Utilitarianism and Technology?

As I read Dave Clark’s “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” I was immediately brought back to rhetorical theory class with Dr. Dana Heller at Old Dominion University. I envisioned the chalkboard (yes, that long ago!) with drawing about sign, symbol and signifier of de Saussure  and interpretrent, representamen and object of Charles Sanders Pierce.




Of course, I teach my students how to write a rhetorical analysis in some of my composition classes, but we usually don’t delve into theory, so I enjoyed reading about it again in another graduate class, albeit 20 years later, and to learn about applying it to technologies. According to Clark,  rhetorical  analysis is “a loose grouping of related types of work that share a common goal: complicating common-sense understandings of technologies by analyzing them from a variety of rhetorical perspectives that demonstrate their immersion in social and rhetorical perspectives that demonstrate their immersion in social and rhetorical processes” ( 2010, pg. 92-3). Clark discusses how the classical rhetorical approach can be effective; however “Johnson suggests that as a field we must argue for a rhetorical approach to technological design and implementation that places the users, rather than the systems, at the center of our focus. . .(2010, p. 93). I agree, for when I teach my students about technical writing, I  have them focus on audience, purpose and context. This line of thinking done before drafting is similar to one who designs and builds technology. Those designers must consider the user, their purpose and the context of which they will use that technology. When I have my students write website reviews, they critique the design, function, userability, etc. as it relates to the user. These reviews are written for a website designer in order to make the website more appealing and functional for the users.

If one is going to create technology, it is only logical to consider the audience who will use that technology, how they will use that technology and with whom they will use that technology. Therefore, activity theory considers groups and individuals who “are analyzed with a triangular approach that emphasizes the multidirectional interconnections among subjects, the mediational means or the tools they use to take action and the object or problem space on which the subject acts” (Clark, 2010, 98-99).

So, since technology emerged and reshaped man’s ability to communicate and complete tasks, the rhetoric of technology had to emerge and be shaped to meet the more complex world we live in.  There is an obvious correlation between classic rhetorical theory and activity theory of technology today.activity_theory_triangle_engestrom


Technology today is embedded in our lives and we need to examine the contexts in which we rely on them in order to understand, assess and design them in order for ease and use of their users.

Posted on November 6, 2017, in Literacy, Teaching, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I was happy when I posted this yesterday since I didn’t wait until the last minute. However, it apparently wasn’t completely published.

  2. I like that you focus on audience, purpose and context when teaching about technical writing. This has strong connections in the workplace as well. If the content doesn’t match the situation then we really need to rethink what we are trying to accomplish. I think about when I am creating content at work. Most frequently I am writing an email trying to convey regulations and requirements to the entity that is doing the work. Thinking about the specific audience is always critical because if I give veterans too simplistic and wordy instructions they would simply skip over the content. However, if I gave someone new to their job really condensed instructions full of acronyms they would be more likely to have issues understanding the content.

    • Good example Lynn. Thank you for sharing. Students do struggle to see I am not necessarily their audience though I am grading their writing.

  3. Great post! As someone who still teaches freshman comp, I’m most intrigued by your point that you’re enjoying reading about rhetorical theory 20 years after that first course.
    What I mean is, I often wonder how long it takes these lessons on audience, etc. to sink in or how long after graduation it takes students [non-English majors, in particular] to realize how important writing and speaking well will be, no matter what their career!

    • I am one of the oddballs who enjoyed rhetorical theory! Theory in general intrigues me since lines are blurred so we can re-shape, re-define and re-wire how we see.

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