Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Selber's neophytic digital rhetorical literacy

My method of inquiry is contestation (um, duh), and Selber's chapter on "Rhetorical Literacy" creates cause for a wealth of inquiry. I'm surprised at the extreme lack of specificity in the arguments, where quotes ill-prepared to be pressed into Selber's purposes ("This [the interface] is the mysterious, nonmaterial point where electronic signals become information" (qtd 140)) or Selber simply pronounces without bothering to add so much as anecdotal evidence.

Here's one such anecdote-less claim:

Anyone who has been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information on the Internet knows that the metatext -- a heavily linked text that connects other texts and their contents in imaginative and meaningful ways -- has become an invaluable online genre... (136)

Perhaps he meant platform instead of genre? Regardless, if html has rocked the composition world as he argues, I'd like to see at least one example of how and why. Selber's trope is for the reader to, ironically, coauthor this traditional text in much more active ways than the stereotyped digital media he crafts here.

And it's on this subject that Selber doesn't seem to understand he's not talking about postmodernism, but coauthorship. Here's Selber's quote.

Lee Brasseur has characterized electronic spaces as postmodern because in those spaces writers, readers, and software designers all collaborate on some level in the formation and interpretation of online texts. (139)

The same issue of coauthorship returns on 149.
This is where the symbolist perspective enters in, a perspective that "centers on the notion that all persuasion is really to a significant extent self-persuasion, involving the active participation of an audience" (509)

Coauthorship is best and most easily explained in my opinion in Nick Montfort's excellent Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, which, granted, was published in 2003, but builds quite a bit off of the theme's in Aarseth's Cybertext. Coauthorship is pretty easy to understand with Montfort's examples from Interactive Fiction. Let's look at a snippet from Zork, borrowed from this website, as I'm too lazy to pull the game up myself right now.

The trap door crashes shut, and you hear someone barring it.

You are in a dark and damp cellar with a narrow passageway leading north, and a crawlway to the south. On the west is the bottom of a steep metal ramp which is unclimbable.
Your sword is glowing with a faint blue glow.


The Troll Room
This is a small room with passages to the east and south and a forbidding hole leading west. Bloodstains and deep scratches (perhaps made by an axe) mar the walls.
A nasty-looking troll, brandishing a bloody axe, blocks all passages out of the room.

Your sword has begun to glow very brightly.
The troll swings his azxe, but it misses.

>swing sword
The troll swings, you parry, but the force of his blow knocks your sword away.

>get sword

The troll hits you with a glancing blow, and you are momentarily stunned.

>kill troll with sword
The troll is staggered, and drops to his knees.
The troll slowly regains his feet.


Few are going to mistake the writing contributed by the player as Jamesian, or even Tolkien-esque, but IF does make the concept of coauthorship easy to follow. The computer produces text: "The troll swings, you parry, but the force of his blow knocks your sword away." The player/coauthor provides their own contribution: "kill troll with sword" The computer interprets the contribution and continues, as proxy for the game's author(s), the shared composition.

(And, it should be noted, the user's contributions do occasionally become much more colorful. "Kill the **** dragon with the ***** sword, ***** it. And do it now. And don't make me **** figure out how I'm supposed to lure it to some ******** ice wall before I can go further in the game." Of course, the player's coauthor usually replies with something particularly lucid like, "I don't understand that sentence.")

This is what an html RAD does too. It's a madlib for programming html. (Which reminds me of another pet peeve: Why don't we teach more about the history of the book? Why don't we talk about about coauthorship in the codex? Not only is Heather Jackson's Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books a great introduction to the antecedents of dynamic, community composition online, but everything from page size, font selection, and paper making mediate traditional composition in ways I'm not familiar enough with to mention here.)

I can't help but believe that Selber's skimping on specifics because he's not yet comfortable enough with the material he discusses to offer great ones. Take this section, where he does try to offer one example of how digital rhetoric can be approached:

For example, on the Web, students need a certain level of domain knowledge from computer science in order to produce texts that are optimized for performance. Such technical awareness includes a basic comprehension of the client/server architecture that underlies the Internet, because the configurations of end-user computers (clients) help determine the speed with which texts are delivered over the Internet (via servers).

How does this snippet of wrongness suggest Selber's lack of digital initiation? Let's count a few of the ways...

  • Beyond students putting full-resolution photos on the web and then simply changing their size for display in an image tag (eg, <img src="myHUGEFNIMAGE.jpg" height="100" width="120">), speed is really no longer a practical issue. Today's front page of The New York Times is over 129 kilobytes of code alone, with another 461 KB of supporting code, give or take. That's over a third of a floppy. Oh noes!

  • Servers do not typically cause the bottlenecks on the Internet. When you use a modem, usually it is the weak link in bandwidth; trust me, the server and the net are almost always ready to provide their information faster than 56k. This is an infrastructure issue, not a server issue, even if speed was an issue.

