Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rhetoric of science v. rhetoric of technology

What is the essential difference between the rhetoric of science and the rhetoric of technology? The two disciplines are often lumped together, but in my view, they shouldn't be. Technology changes the way we communicate about facts. It changes our understanding of facts. It even changes the nature of the facts themselves. All of these points are essential to rhetoric.

I don't see how you can dispute the first point if you're reading this on my blog. With a click of a button, I can give millions of people access to my ideas. They may not choose to take advantage of this access, of course, but the principle remains. When PZ Myers posts something, it reaches people a lot more quickly and easily than if he were publishing it in a book. (And I might add that bound books are pretty impressive technology in their own right.) Perhaps more relevant as far as rhetoric is concerned, these people can reply much more easily than they could without technology, too. In effect, as my colleague Bethany Iverson has argued, the Internet is recreating the ancient interactive environments in which the principles of rhetoric were first developed, but it's doing so on a vastly larger scale.

Google is one obvious part of a huge web of technology that changes the way we learn and think. What's the population of Massena, Iowa? You almost certainly don't know--but you might as well. You can look it up in seconds. Even if you're away from a computer, you can look up more things on a mobile device than you could have in the entire Library of Alexandria. This easy access to facts (and to nonfactual statements) makes it easier for writers to support their arguments, and easier for readers to challenge them. Are you really 43 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder in your home, if you own a gun? A quick Google search will allow you to check something that might otherwise have gone unquestioned.

None of what I've said so far is likely to be very controversial. My last claim, that technology changes the nature of facts themselves, may be more so. But what I mean by it is really quite simple. Although a purist might find this distinction overly simplistic, I think most scientists try to understand the world as unmodified by humanity. In some cases, they may manipulate their environment to study it. This is called experimentation, and it's intended to shed light on what things are like when they're not manipulated. In other cases, they may study the effects of humanity on the environment, as climate scientists do. In general, however, I stand by my statement.

Technology, however, does something quite different. It actively changes the environment--and therefore the facts about it. Computers, cell phones, roads, ballpoint pens, nuclear weapons ... all of these are products of technology. We couldn't study the rhetoric used by proponents of nuclear weapons if the weapons didn't exist in the first place.

There are other differences, as well, between the rhetoric of science and the rhetoric of technology, but excessive length is a rhetorical error I strive to avoid. The other points will have to wait for another day.

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