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A Conflict of Interests

In “Useful Devils” Mark C. Taylor claims that traditional academic discourse communities are out of touch at best and useless & elitist at worst. He further derides academia: “behind sanctimonious declarations about the importance of protecting disinterested investigation and academic freedom, one can easily detect concern about disappearing jobs and the loss of job security (i.e., tenure)” (40). Although Taylor concedes that there is thoughtful criticism against his proposed changes to academia, he fails to list what those legitimate concerns are. Furthermore, Taylor fails time and again to substantiate his claims with credible evidence; as much as one may appreciate the work of Andy Warhol, he lacks any sort of credibility in an argument over higher education. There is also the question of Taylor’s own background, which should give the give the reader cause for concern – Taylor is not simply an educator looking to improve educator, he has financial motives for tearing down the present system of higher education.

Taylor asserts that “new technologies create possibilities for radically novel ways of thinking, reading, writing, and teaching.” (46). Taylor proposes changes to the traditional university without ever bothering to substantiate his claims with any sort of evidence. He launches into a prolonged diatribe based upon the philosophy of a nineteenth-century philosopher, but rejects the wisdom of those who are presently engaged in pedagogical practices in higher education. Taylor also substantiates his claims by offering the memoir of Andy Warhol, who by his own admission, sought to shamelessly prostitute his art only to make money. After some close examination of the ‘evidence’ offered by Taylor, one would conclude that his claims are baseless.

Let us also inspect the background of Mark Taylor to ascertain some ulterior motives located in his proposal. Taylor founded the Global Education Network, who seeks to provide cheap online classes, and although I applaud his efforts – his involvement in such an enterprise would certainly undermine his credibility, especially because of his possible profits from further development of online curriculum. This evidence and more presents some important questions to this entire debate: who are proposing more online classes and why is it so important that we educators dismantle the present university system? I think the answer to this question is rather obvious – follow the money and you’ll find a corporation greedily licking its chops to get its hands on the potential profits of online education.

Taylor’s argument simply does not stand up, the basic problem with commercializing education is that they have no real desire to educate – they merely want profit. Technology may be changing in important ways, but we humans are tied to the ways of learning that are genetically embedded into our psyches. Taylor derides the humanities for resisting the online teaching medium, but the process of learning is often a social one, students will simply lose big so that corporate America can entrench themselves into yet another profit scheme. Just take a look at the graduation rates of online universities and you’ll find that students simply do not operate well in an online learning environment. Taylor is one on a long list of gurus who assert that technology will change the world for the better, but he fails to recall that technology is but a tool in the hands of a human. We are still tied to our humanity – a humanity that the traditional university acknowledges and thus constructs its educational system to more profoundly impact students.

Instead of tearing down traditional university education in the name of progress, we should first rhetorically deconstruct argument to reveal the efficacy of those proposals and the motives of those involved. In my final project I will seek to analyze how the traditional university rhetorically constructs an ideal learning community that is both efficient and fosters discovery. Using the rhetorical theory of Kenneth Burke I will argue that the traditional university system takes advantage of basic human drives to create an environment that directs the creative energies of students in the most effective ways. I will also argue that changes to the present system should only occur to supplement that system, for technology may be able maximize the effect of the learning community upon the student and thus raise graduation rates. In the final analysis, we educators should seek the betterment of humanity, and we should defend a capable institution from those who seek financial gain at the expense of human advancement.

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In “The Lost Art of Political Argument” Christopher Lasch lapses into repeated hasty generalizations that border on the absurd if not morally repugnant. In one of his most spurious correlations Lasch proposes that debate began to decline “when the press became more responsible, more professional more conscious of its civic obligations” (291). That certainly makes perfect sense, an entire industry acting on behalf of the civic good of their consumers! When has that ever happened? Lasch has his journalism history wrong, here are the facts. There had always been a separation between the ‘yellow’ journalism of the sort that delved into partisan politics. Those newspapers became increasingly radical and alienated a new readership of literate middle-class Americans. The rise of the modern objective newspaper coincided directly with the implementation of public education throughout America, and because the newly literate were not as interested in politics as the average white, land owning male (the 18th century literate generation of newspaper readers), the newspapers that offered objective reporting gained market share.

