Unintended Use and Digital Rhetoric


My son is almost one year old, and the question I get asked more than anything is, “What does he do now?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that inquiry. Should I mention he has a scoot that’s impossible for an adult body to imitate? Or that he makes sounds that others count as “words” although I’m not convinced he’s attached any meaning to those noises? But what I find most interesting, and how I often respond to that initial question, is that he uses toys and objects in ways I never would think of using, particularly in “wrong” ways.

What this brief anecdote illustrates is where I see digital rhetoric heading. More specifically, one of the ways I see “slices of digital-rhetorical activity” is in the rise of attention to the unintended use of products, text, and other objects. A recent article in Scientific American emphasized the importance of re-purposing objects, much like my son’s decision to use objects in “wrong” ways, on a child’s cognitive development. Such importance is one that hasn’t gone unrecognized in the digital rhetoric community, either. Re-purposing, here, might harken back to suggestions of the “remix,” or what scholars such as Ridolfo and DeVoss (2008, 2017) have argued is a contemporary manipulation of the digital text. Edwards (2015), too, points to the potential of texts to be transformed for new audiences. The difference I am proposing lies is in the consciousness of the act: while the concept of the remix suggests the combination of multiple texts with the end goal of the new text to be used differently, my notion of “re-purposing objects” focuses on the unintended outcomes and purposes. To explore these ideas, in this post, I’d like to ruminate on the digital futures of artificial intelligence (AI) and driverless vehicles, alternatively curated photos, and digital waste that provide us with possible moments of and interactions with unintended use.

To think through unintended use, I think it’s important to connect with the concept of techne. Broadly speaking, the Greek term techne (τέχνη) is often used to represent “art” or “craft.” Deeper understandings of this concept suggest its truer meaning refers to making, expert knowledge, and use. Within that deeper understanding, there are two tracks for techne: one that gets you to an end point with an assumed course, or something that starts and ends exactly as planned. The other, messier, or stochastic, form of techne gets you to that end point, but via an unintended path (Angier, 2012; Roochnik, 2007; Dunne 1997). This second form of techne relies on expert knowledge to overcome the possibility of a chance occurrence. One must be in complete control, or have total understanding of an end goal, in order to arrive at the anticipated end point. (As a quick illustration, if a cruise ship is at sea and encounters an unexpected storm, the captain must have the know-how and complete control to steer the vessel around the storm in order to arrive at the destination safely.) I choose this second interpretation when thinking about “unintended use” not only because it offers a more comprehensive understanding of this tricky concept, but it lends itself nicely to the application of the various examples I’ll mention below.

Unintended use is a little complicated, since we might argue that few objects are limited to one specific purpose. Reality shows like Project Runway and the recent hit Making It emphasize the “unconventional” challenges of using products in unexpected ways. In what follows, I have a few examples that explore some challenges and promises related to unintended use and rhetorical complexities of the future. As rhetoricians, we are constantly concerned with the ways our texts will be utilized. What the following examples propose is that contemporary technologies might offer new possibilities for use, moving away from the purposeful combination of the “remix” and into the less recognized arena of the unintended use.

Artificial Intelligence and Driverless Vehicles

By applying the ideas of stochastic techne to developing forms of artificial intelligence and deep learning, I think that the rhetorical nature of these spaces is a new interpretation of techne. In a March 2018 episode of Fresh Air, New York Times’ technology correspondent Cade Metz described that driverless cars are programmed as if they are playing video games. If, for instance, the goals of these video games are to rack up the most points, programmers would simply “train” driverless cars to do just that. What they didn’t anticipate, however, is these driverless cars would arrive at that end goal very differently. For example, Metz describes a situation in which these systems played an old boating video game. By “deciding” they could rack up the most points by crashing into objects and starting over, and never in fact having the goal of finishing the course, these AI systems arrived at the goal very differently than the one humans anticipated. Such aims surface a whole new set of problems for roboticists and, arguably, rhetoricians (Lipson and Kurman, 2017). If developing technologies “see” and “act” differently than originally programmed, then their function cannot be readily predicted. The techne of machine learning is dramatically different from the outcomes we think they will follow. Such intelligent systems might make their own paths, still arriving at the desired outcome, but in dramatically different ways than anticipated.

