Classical Rhetoric Up In Smoke: Cool Persuasion, Digital Ethos, and Online Advocacy

by Mark D. Pepper | Utah Valley University

woman staring at television screen in store
Burning Cigarette

Cool Ethos: Just Be Cool

When cool is thought of as both an ethos of and an ethos against information, we are forced to not only reconsider what ethos means in the information age; additionally, we must consider what role cool plays as a method of persuasion in digital space. However, traditional "persuasion" is hardly the appropriate word. Cool is ultimately a form of anti-persuasion–persuasion that jettisons the quality of information for the cool moment of the self-awareness of information and interface.

Cool Information and Cool Attention

Alan Liu (2004) is one author on the forefront of exploring how cool operates in our current cultural context, even if he certainly has his critics. His book, The Laws of Cool, explained how with our techno rituals of accessing, producing, and entertaining ourselves with digital information, cool became a stance or approach to living in such a world. In his own work, Jeff Rice (2007) was correct; it's not a stance that Liu is exactly championing. Nonetheless, Liu's linking of cool with a digital ethos of information is a rich section of his lengthy book that provides a segue into my own exploration of how digital interfaces can operate as method of anti-persuasion–persuasion (or even an anti-rhetoric–rhetoric).

Ethos, as millions of first-year composition students could probably tell you, is essentially an argument from authority. Building an ethos requires getting an audience to think the speaker is the kind of person that will tell the truth and is worthy of credence. S. Michael Halloran (1982) pointed out that the word itself comes from the Greek lexicon meaning "a habitual gathering place" (p. 60). This is an important part of the definition, for Aristotle (2007) was careful to point out that ethos must ultimately be judged in the eyes of the audience. Perhaps more than any of the three pistis, ethos is a complex dance between speaker and audience. Of course, in Aristotle's time, much rhetorical deliberation literally happened in public places where citizens gathered en masse.

various social media iconsIn the information age, it's not too much of a leap to suggest that the web now represents this "habitual gathering place" that Halloran (1982) suggested is the core of ethos construction. Teenagers and adults alike have especially demonstrated a penchant to gather and form communities across the web—a fact easily demonstrated by the quick rise (and fall and replacement) of social networks sites like Friendster, Xanga, Myspace, and Facebook over the past decade. The success of newer additions like Tumblr and Pinterest suggest a continued demand for digital gathering places where the sharing of information is, at their core, their raison d'être. However, the sharing of information is obviously not a neutral event on either the sharing or reception side; the social life of information (to borrow a term from John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, 2000) is obviously a rhetorical process.

I'm not directly interested in the aforementioned social networks so much as social advocacy sites and organizations that have followed their leads, at least in regards to the cooling of information. As I've already discussed with Dick Pountain and David Robins (2000), understanding cool is to also become comfortable with contradictions. Liu (2004) took up these contradictions and even suggested that cool is primarily "the aporia of information" (p. 179), suggesting an unsolvable puzzle or something worthy of skepticism and doubt. However, Liu's definition of cool, especially in regards to information and digital interfaces, is much more complex than this.

First, Liu (2004) described cool as an ethos of information, defined as:

the moment of tricky reversal when we see that interfaces are always two-sided . . . the user throws his or her point of view ventriloquially outward into the realm of information and from there peers inward back through the interface at his or her own awareness of the information. (p. 184)

In other words, cool is a way of looking at ourselves (and feeling validated) by the very act of looking at information. Pountain and Robins's (2000) focus on the narcissism of cool is readily apparent in this definition, and throughout this text I will highlight how detachment and hedonism also play a role.

Ethos of   Information
two reflective spheres with the image of a man taking a photo in them
Two Sides

An interface can be stared into but can also be seen as two-sided. The interface can also be a vantage point from which to look back upon ourselves.

Artist's rendition of a soul being sucked into a computer screen
Going In

We send our attention into the computer interface. Though our attention may be divided amongst multiple tabs and activities, we find ourselves often wholly consumed.

A man taking a photo of himself on a computer screen through cam
Staring Back

When we see something that pleases or flatters us, we feel validated for the attention we gave it. This is the moment of cool. With so many potential distractions, we are cool for noticing the specialness of the thing that caused us to pause and focus.

At the same time, Liu (2004) defined cool as an ethos against information where the "schema of useful versus useless [information] is inadequate, for it is the uselessness of useful information upon which cool rings the changes" (p. 186).

Cool does not need to balance this contradiction. With information cool's emphasis on technology and design, it at once "masquerades as information" and simultaneously "prettily subverts information" (p. 192).

Ethos Against   Information
Screenshot from the
Ironic Detachment

The Onion is the website of a popular satire organization that parodies national and international news. Though the topics of their satire often concern useful information, The Onion is cool since their humorous approach allows them to invest in serious topics without appearing like they are investing. One does not need their finger on the pulse of cool to realize that "straight" news sites can rarely make claim to any kind of cool status. A similar example is Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, who constantly insists the show is not "real news" despite many people insisting the show's writers offer better coverage than the major networks.

screenshot from the colour clock website
Useless Usefulness

The Colour Clock is a simple website. The entire screen is taken up by a display of the current time. The background color shifts every few seconds. If you click on a button, the time will shift to the Hexadecimal value of the color currently displayed. Time is useful information. Hexadecimal values are useful for web designers. However, there are likely better places to find both than this website . . . hence its coolness. The site, and the way it chooses to convey information, exists merely because it can. The design suggests: "Look at me, notice me, and celebrate how ultimately the design is really all that matters."

screenshot from listen to wikipedia
The "Wow" Factor

"Listen to Wikipedia" showcases real time edits to Wikipedia that are set to ambient music with each new edit appearing on screen with a musical ping and accompanying circle (much like a water droplet falling into a pond). With this pretty and mesmerizing display, it's not hard to listen and watch the edits for a long time without growing bored (your personal mileage may very). Does anyone need to know exactly when someone edits the "List of Supermarket Chains in Estonia" page? Probably not. Nevertheless, the site is cool precisely because that doesn't matter. The point of the interface is to be "wowed" by the mere fact that someone went out and created it for your amusement and entertainment.

