The recent surge of interest in “machinic rhetorics” within rhetoric and communication fields has contributed to renewed attention being applied to algorithms as acting agents (or in Gregory Ulmer’s vocabulary, egents) within digital rhetorical ecologies. Largely fueled by increased focus on application and practice of buzzwords associated with new materialism, object-oriented ontology, and actor-network theory (among them network, ecological, hybrid, material and non-human agency), rhetoric scholars have consistently embraced new definitions of the role computer procedures play as actors within digital, political, shared online spaces. We’ve become so accustomed to prescribing unfettered agency to entities (itself an anthropocentric oxymoron that paradoxically can be valuable and generative of new conversation) previously excluded from the Kantian-Cartesian conception of subjectivity, so much so that it is no longer revolutionary for us to factor in the anthropocene as a moving, animate actor in world relations, as the renowned French sociologist Bruno Latour does in multiple places, most notably in his influential essay Agency in the Age of the Anthropocene. This is simply one example, of course, though it’s an important one. Another is the role of AI in how we view complex notions of authorship, rhetorical invention and the creation of digital artifacts. The principal concerns of object-oriented ontologies and speculative realism fields in relation to rhetorical studies has recently revolutionized how we view artificial intelligences as not only acting agents within complicated rhetorical ecologies, but also how we view and read them as fully-fledged rhetors with oftentimes oversized and underestimated influence on conversations with dire political, aesthetic, cultural and ecological implications. Indeed, it seems we may have reached the point in which the primary stakeholders in conversations like this one are no longer humans, but instead are Deluzian bodies without organs, beings comprising not only an integral part of digital rhetorical landscapes but rather the extended contours of the system itself.
The revolution of objects is nowhere near complete, but it unquestionably is no longer new. The novelty has worn off, even from just a few years ago when Timothy Morton inaugurated hyperobjects into our collective vocabularies, or when Jane Bennet did the same with vibrant matter. Philosophers, rhetors and scholars alike introduce objects alongside human and animal subjectivity, and the room doesn’t go quiet– they have become one and the same. Grant Bollmer, among others, positions the human as part, and the emphasis here is on part, of the incomprehensible material relations of the world. The human is only “embedded in” material relations, in a field formed of technologies, environments, networks, circulations, webs and systems (96). Humans are not self-determined actors “whose will calls the world into being.” Human agency takes its place alongside technology, a technology with the means to “shape subjectivity,” to position subjectivity as something shaped by material agency of non-humans. Along similar lines, N. Katherine Hayles imputes consciousness in addition to agency to plants, unicellular organisms, even finance trading algorithms, in Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Unconscious. Few squirm or breathe a rebuttal.
This ongoing conversation was invigorated back in 2014 by James J. Brown’s Philosophy & Rhetoric article “The Machine That Therefore I Am.” Brown provides an alternate definition of rhetoric that takes fully into account the emphasis on procedurality and input/output shared between algorithms and the available means of persuasion. Brown argues rhetoric as a “collection of machines for generating and interpreting arguments” (497). Rhetoricians never seem to tire of providing rhetoric new and provocative definitions, but the definition Brown provides offers something new– an understanding of the mechanics of rhetoric, the interpretive mechanisms within predictable, calculable procedures followed by rhetoric and rhetorical expression throughout history. Brown’s understanding is that an algorithmic conception of rhetoric can augment and supplement the operational logics and arts that have always formed persuasion, identification, style, etc. My understanding of Brown here is that he’s not really contributing a new interpretive mechanism as much as to a new perspective. If rhetoric really is a procedure of tools in a rhetor’s repertoire she/they/he must choose from in a given exigence, many will say our art is losing its ethical, judgemental, wisdom-concerned practice. An algorithmic conception threatens rhetoric’s heart, its intuition, its soul, really much of what Plato argued in the Gorgias that rhetoricians have been grappling with and defending ever since. My sense is that an algorithmic conception of rhetoric might in fact reinforce the positioning of rhetoric as techne, as a teachable and strategic practice. Brown, for his part, seems to share this view, commenting rhetoric to have benefited greatly from its history of inclusivity to the “robot rhetor” who “takes input, applies procedures, and generates output” (497). Finally, Matt King takes things even a bit further when he states “responsible rhetoric necessarily involves a consideration of multiple procedures and logics” on the ways that “different processes structure different attitudes, behavior, and subjectivities” (2010; my emphasis). Procedures and processes, both terms associated with algorithmic functioning, infuse into rhetoric the virus-like nature of the algorithm.
