Computational Culture

a journal of software studies

Editorial information

    Annette Vee & James J. Brown, Jr.

    University of Pittsburgh & Rutgers University-Camden

    Publication Date
    15th January 2016

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Rhetoric Special Issue Editorial Introduction

Rhetoric and Computation

What might rhetoric and computation illuminate when we view them together? At first glance, rhetoric and computation may seem like strange bedfellows, but they both find roots in philosophies of rigorous reasoning and symbolic logic. How might we systematize knowledge and communicate it accurately? How do we break complex patterns and ideas down into their component parts to better understand how they work or to improve upon their processes? While postmodern philosophy has taught us that perfect ‘accuracy’ in ideas is merely a mirage, rhetoric and computation both–at least in part–aspire to this ideal. They both provide tools for representing and recreating complex knowledge processes. We might even think of rhetoric as being one ancestral branch that led to modern theories of computation. For one, Edmond Callis Berkeley—a mathematician, cofounder of the Association for Computing Machinery, and author of the popular 1949 book on computers Giant Brains, or Machines That Think — made the connection of computation to rhetoric. At his 1930 Harvard commencement address on ‘Modern Methods of Thinking,’ Berkeley traced ‘methods of clear and rigorous thinking’ from Greek rhetoric to Boole’s symbolic logic and other philosophies influential to early digital computing. 1 As Bernadette Longo writes, Berkeley ‘had an abiding concern with how humans think and how this process could be modeled, controlled, and improved through symbolic logic.’ 2 We might say the same for any of us working in the fields of either rhetoric or computation, and certainly any reader of Computational Culture.

Of course, Berkeley is not alone in seeing rhetoric as part of the long history of computation. In Words Made Flesh: Code, Culture, Imagination, Florian Cramer tells the story of ‘an often utopian cultural imagination that reaches from magic spells to contemporary computer operating systems.’ 3 That imagination includes the rhetorical tradition, and while Cramer grants that rhetoric’s concern with both semantic and syntactic dimensions of language does not make it a purely formal or computational enterprise, he still insists that ‘the more formal rhetorical instruction became, the more it approached language computation.’ 4 Cramer also argues for understanding rhetorical pedagogy in terms of a subtle (though not linear) shift from the syntactic to the semantic, a shift that we might understand in terms of the technological shift from orality to literacy. If rhetorical pedagogies for oral rhetoric were focused on the link between memory and invention (orators memorized proofs by creating a ‘memory house’ and then moving through it), the affordability of paper shifted rhetoric to the more computational strategies of word permutations and copia. Students could now generate small computational machines that generated multiple versions of the same sentence or poetic stanza: ‘Such texts have input data (the words to be transformed), an algorithm (permutation, often explained separately, just as in an algorithmic source code) and an execution, for example in writing down the multiple output of a permutation.’ 5

This special issue extends the argument of Cramer and Berkeley that the histories and philosophies of computation and rhetoric are intertwined and mutually constituted. We are concerned with the precise machines described by Cramer, though we (and many of our authors) would push Cramer’s claims even a step further. Rhetoric, for us, is not purely or even primarily concerned with the semantic. The formal machines described by Cramer are rhetorical, even before they intersect with the semantic. How can machines be rhetorical? The readers of Computational Culture need not be convinced that computation drives the digital and networked spaces in which we interact, argue and communicate: word processing programs, videogames, banking and commerce systems, social networking sites, and smartphone apps that track our data (both with and without our knowledge) are all evidence that computation in code shapes nearly every space we inhabit. Computation in code affects and effects our lives. Computational machines affect us through their programming and design, as well the discourse they can generate, via text, image, sound, and so on. By writing computer code and software, programmers and designers construct machines that make arguments and judgments and address audiences both machinic and human. In this sense, even the most mundane computational technologies can be seen as rhetorical –from the grocery store check-out scanner to the high school graphing calculator–because any computational machine shapes and constrains behavior.

