Kairos 13.2: Praxis - Productive Mess: Theoretical Support

Theoretical Support

The New of New Media

James Porter (2003) wrote:

[T]he computer per se is not the revolutionary technology. Rather the revolution is the networked computer and the social/rhetorical contexts it creates and the way its use impacts publishing practices. All that is revolutionary. (p. 385)

Though Porter emphasizes the social revolution of networked technology, many attempts to incorporate new virtual writing spaces into the composition classroom have failed to generate or account for the unique social dynamics that such environments make possible. To examine these dynamics, we designed an electronic environment that fosters previously impossible inter-classroom interactions as students rewrite the relationships between virtual and physical classroom space.

Engaging Network and Complexity Theory

This project began as an extension of Porter's proposition: By increasing the quantity and frequency of our social contacts, the Internet makes a major contribution to the development of a more complicated rhetorical world. Writers (and rhetors of all media) no longer can assume the kind of autonomy or isolation proposed by Walter Ong (1975) in "The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction." Ong wrote:

[S]pecial cases apart, the person to whom the writer addresses himself normally is not present at all. Moreover, with certain special exceptions such as those just suggested, he must not be present. I am writing a book which will be read by thousands, or, I modestly hope, by tens of thousands. So, please, get out of the room. I want to be alone. Writing normally calls for some kind of withdrawal. (p. 10)

While we wish no disrespect to Ong, we do believe the dominant stage for social writing has changed drastically. Though not physically present, digital audiences share an extreme proximity with authors; audiences are present throughout the entire composing process. Thus, our inner Ong narrates a different expectation: I am writing a post which will hopefully be read by hundreds, or, I modestly hope, thousands. Please, post a response (a gift of attention). Bestow me your cooperation (though not necessarily your agreement). What we hope to demonstrate is that the digital writer manages agonism throughout the writing process (experienced as the audience's looming ability to respond). Readers are no longer as distant in time and space as Ong imagined them (see Ong, 1975, p. 10). While Ong could imagine fictionalized audiences at a safe distance, the digital writer acknowledges an audience right in front of her ready, with the click of a button, to post a response, to interject an "or."

Changes to the writer/audience relationship reflect the broader cultural changes described by complexity theorists such as Mark C. Taylor (2001). Particularly relevant is Taylor's description in The Moment of Complexity of the larger paradigm shift represented by the movement from the Berlin Wall of the Cold War to the new entanglement of the interweb:

Whereas walls divide and seclude in an effort to impose order and control, webs link and relate, entangling everyone in multiple, mutating, and mutually defining connections in which nobody is really in control. As connections proliferate, chance accelerates, bringing everything to the edge of chaos. This is the moment of complexity. (p. 23)

Taylor stressed, and we agree with him, that the point is not to shy away from this complexity—not to try to impose an order upon it. Complexity theory, however, is not about anarchy; it is about tapping into the productive possibilities such connections make. Put simply, good things happen if we open ourselves and adapt our production methods to the accelerating force of complexity. Kevin Kelly (2007), a digital theorist and journalist who wrote "New Rules for the New Economy," explained:

Mathematics says the sum value of a network increases as the square of the number of members. In other words, as the number of nodes in a network increases arithmetically, the value of the network increases exponentially. (p. 2)

Our goal, then, was simple: Could we tap sections of first-year composition into this exponetial potential of networks? Can invention operate as a chaotic, group activity? What steps do we have to take to make this productive, to keep our classes close to, but not over the edge of, chaos?

“Reputation Systems”

If Taylor’s and Kelly’s theorizing bring us to the edge of chaos, it is reputation systems, as described by media theorist Howard Rheingold (2002), that maintain the complex tension between chaos and order and that allow us, as Katherine Hayles (1997) has written, to “ride the cusp” (para. 7). In order to skirt chaos while still maintaining productive conversations, which while necessarily interminable must have terms for order, reputation systems allow order (however temporary and contingent) to emerge from apparent chaos. Rheingold’s notion of reputation systems closely resembles the rhetorical concept of ethos. Ethos is classically conceived as the appeal of the speaker. Additionally, ethos is seen by many as emerging in the moment of discourse. That is, ethos is formed kairotically. Rheingold’s reputation systems develop in much the same way, and Rheingold sees them as tied to particular contexts. Important to our project, reputation systems maintain and manage such complexity, not through top-down enforcement, but rather a bottom-up contextual emergence of accountability measures: With reputation systems, cooperation emerges and cannot be imposed. Rheingold has argued “reputation is the secret ingredient in cooperation' (p. 128), and as we will also discuss, certain student posts received more attention than others. We could not have controlled such developments, nor did we particularly want to. We worked, in line with complexity theory, to create conditions out of which a student-driven order would emerge from the chaos and complexity of the online environment. Who can I trust? What information is to be considered credible in this context? Which launch posts will allow me to write a good response post?

We were also inspired by the rhetorical possibilities of reputation systems implied in the following question posed by Rheingold:

Are reputation systems useful tricks for book-buying and online auctions but ultimately incapable of mediating more complex social dilemmas? Or will reputation systems evolve into far more sophisticated social accounting systems? (p. 126)

Rheingold primarily discussed reputation systems in terms of e-commerce, as this quotation suggests, but this particular quotation suggested to us, and experiences confirmed to an extent, that such systems, highly rhetorical as they are, do offer timely, situated, sophisticated, and ethical systems for maintaining a contingent order at the edge of chaos. In complex systems (from e-commerce, to digital classrooms, to democracies), any order imposed in a top-down fashion is destined to fail. In ever-shifting environments, accountability must be maintained (kairotically) within the networks and not from without and for all time. Emergent systems like Rheingold’s reputation systems keep us, in the words of Kenneth Burke (1935), “nervously loquacious at the edge of an abyss” (p. 272). We flirt with chaos constantly, held back only by the temporary structures that emerge in the moment.

Distributed Cognitive Systems

Arguing in Natural Born Cyborgs that “minds like ours were made for mergers” (p. 7), Andy Clark (2003) proved vital in our theorizing of and planning for this project. Breaking from the Cartesian model of “brains in a vat,” Clark argued that human cognition takes place beyond what he humorously refers to as the “skin-bag” (p. 27). Human cognition, for Clark, is distributed across our brains, our bodies, and our environments, for instance in how we use pencils, paper, and calculators in solving math problems. That is, for Clark, we offload the work of cognition onto the environment.

Additionally, Clark argued we are active in the construction of these “smart environments,” as he calls them: We produce, in other words, environments that allow us to think “better.” This statement serves as another grounding point for our project. We wanted to create a digital smart environment where students could work together in order to think together, sharing the burden of cognition as they tackled one of oldest and most important issues: the purpose(s) of education.