Digital Rhetoric by Elizabeth Losh

As Andrea Lunsford has observed, there are many definitions of rhetoric.  Interpretations of rhetoric that are concerned with the art of persuasion often look to some of the first comprehensive guidelines for effective communication established in Aristotle's Rhetoric.  In the classical tradition, many other thinkers believed that rhetoric was integral to good governance and a process of discursive interactions in public life that encouraged collective practices of critical thinking.


Analyzing digital rhetoric has obvious pedagogical value.  In essays like "Digital Rhetoric and the Digital Arts" (1993), Richard Lanham alerts decision-makers in higher education to the importance of providing training for composition in new digital media. Hawisher and Moran (1993) similarly argue that teaching e-mail as a vital written genre should also not be overlooked by instructors; they emphasize using an "apprenticeship model" for learning these skills.   More recently, James Paul Gee (2003) has claimed that video games not only represent the acquisition of new forms of literacy in virtual worlds but also offer a paradigm for more effective teaching.

Digital rhetoric also matters because rapid communication via networked channels can avert disasters and publicize wrongdoing.  Just as Edward Tufte argues that the Challenger space shuttle crash could have been averted with a better visual display of data (and the Columbia disaster was helped along by a defective PowerPoint demonstration), I argue that electronic miscommunication plays a significant role in many public policy mistakes and scandals.

Digital rhetoric includes many new genres, such as webpages and e-mail.   These new genres often have already developed specific conventions for discourse, as the emergence of web style guides or guides to netiquette shows (and parody websites and intentionally bad slides that display a multiplicity of rhetorical and design gaffes). 
Still newer genres are  developing with their intrinsically rhetorical character in mind, as webpages about the design principles of wikis or the rhetorical analysis of blogs seems to demonstrate.  (See this talk I gave on blogs and wikis for more.)

PowerPoint presents an interesting case for competing rhetorical analysesDavid Byrne argues that PowerPoint has its own aesthetic value, while skeptics like Tufte disagree.  How can such a pre-packaged form of presentation replace the traditional arts of oratory, epitomized by the Gettysburg Address?   Certainly Peter Norvig's satire and John Raffensperger's elegy use PowerPoint with the Great Emancipator's famous speech to radically different ends.

E-politics is also an important component of digital rhetoric, because networked communication in digital media provides a new forum for debate and dissent.  
For example, digital artists Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin are interested in how virtual crowds generate political speech in chatrooms.   My own research on political theater focuses on political websites and on the ideological constructs of "speaker" and "audience" in hypertext.

There are many
hoax websites and wiki pages are subject to vandalism, so it can be difficult to locate an "authentic" voice of public authority


Finally, it is important to keep in mind that we are a long way from teledemocracy.   Even the status of of the Internet as a site of the public sphere or of virtual community is open to debate (M. Poster, 1995). 


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