Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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digital rhetoric and professional communication
Updated: 1 day 20 hours ago

hell is other people (on screens)

24 March, 2019 - 12:45

There’s a NY Times article by Nellie Bowles doing the rounds with the titular observation that “Human Contact is Now a Luxury Good.” It focuses on both old and young: the senior citizen with a virtual pet companion; the kids taught by apps on tablets and laptops. And it notes that the wealthy eschew screens in favor of human contact. As Bowles writes, “Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.” Meanwhile, “Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.”

So I was thinking about my own screen life. There’s one major portion that is work-related. Most of the things I read are on the screen (some web, many pdfs, and e-books too). I write in word processors. I do some other media composing. And, of course, there’s some email. I’d safely say 80% of my work time is on a screen of some sort. Let’s conservatively call that 35 hours per week. On the entertainment/non-work side, there’s cable TV; Netflix, Amazon, etc.; a little video gaming. I read some news and some blogs. And then there’s social media, where I spend about 40-50 minutes per day if iOS screen time is any judge (and this is really a phone thing for me). The crappy invasive thing about that is that it probably happens in 5-minute intervals throughout the day. Still if you add the work and the non-work, I’m sure you’d get 8-10 hours a day on a screen. I wouldn’t extrapolate much from my own experience except to note that it surely informs my perspective.

So one thing I’d say regarding smartphone usage is that most of the time I’m picking up my phone to distract me from something on my laptop. So either way, it’s screen time, right? I could zip over to FB or Gmail on my browser but I pick up the phone instead. Or I might pick up my phone during a TV commercial: same thing. For me, the worries of screen usage aren’t about watching YouTube or surfing or what not while on a commute, waiting for your flight to board, or whatever, instead of reading a magazine or a paperback. And they certainly aren’t about having access to good information when you need it: a weather forecast, driving directions, where a movie is playing, a good price for something you want to buy, etc.

There are two major problems with screens. The first, which I’m only going to mention today, is the way our interactions are recorded, analyzed, monetized, and used to manipulate us. When it comes down to it, the only reason any corporation wants to keep you engaged is to suck more value out of your interactions. Right now, not interacting is about the only response, but that comes at a price too.

The second is more subjective and has to do with the affective experience/cost of screen time. I think it has to come down to making a realistic assessment of your engagement. E.g., when you go on FB, how do you feel after? If you think there’s something you’re doing on FB that makes your feeling worse as a result of your engagement worth it, I want you to know, with all sincerity, that you’re wrong. It’s not worth it. The only thing that’s happening on FB is that shareholders are making money. If you’re enjoying yourself then I’d say go for it. Otherwise, I’d suggest you have a serious think. The same with other social media. BTW, I’d suggest the same thing about any other website, but I’m guessing you don’t visit other website that make you unhappy.

And why should you? Are you performing some kind of digital penance?

Sadly this concern filters into the obligations of work screen time as well. Well, maybe “obligations” is the wrong word. I don’t need to pay attention to listservs or professional social media, whether it’s within my university or from my discipline. Furthermore, there is, in my view, an unnecessary proliferation of scholarly work. This is a difficult thing to parse. I’m not suggesting that my colleagues shouldn’t publish if they have an intrinsic purpose for doing so. Nor am I suggesting that people should stop doing research. But at the same time, we should be able to recognize the capitalist impulse for “productivity” at work in the growing rate of publication.

I don’t have clear answer to this, but I am left wondering what we are doing. I don’t blame people for publishing stuff! You’ve got to get tenure. I’m working on a second book so I can get promoted. I am effectively paid to publish stuff. I’m just not sure if it’s doing anyone any good or if its just contributing to the problems of screen time.

Categories: Author Blogs

Becoming b-roll #4C19

15 March, 2019 - 06:07

Here’s the text and videos used in my presentation in case you weren’t inclined to drag yourself over here at 8am.