It is not only the machines and histories of computation that are rhetorical; the language used to drive and describe computation is also rhetorical. Although the word ‘rhetoric’ is rarely used, the fact that computer programming is a writing practice used to express ideas, make arguments, and enact processes has always been recognized by programming theorists and practitioners. Donald Knuth’s ‘literate programming’ posits the writing and communicative facets of code as more important than its function, couching his argument in terms of reading literature: ‘Programming is best regarded as the process of creating works of literature, which are meant to be read.’ 6 In ‘Treating Code As an Essay,’ Yukihiro Matsumoto, the creator of Ruby, echoes Knuth in arguing that the human audience of code is more important than the machine audience:

‘Most programs are not write-once. They are reworked and rewritten again and again in their lives. […] During this process, human beings must be able to read and understand the original code; it is therefore more important by far for humans to be able to understand the program than it is for the computer’ 7

According to both Knuth and Matsumoto, code is addressed to multiple audiences and has multiple purposes, and it should thus be understood not only in terms of its function or efficiency. Computer scientists Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores share this concern, claiming that approaches to the computer have been overly rational, and offer instead a discursive perspective: their ‘understanding of the computer centers on the role it will play in mediating and facilitating linguistic action as the essential human activity.’ 8 These calls for an understanding of code as an expressive writing practice have been amplified in fields such as software studies, platform studies, critical code studies, and electronic literature, and in the humanities more generally.

Software studies has paved the way for many disciplines to approach software as an object of study and computer programs as written artifacts, and we may add rhetoric to our toolkit to do so. We can use rhetoric to interpret the ways that computation addresses and responds to various audiences and exigencies, makes assertions about identities, and ultimately participates in a complex ecology of forces that shape behavior and perception. This version of rhetoric is more expansive than the limited, Aristotelian definition rhetoric as the ‘available means of persuasion.’ Just as software studies recognizes that software is more than code, and that code is more than ones and zeros, contemporary rhetoric is interested in more than the content of arguments; it also concerns the relational forces that precede and exceed arguments. In the 20th century, rhetoric extended beyond a focus on oral or written persuasion as the only means by which arguments and artifacts affect audiences and embraced visual, gestural and technological ‘means.’

For instance, Jody Shipka claims that even the choice of medium for composition is a rhetorical act, a theoretical move that might be of little surprise to software studies scholars steeped in the theories of McLuhan and Kittler. George Kennedy (classical rhetorician and translator of Aristotle) has argued that rhetoric can be understood as ‘the energy inherent in an utterance.’ 9 By this way of thinking, rhetoric is not primarily about meaning but is rather that which triggers discourse. In a more poststructuralist register, Diane Davis suggests that the art of rhetoric only operates due to an ‘originary rhetoricity…a constitutive persuadability and responsivity that testifies, first of all, to a fundamental structure of exposure.’ 10 For Davis, our attempts to use the tools of rhetoric come in response to a call from the other, and that call issues a rhetorical imperative, meaning that my attempts to persuade only happen in response to an originary call from the other. That call, addressed to me, is rhetorical in and of itself. Recent work in object-oriented rhetoric by Scot Barnett, Byron Hawk and Alex Reid has even expanded rhetorical theory into the realm of the nonhuman. 11. Rhetoricians in software studies have begun to pursue a similar agenda, arguing that computational machines are rhetorical over and beyond the arguments or texts that they generate. For instance, Kevin Brock (whose work on rhetorical style and code is featured in this issue) has analyzed Oulipean procedures in order to show that rhetoricians can and should study the textual outputs of computational machines as well as the machines themselves. 12 If rhetoric has expanded into multiple modes in the 20th and 21st centuries, this special issue represents yet another of these extensions: computation can also be part of the rhetorician’s purview, and rhetoric can be useful in studies of computation.

The seven articles in this special issue of Computational Culture explore what it means to call computation rhetorical, and what more we can learn about both rhetoric and computation when we do so. While rhetoric and software are somewhat recently acquainted, this issue is anchored in previous work that provides rhetorical perspectives on computation and computational perspectives on rhetoric. Ian Bogost’s work on procedural rhetoric and persuasive processes helped open the door for digital rhetoricians to take up computation in useful ways, and authors in this issue both apply and extend Bogost’s work. On the flip side, Brown has offered a computational perspective on rhetoric in a recent article in Philosophy & Rhetoric, arguing that rhetoric can be understood as ‘a collection of machines (“whatsits,” “gadgets”) for generating and interpreting arguments.’ 13 This work by Bogost and Brown suggests that the combination of rhetoric and software studies can yield results for both fields. Since readers may be more familiar with the computation side of our equation than the rhetoric side, we use this introduction to map out some of the ways rhetoric offers new perspectives on computation, perspectives that deepen and enrich existing research in computational culture. We provide a brief discussion of contemporary rhetorical theory for those who may be less familiar with the tools and methods of rhetorical theory and how the discipline of rhetoric has developed and emerged (especially in the U.S.). This history brings us to present-day work in digital rhetoric as manifested in several different fields and venues. Finally, we preview the organization and arguments of the articles in this issue and how they contribute to existing research in computational culture. While this work certainly extends a research agenda for those interested in digital rhetoric, these articles also demonstrate for the readers of Computational Culture that rhetorical theory provides a unique set of research methods for understanding the contemporary computational landscape.