  • Client/server is the way http tends to work. It's not the way the Internet works, even in 2004. Napster's tiff with Metallica was in 2000! Napster used peer to peer networking, which is a much different information transfer paradigm, where, to oversimplify, each node is both client and server, and the, let's say, sexual dimorphism between nodes is not nearly so cleanly cut.

  • ad infinitum. I'm boring you. Let's move on.

    The treatment is at best an antiquated approach to html for 2004 (though perhaps useful in the days of modems and Al Gore's picture first hitting the net), and its composition strikes me about as smooth and knowledgeable as a pair of curious teenagers in the back seat of a sedan. Still, to use speed of html as your archetypal example of digital rhetoric appeals to and impresses only those whose understanding of the net is as old as the conception he describes. Better he read Espen Aarseth's Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, published in 1997, and use the much more nuanced considerations it contains. (You should read it to.)

    The emphasis in the chapter is on theoretical argument that misses the artifacts of praxis. Take this quote...

    The Open Source Initiative (<>) attests to the seriousness with which interface designers have engaged in the communal development of software. (164-5)

    Yet it is precisely within this sort of software that I'd argue we most clearly see unmediated hegemony. Nowhere is -- even today -- the "cryptic command language syntax" (141) that Selber implicitly encourages removing more prevalent than in the interfaces produced by FOSS. [TODO: Add some examples] Why are these activist programmers not producing more liberating artifacts? (The answer is pretty obvious; interfaces that don't look like "cryptic command language" are interfaces that don't reveal what lies under the code in the PC's operating systems and hardware. Removing the culture bias built intothe personal computer is tough, unintuitive work. Honestly, you need a team of UI designers to run through FOSS, and they haven't popped up just yet. Why that is would be a useful research question.)

    Worse for me, however, is his uncritical support for html RADs. Here's the quote.
    Anyone who has hand-coded Web pages and then switched over to a visual HTML editor appreciates the point Myers makes about the level of control that powerful development tools can provide. (141-2)

    Selber is not, unfortunately, saying how this control is exerted over the editor's user. FrontPage was overly popular with academics for whatever reasons, and the politics of that application are pretty obvious (see this old blog post). Even solid, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) alternatives, like the composer in Seamonkey or the now defunct NVu project, are nice, but they very much restrict their users to remediating old genres as they currently function. I love 'em for taking notes in class. Not so great for creating web applications. For that, I (and many others) use a text editor (I use VIm -- and JEdit, and TextWrangler, and ...).

    To truly create a web application, which is, give or take, what Selber means to recommend at the top of 143, one must learn how to write by hand. Otherwise, you're, for the purposes of exposing the interior of the interface, retaining and enforcing the "mysterious"-ness of the boundary and losing the well-delineated learning opportunity Selber is trying to foreground, sometimes in spite of himself. As I've blogged earlier, even routine blogging can quickly become a pretty technical experience requiring at least a touch of knowledge of coding html directly

    I'd also take issue with the idea that "system software" "is rather stable and hence not easily open to reinterpretation" (142). He's obviously mad. ;^) An extremely accessible introduction to how operating systems work, influence even the graphic interface, and suggest how these could be changed for the users' benefit can be found in Alan Cooper's About Face.

    There are simply too many times, like in Table 4.1, where you could do a search and replace on "interface design" and put in "any dammed thing you'd prefer to be talking about, like the game of jacks." Or take the lesson he gives students about -- "On the whole, I agree with my students that an attention to ideology could help improve the effectiveness of the Website" (152). We've moved from talking about how software is different, and how we should leave behind "romantic" notions of text (13), but then when the proverbial rubber hits ye older proverbialer road, what happens? Hypertext as static text, an approach (again, see Jackson's Marginalia) that's not wholly warranted even when we're talking about codexes. The "Nascent approaches like [those that Selber recommends] are philosophically and methodologically different from traditional approaches in HCI..." (155), but I'm not so sure they don't look a heck of a lot like some long in the tooth (though still situationally useful, I'll grant) rhetorical exercises. My issue isn't in the usefulness of what he does write (okay, well, it is on some level), but the way that the suggestions and considerations are too generic to make specifically digital claims. And, again, really no good practical examples of the application of his suggestions. Bitbucket.

    At best, what Selber does is paint a picture of our (well, at least us with an ingle bias (ENGL)) audience. Here's a person who is interested in learning how technology will impact traditional academia, interested enough to open html in a text editor and to create a lasting artifact of the musings these experiments have created in him. He's likely right that it is "unrealistic to think that students" -- here students in composition classes or old-style English students -- "will be able to create [special-purpose programs [like] word-processing, spreadsheet, database, and e-mail programs [1]] in writing and communication courses", but some of us can (though it needs some bug fixing). Nor is there [theoretically] anything stopping these courses from coauthoring applications with intro comp sci courses, is there?

    Students should and can become creators of "software". Selber needs our help to figure out how this works in praxis.

    [1] Note how influenced Selber is by Microsoft here. His list of "special-purpose programs" lists what's included in Microsoft Office -- Word, Excel, Access, and Outlook. Nice. There's a hell of a lot of room left for inquiry here.

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