Electric Rhetoric – A New Literacy

Electronic technologies have led to electronic consciousness, an awareness or mentalité that now changes literacy but in no way diminishes it. (104)

Welch, Kathleen E. Electric Rhetoric: Classical Rhetoric, Oralism, and a New Literacy. The MIT Press, 1999.

Welch begins this work noting that computer screens dominate the workplace and other key places in our daily lives, and this was published in 1999. Today, we interact with screens even more so with touch-screen payment systems, watches, menus, and of course our cell-phones, which now perform virtually any online task we desire. She goes on to discuss how the use of video is used in many beneficial ways, exampling its use in the medical industry. These conditions of our current use of the internet, static and interactive screens, and video have created a literacy that previous generations did not posses. It is important, here to define literacy for this discussion and to clarify that it does not merely refer to an ability to read and write or to simply understand the technology. Welch defines literacy as follows:

… not just the functional ability to write and read. … I also mean an activity of inherently verbal minds conditioned within and sometimes against specific cultures, all of which have oral/aural structures of articulation – especially in writing and speaking – and most of which have merged these structures within structures based on literacy in the sense of consciousness/mentalite. Our own structures of discourse are now propelled by the electronic forms of discourse, particularly on the screens of computers and the screens and speakers of television.”

To this last point, I would also include the speakers of the computer as just important and, in the mere decade since Welch wrote this work, have become equally useful as those on the television. We do a high level of communication through our computers and mobile screens. As an example, we can extend this to the classroom, the distance classroom that once existed pre-home computer and delivered through the mail was radically updated by the home computer. Now, what for many years has been a highly beneficial and effective means of education through the home computer and multimedia writing, is being radically updated by the ability to communicate via video.

In this way, this “new” literacy consists of the way(s) that individuals communicate using the new media, including the screens and video and the ways in which the conscious process of communication is altered from merely communicating orally or through writing/print.

Literacy issues… arise from the fact that forms of communication technology condition (although they of course do not fully determine) how people articulate within and around their ideas, their cultures, and themselves, including their subject positions. (7)

My research does not focus too deeply on shifts in the cognitive process; my data collection and analysis is focused more on user perception of social awareness. However, I consider greatly various issues of literacy in our era based on the technologies we use. Such technologies certainly include, and perhaps entirely comprised of, electric rhetoric, which Welch defines as “an emergent conciousness or mentalité within discourse communities [that is] the new merger of the written and the oral, both now newly empowered and reconstructed by electricity and both dependent on print literacy” (104). This definition, clearly quite Ongian, does look at the way in which electric rhetoric has us think differently about how we communicate. Therefore, my research cannot avoid at least some discussion of cognitive shifts, since they are part of literacy.

Any current definition of literacy must account for changes in consciousness or mentalité, including the subject, brought about by electronic forms of communication and their inherent mingling with writing. (8)

Welch also states,

Literacy (in any historical period) depends on social constructions (including gender and racial constructions) that give value to some writing and speaking activities and that devalue others. Versions of oralis/auralism exist in all historical periods (and prehistorical ones), mingle with different technologies, and partly determine who is allowed to speak, who is silenced, and how subjectivity is constructed. (8)

Consider the chastisement and negative attention that microblogging and texting is receiving; it is not unlike such public attitudes of other emerging technologies. In the 1970s, there was the concern that TV would ruin our children’s ability to think and function. Later, TV is seen as a valid communication and educational source. In the 1980s, the social concern was that video games were going to ruin our children’s ability to focus, think and function. Now, video games are seen as excellent training devices, as well as ways to get children to get skills in making decision quickly, physical dexterity, even to get exercise (i.e. the Wii Fit), etc. Today, the concern is that texting, tweeting, etc., are going to reduce our (and our children’s) ability to read and write in full thoughts, to keep our attention for reading a full article or book. Also, that the need to condense thought and statements into a 140 characters or less will be a detriment, as well.

If there is any pattern to the fear that these new technologies threatening to ruin the way that we cognitively process some activity subsiding only to have a new view emerge when we find worth an productive application to the activity, such pattern will continue and wee will soon learn that this ability to condense thought and text is actually a benefit, as it is a different communication method. Just as we get students to write haiku, emails, articles, academic papers, business letters, personal letters, short stories, etc., so too can we perhaps see microblogging limitations as yet another genre of writing.

Welch’s point that oral/auralism partly determines who is allowed to speak, who is silenced, and how subjectivity is constructed is not particularly valid. While this has certainly been the case through various historical eras and geographical locations, I see that in the current age it is far less, or not at all, about race and gender constructions. This point relates to my earlier discussions about the egalitarian nature of online communication. That with a basic camera, computer, and internet connection, anyone can post videos and have a (relatively) equal voice.

Welch states that “this book aims to … contribute to a movement that changes the actions people take in their daily writing and speaking lives” (13). This too is what I seek for my own study: to be a look at how the OVC can (and does) change the way that people communicate, for this example, in the classroom.

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