Rhetoric’s Reductions and Expansions

As rhetoric’s evolution beyond Aristotle is key to its utility to software studies and the argument of this special issue, we provide an abbreviated history of how the various fields that touch on rhetoric–including rhetoric and composition, writing studies, and speech communication–have emerged and flourished in the U.S. during the 20th and 21st centuries. Our own perspectives on this question, it should be noted, are shaped by our location in the U.S. academy, where rhetoric has emerged in different ways at various historical moments throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Rhetoric has a long and storied history, but the specific discipline in which we were both trained, rhetoric and composition, began to emerge in the late 19th century. During this period, universities in the U.S. grew in size, adopted the German model of the research university, and moved from teaching Latin and Greek grammar to English, and this led to teaching and research in the areas of rhetoric, writing, and speech. Much work in 20th century rhetorical studies initially focused on first-year writing and speech courses, although the field has expanded to a much broader range of artifacts and practices. What was once primarily focused on pedagogical questions is now a broad program of research supported by journals such as Rhetoric Society Quarterly, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, College Composition and Communication, Rhetoric Review, and Philosophy & Rhetoric, to name but a few. While not all authors in this special issue are part of this particular milieu, this disciplinary formation shapes our own approaches and informed the call for papers that eventually led to this issue.

The move to expand rhetoric in academic research has not necessarily carried into popular discourse. Outside of the academy, the term ‘rhetoric’ can often signify lying, misdirection, or unnecessary flourish. Indeed, this view of rhetoric even persists inside the academy. Philosophically, rhetoric has always been difficult to pin down. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates asserts that rhetoric has no clearly defined techne and that the famous rhetorician Gorgias cannot explain how rhetoric is unique from other arts. When Gorgias insists that rhetoric is the art of discourse, Socrates objects:

But there are other arts which work wholly through the medium of language, and require either no action or very little, as, for example, the arts of arithmetic, of calculation, of geometry, and of playing draughts; in some of these speech is pretty nearly co-extensive with action, but in most of them the verbal element is greater-they depend wholly on words for their efficacy and power: and I take your meaning to be that rhetoric is an art of this latter sort?…And yet I do not believe that you really mean to call any of these arts rhetoric. 14

This complaint has been repeated often throughout the history of rhetoric, and rhetoricians have defended the art against various charges, from dilettantism to disciplinary colonization. In response to these complaints about rhetoric, the late Wayne Booth wrote The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, insisting that contemporary popular discussion of rhetoric as deceit (or, what he would call ‘rhetrickery’) misses an opportunity to use rhetoric as a tool for seeking ‘common ground’ and navigating arguments. Booth advocated for a ‘listening-rhetoric’ that would aim to reduce misunderstanding and understand opposing views. 15

