University of North Carolina at Greensboro
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
The sophisticated command of language, it has been said, is what distinguishes the human being from all other species of animals. The power to create and employ linguistic signifiers in order to communicate with relative certainty (deconstructionist theory notwithstanding) that which is signified, and the power to co-create meaning within social contexts by using these linguistic tools are hallmarks of our humanity, for better or for worse, which have been throughout the ages subjects of intense interest, study, scholarship, and debate.
It is through the use of these linguistic tools that we share experience and investigate the nature of our being, pose the questions who are we, what are we, and even why are we, speculate about the answers, then test and challenge claims to truth derived from our speculating/answering process. In many ways, we are bound on all sides of our conscious being by language and thus share basic needs to see and to understand the complex nature of that which binds us. The study of that complexity is called rhetoric, and those of us who call ourselves rhetoricians, no matter our personal theoretical preferences, hold to our belief that language is empowering, that the observation and analysis of oral and written communication can make us better communicators ourselves and can serve as pedagogical tools for empowering others.
Historically, rhetoricians have studied both formal and informal oral exchanges (civic debates as well as relaxed conversation) and written texts of almost all kinds (poetry, novels and other literary texts, letters, personal as well as public/civic essays, advertising, pamphlets, etc.). When it comes to a valid study of language, the sources, given the complex nature of that which binds us, are ubiquitous in our environment. In the latter half of the twentieth century, a new communication medium has been made available for use by the general public. This medium is the electronic medium -- cyberspace. In cyberspace, we use old technologies (mechanically typing on a keyboard) and new technologies (transmitting textual signals via electronic impulses across varying distances) to "talk" to another or others, using linguistic signifiers in familiar written forms in order to share experience, pose questions, speculate about answers, and test truths.
In cyberspace there's nothing inherently new or different about what we do with language or about why we do it. What is new and different, however, is the way we do it. In cyberspace, you see, communication is completely disembodied, like the written word, yet conversational, like oral speech. The human voice and its words, separated from the human body-which-voices, is transmitted alone thus bringing to bear upon the words themselves the burden of conveying meaning.
Similar to traditional text, electronic text is written rather than spoken. Thoughts have been languaged forth by their author, physically typed out on a keyboard, and then disseminated to another reader or readers over telephone lines linked to both the author's and the recipient's computer terminals. What is "received" appears then on a screen and looks for all the world like any other traditional text. Words flow from left to right and from top to bottom of the screen in an electronic simulation of words on paper. But these are not simply words on paper. Electronic text is not just a high-tech version of ink on paper. Electronic text is a hybrid form of writing -- somewhere between oral and written communication because the writing is interactive. Like the letter, an electronic message is intended to elicit a response from a reader. Unlike the letter, however, the response time can be dramatically reduced. Instead of waiting days for a response, one might be received within hours, minutes, or even seconds. In the case of synchronous connections, response is every bit as immediate as it would be in face-to-face oral conversation.
And actual response times aside, participants in electronic exchanges report the feeling of immediacy as if the medium creates the illusion that the writer's audience is receiving the text as it is written, reads it attentively, and responds immediately. Therefore, electronic text is less like traditional text than it is like a conversation, one that just happens to occur in writing.
Unlike conversation, however, there is no real face-to-face. In other words, all the non verbal communication signals that we count on when talking to someone are absent. We cannot, for example, see our interlocutor raise his eyebrows when we say something provocative. We cannot gauge his anger or his assent by the way he frowns, smiles, nods his head, or leans forward. Even more importantly, we cannot prejudice our interlocutor's words consciously or even unconsciously based upon powerful cultural stereotypes conveyed through visual media. We cannot know, for example, that the person "speaking" to us is black, white, Asian, or Hispanic. We cannot know if the person is fat or is skinny, is old or is young, or is disabled.
In the absence of these visual signals, even more weight lies on words themselves. In effect, all other dimensions of the communicative act are absent; the only dimension is the rhetorical dimension. The exchange between electronic rhetors, then, is a nearly pure exchange of rhetoric, of language - and it is a conversation made visible in text, thus subject to a more immediate observation and analysis and concomitant adjustments to rhetorical practice to affect better communication. The hybrid nature of electronic exchange places it squarely in a place between the familiar media of writing and speaking, and as in all between spaces, ruptures in convention occur which yield unpredicted communicative behaviors.
