Our Corporate Overlords, Tech and Society

Groundwork to a Rhetoric of Technology

I recently had the opportunity to learn about a field known as the “rhetoric of science,” which is the study of the discourse around scientific topics. While the word “rhetoric” is often thought of as a pejorative, here it is a neutral term that broadly describes how we go about trying to persuade each other to a point of view using words and, quite often, do so by targeting emotions and assumptions. Each of us uses rhetoric pretty much daily; from technical arguments about politics, to mundane negotiations about household responsibilities. We spend a great deal of time in conversation “making a point,” which is another way of saying that we try to persuade others that we’re right about something. In studying the rhetoric of science, scholars seek to understand how science is described, debated, and understood (and frequently misunderstood). Rhetorics of science frequently affect how specific research or an entire science is perceived, and it can affect how future work is conducted. An example is the examination of how topics like climate change and human evolution, both of which are firmly settled questions within the scientific community, have been successfully portrayed by activists as ongoing debates. Another example is the study of how simple metaphors are used to describe deeply technical topics like genomics. (Is DNA really a “map” or a “blueprint” of a gene?) Consider the recent controversy concerning Planned Parenthood and the alleged sale of fetal tissue to researchers for profit. A fiercely politicized discourse has been employed to depict a fairly routine activity—the use of human tissue for research—as something deeply nefarious. The rhetoric of science is a fascinating research area, one that we are all engaged in whenever we consume media on scientific topics, which happens with increasing frequency thanks to the ease with which information and misinformation rapidly spreads via social media and cable news programs.

My brief introduction to the rhetoric of science caused me to redirect my thinking about how we talk about information systems and technology. If you know me or have been reading this blog, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I have been labeled a technology “skeptic.” There’s an example of a rhetorical move right there. I think “skeptic”—which has a mix of connotations, some of them pretty negative—isn’t quite the right word. What I feel is that common portrayals of modern technology in our public discourse lack a satisfying amount of questioning and thoughtfulness. This shouldn’t be too surprising since, after all, most of what we hear about popular technologies comes, either directly or through proxies, from the giant corporations that make them. We learn most of what we know about iPhones from Apple (and its many allies), social media from Facebook (and its many admirers), and so on. Those who craft the messages we most often hear on these topics exploit the fact that most of us are readily impressed by sleek designs and technological novelty. While the twittersphere may contain an abundance of contrarian voices on technology topics, you kind of have to want to hear them to find them, and even then, credibility is hard to establish. It’s easy to dismiss critics as uninformed, puritanical, or simply “no fun” (consider this blog, for example). I think it’s safe to say that the most consistent and well-crafted information we hear about most technologies comes from marketers. Whether it arrives in the form of a slick advertisement, or through something more viral, like blog posts and cable news appearances by various spokespersons and consultants, the major channels of communication still favor those with the deepest pockets and largest marketing infrastructures. There are people who get paid really well to spin great stories about a direct link between new technologies and human flourishing and they do it very well. Even seemingly neutral information sources like news programs often lack introspection; favoring instead to offer breathless “reviews” of new technologies that fail to offer criticism that might alienate an audience that is generally awestruck by the latest gadgets and apps.

What I’m planning to do with all this is to start looking at some of the common tropes and stylistic moves that tech-evangelists use to convince their audiences about the seeming promise and inevitability of tech-mediated living. Examining the metaphors is one way to do this. Words like “interactive” and “disruptive” deserve closer inspection. So does the term “social media” for that matter. In each case, we should be asking, what do these words mean to an audience? And do they accurately describe the states and changes they are employed to describe? The use of terms that invoke freedom and choice have a long history of association with market based thinking, and have become even more pervasive in the rhetoric of Silicon Valley. What is a “free” app exactly? What range of “choices” do we actually have in selecting and using information technology?

My main concern is that as we move from living and interacting in physical space and in real time—on the street, in the park, in the auditorium—to online existences where we interact using social media, augmented reality, gaming, and so on, that we are moving into spaces not only mediated by technology, but easily manipulated by the corporations that make the technology. Interactive spaces made by corporations are not agenda-less spaces. They contain (and are) rhertorics designed to persuade. One look at the default screen of an iPhone offers numerous clues as to the priorities of Apple, which likely do not conform entirely to yours. Wherever possible, companies that can hold your attention will seek to convince you to use more of their products and services and, as often as possible, will reinforce their tech-focused, consumerist worldviews. As more and more of the information we receive is “curated” for us by the algorithms that select, say, your personalized Google search results, there is a real risk that powerful voices will dominate and hijack your access to information. Consider for a moment what could happen if Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, decided that he really wanted Donald Trump to be the next president. How much tinkering would it take to subtly change your search results to present the most sympathetic accounts of Trump and his views? Technology companies have access to enormously powerful rhetorical tools. Our actual freedoms and choices may well depend on how attentive and aware we are of that.

This is a topic I plan to return to. For now, I invite you to do what I’m doing, which is to listen closely to the words that get used in any conversation about information systems and technology (including mine) and seek out the meta in the conversation. What shorthand is used to describe complex, socially impactful developments? How are contrary voices characterized? You may start to make some very interesting observations. You may find yourself becoming something of a critic. Who knows? You might even become a “Luddite.”

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2 thoughts on “Groundwork to a Rhetoric of Technology

  1. Though I wasn’t able to confirm this, I think that the pejorative understanding of the word rhetoric is fairly modern. Rhetoric has a long proud history dating back to the Greeks, but you know that. I think how the term is understood by the populace as a whole underscores the point of this piece.
    Any form of media can be used – and usually is – to ‘shape’ the consumer’s opinion. “Yellow journalism” in the newspaper industry being one case in point. Modern tech didn’t invent it, but has sprinboarded off the shoulders of centuries of “messaging”.
    However, the speed of our modern technology to desiminate information is what can be troublesome. Misinformation, and hate speech are no longer contained within a group, ebbing outward like the ripples of a puddle, but now spread globally within hours. As you said, it behooves us to be critical thinkers more than ever.

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    • It’s true that we encounter and negotiate our way through rhetorics every day, reading news, opinion, consuming ads, etc. And whereas there were, not very long ago, fairly few information sources to choose from, each with a fairly distinct and learnable rhetorical style, online each of us encounters scores of them daily, making the task of deciphering the conversation going on underneath the main conversation all the more challenging.

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