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A Role for Rhetoric in Software Studies, Part 1

Photo Credit: “Cool Runner” by Nirmal Thacker

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of rhetoric, writing studies, and rhetorical theory in the emerging field/subfield of software studies. Software studies was launched by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, fleshed out by Katherine Hayles in My Mother Was a Computer, and then extended by scholars like Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Matthew Fuller, Matt Kirschenbaum, and various others. Kirschenbaum provides my favorite description of this emerging subfield:

“What is software studies then? Software studies is what media theory becomes after the bubble bursts. Software studies is whiteboards and white papers, business plans and IPOs and penny-stocks. Software studies is Powerpoint vaporware and proofs of concept binaries locked in time-stamped limbo on a server where all the user accounts but root have been disabled and the domain name is eighteen months expired. Software studies is, or can be, the work of fashioning documentary methods for recognizing and recovering digital histories, and the cultivation of the critical discipline to parse those histories against the material matrix of the present. Software studies is understanding digital objects are sometimes lost, yes, but mostly, and more often, just forgotten. Software studies is about adding more memory.” (153)

While Kirschenbaum’s version has definite “book history” feel to it, I think it helps us think of a broad range of methods that fit under the software studies umbrella. Software studies allows scholars across a broad range of disciplines to examine the far-reaching ramifications of code. Kirschenbaum’s focus is on mechanisms and Wardrip-Fruin’s is on computational processes. As I see it, software studies can be a big tent.

But Collin Brooke notes in Lingua Fracta that Manovich significantly reduces the role of rhetoric in new media studies, making it difficult to see how rhetoricians might fit with the emerging field of software studies. It’s worth briefly revisiting Manovich’s treatment of rhetoric in The Language of New Media. In a discussion of hyperlinking and the Web’s non-hierarchical arrangement of texts, Manovich argues that “the printed word was linked to the art of rhetoric” (77). Traditionally, Manovich argues, texts have “encoded human knowledge and memory, instructed, inspired, convinced, and seduced their readers to adopt new ideas, new ways of interpreting the world, new ideologies” (76-7). Manovich suggests that this approach becomes obsolete with rise of new media and hypertext. After citing Roman Jakobsen’s reduction of rhetoric to “metaphor and metonymy,” Manovich argues that hyperlinking has reduced rhetoric even further by “privileg[ing] the single figure of metonymy at the expense of all others” (77). While he eventually suggests that a “new digital rhetoric may have less to do with arranging information in a particular order and more to do simply with selecting what is included and what is not included” (footnote, page 77), Manovich still bases this discussion on a particularly narrow definition of rhetoric.

Collin suggests that Manovich’s definition of the rhetorical canon of arrangement (and of rhetoric, more generally) is based on a straw man. On the Web, the argument goes, writers/orators no longer painstakingly arrange things in order to persuade in a particular way; therefore, rhetoric is dead. But Collin argues that “the links that allegedly demonstrate the irrelevance of rhetoric are rhetorical practices of arrangement, attempts to communicate affinities, connections, and relationships” (91). As Collin sees it (and I’d agree), arrangement is not an “all or nothing” thing. Arrangement may be further complicated in new media environments, but it still happens. Rhetoric changes in new media environments, but it’s still there.

We can hardly blame Manovich for this reduced rhetoric. Manovich inherits (from Jakobsen and others) a reduced rhetoric, or what Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen would call a “restricted rhetoric.” As Borch-Jacobsen argues, rhetoric’s history is defined by a constant oscillation between “primary rhetoric” and “secondary rhetoric”:

The history of rhetoric is not the continuous and closed story of its progressive restriction, but the discontinuous and indefinite one of permanent tension between two uses of the term: one of extreme generality (and therefore also extreme vagueness), which makes it an art of persuasion (this is its oratorical, pragmatic, or ‘impressive’ pole, corresponding roughly to what G.A. Kennedy calls ‘primary rhetoric’); the other of more restricted scope, which makes it an art of speaking well (this is its literary, poetic, ornamental, or ‘expressive’ pole, corresponding roughly to what Kennedy calls ‘secondary rhetoric’ and V. Florescu letteraturizzazione). Between these two poles there is constant oscillation punctuated by ‘deaths’ and ‘renaissances’ of rhetoric. (128)

Manovich’s rhetoric is still about persuasion, but it is mostly a secondary rhetoric of ornamentation. However, if we accept Borch-Jacobsen’s more complex historical narrative of rhetoric’s constant oscillation, how might we rethink the role of rhetoric in new media studies and, more specifically, software studies? What would a primary rhetoric offer software studies? What does the art of persuasion offer those of us interested in “fashioning documentary methods for recognizing and recovering digital histories”?