Drawing upon the work of Victor Turner and Mary Douglas and others, Ellen Strenski explores the unusual prolixity and emotional qualities of electronic exchanges between e-mailers, qualities that are characterized by spontaneity, lack of inhibition, association, and a frankly erotic appeal to the imagination. Comparing e-mail messages and the epistolary genre, Strenski notes that more is going on in the relationship between e-mailers than in relationships that exist between writers and readers of other traditional text forms. As with the letter, the receipt of an electronic message sets the stage for reciprocity; the message is received as a gift and an exchange economy is established. Response is invited, even expected. The pleasure felt by the recipient, a pleasure derived from the basic human desire for establishing relationship, prompts a response in kind. But e-mail exchange is not just a technologically advanced form of letter writing. It is, Strenski asserts, something much more. Electronic message exchange has a tendency to "collage" conventional forms of writing -- exposition and narrative, for example -- and to engage writers in a kind of metonymic, associative, and collaborative dream work. It is the hybrid qualities of both the genre and the medium that make electronic exchange of such compelling interest to participants and the rhetoric of compelling interest to scholars.
The disembodiedness of electronic discourse is a theme picked up by Nick Carbone who suggests that computer mediated communication changes in some fundamental way the "nature and tenor of human transactions. In "The Uses and Limits of Netiquette Guides in Attempting Civility on the Internet," Carbone turns his attention to the ever-growing market in Internet etiquette (netiquette) books and guides in an attempt to explain from a rhetorical perspective the overall failure of these guides to effect changes in the communication behaviors of electronic rhetors, especially their tendency to emotional display. In the absence of normal cues for communication, the text of an electronic exchange comes to be more closely identified with the writer herself -- again, the rhetorical dimension is the only dimension, and since the text is the only representation of the speaking subject, a negative response to ideas expressed in the text is often perceived as a negative response to the person herself. The same applies to positive responses. And while this is true of other written forms as well, electronic text is generally composed under circumstances in which the writer is not thinking of herself self-consciously as a writer nor is she working in a conventional genre or medium. More often than not, the person who composes electronically feels that what she represents in her words is her real self. Advice which fails to take into account the depth of emotional involvement with electronic discourse simply falls short of its intended mark by its cavalier disregard for the complexity of human interaction and context. Taking on guides that address matters of content as well as of style, Carbone asserts that considerations of rhetorical context and "the ebb and flow of comments that make of the conversation at hand" need to be taken more fully into account so that creative public thought is not smothered.
While the critical analyses of language use in complex situations is a matter of daily practice for most rhetoricians, the critical analysis of the absence of language is less a less common activity, a task made more daunting for the rhetorician by the almost unlimited possibilities for interpretation that can be read into gaps and silences in communication. Margaret Daisley in her analysis of the subject calls silence an enigma, and in her ethnographic study based on observations of a class in which electronic communication was a requirement, goes beyond conventional interpretations of silence as non-participation or marginalization to suggest that a broadening of our definition of literacy itself may be in order. Daisley's ethnography involved working with an innovative instructor and students in a 300-level course in management theory, a class linked electronically through CMC for conversations not only locally, within the class itself, but also across distance, linking this particular class with a class in information systems management on the campus of a university in another state. True to most ethnographic research, Daisley found that many pre-existing theoretical frameworks for understanding silence were of limited use and her observations suggested that care be taken to account for the observer's personal point of view, the "situated subject position." Thus, the ethnographic study detailed in "Silence. Silence! Silence? Silence . . ." presents a comprehensive account of electronic silence from the perspective of the researcher, the students, and the instructor.