Rhetoric and composition has been talking about video for decades—as a teaching tool, an object of study, and a medium of scholarly and student composing. More than 15 years ago, Dan Anderson was discussing the impact of prosumer media creation tools, including digital video cameras, on pedagogy. Of course that was years before the arrival of YouTube. I don’t think it is surprising that the last decade has produced hundreds of scholarly articles on the rhetorical practices of YouTube. To generalize about that research, I would say that we are quite apt at the cultural critique of the videos we study. However this presentation isn’t really along those lines. 

Today I’m talking about a specific filmic, compositional technique and investigating its rhetorical operation. I imagine we are all familiar with the concept of b-roll, but just in case it’s basically the footage filmmakers record away from the primary action that is intended to give a more holistic sense of the setting. So it’s often used in introductory and transitional moments in the narration. Sometimes it’s used to help characterize or illustrate the narration. 

Certainly b-roll can be some of the cheesiest, cliched crap that you see in a low-budget informational. It can be overly staged and phony. 

(n.b. I’m only showing clips from these videos but I’m including the whole things here.)

In other words, it’s rhetoric, just like your momma and Plato warned you about. Now these are cases of decontextualized, stock footage and that is one kind of b-roll. But I’m interested in a different, more singular use of b-roll that we find in the work of some YouTube vloggers. This b-roll footage is not stock material. And I would argue that it is not simple scene-setting. In the case of vloggers we are not only seeing their setting, we are seeing their world, their environment, and often their homes and private spaces as they see them.

Now I need to pause and qualify that last statement. Obviously we are not literally seeing through their physical eyes, nor are we transparently or telepathically sharing their phenomenological experience. There are rhetorical and aesthetic stylistic choices. There are technological characteristics. There are genre considerations. Each of these shapes each step from camera placement to the final edit. It is, in this respect, a fiction, but as Latour would point out, it is not a fiction in the sense of being untrue, but a fiction in the sense that all truths, all knowledge, must first be built. So the vlogger’s b-roll does tell us how they see their world in that they involved in a recursive relationship as they are shaping and shaped by their environment and that environment is shaping and shaped by the particular vlog episode. 

So far I don’t think I’ve ventured into unfamiliar territory. Maybe we don’t often give much thought to the b-roll in YouTube vlogs but the idea that composers participate in this kind of recursive shaping relationship with their cultural-material contexts is not so odd. It is an insight we might find recurring in various ecological approaches to composing going back to Marilyn Cooper’s “Ecology of Writing.”

I’m going to push this a little further to take up the idea of b-roll in relation to Thomas Rickert’s theory of ambient rhetoric. B-roll is not itself “ambient video,” which is an entirely different genre. Instead b-roll is a version of language as Rickert describes when he writes

the world comes to speaking in language and gives bearings to being, human beings included, but cannot be understood to issue solely from human being; the world is the largely assumed and relied-on background stitchwork of relations emergent with our everyday doing and making. Language, then, is a way of the world’s being grappling with the rest of the world, with humans as a site for its meaningful disclosure.

Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric 102

So we can just substitute “video” for “language” in that passage, and while the two are not equivalent, there is sense in saying video is a way of the world’s being grappling with the rest of the world. In some respects we might even find that easier to recognize in our willingness to conceive of video, perhaps because of its obvious technical qualities, as being something that does not “issue solely from human being.”

Even though the shots are composed and edited so that the vlogger might exert maximal agency over what appears on the screen, it is still the vlogger’s world that is being grappled with. Casey Neistat lives in Manhattan. He cannot compose a non-Manhattan. Peter McKinnon lives in Toronto. When it is winter, it is winter. 

Commercial filmmakers have sets and soundstages. A film like Avatar can place actors in a completely virtual world. But vloggers must compose from the world in which they are situated. To return to Rickert’s terms, in b-roll we encounter the “largely assumed and relied-on background stitchwork of relations emergent with our everyday doing and making.” And what better way to describe a core value of the vlog than as an engagement with our everyday doing and making?

We can push this a little further though. If b-roll grapples with the rest of the world, then what about a-roll? For vloggers a-roll puts them in front of the camera. Sometimes it’s a locked shot with the camera fixed on a tripod. Since vloggers are often one-person production teams, it’s either a locked shot or the shaky, handheld selfie style shot. As with the b-roll vloggers can certainly give thought to the space behind them as they move through it, but again it is always set against the limits of their lived, built environment. 