This understanding of rhetoric as deceit is closely linked to the idea that rhetoric is a way of dressing up ideas. Regardless of rhetoric’s historical position alongside logic and grammar as part of the classical trivium, it has often become synonymous with the study of tropes and figures. This equation of rhetoric with ornamentation is blamed on any number of bogeymen, the most famous being 16th Century humanist Peter Ramus. Ramus believed that rhetoricians such as Quintilian had expanded rhetoric too far beyond its proper purview. Repeating the charge mentioned above, Ramus complained that the rhetorician had annexed things such as invention, arrangement, and memory (which were for the dialecticians) and absorbed law, philosophy, and mathematics all while keeping the name ‘rhetorician.’ He saw Quintilian’s discussion of rhetoric in terms of ‘the good man speaking well’ as particularly egregious. Ramus aimed to return rhetoric to its proper sphere – the study of ‘tropes and figures and in those subjects which are the property of rhetoric and common to no further discipline.’ 16 This reduction of rhetoric is linked to both the Enlightenment and Romanticism by John Bender and David Wellbery, who urge us to see such conceptions of rhetoric in terms of the Enlightenment’s interest in a neutral language as well as Romanticism’s belief in the self-forming subject. In Bender and Wellbery’s narrative, neither the scientist cut off from culture nor the ‘genius’ romantic author had much use for classical rhetoric. Science was self evidently true, and the poet brought forth beauty from within. However, after tracking these reductions of rhetoric, Bender and Wellbery also note a ‘return’ of rhetoric in the modern time period. This return did not necessarily involve a turn back to classical rhetoric but rather signaled the emergence of a generalized ‘rhetoricality.’ If classical rhetoric was a ‘rule-governed domain whose procedures themselves were delimited by the institutions that organized interaction and domination…Rhetoricality, by contrast, is bound to no specific set of institutions. It manifests the groundless, infinitely ramifying character of discourse in the modern world…Rhetoric is no longer the title of a doctrine and a practice, nor a form of cultural memory; it becomes instead something like the condition of our existence.’ 17 For Bender and Wellbery (and here we can picture Ramus quite distressed), rhetoric (as rhetoricality) has become the air we breathe, a general attunement to the fluidity of discourse and of truth claims.

Indeed, this argument for rhetoricality as a modern condition and as a generalized fore is reflected in the 20th Century movement known as the ‘New Rhetoric,’ most clearly articulated by Kenneth Burke who argued that ‘wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning’ there is persuasion.’ 18 For Burke, all rhetoric is a function of identification, meaning that the rhetorician is no longer only interested in intentional acts of persuasion. In fact, Burke gestures toward the many ways that identification can prevent effective communication or persuasion. He describes identification not only in terms of a rhetor’s conscious attempt to identify but also as ‘a name for the function of sociality.’ 19 With this grand gesture, Burke, as well as other New Rhetoricians such as Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca led rhetoricians to make the bold and perhaps even overzealous claim that rhetorical theory was equipped to examine any human relation whatsoever. As we have already suggested, contemporary rhetorical theory has continued to theorize rhetoric beyond the discursive—rhetoric is, for most rhetoricians, a way to understand not only text or image but also a range of other materialities as well. Thus, if rhetoric has alternatively reduced and expanded throughout its long history, it certainly seems to be expanding in recent years.

Rhetorical Computation and Computational Rhetoric

This special issue aims to bring rhetoric into conversation with computation without necessarily arguing for a ‘big’ or ‘small’ rhetoric. Our argument is not that rhetoric encompasses all activity but that the tools of rhetoric are not confined to any single medium. This is Collin Brooke’s argument in Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media when he points out that any rhetoric of new media would need to reimagine and reinvent the tools of rhetorical theory for digital environments. For Brooke, it is not enough to apply rhetorical terms to computational technologies. We must see the relationship between rhetoric and technology as a ‘mutually transformative encounter.’ 20 This has not always been the approach of those considering rhetoric and computational technologies. In fact, the alignment of rhetoric with print technology was at the core of Lev Manovich’s arguments regarding rhetoric in The Language of New Media. In a text that helped establish software studies as a research program, Manovich proclaimed that the rise of new media technologies would signal the decline of rhetoric altogether:

Traditionally, texts encoded human knowledge and memory, instructed, inspired, convinced, and seduced their readers to adopt new ideas, new ways of interpreting the world, new ideologies. In short, the printed word was linked to the art of rhetoric. While it is probably possible to invent a new rhetoric of hypermedia that will use hyperlinking not to distract the reader from the argument (as is often the case today), but rather to further convince her of an argument’s validity, the sheer existence and popularity of hyperlinking exemplifies the continuing decline of the field of rhetoric in the modern era. 21

By yolking rhetoric to print, Manovich did not leave much space for a relationship between rhetoric and computational technologies. A number of texts, including Brooke’s Lingua Fracta, Elizabeth Losh’s Virtualpolitik, and Bogost’s Persuasive Games, have disputed this claim, and we will not rehearse those arguments here. Instead, we cite Manovich’s passage to demonstrate how far the conversation regarding rhetoric and digital media has moved in the intervening 14 years. The existence of this special issue is evidence that rhetoric can be a key resource in the study of computation.