Alternatively Curated Photos

Photographs take on a curious life in social media. I take a picture, remix it with a filter or cropping (in the vein of Ridolfo and DeVoss mentioned above), and put it out there as a different entity than its original form. Someone on our social feed might even “meme” it by adding text. Here we might even see this new product as an example of what Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michael (2012) call “negative appropriation,” or the how “rhetorical material is used in ways contrary to the rhetor’s original intensions.” Laurie E. Gries (2015) also complicates this idea in reference to the undeterminable potential of images, using the Obama Hope image to represent the various forms an image can take following its production. Sites like Instagram and Snapchat allow users curate an identity by carefully crafting a perspective, deciding what stays and what goes. On the surface, the curated identity seems like a purposeful act. However, I see the potential for applying the idea of unintended use in an idea I am calling “alternative curating.” Alternative curating, as I see it, suggests the re-collection of images by a different user to curate an entirely different identity than the one to which the original image belonged. To explain, when curating an identity, one posts images to a social site to curate a unique representation of self. The intent of the curated identity is meant to tell a story (“This is who I am”), but the alternative curation of images suggests an unintentional message. Such alternative curation is demonstrated by the Instagram user “Insta_Repeat,” who has taken to task “Insta-originality” by demonstrating the lack of imagination in many posts. By noticing the original intent of image that are meant to suggest “this is who I am” are merely copies of other Instagram posts, the newly curated photo collection takes on an unintended perspective. Rather than repurposing the image itself, here the unintended use lies in the curation of an alternative meaning–the original intent of the image (the uniqueness) is demolished and replaced by an entirely different, and unintended curation process.

Digital Waste

Like many, I have too many unused files on my computer and too many old devices piling up in my basement. These issues are problematic in the digital age, but they are not new. The old paradigm of “reduce, reuse, recycle” for physical waste explicitly suggests an alternative use of a product originally designed for a different purpose (think, here, about the “unconventional challenges” I mentioned above). For hardware and software, these ideas become more complicated. Computer scientists Ragib Hasan and Randal Burns have expanded the 3Rs for digital purposes, tacking on “recover and dispose” to the end. While “reuse” has obvious connections to my suggestions in this blog posting, the idea of “recover” lends itself in an interesting way to the digital rhetoric—utilizing data which we did not think would be useful for different mapping and tracking purposes. By looking at analytics and other breadcrumbs, our digital waste is recovered and reused for entirely new purposes.

For the future of digital rhetoric, I’d argue we must be concerned with unintended use of products, texts, ideas, and programs, much more so than we have been in the past. Thinking broadly about the future of our field, the idea of unintended use will extend, and even challenge, ideas posed by the remix mentioned above. While the remix is wrapped up with intentionality, unintended use is grounded in the unforeseeable. Such unforeseeable use could be problematic, especially when this idea might be closely related to the misuse and abuse of rhetorical practices. Rhetorical misuse isn’t necessarily becoming easier (misuse and irresponsibility have always been a concern for persuasion and often pedagogically), but the means and access through which unintended use can occur is something I argue must be a focus for rhetoric moving forward.


Angier, T. (2010). Techne in Aristotle’s Ethics: Crafting the moral life. London: Continuum.

Baker, A. (2018, July 27). Subverting the intended use of objects. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/budding-scientist/subverting-the-intended-use-of-objects/

Dunne, J. (1993). Back to the rough ground: Practical judgement and the lure of technique. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P.

Edwards, D.W. (2015). Framing the remix rhetorically: toward a typology of transformative work. Computers and Composition, 39, 41-54.

Gries, L. E. (2015). Still life with rhetoric: A new materialist approach to visual rhetoric. Boulder, CO: Utah State UP.

Gross, T. (Host). (2018, March 15). Robots are now ‘creating new robots,’ tech reporter says [Radio broadcast episode]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/03/15/593863645/robots-are-now-creating-new-robots-tech-reporter-says

Hasan, R. & Burns, R. (2011). The Life and Death of Unwanted Bits: Towards Proactive Waste Data Management in Digital Ecosystems. 3rd International Conference on Innovative Computing Technology.

Heching, D. (2017). Project Runway’s unconventional challenges, from worst to best. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from https://ew.com/tv/2017/09/15/project-runway-unconventional-challenges/

insta_repeat (2018). Déjà vu Vibes, Wander. Roam. Replicate. Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/insta_repeat/

Lipson, H. & Kurman, M. (2016). Driverless: Intelligent cars and the road ahead. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Making It. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nbc.com/making-it

Parry, R. (2014). Episteme and Techne. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/episteme-techne/

Ridolfo, J. & DeVoss, N.D. (2008). Composing for recomposition: rhetorical velocity and delivery. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, 13(2). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/13.2/topoi/ridolfo_devoss/index.html

—. (2017) Remixing and reconsidering rhetorical velocity. Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, 7 (2/3) 59-67.

Roochnik, D. (1996). Of art and wisdom: Plato’s understanding of techne. University Park, PA: The U of Pennsylvania State P.

Sheridan, D.M, Ridolfo, J. & MIchael, A.J. (2012). The available means of persuasion: Mapping a theory and pedagogy of multimodal public rhetoric. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

About Author

Kim Lacey

Kim Lacey is an Associate Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University. Her research interests include digital rhetoric, artificial intelligence, and memory studies.

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