Literacy, Rhetorical Situations, and Technology

Perhaps there is something to the notion Richard Ohmann opens his piece with, that a title with three interchangeable words or phrases is an indication that the article will be nonsense. After all, how many three-word (or three-phrase) articles appear in journals that seem completely baseless or utterly dry? Ohmann’s essay on “Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital” definitely seems one of the latter, and yet it kept drawing me back with a ring of truth. While I found myself constantly lamenting the dryness of the article, I too found myself agreeing with many of the arguments he makes throughout the piece, particularly his thoughts on how varying forms of literacy are related to power dynamics in society.

What is literacy (in America, at least) but a buzz word used by those in power to prove American exceptionalism on the one hand or lament our declining education system on the other? Bitzer’s ideas of rhetorical situations rang through my head as I read Ohmann’s piece, as Ohmann’s arguments relate clear rhetorical situations (those related to the powerful keeping control of the masses) that have shaped our ideas of literacy, both in relation to the written word and to technology itself. Rhetorical situations seem particularly useful to consider when regarding the thought experiments highlighted on pages 704-705 of the article. These thought experiments, after all, are built on rethinking the rhetorical situations that led to the introduction of varying technologies. I found myself trying to come up with a thought exercise just as “in-some-ways absurd” as the rest to fit with instance “d” regarding computers, planning to build my blog post around that, but found it an exceedingly difficult task (705). Most of what I came up with was so impractical in today’s world (i.e. what if computers had first been introduced for “the masses” in the 1950s when commercial computers were beginning to become a reality?), or simply too difficult to actually answer without being a simple “what if?” (i.e. what if the first working computer had been invented by a Brit or an American, not a German whose work was largely unnoticed by the U.K. and the U.S. for many years due to WWII?). Suffice it to say that attention to rhetorical situations is clearly important when exploring technology literacy, as this is clearly Ohmann’s intent with his listed thought experiments.

Instead of focusing on the thought exercises, I am now drawn to questions regarding the relationship between discourse communities and the varying literacies they can claim. Taking student organizations at NDSU as an example, the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) club has a completely different level of computer literacy than, say, the English Club. Ohmann seems to fall short of associating high levels of computer literacy with higher classes in our society, but I have a feeling that is precisely where he would stand at this point in time. Consider the social standing of an English major over a Computer Science or Computer Engineering major in America today! With that in mind, some questions emerge.

Question 1: Is it fair to say that computer literacy is associated with class status? How might the proliferation of computers and even more advanced technologies (smart phones, smart TVs, etc.) complicate this claim?

Question 2: What forms of resistance to the top-down approaches to literacy mentioned in Ohmann’s piece are visible in our society (if there are any)?

Question 3: How might new media scholars and pedagogues respond to Ohmann’s argument that “technique is less important than context and purpose in the teaching of literacy” (713)?


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