Recent scholarship on new media and, more specifically, software studies has begun to take advantage of the theoretical resources of rhetoric. For Wendy Chun, who works out of the rhetorical theory of Paul Ricoeur, rhetoric offers us a way to pause over an uncertainty inherent to software that we too often gloss over. In Programmed Visions, she reminds us that code, like any technical relation, is a craft–what ancient rhetoricians would call a techne. This craft means that code introduces a layer of mediation that is sometimes elided: ‘Code does not always or automatically do what it says…It carries with it the possibility of deviousness: our belief that compilers simply expand higher-level commands–rather than alter or insert other behaviors–is simply that, a belief, one of the many that sustain computing as such.’ 22 Bogost has most directly linked rhetoric and software, offering a rhetorical theory specific to computational environments. Bogost’s Persuasive Games, which theorizes the persuasive use of computational procedures, has been influential to those conducting rhetorical analyses of software. This text has helped software studies scholars begin to see the utility of rhetorical theory, and it has even done so in a way that demonstrates the broader ways that rhetoric might be applied. While he focuses on videogames, he also argues that the use of procedures to persuade need not even be confined to computation. For Bogost, any set of procedures can be understood as rhetorical and potentially persuasive. We would go a step further and flip Bogost’s formulation by suggesting that nearly any attempt at rhetorical expression is procedural. This move should be understood not only as an attempt to extend his work but also as an indication that Persuasive Games puts forth a very specific understanding of what counts as rhetoric. Bogost’s focus is on the techniques of effective persuasion. He provides an overview of different rhetorical theories and approaches, describing how 20th Century rhetoricians such as Burke expanded the definition of rhetoric and how this has led to subfields such as visual rhetoric and digital rhetoric. However, he also argues that all rhetorical theories ‘share one core property: that of technique.’ 23 While this seems uncontroversial given that rhetoric is often concerned with effective persuasion, Bogost’s focus on technique and on effective persuasion (indeed, his term ‘persuasive games’ is used to describe effective attempts at persuasion) does not necessarily account for more expansive contemporary approaches to rhetoric discussed above. Persuasive Games gestures toward the trend in rhetoric to study a broad range of forces, but does not necessarily directly engage it. Still, Bogost’s focus on successful procedural persuasion opened the door for a discussion of rhetoric and computation. The work in this special issue aims to expand outward from procedural rhetoric, demonstrating that rhetorical theory provides a wide array of theoretical resources for scholars of computation.

Bogost’s argument has clearly had an impact on the field of digital rhetoric. But it is also important to note that this reinvention was already underway, in various forms, in various areas of rhetorical study, from technical communication to writing studies. Anne Frances Wysocki’s work has both argued for and enacted the visual and computational possibilities of digital rhetoric. 24 Douglas Eyman and Cheryl Ball, editors of one of the first online academic journals, Kairos, have long promoted the influence of digital design on rhetorical invention. 25 Eyman’s more recent work to outline digital rhetoric as a field takes into account the computational networks and platforms on which contemporary scholarship circulates. 26 Paul Leblanc argued in 1993 that writing teachers should write their own software not only because of the constraints that programs put on composition but also because of the deeply intertwined relationship between the writing of code and the writing of human language 27 In an influential 1994 article entitled ‘The Politics of the Interface,’ Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe urged scholars in rhetoric and composition to see computer interfaces as written artifacts that reflected deep arguments and ideologies. For William Hart-Davidson, writing is information technology, inextricably part of the ways technological objects such as software work, and thus technical communicators can contribute rhetorical expertise on design. 28 Others in technical communication, including Liza Potts, Clay Spinuzzi, Brian Ballentine, Jim Ridolfo, Danielle Nicole DeVoss and Johndan Johnson-Eilola have long studied how software shapes and constrains writing and argument. These fields have been wrestling with the role of writing in software and software in writing since at least the 1980s.

