What kind of techknowledgey is hidden in computer code?

Greg Ulmer introduced the concept of “mystory” in his monograph/textbook hybrid, Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. Ever one to feel clever from using word constructions worthy of Dr. Frankenstein, Ulmer’s vocabulary can drive any spell-check system to distraction. But the constant shifting of terminology was intentional. He wanted readers (indeed, students and teachers) to likewise constantly rearrange and recombine ideas in thought-provoking ways. His proposed EmerAgency “is an institutional form, with the mystory as one of its practices, designed to work with the internet as the larger institutional context that will be to electracy what school was to literacy” (29). He aimed to create school-like activities appropriate for the kinds of connections and activities made common through Internet technologies.

Students in the EmerAgency would create a mystory which revealed their engagement with, and growth from, online communities. In that spirit, I created a traditional writing prompt for my Writing in Digital Spaces class called Techknowledgey. This prompt comes after a brief discussion of coding and gaming. Those activities are ways of interacting with texts made possible through digital computers. In the writing prompt, then, I ask students, “How does running or executing text influence (y)our understanding, study, or implementation of rhetoric?” I want students to consider the affordances of Ian Bogost’s procedural rhetorics and the contexts of Trevor Owens’ cultural rhetorics of gameplay. I want them to think about how writing and rhetoric change when our audience is a computer, not a person.

My Experience with Techknowledgey

As I write this essay, I keep staring at the SEO and Readability scores from Yoast. They appear vividly right below the text as I create it, constantly reminding me how I’m doing. For now, the SEO score is an orange straight-faced icon. The Readability score is a green smiley face. Things were touch-and-go in the preceding paragraph; apparently my sentences got long enough to dissatisfy the algorithm. Heavens. But I have found over the years that drafting essays and talks in this space offers me several distinct advantages:

  • WordPress auto-saves my work, helpful for times when I’m likely to get interrupted often.
  • WordPress is accessible from any device, so I can continue working any time I have a relevant thought.
  • The Yoast SEO algorithm keeps me aware of the expectations of online public writing (as opposed to classroom academic writing).
  • My writing is clearer as a result of that obnoxious, infantilizing smiley feedback mechanism.

So as much as I despise the low bar set for online writing, I find it helpful for my own work. This same system leads to those endless, pointless, useless stories about food we have to scroll through when searching for recipes. We hate them, but they work.

My Challenge

Writing for SEO works toward a goal, for sure. But to be clear, that goal is not the same as good writing, at least for a human audience. I like to try and blend the two. I usually write first with students or colleagues in mind, depending on the topic. Then only after I’ve written what I think would have the desired effect on my audience do I consider the needs of SEO (still orange) and Yoast’s Readability score (still a green smiley!). I like to see whether I can appeal to both at once. And to be honest, this silly challenge has helped me become more aware of my sentence length and use of passive voice. It’s been a while since I’ve worried so intently about mechanics, and these tools provide clear reminders.

It seems I gain some techknowledgey through my use of WordPress. When I share ideas with students or colleagues through my blog, in the form of posts that meet SEO requirements, I get essentially an extra set of eyes on my writing as I write. And the particular expectations of this digital overlord speak directly to my weaknesses as an academic writer: I write lengthy sentences and avoid the active voice far too often. I learn through this process.

My Obsession with Techknowledgey

In my recent discussion of the social influences on rhetoric, I pointed out the importance of document design. I obsess over document design. From the time I spent making my local church’s newsletter while in middle school, through the newsletter of UCF’s Department of Writing & Rhetoric, I’ve always enjoyed presenting information to communities in professional, digestible, accessible formats. That trend continued in the classroom. I take great care as a teacher to make sure the documents I distribute in class look good while also clearly performing their functions. And I’m quite proud of how my edited collection turned out. I can’t tell you how long I obsessed over the typography and layout of that book. I think it looks gorgeous and is easy to read. It’s also available in multiple formats (print paperback/Kindle, hyperlinked PDF, low-waste self-print PDF, and audiobook) to appeal to a variety of audience needs.

To make all those document designs work, I spend a lot of time telling computers how to create the designs I want. I use the XeLaTeX typesetting system for my printed documents because it allows me to pay attention to the aspects of document design I enjoy while it takes care of the banalities that annoy me. For the curious, here’s a handout about HTML coding I recently distributed in class. Students often say my handouts look especially professional—a compliment I appreciate. That compliment also makes me laugh when it comes from people who use TNR 12-point/1″ margins for everything. I can’t help but wonder why more teachers don’t encourage students to make their own design decisions. But I digress.

My Techknowledgey Metaphor

When I write documents in TeX or blog posts in WordPress, I’m not writing directly to a person. I’m writing to a computer that I’m asking to write to a person on my behalf. It occurred to me this morning, while writing this current post, that this process can be explained with a metaphor I use in a completely unrelated situation: driving a Tesla. Think of the difference between playing a piano and playing an organ. That’s the same as the difference between writing to a person and writing for a computer. It’s also the same as the difference between driving a traditional gas-powered car and driving a Tesla with Autopilot.

Whether we talk about a person playing the organ, a writer writing for SEO, or a driver managing Tesla Autopilot, in each case the person has to learn how to direct the machine to do what they want done. They’re still doing fundamentally the same task (playing music, creating a document, or driving a car), but instead of doing it directly, they provide guidance to a machine and monitor the outcome, changing it to meet their specific needs. In that way, creating text to be executed by a computer provides a layer of abstraction that complicates the rhetorical situation. This, to me, is techknowledgey—the blend of digital tech and . Writing code requires the writer to think abstractly about goals and to appeal to two layers of audience simultaneously. That dual-layer thinking takes time, effort, and an entirely new skill set. Writing in digital spaces is hard.