Brave New World (5): The Medium Matters

Throughout my review of the literature and my own daily experience, one theme has emerged as an umbrella over all the three aforementioned foci of research: the technology used to communicate plays a fundamental role when considering the rhetorical concept or theory to be applied.

Barbara Warnik (2005) calls for researchers in the field of new media rhetoric to propose new methods of study for the examination of electronic text rather than focus on methods that can be characterized as printcentric. She cites Aarseth’s research centering on the analysis of electronic text as an example of an innovative method. Aarseth contends that there is a fundamental difference between reading print based, or static, text and electronic text which bears the possibility of surprise directly related to the medium it resides in. He does not ascribe the action of reading electronic text to cognition but rather asserts that, “the cybertext user’s actions perform in an extranoematic sense in which the text is traversed through nontrivial (ergodic) effort”. (p. 327) Aarseth warns of the pitfalls related to employing traditional methods of literary criticism when describing the new participatory literature of electronic text because of the fundamentally different human processing that takes place.

In agreement with Aarseth and Warnik who both call for new methods of criticism, Katherine Hayles as cited in Warnik (2005), contends that the “material form of a medium affects the experience of reading and of using it”, and illustrates this by looking at different form and media factors such as an electronic book, an artist’s book, and a multi-layered print novel. Hayles advocates a “media specific analysis” in addition to an analysis of content and expressive style.

Warnik also includes Lev Manovich’s work on user perception and experience of digitized content. Manovich agrees with Warnik and cautions of using traditional criticism to interpret user behavior in digitized environments. He asserts that in stark contrast to the printed page, “the interface we experience is a mix between a set of controls and an immersive environment, between standardization and originality.” Manovich points out that rather than a consumer or reader, the individual becomes an active user. Both Warnik and Manovich predict that in the future even the stationary aspect of interaction will shift to a more mobile one. Of course we see this today as accepted reality.

Seamless mobility, the concept of always being connect anywhere we go, on any device, even on the go, has huge implications on the rhetoric used in these tools. The knowledge of ubiquitous access with no interruption when we cross from one network to another or when we jump from one transmission medium to another will give rise to usage models that we might not fathom right now. Conjuring them up, drawing up potential scenarios based on what we have seen with the emergence of the blog and the micro-blog, will prepare us better to integrate new technologies into our teaching practices to help prepare future ‘digital natives’ to become savvy digital explorers.

Warnik acknowledges that the effects of these many new media forms influence the rhetorical criticism of them as mentioned above but also the rhetoric associated with their production.  She sees these two aspects as highly related and emphasizes the need for the rhetorical analysis of electronic text to consider how the text was produced by the author(s), i.e.,  how it is designed, what is its purpose, what are the affordances, and what role does its changing nature play. (p. 329)

Customization and individualization of content afforded by the Internet also includes the rhetorical concept of audience. Warnik calls this the disaggregation of audience. Users see content that is served individually to them as opposed to a large audience. This ‘audience targeting’ has great implication on the production of content which needs to have the coded ability to be customized. Technological advances, such as faster connections to the Internet via the availability of higher bandwidth, allows for richer content, graphical and interactive, which has to potential to further change authorship and audience. (p. 330)

According to Warnik, considerations of production, audience, and consumption are vital in developing critical rhetorical theories of electronic text. Warnik seems very encouraged by the work that has been done but emphasizes the continued need for more research especially in the areas of media content development, production, and dissemination.

Reinsch and Turner (2006) outline the effects of communication technology on participants, employees in this case, in three sequential, connected, overlapping stages. (p. 342) A new technology, in the first of these stages, “enhances a worker’s efficiency by reducing inputs and increasing or improving outputs. […] Secondly, “as people explore a technology’s potentialities, they realize that it allows or even encourages alterations […] in tasks, and, consequently, in jobs.” The third stage, as described by Reinsch and Turner, is the individual’s adaptation to an environment profoundly reshaped by technology.

(Find the bibliography at


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