Still, it is fair to say that the uptick in interest in software as a subject of study outside of computer science, as exemplified by the field of software studies and this journal, has been mirrored in the field of rhetoric over the last few years. The 2015 Rhetoric Society of America Summer Institute recently hosted two workshops devoted to computation, the first two in the event’s history: Rhetoric and Computation (with Brown and Vee) and Building Sophware: Modeling Theoretical Approaches to Technical and Professional Writing with Computational Methods (with Bill Hart-Davidson and Ryan Omizo). Forthcoming books by Jim Brown (Ethical Programs, University of Michigan Press) and David Rieder (Suasive Iterations: Rhetoric, Writing, and Physical Computing, Parlor Press) and a 2015 edited collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities (Eds., Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson) all deal deeply with rhetoric and computation. And scholars such as Estee Beck, working on the persuasive and performative nature of algorithms, and Alexandria Lockett, working on the racial dynamics of ‘leaked’ information in digital surveillance, as well as scholars featured in this special issue point to a bright future in this area.29 Other work in software studies deals with concerns closely related to rhetoric but doesn’t go by that name, for example the ways that code circulates (10 PRINT) and the ways that writing can be generated and resisted by software (Brunton’s Spam algorithms). This special issue joins a thriving space of inquiry.

About the Articles

As computation diversifies and complexifies itself, exceeding our ability to predict its courses, the articles in this special issue demonstrate that we can use rhetoric to understand the sensing potentials of computation (Losh), massive data (Monea), opaque algorithms (Birkbak & Carlsen), the design of artificial intelligence (Maher), style in coding (Brock), software’s tendency to conceal (Holmes), and what is proper in the behavior of machines (Bellinger). These articles ask and answer: What does it mean for a machine to know? How does code reflect human aspects of its writers? What persuasive forces does computation enable? How can we understand the moral components of the algorithms that shape our lives? While these articles reflect the wide range of possibilities when rhetoric and computation are put together, we might group them in terms of two types of inquiry: rhetorical approaches to paradigmatic aspects of computing (Brock, Tinnell, Holmes, and Losh) and analysis of computational media as rhetorical agents (Maher, Bellinger, Birkbak & Carlsen, and Monea).

1. Rhetorical approaches to paradigmatic aspects of computing
The practices and products of computation have what we might call in rhetoric ‘commonplaces,’ that is, well-worn habits or tropes with which anyone in the field would be familiar. These include established cultures of software, models for understanding how code works, and demonstrative programs written across various languages. The articles by Steve Holmes (which uses an open source software community to explore the ways that software conceals its functions despite human attempts at openness), John Tinnell (which offers a new framework for understanding ubiquitous computing), Kevin Brock (which analyzes the permutations of style in the common program FizzBuzz), and Elizabeth Losh (which focuses on the ways that various computational projects and smart objects sense and order their worlds) all use the tools and theories of rhetoric to illuminate computational commonplaces.

Steve Holmes’ ‘Can We Name the Tools? Ontologies of Code, Speculative Techné and Rhetorical Concealment’ offers a detailed analysis of of the videogame FreeCiv in order to demonstrate that code conceals as much as it reveals. Joining Chun and others, Holmes offers a slight correction of course for software studies and critical code studies, especially those approaches that treat the code as text to be deciphered and, ultimately, uncovered. Such methodological moves can fail to see code for what it is – an inscriptive practice that never arrives at a single meaning. Much like the rhetorician who aims to find a balance between revealing through analysis (rhetorica docens) and concealing via rhetorical action (rhetorica utens), scholars of computation must resist the temptation to understand code as immune from dissimulation, else they turn code into something that can be understood in any final way. Holmes’ article uses the docens/utens problem in rhetorical studies to highlight methods that would not treat code as the key to ‘truth’ but would rather analyze code alongside other computational artifacts and practices. The code of FreeCiv is but one artifact that Holmes uses to reimagine the relationship between revelation and concealment.

In ‘From WIMP to ATLAS: Rhetorical Figures of Ubiquitous Computing,’ John Tinnell theorizes new rhetorical figures for a world of ubiquitous computing. If computational interfaces no longer rely solely on the desktop metaphor, keyboard, and mouse, then Tinnell argues that rhetoric might help scholars of computation develop new rhetorical figures for our contemporary computational moment. This approach might sound strange to those who understand rhetorical figures such as metaphor or synecdoche as purely discursive tools. But Tinnell draws upon a long history of theorizing rhetorical figures not only as figures of speech but also figures of thought. If ubicomp calls for new ways of approaching computation, then these new approaches might benefit from new figures of thought. Tinnell puts forth ATLAS (Apps, Tags, Layers, Actuators, Sensors) as a new set of figures for understanding a range of artifacts that operate without reliance on the desktop PC. Tinnell forwards ATLAS as ‘cardinal units that serve to orient critical analysis’ as well as a possible set of inventional tools for designers. Rhetoric, in Tinnell’s view, offers those studying computation with tools for both analyzing and constructing ubicomp interfaces.