If we can manage to extricate ourselves at some level from our anthropocentrism, at what point might we see ourselves as becoming b-roll, as becoming part of the ambient hum of the world grappling with itself? Perhaps it is hardest to imagine this with our a-roll vlogger, but witness the other humans. They have become b-roll: a new generation of animated render ghosts in an ambient cityscape. 

The render ghost is James Bridle’s term for the inclusion of people into architectural drawings and illustrations. Understandably the inclusion of people can provide a drawing with a sense of scale and offers a way for the viewer to situate herself in the space. I too can imagine standing on that street corner, waiting for the light to change. As one of Bridle’s projects investigates, these render ghosts are often created from photographs of real people scraped from the public web. 

Architectural render ghosts

In some ways this is a part of a long tradition. There have been people set into the backdrop of cityscapes as long as artists have drawn them. We are similarly familiar with the role of extras in movie-making. There are always people filling in the scene. However, I would say the phenomenon I’m discussing here is part of a shift in this practice. Implicitly we know that we are surrounded by camera. Most people we walk past carry one with them. There are security cameras, cameras on cars, and so on. You might walk into the frame as someone is face-timing or taking a selfie. There are a nearly endless number of rhetorical purposes into which you have inadvertently stepped. Much of this camera footage is never seen by human eyes and in the rest your presence is likely ignored as just another feature of the backdrop. Sure, we are used to being anonymous in an airport, at a mall, or on a university campus, but such anonymity is always anchored to our own perspective and narrative. Here our anonymity becomes a rhetorical feature of a scene. We are simply another feature of the world.

So what’s happening in my classroom with this? I suppose I might say that the underlying impetus of the composing courses I teach is to disrupt the disciplinary, paradigmatic hegemony of the late age of print. Of course that doesn’t really fit in a learning outcomes bullet point so I tend to go with something like “Understand how new technologies create new writing practices.” I think it’s very hard to identify ambient rhetoric operating in the spaces of textual composing. The technologies of textual production, combined with the cybernetic, territorializing, and encoding features of genres, serve to smooth out and erase the disruptions of ambient conditions, though maybe you can tell if something you read was written by someone a little buzzed at a party or hungover the next morning or while flying on a plane to a conference. In other words, the world is always in the background, even if it isn’t on camera. Having students create a short b-roll video, what I sometimes call a “portrait of a place,” is a way to focus on this aspect of composing. 

The tricky part then is trying to understand how we are ourselves a part of this background hum. In our own semi-consistent conscious narratives, we are front and center, of course, and that’s one slice of the world, one brain humming away. But other slices see us and our composition processes as interwoven with the background. I’m not here to say which slice is distorted and which one real or better or worse or more or less just. They do however interact. 

I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t end with some gesture toward the kairos of the college bribery scandal and specifically where it intersects the subject of vlogging with the case of “social media influencer” Olivia Jade Gianulli. I’m guessing you know the sordid details of the criminal case so I won’t rehearse them here. What’s relevant from my perspective was the way that being a college student, and maybe particularly being a USC college student, was integral to her brand strategy. In this situation, we can see how the ambient hum of b-roll moves out in different directions. One direction is familiar to our critical modes in that it attaches Olivia Jade to an ideological position as a college student that offers her some veneer of ethos in reaching her demographic of college attending and college aspiring viewers. Sitting in the dorm room gives her that in a way that’s perhaps subtler but no less real than what accrues to a judge on the bench or a professor in front of lecture hall. 

The other direction is harder to parse, and I’ll end with it. It sends us down proprietary algorithmic rabbit holes where image becomes data. Growing one’s brand and social media influence is a data-driven game. Under the eye of the digital camera we all become data points. We all become part of the hum of network servers and their cooling units. There is some attenuated relationship between those data points and our bodies and voices. This context seems indifferent to Olivia Jade’s ambitions and ethical judgments of her actions. The point I’m trying to make here is that while we have competing ethical and political goals carried out on these platforms and we might study and intercede in the space of human agency, there is another layer of rhetorical operation—material, ecological, and technological—that operates with indifference to our intentions. It is there in the background, in our b-roll, and in the network. My work is about trying to understand how that thing works.

