Understanding the Rhetoric of Technology

Dave Clark’s (2010) “Shaped and Shaping Tools: The Rhetorical Nature of Technical Communication Technologies” article is reminiscent of my Rhetorical Theory class as he examines the newest micro-blogging site, Twitter and rhetoric of technology. This is most interesting because I was working with an online media/SEO company when Twitter exploded online. Are there similar studies on the rhetoric of technology with other social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Pinterest? And how have these social media sites influenced digital rhetoric, genre and activity theories for technical communication? What is the importance of learning about new technology, Clark (2010) asks.

Learning and assessing new technology

How do we learn about new technology? This was one of the first questions asked in English 745 and we were asked to identify ourselves as early adopters, medium adopters or late adopters. Where did you put yourself in this range? Clark (2010) asks the reader “what it might mean to be a literate user of Twitter (or any other type technology)” (p. 86). What do professionals expect technical communicators to know about technology? How can we transfer and apply this knowledge in the appropriate environment?

To understand technology, Clark (2010) says we must also understand the rhetoric and analyze the research. Clark (2010) categorizes his approach to explain the “rhetoric of technology into four groups: rhetorical analysis, technology transfer, genre theory, and activity theory” (p. 92). I’ll examine the first two groups below.

rhetoric reflections

Rhetoric tag cloud. Retrieved from http://kmnunez93.wix.com (another blog of interest).

Rhetorical analysis of technology is relatively new and should not be compared to rhetoric of science since it has its own foundations. However, it’s a good place to start. Clark (2010) cites Robert Johnson’s premise that

“as a field we must argue for a rhetorical approach to technological design and implementation that places users, rather than systems, at the center of our focus, and that we have ethical and cultural responsibility to learn and argue for collaborative approaches to technology design” (p.93).

There’s more than using technology like Twitter (or Facebook, etc.), we must also analyze the design and ethical responsibilities of its use. (Johnson’s book, User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts (1998) can be a difficult read, but insightful how technology is not always user-centered.) This is difficult to digest at first – understanding technology design for rhetoric and ethical practices for the user. However, if we understand that technology is constantly changing and improving then we can become more cognizant of new technology design and its effects on the user.

The second category Clark (2010) discusses is “technology transfer,” the movement of an engineer’s idea from desk to putting it into public use. Notably of importance to technical communicators, Clark (2010), states they are “constantly expected to design, evaluate, document, and implement new technologies” (p. 94).

stop sign


This is the answer to Clark’s (2010) primary question. Before we can design and implement new technology, we must be able to understand previous technology, document the success and pitfalls and evaluate to improve it. However, technology transfer must also be “negotiated, constructed, and reconstructed in the minds of the participants” according to Doheny-Farina in Clark’s (2010) research (p. 95). I’m still digesting this concept. I remember when Twitter was new and users were experimenting with all the features and everyone was tweeting anything that came to mind, hence, no filters were on. Then in 2010, Twitter announces that it will supply an archive of tweets to the Library of Congress (About.Twitter.com). Yikes!! Filters applied. What can technical communicators infer and learn from this rhetoric of technology?

Final Thoughts

The discussion on genre and activity theories is very interesting and I would like to write about both of them in a separate post. Overall, the rhetoric of technology needs further examination and discussion to understand its implications, our responsibilities, and other theories.

Posted on October 2, 2016, in Technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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