As we have already mentioned above, it is uncontroversial to argue that coding is writing. For this reason, Kevin Brock’s analysis of style in code will not surprise readers of Computational Culture; however, what Brock offers is an explicitly rhetorical approach to understanding the various choices made by programmers. These choices involve not only code comments (perhaps the most obvious place to look for writing style) but also choices involving how to construct loops and functions. Each programmer taking the FizzBuzz test, a popular programming test used during computer programmer interviews, makes rhetorical choices. Those choices might be discussed by way of many rhetorical terms (invention, arrangement, and so on), but Brock’s choice to address these coding practices via style demonstrates that this canon of rhetoric, something that might seem intimately tied to the written or spoken word, offers useful ways of understanding situated coding practices. When a programmer defends a particular method for solving a problem, they are doing so with particular audiences in mind (both machinic and human). Brock’s analysis offers yet another example of how rhetorical terms might provide those already analyzing computer code with a set of critical terms for understanding the complex exigencies of a computer program.

Elizabeth Losh’s, ‘Sensing Exigence: A Rhetoric for Smart Objects’ uses Lloyd Bitzer’s theorization of ‘the rhetorical situation,’ a canonical work of 20th Century rhetorical theory, to develop a rhetoric of smart objects. For Bitzer, the rhetorical situation begins from some kind of blockage – a constraint or set of constraints that the rhetor and audience must somehow negotiate. This conceptualization of the rhetorical situation aligns nicely with studies of computation that understand computer hardware and software as shaping, enabling, and constraining expression and communication–now a commonplace in this line of research. Losh’s essay steps through the role of computation in various rhetorical situations, demonstrating how computational artifacts can act as rhetor, audience, text, or context (and sometimes more than one at the same time). Losh, like others in this special issue and many others in contemporary rhetorical theory, sees rhetoric as something more than a purely human art, and her analysis of works of digital art demonstrate how nonhumans persuade and communicate with one another as well as with humans. Perhaps surprisingly, rhetorical theory offers some theoretical resources for this understanding of computational environments.

2. Computational agents as rhetors
There is no question that computation now orders our world and shapes the kinds of information we receive as well as how we circulate it. Rhetoric offers new ways to understand how computation and computer-implemented algorithms do this work, how it organizes our contemporary social relations, and how computers can mimic humans in the ways that they make arguments. These computational arguments ultimately shape the infrastructures in which we live, play, and work. The articles by Jennifer Maher (which looks at rhetorical justifications for actions of artificial moral agents), Andreas Birkbak and Hjalmar Bang Carlsen (which dissects the ‘moral grammar’ of Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm), Alexander Monea (which dives into the technical details of information ordering in Google’s Knowledge Graph), and Matthew Bellinger (which categorizes the moments digital media breaks down and how the media itself presents those moments) all present ways in which computers act as rhetors.

Maher’s ‘Artificial Rhetorical Agents and the Computing of Phronesis’ draws on philosophy, AI research, and rhetoric to consider what it means to compute the good. What is ‘good’ in computation is often thought to be equivalent to engineering values, that is: efficiency, effective problem-solving, etc. But with the advent of self-driving cars and other similar research where computers interface with real-world situations, computers are now being asked to make moral judgments, to be Artificial Moral Agents. Maher insists that rhetoric helps us understand and formulate the moral component of AI computation, and argues that any Artificial Moral Agent (AMA) is also a Artificial Rhetorical Agent (ARA) because it must justify its choices to qualify them as moral. She discusses the rhetorical and philosophical underpinnings to AMA research, especially its predilection to Kantianism. This merging of the sciences and humanities is prefigured in her introduction, where she describes how Leibniz and Descartes both dreamed of a world where morality could be calculated precisely. AI researchers are the inheritors of this dream, Maher points out. The ARA/AMA doesn’t simply do what computation can do; it aims to do what it ought to do. In rhetoric, this is the object of phronesis, or seeing the good for ourselves.