I’d like to offer a brief, provisional answer to this question. If rhetoric is bigger than tropes and figures and if it is about how the art of persuasion morphs and changes, then a study of digital histories might trace out the origins and iterations of rhetorical strategies. These rhetorical strategies are shaped by software. Design choices enable and constrain certain rhetorical practices, and a study of these emerging practices would attempt to understand how persuasion and communication can happen in emerging environments.

Let me provide a brief example. The Wikipedia controversy of Essjay is well known, and it is one I dealt with in detail in a recent College Composition and Communication article. That article does not address Wikipedia’s software (Media Wiki) directly, but a consideration of Wikipedia’s code allows us one more way to examine this “scandal.” To recap: Ryan Jordan claimed to be a tenured professor of theology. He used this identity to guide discussion on Wikipedia and to work his way up the Wikipedia food chain. It was eventually discovered (with the help of wiki-critic Daniel Brandt) that Jordan was not a professor, and this opened up a public discussion about how identity operates on Wikipedia.

In the CCC article, I argue that the Essjay controversy demonstrates how ethos operates in Wikipedia and how this community deals with textual origins. Wikipedia’s rules attempt to outlaw any claims to an ethos of real life (RL) expertise. That is, no one can claim to be the origin of an utterance. Writers are not supposed to dictate discussion by pointing to their RL credentials, and they are not allowed to include “original research” in a Wikipedia article. Instead, Wikipedia’s rules require that a contributor build an ethos of citation. Instead of pointing to his or her credentials, a Wikipedian should be pointing to verifiable sources.

This argument is geared toward an audience of rhetoric and composition scholars who are concerned with issues of writing, argument, and intellectual property on the Web. But a discussion of Essjay’s ethos would shift in a software studies conversation. We would have to account for how Wikipedia’s code allows for (indeed, encourages) the building of virtual identities and actively discourages any claim to RL identities. We would have to track the development of Media Wiki software and a number of design decisions: the creation and maintenance of user accounts, access control settings, security settings, and permissions.

For instance, Media Wiki’s rules with regard to user identities and “anonymity” are quirky (these rules expose what Galloway and Thacker might call an exploit…but that is another blog post). Creating a username on Media Wiki masks that user’s IP address. Thus, I can edit without a user account and have my IP address attached to each edit, or I can create a username that is linked to each edit. Only users with CheckUser access can link usernames with IP addresses. Thanks to Virgil Griffith’s Wikiscanner tool, we can link IP addresses with physical locations. But this still doesn’t provide a clean way of linking edits with particular writers.

Media Wiki’s dealings with user accounts are confusing and counterintuitive. What does it mean to edit Wikipedia anonymously? What can anonymity even mean when an “anonymous” user is more easily tracked than a user who creates an avatar. When Ryan Jordan created the identity of “Essjay,” he was able to create an entire identity. That identity was not necessarily tied to a real world location or a real world person. And he was able to do this because of a particular design decision on the part of those who designed Media Wiki. Contrary to what most will say, this policy with regard to RL identity is not in place for all wikis. In fact, the original wiki, Ward Cunningham’s WikiWikiWeb, insisted on “RealNames” because “people who use online nicknames care less about what they write.” This is an arguable claim, but for the time being it’s important to note that Media Wiki’s design is but one way of dealing with user identities. This design decision has shaped the rhetorical situation in which each Wikipedian finds herself.

Using episodes such as the Essjay controversy as starting point, we can track the history of Wikipedia’s code. This history will help us better understand code influences rhetorical action and how the ethics and rhetorics embedded in code bubble to the surface as software is put to use. Essjay made particular choices about how to persuade other Wikipedians, and many of those choices involved a strategic deployment of ethos. But that strategic deployment was not only about Essjay’s (or Ryan Jordan’s) “choice.” It was much more about the code that allowed for and encouraged such a rhetorical strategy.

And I’d like to go one step further here. Even this brief discussion of Essjay’s ethos and how it opens the door for a rhetorical approach to software studies only scratches the surface. Beyond a study of rhetorical strategies and how they’re shaped, a rhetorical approach to software studies would also have to be a discussion of how persuasion happens, regardless of or beyond any conscious choice on the part of the digital rhetor. Yes, we should consider Essjay’s attempt to game the system and persuade. But what about all of the persuasion that happens over and beyond such strategic attempts?

In electronic spaces that invite various digital writer/rhetors regardless of credentials, Web denizens are put into contact with various others regardless of any choice to do so. I do not know who is editing “alongside” me when I contribute to Wikipedia, and this opens up a long list of rhetorical questions: How does persuasion or communication happen amongst a group of writers who may not share the same agenda? How does one track the motives of a writer without knowing his or her identity? What kind of community is a text like Wikipedia?

There are more questions to pursue here, but my hope is to open up a discussion about how rhetoric, rhetorical theory, and writing studies might contribute to the emerging field of software studies. I see a number of openings, and I will be looking to pursue many of them in future blog posts.

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