Categories: Author Blogs

the “robot-ready” humanities

24 February, 2019 - 14:44

So I’m in the midst again of another well-intentioned effort to communicate the value of liberal arts (specifically English) majors and was introduced to this report, “Robot Ready: Human+Skills for the Future of Work,” by the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and ESMI, which is a firm involved in economic modeling. I want to start here by looking as some charts from the report and seeing if you see the same thing I do.

So this is fairly straightforward and mostly not surprising. Liberal arts majors make less money. Dog bites man. You can wonder about that spike in the late 30s/early 40s. More on that in a minute.

If you’re familiar with this kind of graphic (if not it’s a Sankey diagram), you can see how liberal arts majors shift career areas over time. I’m thinking there is some causal relationship between these career shifts and the early middle age salary boost. There are other factors like getting some post-BA degree, changing family situations and so on, so it’s certainly not the whole picture.

Now this gets a little interesting. Basically it’s saying that 1/3 of students with a liberal arts degree don’t get jobs that require a college degree, even after they hit that 3rd job. The thing is that my own experience makes me scratch my head about all this. My first 3 jobs following graduate were 1) temp worker doing database entry work, 2) museum tour guide 3) TA. That covered less than 18 months. At least 2 of those jobs required college degrees, and they all had crappy pay. So I’m wondering what the hell we’re measuring here. On the other hand I’m a lousy test case for the liberal arts student as hardly any of them are going to end up being tenured professors.

This is the most curious part to me because we always talk about the lifelong skills of the liberal arts. Sure, English majors aren’t learning immediately practical stuff or getting certifications that will allow them to walk into a job, but in the long run… So what is here is really not good for us. The differences aren’t that stark, but if we aren’t helping students pursue careers AND they don’t feel they’ve learned enduring life skills, then how do we spin that? Wait, wait. I know. Our students are far too savvy to fall for the life skills question. They’re critiquing the hell out of that question! To which the only reasonable response can be “Critiquer, critique thyself.”

So, I know, you’re asking “but what about the robots? I was promised there would be robots.” Well that comes in the “solution” rather than the problem-posing part of this report. The basic thrust of this report’s argument, like so many of its kind, is that the humanities need to find a way to add technical skills to the education that their students are receiving. Those technical skills, plus the traditional “soft skills” the liberal arts have always provided, will provide liberal arts students with more career flexibility (and earning potential) moving into the future. It’s an observation that has been accurate for a long time and, as is implicit here, is more pressing than ever. In short, being “robot-ready” means having communication skills, ethical understanding, cultural sensitivity, etc. (gotta love the etc here) while also being prepared to work in highly technical environments with your robot overlords.

The thing is that I don’t really see an argument for traditional liberal arts majors here. I see an argument for “infusing” soft skills into STEM and business education. More importantly, I am bewildered by the notion that matters of communication, ethics, cultural understanding and so on are not transformed by material-historical processes. I mean, isn’t that humanities 101? So how does it make sense to be in the middle of a massive historical change (e.g., getting “robot-ready”) while peddling the notion that the liberal arts and keep keeping-on? The suggestion in this report is that sure you can still be an English major, just minor in Computer Science or something so that you get some technical skills too. OK, maybe that works, in which case, we don’t need this report or conversation. On the other hand, if material-historical processes do matter and we are in the midst of a significant cultural transformation, then the same-old, same-old won’t work, right?

The whole business just seems a mess. On a national disciplinary level, in the span of my career, it strikes me as worse than ever. On the one hand, there’s a tremendous opening to address the kinds of sociopolitical and ethical concerns that have long been a focus of the liberal arts. It seems there might be more interest than ever in hiring people who understand these matters. On the other hand, it seems that we need to change our approach to such issues because so much of what we’re offering just doesn’t connect. We can blame students or technology or whatever, but in the end I think we need to see the ground shifting under our feet.

