Critical Design Rhetorics of Digital Democracy: A Course Design for Informed Dissent and Design Advocacy

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Digital drawing of a young female designer of color holding up a pencil

Image created by Matthew V. Jacobson

Introduction

A few months ago, I gave myself a challenge: design a digital rhetoric course that probed the intersections of rhetoric, democracy, and technology. In undertaking this course design, I wanted to emulate the work of scholars like Selfe & Selfe (1994), Gurak (2004), Hauser (2007), Wysocki et al. (2007), Selber (2013), Kurlinkus (2018), and many others who draw upon critical theories of technology to bring fresh rhetorical insight to the digital communication platforms we use to invent, compose, circulate, communicate, argue, and advocate. The result, a sequence of three assignments for a course I titled Critical Design Rhetorics of Digital Democracy, functions as a proof of concept for the idea that understanding the design choices mediating (and thereby dictating) digital communication can deepen our rhetorical awareness and help us locate areas for democratic design interventions, places where we can redesign digital communication on our own terms for human good.

In this webtext, I articulate the design ideas behind the course, share the course’s assignment sequence, and reflect on a few takeaways from the course.

Underlying Course Concepts

For my course design, I draw upon several foundational concepts from critical theories of technology and rhetoric in order to establish technology’s profound impact on human living and communication:

  • We live in a technocracy, where technology and technology companies exert as much or move control over our lives than the government, posing a danger to democracy (Winner, 1986, ix; Feenberg, 2010, pp. 6, 71; Kurlinkus, 2018, p. 22).
  • Technology orders how we view and interact with the world, framing what we imagine to be possible (Heidegger, 1993, pp. 318, 322; Winner, 1986, pp. 25, 28; Feenberg, 2010, pp. 18, 57).
  • Technological designs are not pre-determined by existing technologies (Winner, 1986, pp. 20-21; Feenberg, 2010, pp. 6, 8).
  • Technology is political, with technological designs privileging—and thus arguing for—certain social conditions and identities over others (Winner, 1986, p. 22; Selfe & Selfe, 1994, p. 481; Feenberg, 2010, p. 18).
  • Essentially, technology leads us to see the world and the people living in it, even ourselves, as a resource we can exploit (Heidegger, 1993, pp. 312, 318, 321-322, 325-328, 332-337).
  • Even though technology pervades all aspects of our lives, we often don’t think about technology as something we might have control over; instead, we “sleepwalk” through technological changes, with a “technical unconscious” blinding us from seeing what’s at stake (Winner, 1986, p. 10; Feenberg, 2010, p. xvii).
  • Rhetoric takes place in mediating (and remediating) technological contexts and networks (Bolter and Grusin, 2000, p. 15; Gee, 2000, p. 43; Hauser, 2007, p. 338; Ridolfo & DeVoss, 2009; Feenberg, 2010, p. 58; Selber, 2013, p. 1).
  • When we understand technology as rhetorical and designed we can redesign it for greater access, equity, and democratic potential (Selfe & Selfe, 1994, pp. 483-484; Feenberg, 2010, pp. 18, 81; Kurlinkus, 2018, pp. 22, 111).

In this context, awareness of design allows us to wake up and take some measure of control over the technologies in our lives.

But how should we approach design rhetorically? At the technical level, i.e., arguing for the re-design of existing technologies for democratic improvement, Kurlinkus (2018) proposes “informed dissent (as opposed to informed consent), the critical training of user audiences to disagree with designers and become partners in agonism” (pp. 92, 111). At the level of use, i.e., employing technologies to design and implement rhetorical strategies, Jiang & Tham (2019) offer “design advocacy,” which calls upon practitioners to “utilize all available means of communication (and action) to address any existing needs or problems.” My course concept, Critical Design Rhetorics, includes both:  informed dissent for locating areas of inequity and injustice in digital communication technologies, and design advocacy for arguing for democratic interventions in those technologies. The assignment sequence follows below.

Assignment Sequence: Critical Design Rhetorics of Digital Democracy

Project 1: Democratic Assessment of Digital Medium Design

Select a digital communication platform—a type of blog, website, podcast series, or social media site—you’re interested in to study throughout the semester. Using both primary (interviews, observations, surveys, etc.) and secondary research (readings, postings, news, etc.), describe the platform, its purposes, its stakeholders, as well as its affordances and constraints, including its policies. Your goal is to address the following question: in what ways do the platform’s features support or limit digital democracy? You will also develop a digital multimodal project to communicate your findings to your classmates as well as to the platform’s stakeholders.