As Daisley's work bears out, on-line ethnography can be a complicated affair too often informed by the researcher's personal CMC experience, assumptions she makes about how a CMC class might best be conducted, and assumptions she makes about students' motivations to participate. In this particular case, "unnatural" silences arose from several sources -- most notably the students' problems with computer access and the design of the course itself which did not actually require a high degree of on-line participation from students at either site. For many students, traditional media for communication (telephone and face-to-face) proved more expedient for the completion of assignments by posted deadlines meaning that silence on the network did not necessarily translate into an actual absence of verbal exchange. Other silences, however, were particularly noteworthy from a rhetorical perspective.
A "code of silence," for example, was often operative in on-line exchange -- a social imperative to keep quiet in public about inter-group conflicts and disagreements, to put the best face forward in the public on-line forum while negotiating differences in more traditional ways (or not at all). Further complicating the issue at hand is the fact that, as Daisley points out, silence in any instructional situation because it is associated with grades and assessment is bound to take on more than average an average degree of negative connotation. Unlike a casual exchange of electronic conversation between groups of people who "gather" voluntarily in virtual spaces for a salon experience, exchange in classroom CMCs is often informed by concerns about making right contributions framed in academically acceptable forms that more avoid negative public feedback than general response. It was the instructor's job to take the entire rhetorical situation into account then when evaluating individual students and the overall success of the course. Could silence be attributed to evaluation anxiety, to a form of "listening" behavior, to students' tacit knowledge, or to the formal structure of the course itself and its framework of requirements for on-line participation? The value of Daisley's work is that it is ultimately instructive for teachers and for researchers who work in electronic media; it broadens the scope of our understanding by demonstrating how complex issues work together to both stimulate on-line interaction as well as to silence it.
Very often, a common response writers have to CMC is intimidation. Most of us are by now familiar with the term technophobe and many of us, even veteran media users, have at one time felt like technophobes ourselves. While the mysteries of the technology itself intimidate novice users leading to "can't teach old dogs new tricks" fear, the rhetorical situations encountered in electronic communication can be intimidating in and of themselves. It is specifically the issue of rhetorical intimidation that Aletha Hendrickson addresses in her essay "The Intimidation of Cyberspace: From Cyberphobe to Cybermaster." Identifying three types of intimidation, top down, peer-to-peer, and bottom up, Hendrickson focuses on the psychological as well as technological causes of fear, and the fear-evoking rhetorical stimuli one is likely to encounter in CMC. In each of these categories of relationships between rhetors and audiences in cyberspace, the shifting roles of footing, casting, and face wants determine a writer's response to the medium. Citing for our edification numerous examples, some often familiar, Hendrickson concludes that cyber-intimidation can function in either the benign or destructive mode, empowering those who feel initial fear to adjust footing and faces wants in the interest of becoming active participants in electronic discourse communities, or leading in the worst case scenarios to defeat and marginalization.
One feature of CMC that many traditional academics and professionals may find intimidating is that getting in the proverbial "last word" on anything is nearly impossible. Electronic texts are by nature multivocal, responses can be practically instantaneous, and ideas often appear as quickly as they disappear. Discussions rarely reach closure on any topic and tangents are more the rule than the exception. While we are most familiar with media that broadcast information -- that is, they disseminate written or spoken language from a single source to the masses -- electronic communication is a distributive medium in which information is a many-to many affair. Mehlenbacher and Shamblin in their study of Multi-User Domains (MUDs) and electronic newspapers liken the one-to-many mode of traditional broadcast media to the old town crier, suggesting that the new electronic media signal the death of the town crier since "there are many voices contributing to the shared consciousness of the on-line community, but selection rests upon many rather than [one]." Members of on-line communities move away from considering facts per se as they attend more closely to general patterns of narrative which emerge in the course of exchange, a narrative which creates a common social mythos which develops organically through participation in the communicative life of the community.
According to Mehlenbacher and Shamblin, the on-line newspaper and MUDs become important sites for social gatherings in much the same way as the coffeehouse is an important site in the "real life" world. Drawing an analogy between real urban spaces from an architectural and urban planning perspective, they suggest that these new virtual environments are changing our protocols for information exchange and the formation of community relationships. Virtual learning environments under construction at North Carolina State University and other institutions offer electronic "citizens" opportunities to meet, socialize, as well as share ideas and information in facilities and rooms often elaborately described for participants in terms of locale, decor, physical relationship to other virtual rooms, etc.
