Availability Dereliction

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Considering the wide horizon of digital rhetorics’ fu-fu-futures, I have settled in this entry on a speculative question about availability. Classically, availability chimes to Aristotle’s “available means,” and while this phrase, available means, is fair weather for forecasting digital rhetorics ever-expanding operations, in a closely related sense, availability refers to operations more barometrically tempestuous, lesser predictable capacities for engagement, attentional and discursive and affective. In a 2018 RSQ article, “The Digital: Rhetoric Behind and Beyond the Screen,” Casey Boyle, Steph Ceraso, and Jim Brown introduce an emerging quality for digital rhetorics in the concept of transduction: “Transduction refers to how a signal moves across disparate registers of relations: neural firings move to fingers to perform keystrokes that then transform into electrical charges that then become digital bits and are delivered to a screen by software or saved to a hard drive that becomes transcoded again whenever someone opens a file” (257). In this context, transduction stretches out for digital rhetoric a baggier array of relay-ish shift-outs, touched-off activations that cascade from somatic impulse to blippity-blip action at a distance. Transduction as a contemporary update to screen-based digital rhetorics loosens it up, for, according to this definitional elasticity, “The digital is no longer conditional on particular devices but has become a multisensory, embodied condition through which most of our basic processes operate” (252). So long, devices.

With such generous setups for transduction, what can we say about that which is out of reach, off limits, exterior to, or otherwise buffered from the digital? I respect the willingness to avail upon the digital a grander scope of felicity conditions than ever before, yet I’m doubtful about just how fully inflected the digital can be in many of the “multisensory, embodied condition[s]through which our most basic processes operate.” Which basic processes? What are transduction’s limits? Where does any transducer fall shy? Amanda Baker’s Budding Scientist blog entry, “Forcefully Unplugged,” in Scientific American underscores one cause for my hesitation to abandon devices and their interfaces as a locus for digital-rhetorical activity. She writes about the power outage in a New York suburb after a thunderstorm, about how even after the power was restored, internet connections were slow to blinker back again. In Baker’s account, comfortable, suburban lives were thrown off by the outage, encumbered by inconvenience when myriad tacit, connection-dependent operations halted. Beyond interfaces, without electricity or internet connection, how does transduction rebound and persist? When the lights go out in the city, for digital rhetorics, elastic definitions seem to me snap back usefully to interfacial devices and electrical pulsation, primarily.

In the future, how will availability (a conditional attention structure essential to rhetorical activity) and transduction (a digital-rhetorical series of shift-outs relaying impulses along-across hosts) cooperate or fail to cooperate? I want to suggest that transduction whizpops (or at the very least, idles) when we suspend availability. Let’s call this availability dereliction, and then puzzle out a few of its consequences for the future of digital rhetorics.

Digital rhetorics have for nearly two decades pervaded many lives in the plugged-in, gridded West with an always-on condition. The phrase “always-on” advanced by Phillip Agre’s work in 2001, this always-on condition latching hold as a demonstrable brimming at human capacities for attention, more powerfully and invasively than ever before due especially to everyday mobile devices. Devices parasitical train us to turn to them again and again, at every moment available to their indefatigable beckoning.

Another useful perimeter for availability comes from meditation teacher Shinzen Young, who, in a podcast from February 2017, noted that among the purposes of sitting meditation is the contemplative’s blooming yet more available to others, to community. Why sit meditation? Simply, to become more fully available. That is, the equanimity rising in these analog sits, whether for prolonged periods of time or what Young calls micro-hits, underscores service. Availability, thus understood, is a form of disciplined self-care that radiates, self-care expanding to circumfere as availability to others. And this is but one non-digital variety of availability worth considering in light of “multisensory, embodied condition[s]through which our most basic processes operate.” Others, devices chucked and-or during a power outage might include a held hand. Digital rhetoric? A simple  embrace. Digital rhetoric? Eating freshly fermented sauerkraut with a grandchild. Digital rhetoric?

To devices once more, let’s say I set my iPhone to do not disturb mode. There. I become somewhat unavailable. Transduction’s circuitry breaches, but only slightly. Microbreach, a snag. I can still send a text message to my daughter, “How was volleyball practice?,” check a bank statement, play a low stakes game of Eight Ball Pool. Incoming pings arrive, silently. The phone doesn’t ring. Availability is hereby modified. Digital rhetorics are not necessarily less transductive in this case, but uptake is muffled intentionally. This is different than when I shut the phone down completely, power it off. Transduction may continue; messages await, uptake deferred, delayed, put off. But this availability condition marks a clearer boundary, arguably restoring primacy to “a multisensory, embodied condition through which most of our basic processes operate” (252). That is, with devices off, with power or internet out, digital rhetorics quiet, albeit locally (where it matters most?).

Even as iOS 12 has nudged along availability dereliction with an elaborate series of conditional do not disturb settings, including location-aware DNDs, in this push and pull between transduction and availability, more intentional and effortful and sustaining escapes from the always-on condition, digital rhetorics and their available means will interrupt accordingly.

About Author(s)

Derek Mueller is associate professor and director of composition at Virginia Tech. His iPhone is probably set to Do Not Disturb.

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