In ‘Graph Force: Rhetorical Machines and the N-Arization of Knowledge,’ Alexander Monea addresses the shaping of our information conduits by algorithmic commercial entities such as Google. Monea gives us concrete entries into the technical ways these algorithms process and present information. In particular, he uses rhetoric, linguistic, and graph theory to interpret what is publicly known about the Google Knowledge Graph–that biographical figure you see displayed when you use Google to search for an actor, author or politician. The Knowledge Graph relies on ‘big data’ and is a step towards the semantic web that Sir Tim Berners-Lee imagined. Monea’s essay describes Knowledge Graph in terms of the ‘n-arization of knowledge,’ showing how it enacts a computational rhetoric that makes claims and supports those claims with evidence. We find it especially interesting that his discussion presupposes what the machine ‘knows,’ and how it copes with what it doesn’t know through the blank node, which it can use as a connector without ‘understanding’ the content.

Andreas Birkbak and Hjalmar Bang Carlsen use rhetoric to take on another commercial and opaque algorithm, Facebook’s EdgeRank, which determines the presence and order of ‘stories’ on a user’s timeline. In ‘The World of EdgeRank: Rhetorical Justifications of Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm,’ they ask: what does it mean for algorithms to value our interactions and use those values to shape our further social interactions? They look at Edgerank as a hybrid rhetor, examining the ways that the algorithm, its creators and its optimizers, together advance their own arguments to justify the algorithm’s ordering of social interactions in Facebook. Edgerank in this schema thus enacts a ‘self-justifying ordering of the world.’ In the way that it establishes arguments for the ways it orders the world, Birkbak and Carlsen argue that Edgerank becomes a rhetor. They look at three different locations where Edgerank is discussed: in Facebook’s own defense of the algorithm, in the public revealing of the algorithm’s workings, and in social media blogs that advise marketers on how to optimize their interactions with the algorithm.

Finally, Matthew Bellinger’s ‘The Rhetoric of Error in Digital Media’ takes up the errors that are a fact of everyday life in the age of computation. Not all errors are equal, and the ways that computers produce them, frame them and the ways that we understand them differs. Bellinger asks, where do we locate error, and what does that matter for our understanding of anomalies, failures, mismatches, etc.? He provides a review of the approaches to error and posits that the rhetorical appeals to users is actually where error is located. Put another way, error isn’t in action but in the situation, context, and messages the computational devices give us–the ways we understand non-normative behavior of our computational devices. Bellinger layers a moral component over our idea of error when he presents the idea of ‘digital decorum,’ or ‘the distinction between the proper and improper functioning of digital media.’ Propriety is thus not reserved for human actors, but can also apply to the interactions we have with computational devices. In these erring spaces against morality and decorum, rhetoric can be a useful tool for interpreting the arguments mounted by computational machines.

We believe that this special issue stages an important mutually transformative encounter between rhetorical studies and the study of computation across various disciplines, and we hope that it is only the first step in an extensive conversation about the complex, rhetorical dimensions of computational technologies.

James J. Brown, Jr. is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University-Camden. His work has appeared in journals such as Philosophy & Rhetoric, Computers and Composition, and College Composition and Communication, and his research focuses on digital rhetoric and software studies. He is author of Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software (University of Michigan Press, 2015), which explores the ethical and rhetorical dimensions of networked software platforms.

Annette Vee is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches courses in digital media and literacy. Her work has appeared in Computational Culture, Literacy and Composition Studies, Computers and Composition and Enculturation, and her book Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing the Terms of Writing will be published by MIT Press in 2016. Her website is



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  2. Ibid.
  3. Florian Cramer, Words Made Flesh: Code, Culture, Imagination (Piet Zwart Institute, 2005), 8
  4. Ibid., 43-44
  5. Ibid. 44
  6. Donald Knuth, Literate Programming (Stanford, Calif.: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1992, ix).
  7. Yukihiro Matsumoto, ‘Treating Code as an Essay,’ in Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think, ed. Greg Wilson and Andy Oram (O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2007), 477–82.
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  11. See Byron Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition, Scot Barnett’s ‘Toward and Object-Oriented Rhetoric,’ Alex Reid on ‘Object-Oriented Rhetoric’ and the recent special issue of Philosophy & Rhetoric on extrahuman rhetoric relations for some examples of such work
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  29. See Estee Beck, ‘Invisible Digital Identity: Assemblages in Digital Networks,’ Computers and Composition 35, (2015): 125-140; Alexandria Lockett, ‘I am Not a Computer Programmer,’ Enculturation 14 (2012),
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