In his critique of Liu (2004), Rice (2007) seemed to ignore the complexity added to the concept of cool that is gained by exploring the theoretical concept of information itself. Information theory comes from a long line of thinkers from anthropologist Gregory Bateson to mathematician Claude Shannon. Bateson (1979) provided a quick definition, calling information "difference that makes a difference" and therefore a "function of differential inscription" (p. 453). Therefore, a dictionary definition of information that settles for something like "a received message conveyed through symbols" is inadequate and so broad as to be useless. Information is subjectively observed difference amongst a sea of potential sameness that causes the observer to note relevance or application. This highlights the importance of subjectivity to information; it's not information if it makes no difference to the observer. Further, this implies that information is never static or pre-defined. Though this article might be information to you upon a first read (the author humbly hopes), a subsequent read cannot possibly have the same effect. Even if the article is still useful, it will never again be something completely different. However, if a subsequent read occurs in a context that makes you see this article in a new light (perhaps after reading something else dealing with similar themes), then this text may become information again.

But this article can only be information when you have the option to see it as non-information. For Claude Shannon (Shannon & Weaver, 1949), the father of information theory, the defining feature of information is the process of selection from possibilities. Information is not "the individual messages . . . but rather the situation as a whole, the unit of information indicating that in this situation one has an amount of freedom of choice" (p. 100). The important take away from Shannon's work is that information is not about meaning. If we start considering the accuracy, style, or presentation of individual piece of information (which as rhetoricians, we constantly do) then we're no longer dealing with information on its own terms. What matters is the degree to which an observer has the ability to make choices about what will or will not matter to them. From this point of view, Rice's (2007) suggestion that cool "hinders the production of information" is problematic (p. 5). The production of information can not be hindered as long as a network or system offers its observers enough choices to make. What might be hindered is a certain type or quality of information; however, by the standards of information theory, this isn't a valid concern. And as we'll see, this certainly isn't a concern of cool as I will show it.

In his work, The Moment of Complexity, Mark C. Taylor (2001) aptly summarized the delicate balance implied by this degree of choice:

the domain of information lies between too little and too much information. On the one hand, information is a difference and, therefore, in the absence of difference, there is no information. On the other hand, information is a difference that makes a difference. Not all differences make a difference because some differences are indifferent and hence inconsequential. Both too little and too much information creates chaos. (p. 110)

This notion of too little or too much information is fundamentally important to understanding how cool ethos can be used as a method of anti-persuasion–persuasion. Information must be defined with the possibility of non-information or information would never come to fruition—the cohesiveness of the individual, the network, or the system, would be at the mercy of anything that comes its way without any method of filtering. Of course, what's information in one context is going to be noise in another context and vice versa. The difference lies in observers deciding what does or does not make a difference to them. Difference does not make a difference (i.e., come to matter) based on a quality (accuracy, truthfulness, helpfulness) of the information. Remember, as Shannon (Shannon & Weaver, 1949) suggested, information is not about meaning; rather, information is primarily concerned with the mere possibility of selection from choices.

Cool, then, is an attitude where attention to choices within a wealth of possibilities, and the self-awareness of that attention, is more valuable and satisfying than any value the information itself may contain. Cool is the paradoxical creation of a difference that makes a difference only by noting how that difference comes into being only because it doesn't really make a difference.


Put differently, if information must be defined with the possibility of non-information, cool flips the script and decrees that non-information (lack of making a difference) is the most important difference possible because the individual's awareness of how much it doesn't matter is all that really matters.

With all the definitions of "cool" touched upon, we have to ask: How would cool persuasion operate and what is its relation to digital ethos? Is persuasion through cool even possible, or is it doomed to backfire on itself for bothering to care? Does persuasion through cool imply a tacit acceptance of information's failure to persuade people into action and a simultaneous rejection of persuasion's need for extended logic and reasoning? If so, what are the ramifications of this fallout for digital texts? Is cool (as Rice, 2007, and Liu, 2004, seemed to debate) worth exploring or avoiding? The website analyzed under my "The 'Truth'" heading seems to dive into these questions. Their course through this aporia of cool is primarily a radical redefining of ethos which tries to orchestrate social change by focusing on indirect means of anti-persuasion–persuasion that flatter the audience's attention through a carefully constructed digital interface. is worth analyzing because their notion of the best means for persuasion offers a snapshot of a cultural moment where the use of information design and digital, cool ethos are making commonplace notions of persuasion increasingly, well, not cool.

Go to The Site
Site Coded With Notepad ++ | HTML 5 Valid | Most Images Use Creative Commons License | Supercool

Kairos toolbar: click to return to Kairos home