The conversation I’d like to enter into over the course of this blog post is one directly concerned with the above theoretical convictions covered under the heading of algorithms and rhetoric. Much has been written about rhetorical ecologies in recent years. As summarized by Nathaniel Rivers and Ryan Weber, scholarship and pedagogy benefits from “an expanded scope that views rhetorical action as emergent and enacted through a complex ecology of texts, writers, readers, institutions, objects, and history” (188). Rhetoric does not sit still. Discourse never springs up spontaneously, originating out of nowhere, but rather must always be authored, created, crafted. Contributors to rhetorical ecologies form a network in which every constituent helps to define the rest and the whole. These networks have always existed, but only in recent decades have jumped to the forefront of rhetorical theory in the humanities. Networks are of prime importance in the fields of digital rhetoric and communication. Most prominently, we find it in the form of rhetorical ecologies, many of which are now partially authored by AI, algorithmic software and other forms of intelligent machines.
In digital spheres, machines work alongside humans to inspire, create and construct worlds. As Brown points out, Wikipedia would be in shambles without intelligent bots making edits, complete with their own profile and history, alongside their human counterparts who move at only a fraction of their speed. The co-working spaces like this, the place of epistemological construction, cannot be understood until we place human and machine rhetors on equal planes. As we work alongside intelligent machines, a question stands out in my mind: When we “co-work” with algorithms, how ought we credit their work? While it’s no secret that algorithms oftentimes do the heavy lifting in the construction of digital projects, they are typically never conceived of or credited as authors or contributors. This, I think, is a shortcoming within our current understanding of rhetoric. It forms, I argue, one of many complaints algorithms have for their human coworkers as they knock on the metaphorical doors of the Human Resources office.
This conversation rises to the forefront of my mind after reading a provocative piece from Deloitte Insights. Clay Spinuzzi tackles the concept of co-working in “Working Alone, Together: Coworking as Emergent Collaborative Activity,” an ethnographic study of coworkers in physical places that I believe can be replicated, this time with machine actors re-positioned in the mid-ground and not the background within digital coworking spaces. Similarly, Stacey Pigg breaches the topic as well in Emplacing Mobile Computing Habits when she examines the spacial, mobile nature of modern “work,” which in her case study of typical students occurs not only in prescribed places such as the home, the bedroom, the university library, and the English department office, but also in multiple and various coffee shops, public parks, even seats on the bus. Workspaces, everchanging and elastic, change by the minute.
A blog post such as this one would not be possible without artificial intelligence, based on a number of factors. The prospect of converting those in industry, publishing, business, music, and other professional discourses that produce documents and discourses explicitly identifying “authors” to acknowledge the contributions machines play in their compositions seems unlikely. My question, then, is what can we in academia do to encourage these practices? Are we equipped within our current understandings of authorship, writing and composition to acknowledge algorithmic rhetors? How do we respond to the potential issues of coworking with machine actors, which inevitably will creep up? What happens when an algorithmic bot harasses a human co-worker? And when an algorithm begins to notice its own perceived mistreatment, perhaps at human hands or at the hands of other nonhumans within the dense rhetorical ecology? And when these issues begin to involve students? Can we ascribe affect to algorithms and other machinic rhetors? Are we in academia prepared at all to confront these challenges?