Project 2: Rhetorical Analysis of Multimodal Democratic Debate  

For the second assignment, your task is to build a case study analyzing how a contemporary democratic issue is deliberated on the platform you chose for Project 1. In addition to providing context for the public debate, such as the issue’s stakeholders, what the disagreements are, and so on, as well as analyzing the rhetoric stakeholders use to argue their points, you’ll also examine the multimodal rhetoric inherent to the platform’s design. For example, if you’re looking at Twitter debates on labor conditions in the U.S., how do Twitter’s post options, character limit, notifications, timeline, content policies, and other design features impact or otherwise constrain digital deliberation? You will update your digital multimodal project to communicate your findings, including any additional insights regarding the digital potential of the platform.

Project 3: Designing Alternatives for Democracy

Based on what you’ve identified as the democratic strengths and limitations of your selected medium, update your semester-long digital multimodal project to include a conceptual redesign proposal of your medium designed to increase its democratic potential. You may want to include policy updates, prototypes or mockups for improved interfaces, and other improvements, along with explanations of how these changes and adjustments will improve the digital communication taking place on the platform.

Conclusion

Critical Design Rhetorics of Digital Democracy represents a good faith attempt to address several eminent concerns for rhetoric in the digital age. Rather than just looking at persuasion as it appears on the digital surface, critical awareness of technological design equips scholars and students with the ability to comprehend how such designs affect rhetorical choices. Further, understanding design choices can deepen our ability to locate the available means of persuasion and design democratic interventions.

Personally, I’d be excited to see what students create as they worked through the assignment sequence. What sort of multimodal projects would they come up with? What findings would they communicate? What democratic redesigns would they suggest, and for what reasons?

I would love to see podcasts, videos, blog posts, websites, and digital games that explored the critical design rhetorics of digital communication platforms. Imagine videos reacting to Facebook’s terms of service, a series of blog posts analyzing Twitter threads about subsidized health insurance in the U.S., or a website displaying images detailing how public deliberation might change if podcast apps allowed public comments on individual episodes—such projects would be fair game in this course.

As with any other digital multimodal course, Critical Design Rhetorics of Digital Democracy would have to strike a balance between content, analysis, and digital making. Given the course’s rigor, students would have to take responsibility for choosing digital projects that they can reasonably complete. One approach for managing this aspect of the course is having students submit proposals for homework that include not only plans for the projects but also for gaining a level of proficiency with their chosen technologies. For instance, if a student planned to make a podcast, I might ask them to post links to resources for podcast creation. What, I would ask, will they need to know how to do in order to realize their vision? How will they learn this?

Of course, the assignment sequence I proposed above constitutes only a part of a fully realized course design. My challenge to you, as you consider the sequence, is what changes, alterations, additions, readings, activities, and other components you’d use to complete the course design. Or, how would you redesign it altogether?

Such decisions lie within your powers as a designer.

References

Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. (2000). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

DeVoss, D. N., & Ridolfo, J. (2009). Composing for recomposition: Rhetorical velocity and delivery. Kairos 13(2). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/13.2/topoi/ridolfo_devoss/intro.html

Feenberg, A. (2010). Between reason and experience: Essays on technology and modernity. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Gee, J. P. (2000). New people in new worlds: Networks, the new capitalism, and schools. In Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (Eds.). Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures (pp.41-66). London: Routledge.

Gurak, L. J. (2004). Cyberliteracy: Toward a new rhetorical consciousness. In Glenn, C., Lyday, M., & Sharer, W. B. (Eds.) Rhetorical education in America (pp. 179-197). Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.

Jiang, J., & Tham, J. (2019). Multimodal design and social advocacy: Charting future directions for design as an interdisciplinary engagement. Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. Retrieved from http://www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/2019/02/05/multimodal-design-social-advocacy/

Hauser, G. A. (2007). Vernacular discourse and the epistemic dimension of public opinion. Communication Theory 17(4), 333-339.

Heidegger, M. (1993). The question concerning technology. In Krell, D. F. (Ed.). Basic writings (pp. 307-342). London: Harper Perennial Modern Thought.

Kurlinkus, W. C. (2018). Nostalgic design: Rhetoric, memory, and democratizing technology. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Selber, S. A. (Ed.) (2013). Rhetorics and technologies: New directions in writing and communication. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Selfe, C. L., & Selfe, R. A. (1994). The politics of the interface: Power and its exercise in electronic contact zones. College Composition and Communication 45(4), 480-504.

Winner, L. (1986). The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wysocki, A. F., Johnson-Eilola, J., Selfe, C. L., & Sirc, G. (Eds.). (2007). Writing new media: Theory and applications for expanding the teaching of composition. Logan: Utah State University Press.

About Author(s)

Matthew V. Jacobson is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Oklahoma. You can find him digitally on Twitter: @MakingArguments

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