media studies new materialism

Computational Media and Rhetoric

There are a number of ways to understand the term “computational rhetoric.” In no particular order, the first might be something like critical code studies in that one studies the rhetoric practices of coding. A second would be akin to machine reading in the digital humanities, doing rhetorical analysis of a large textual corpus, or doing sentiment analysis on tweets. A third could be “procedural rhetoric” (e.g., Ian Bogost) and look at the persuasive capacities of digital interactions.

Perhaps you can think of others. I am interested in a fourth option related to computational media. Computational media, as the name indicates, relates to any media that is produced computationally (e.g., on a computer). Over the last three or four decades, we can trace the shift of analog media formats into digital formats as the digital formats become predominant. For example, when I was an undergrad in the late 80s, very few students had computers in their dorm rooms. I wrote on a computer because I worked for a small business in the PC industry during that time. When I became a TA, I was assigned to a teach composition in a (non-networked) computer lab because not many TAs really knew how the things worked. In the mid-90s, I figure I was part of the first generation of rhetoric/composition PhD scholars were most of us wrote our dissertations on a computer. By the early 2000s, about a decade after I was an undergrad, it was normal for college students to have computers. Half the households in America had computers. There are similar timelines for music, photography, and video. By the time of the iPod and MP-3, most mainstream music was already being recorded digitally. Around the same time, in 2003, digital cameras started outselling film cameras. And in the last decade, the majority of major motion pictures began being filmed with digital cameras. Indeed, these days not only is much of our media, from text messages and selfies to Hollywood blockbusters, produced by computational media, we also consume that media through computational technologies, streaming content to digital machines.

So the computational (media) rhetoric that interests me begins with understanding that our media take computational forms, which make them subject to mathematical analysis and manipulation. If that seems obvious to you, I agree. And yet, like many obvious things, it has many implications, some of which are far from obvious. At its greatest level of abstraction, computational media shape our experience of space and time. There are familiar examples of this: quantizing and auto-tuning music; editing photos and videos; animation; deepfakes and so on. Then of course there all the ways the media can be organized, analyzed, and repurposed to create experiences like social media, including all the interactive elements from share and like buttons to notifications and recommendations. There are many more examples.

The kind of computational media rhetoric I’m thinking of (and it is obviously just one of many things to do in the world) examines how rhetorical capacities arise at the intersections among humans and nonhumans in computational media ecologies. It requires understanding that computations, like the human languages rhetoricians usually study, is material. Here is one of the places where rhetoric and media studies combines with computer science and engineering, where familiar political, ethical and cultural matters of concern connect to machines.

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