values, opinions and passions, is simply evaporating before our eyes. We are now all embarked on the same collective experiments, mixing humans and non-humans together—and no one is in charge.” It’s a line that in our current moment is chillingly prescient. Ulmer writes about the collective expressive capacities of different apparatuses: “citizens or netizens need their own collective corporate identity, in order to deal with these Apple corporations and Microsoft corporations, these commercial collective identities producing this sort of powerful economic being. We need a corporate subject position that is a Leviathan of Well-Being, of human thriving” In short, the electrate collective (like the preceding oral and literate collectives) is about the formation/emergence of subjects and communities. As such, the electrate collective experiment is about the emergence/emergency of developing subjectivities and communities in this ongoing experimental mixture of humans and nonhumans.

This is where we are now. Of course, we are in the midst of a crisis, and we are mostly just trying to get by, hoping that the worst of this will pass. We understandably do not feel like we have the time or energy to focus on the electrate collectives we are forming. Nevertheless we are forming them. For decades we have been part of collectives that devalued the digital-rhetorical capacities that would now be useful to have. So what happens now?

No one wants to think of social distancing or online education as a regular, recurring part of our future. I surely hope it will not be! Among our many concerns right now is that this kind of teaching could become the norm. When (Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise) this storm passes, we might consider having a real conversation about the kinds of electrate collectives we do wish to inhabit and how we can better prepare ourselves and our students to participate in building that future.

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