These spaces, the authors conclude, are valuable for busy professionals in the contemporary work and learning worlds because they can be accessed with such relative ease. Yet, we are warned that such environments may be as easily used for ill as they can be for good -- airwaves can be "polluted" with useless chatter, real human isolation may increase rather than decrease as users spend more time in private spaces sitting before computer keyboards and monitors, and subversion and political intrigue can more easily proliferate in the absence of face-to-face social controls. We have yet to seen enough of these environments to conclude with any certainty that their positive features will outweigh the negative.
A matter of final concern in our study of the rhetorical dimensions of cyberspace is the rhetoric surrounding information technology and the electronic medium in general, rhetoric which often conveys either utopian or dystopian views. Seasoned users of electronic media as well as skeptics and "technophobes" are well aware of such rhetoric. On the one hand, proponents portray new technology as a panacea for woes besetting modern humans from education to social alienation. If only we'd all get on the internet, our classes would be more effective, more egalitarian, our social lives busy and fulfilling (at our convenience, of course). In addition, our society would experience a greater depth of democracy in the absence of those physical and materials constraints that often subject us to stereotype and prejudice. On the other hand, opponents view technology as a sinister force that will only further alienate us from one another and will endanger our society as literacy rates (a la Hirsch) plummet. Mark Mullen in this collection's final chapter, "The New Alchemy and the Discourse of National Consensus" addresses this particular kind of rhetoric and warns of troubles that arise when material concerns regarding the medium are dismissed as if technology is somehow separate from ourselves as users of technology.
In his discussion, Mullen draws on two seemingly disparate paradigms using metaphors of medieval alchemy as well a more modern framework, particularly the work of Donna Haraway. Of particular concern, especially for compositionists, is the position most often suggested by computer proponents that computer-mediated communications spaces are ideal democratic spaces simply because of the fact that they are "virtual" spaces, that they are "isolated from questions of access to information resources, knowledge of information procedures and the interaction of such technologies with our material existence." Mullen is wary about what he calls the "willful abandonment of the material world in favor of the virtual" because such abandonment ignores the fact that effects of use are at some point always conterminous with material human experience. The fact that some people are privileged with easy access while others are not is the most basic case in point. University professors (compositionists, for example, who are likely to make claims about the democratic nature of cyberspace) are more often than not provided with free and unlimited access through their institutions while an average citizen in the work force finds it difficult and expensive to access the Internet even moderately. Ignoring material conditions ultimately "undermines the possibility of an enhanced democracy resulting from information being freely available that often seems to underlie such unfettered optimism. Claims to "neutral use" for pedagogical purposes in the academy are particularly distressing because those claims are so deeply rooted within institutional politics and may simply reinscribe current institutional ideologies rather than call them into critical question.
A further paradox deserving of critical attention is the national move to set into place informational structures in the electronic media because the dissemination of information in multiple formats has become so expensive (newspapers, traditional print journals, card catalogues in libraries, large holdings of art in museums, etc.). Converting so much information into electronic formats to be accessed by computer, however, really makes less information available to the general public because the electronic media are too expensive for widespread public use. Information comes to be regarded as a valuable resource, but the resource is available to increasingly fewer people, a rather small elite whose material circumstances privilege them to make use of a "national" resource.
Mullen suggests that those of us who teach need to accept our responsibility as critical thinkers by stepping away from our often utopian enthusiasms to examine our own rhetoric in the light of material facts of classroom practice, socio-economic realities, and our place in the national scheme of things.
Thus, the rhetorical dimensions of cyberspace are many -- each of which has been too often overlooked in contemporary scholarship despite the fact that such study in the age of technology is imperative. We ourselves, our students, our business people, our government officials, and even our neighbors are increasingly going "on-line," spending more and more time immersed in virtual worlds whose only dimension is the rhetorical dimension. Contributors to the collection have bothered to be among the small number of those willing to take a critical look at what we're all doing and where we may be going.
Beth Baldwin &
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
August 1, 1996