Writing as a Cyborg Act

Photoshopped image of a Canon lens grafted into an eye. Creepy, but arguably helpful for this photographer.

Writing something by hand these days can easily become an act of frustration, if not embarrassment. I’m one of many people I’ve chatted with who believes writing in cursive would be difficult and rather unnatural any more. Most of my peers and students say they can type faster than they can hand-write anything. Advances in voice-recognition technology allow people to write without using their hands at all, composing as quickly as they can speak.

My previous paragraph, though brief, is full of a number of assumptions about writing, and I’d like to unpack them for a minute. I believe these assumptions expose the insidious nature of cyborg influences on our culture. I say “insidious” not to suggest these influences are bad, but rather to say they happen without our notice. By paying attention to our interactions with technology, we bring awareness to our process and our thinking.

In Writing Technology: Studies on the Materiality of Literacy, Christina Haas explains that the very nature of writing means that technology is always involved. The first assumption used in the paragraph above is that handwriting is not a form of technology. However, any form of handwriting requires the use of a tool that has been created and manufactured as is any technology. Simply recalling that the ballpoint pen was an invention of the first half of the 20th century helps put these technological developments into perspective. While I have stated that writing requires technology, Haas states the reverse: that without technology, writing cannot happen. “In a very real way, verbal behavior without technological tools is not, and cannot be, writing” (xi). We can communicate by voice without technology, but if we want to write something, we must pick up a tool in order to make that happen. The nature of the writing we do is determined by the told that we choose to use.

The way we write when we write by hand is significantly different from the way we write when typing. Yet because keyboard-based composition is so ubiquitous, we often forget the influence he can have on our creative processes. In other words, writing a computer is so common and so pervasive and so ever-present that we have stopped discussing it. As Haas explains:

“Viewing technology as transparent encourages a belief that writers can use computer technology without being shaped by it, and therefore discourages any examination of how technology shapes discourse.” (22)

We often forget that writing implicitly requires technology. Instead, we often imagine that the technology we use doesn’t exist. As our technology becomes more advanced and more ubiquitous, this effort to imagine a transparent or nonexistent technology becomes a form of self-deception that means we are unaware of our true composing process. We have already become cyborg, yet we neither recognize nor admit it. I’d like to discuss three examples: the text we write, the technology we use, and the content of our media.

The Texts We Write

Inked diagram in bound notebook. What shall we cook?
Jazz DiMauro on Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND

With the advent of hypertext, even the words we create take on a dual nature, a cyborgian twist, or a sense of determined identity. What before had been merely passive words on a page, waiting to be read, text can now take an active role: our documents can link us to other documents. Note that we never say an author links us to another document; it is the word itself — the link – that does the linking and that makes the connection.

This is an important turn that goes beyond the reader’s experience and beyond a simple response to the text. When text performs a role, becoming an active agent in its own right, the process of reading adopts a conversational element. The hyperlinked text provides its own cues to help readers understand or further explore the topic at hand. Readers of hyperlinked text have expectations of that text. We expect words we are unfamiliar with to be linked to definitions or Wikipedia entries. We expect names of people to link to prominent works or biographies. We expect words representing complex concepts to link to detailed explanations, elaborations for greater understanding, or even videos illustrating the concept.

Hyperlinked texts present a cyborg face: they are there to be read, but they are also there to direct. For those of us who teach writing courses, the hybrid nature of today’s writing warrants serious consideration: how often do we ask our students to create text that contains more information than simply the words? Composition instructors should be teaching students how to enhance their documents by providing links to outside sources as direct connections to the content of their writing. Essentially, this is akin to teaching citation and references, except that relevant links deliberately placed at significant points in a text can be far more helpful to the end reader than a simple list of static entries combined together at the end.

The Technology We Use

Finger aaaaaaalmost touching a glowing-white device screen. Is that…that right there…is that the future?
Chris Friend on Flickr; CC BY-NC

Back in January 2010, Apple released the original iPad, and their marketing department created a promotional video that introduced the product to the public. The first words of this promotional video were from Apple’s design engineer, Jonathan Ive: “You know, it’s true. When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical.” The company’s intention in designing this product was to release and popularize a technology that worked in ways its users do not understand. Two years later, when introducing the third generation of the same device, the VP in charge of iPad product marketing, Michael Tchao, opened a revised version of the same video with a related thought: “We believe technology is at its very best when it’s invisible—when you’re conscious only of what you’re doing, not the device you’re doing it with.” Their explicit goal is to create a product you don’t notice that works in ways you don’t understand. Apple is trying to create technology that disappears, a sort of cloaking device built from the user experience.

Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, holds the philosophy and goal of invisibility as the holy grail of product design, arguing that if users need to think about how they use a product, the thinking prevents them from using the product naturally. Similarly, he distinguishes between “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world,” arguing that the two types of knowledge can be usefully and productively balanced, but encouraging product designers to rely on knowledge in the world to help give users the exact information and feedback they need only at the moment when they need it. The goal of invisible technology is to remove extraneous knowledge in the world, a kind of mind-clearing in physical space.

By making technology so transparent, companies make it increasingly difficult for educators to train students to notice the role of technology in their lives. Our increasing reliance on technology in our everyday lives should make the role of technology easier to spot. However, much of the reason that technology has become so prominent is specifically because it is transparent; people use the technology because they feel they aren’t using anything. To them, technology feels normal. Asking our students to critically evaluate their use of technology is asking them to analyze a part of their cyborg identity. Technology becomes a part of how they interact, how they understand the world around them, and even how they develop their identities. Of course, this cyborg integration
isn’t limited to students. When’s the last time you left your house without your cell phone? We may not look the part of the antagonistic Borg from Star Trek, but the transition to integrated technology and distributed cognition may be more gradual, gentle, and natural-feeling than the insidious assimilation of science fiction.

The Content of Our Media

Image of Walter Cronkite on television from 1973. The good ol' days, right?
Vin Crosbie on Flickr; CC BY-ND

The hybrid or cyborg trend extends into the media we consume. In Remediation, Bolter and Grusin use a special term for crossing traditional boundaries of media — in other words, things that either use multiple media simultaneously or that take on the characteristics of other, more familiar media. they call this boundary crossing “hypermediacy”, and the effect is most clearly seen on modern television news channels. The medium of television news traditionally featured a single reporter on-screen, reading the news to the audience in a manner very familiar to radio listeners. Over time, television news took on its own characteristics and combined remediated radio news reporting with benefits of television: the reporter’s image occasionally shifted to the side to make room for a picture-in-picture image highlighting some detail of a report. Fast-forward to today’s broadcasts, and we find television emulating the World Wide Web. Screens that once held little more than the image of Walter Cronkite now contain a reporter, possibly a panel, picture-in-picture details, a stock-ticker style headline report, current weather conditions, and more.

I recently noticed additional crossover from reading practices on the Internet in a recent update to the book-reading software for iPads. The original version of this application was designed to carefully mimic traditional printed books, complete with realistic page-turning graphics, colors that replicate faded book paper, and digital bookmarks represented by red tabs flipped over the edge of a page. The new version added a continual-scrolling feature, allowing an entire book to be read as a single unending page, forever scrolling vertically. It seems, at least from Apple’s perspective, that the single-page scenario of the Internet is perhaps preferable to the age-old feel of turning pages.

In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t intend to turn on that feature, preferring to leave my tablet in a permanent state of hybrid existence. It presents pages to me as though a traditional bound book, while still clearly offering features of modern technology.

The Challenging Middle Ground

Busy intersection full of pedestrians crossing every which way. Pretty sure a few occupy the same space as each other.
Sam Javanrouh on Flickr; CC BY-NC

All these combinations and in-betweens present real problems for teachers trying to help students work with writing in the digital age. Not only do we need to get students familiar with traditional reading and writing, nor do we only need to teach how to use modern technology. Our students need to be able to balance and navigate the changing expectations of complex digital environments. Writers need to understand that today’s text is both a product and a performer. They need to understand that the technology we use is both invisible and ever-present. They need to see that the content we create takes on characteristics from other forms of content that came before.

Old people (and I include myself in this grouping) often complain that young children learn new technologies without problems, while those with experience and your endless frustrations. If modern communications grow out of so many situations with a cyborg dimension to them, I wonder how we can expect anyone to gain sufficient experience with these environments to gain competence in them. Our students need to become masters of the middle – effectively balancing the two halves of hybrid writing and cyborg existence as they create material that sits in with today’s expectations. That’s a tall order.