Categories: Author Blogs

hold me closer tiny rhetorician

10 January, 2019 - 15:48

After all, who can resist an Elton John reference?

Well, I’m in the midst of book revisions (and there was much rejoicing). I’m thinking back–and perhaps modifying–a notion I had a few years ago: minimal rhetoric. I’m thinking “tiny” rather than “minimal.” Maybe both.

My attraction to “tiny” is from the line in A Thousand Plateaus that has stuck with me, punctum-like, through the years:

There is a micropolitics of perception, affection, conversation, and so forth. If we consider the great binary aggregates, such as the sexes or classes, it is evident that they also cross over into molecular assemblages of a different nature, and that there is a double reciprocal dependency between them. For the two sexes imply a multiplicity of molecular combinations bringing into play not only the man in the woman and the woman in the man, but the relation of each to the animal, the plant, etc.: a thousand tiny sexes.

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 213

Really just “a thousand tiny sexes.”

And then I was watching this EGS lecture from Manuel DeLanda on YouTube. I’d link to it here, but it’s been up there for 7 years and has averaged about one view per year, so you can go watch it if you like but I figure you’ve had your chance! Anyway, he said something fairly obvious but that struck me last night when I couldn’t sleep around 3:30 am. He observed that the direction of modern science was toward a proliferation of ideas and methods rather than toward a unifying theory. I mean, that is obvious, right? Instead of a single 21st-century science department we have more and more sciences, interdisciplinary centers, majors, journals, conferences, grants, etc., etc.

A thousand tiny sciences… minor sciences, even. So what about rhetoric?

As we know, one of the contemporary historiographic trends regards “big rhetoric.” For those who don’t know, it’s the expansion away from the traditional objects of study for rhetoric scholars (e.g. political speeches) and into the vast space of cultural representations. And the nonhuman turn opens that even farther. To make that happen we’ve had ever more capacious theories of rhetoric. I’m probably as big a rhetorician as you’re likely to find (seek me out at CCCC and see what you think). So I am generally in favor of these theories of big rhetoric. In my view, the restriction to the historical areas of rhetorical study are just that: a product of historical circumstance. I have argued in defense of and made my own versions of arguments for a general new materialist and posthuman theory of rhetoric. I see that as a necessary disciplinary step.

And yet it leaves me wondering: what about the thousand tiny rhetorics?

To be sure, we do a good job of analyzing specific rhetorical situations: our classrooms, this or that workplace, a particular text, and so on. Basically this is an interpretive/hermeneutic move: the application of a general theory of rhetoric to a specific instance. An act of deduction. So there are thousands of instances but they’re all of one thing…. Well not really because as a discipline we have disagreements about that general theory of rhetoric. So we often perform our disagreements about generalities through our interpretations of specifics.

I’m talking about something different here. A thousand, non-unifying irreducible rhetorics… and us being ok with that. In fact, not just ok, but recognizing that the ontological situation is that there really isn’t a general theory of rhetoric, or at least, there isn’t a theory with enough explanatory power to offer much insight into the problems we need to address.

What this really requires though is something intermediary, something in-between the general theory of rhetoric and the interpretation of a specific text/object/event. So I’ve started to think about my work as a digital rhetorician in those terms. If I am interested (as I happen to be) in the rhetorics of emerging digital technologies, which presupposes some posthuman/nonhuman/new materialist approach since I’m looking at the rhetoric of something that isn’t human, then why can’t that be its own thing? Why should the methods I use to study that be applicable to any other situation? So I’ve been thinking about a method that describes the rhetoric of digital media in a way that fosters the invention of further capacities. E.g., can we describe the operation of social media or smartphones in a way that allows us to invent and experiment with expanding the rhetorical capacities of these devices and their users? So it’s not just about one device or one situation. But it also isn’t a general theory of rhetoric. It’s somewhere in-between in a pragmatic space, trying to understand how material conditions here lead to certain rhetorical capacities and then using that understanding as a basis for experimentation.

But that’s just one tiny rhetoric. My point is there must be a thousand more.

Categories: Author Blogs