This mysterious leap from political newspapers to “civically virtuous” ones is simply a fallacious myth spread about by those who seek to tear down an important facet of American Democracy. In a market economy consumers vote with their dollars, and consumers in the nineteenth century disliked the cantankerous debate that absorbed newspaper writing. They wanted honest, unadulterated, journalistic reporting. Americans should be offended by Lasch’s high-brow political viewpoint that offers Walter Lippmann as evidence of his argument: Americans do not care to involve themselves in politics – its only an activity meant for the elite.

Let us explore Lasch’s viewpoint of public argument: “it is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of ‘opinions’ gives them shape and definition, and makes it possible for others to recognize them as descriptions of their own experience as well” (293). This defense of the polarization of journalism is simply fallacious, for journalism and news information sources must first retain their credibility as unbiased news gatherers – otherwise we’re at the mercy of special interest. In fact, the more recent politicization of Cable news networks, radio talk shows, and internet news sites has created more extreme points of view in the public. The polarization of information really means that points of view have warped an event, idea, or action so that it suits a particular political interest – is this a positive step forward? Lasch asserts that argument is the source of enlightened thinking but does not offer any advice as to how and where these arguments will occur. Those who get their information from FOX News will never listen to NPR and visa versa. If perhaps when they meet in a pub and strike up a conversation they will either think of each other as fascist or communist or will automatically dismiss each other’s views.

What happens when we leave our information news sources up to those who have an ulterior motive? Those who wish us to believe a certain way so that we buy into a precarious banking system on the verge of collapse, fight a health care bill that benefits us and our neighbors who do not have health insurance, not regulate banks that just killed our economy into recession, or not believe in those who are doing their best to help us. If we lapse into the dark extremism we know exactly where we will end up, as a historian Lasch should know better – it was the Nazis, the fascists, the communists, and the totalitarians that polarized their news media and warped the public’s perception of reality. What happens when people become extremists? They don’t argue civilly – they create civil war! That’s why its important that we have a fair and objective media – so that our perception of reality, based upon our information, does not lead us into destruction. Lasch is mistaken – there is no argument to be found when Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spout off their fascist viewpoints, they’re preaching to a choir that chirp back ‘amen.’ If anything, those talk show hosts are merely indoctrinating there listeners into cults of personalities who have little substance to offer.

 

Response to Questions

I get most of my information from NPR, they offer the most compelling and well-rounded information sources to the public. Although I have subscribed to a newspaper in the past, I find that I can get most of what I want to know from CNN.com,Yahoo.com, or bbc.com. I think that most of the news information sources that I have traditionally relied upon have not delved in that chasm of politicization. However, I see a new breed of commentators like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage that are polarizing important political discussions in America.

Newspapers are important for the very same reasons we need writers in general. Journalist creatively combine information together so that it is accessible to the broad public. The newspaper becomes a platform with which readers can form their own opinions based upon the exigencies that exist in their own lives, and not from the vantage point of special interests. I fear that as a medium that promotes homogenous civic engagement, when newspapers leave us we will lapse into sectarianism in an extreme and violent scale. We think ourselves more evolved than our counterparts of the nineteenth century, but we are just as likely to take to the streets and kill in defense of something in which we believe. Americans need to wake up and stop being dogmatically pushed politically, there are some things worth saving even if they do not follow our political belief 100% of the time. As an academic, its worthless to be told exactly what I want to hear – our information source should challenge us.

I found Winner’s argument most persuasive, I think there is this fallacious idea spread about that change will occur by itself. Technology, the internet, and computers are just tools – its what we do with tools that matters. I can take a hammer and build a house, but I can also take a hammer a whack somebody over the head – is it the tool that built the house or the person wielding it? We need to be more thoughtful about the ways we are composing our perception of reality, the technological tools that we use may enable us to really go off the deep end if we don’t watch it. Rhetoric offers important lessons here: we are in charge of our perception – we create reality. I think an education in rhetoric is really the answer for the next generation of impressionable and technologically savvy global citizens – we educators need to start promoting rhetoric as a necessary component to secondary and high school education. Question everything – that’s the one principle everyone should live by.

Newspapers are losing their stock value. This reality has plagued media-company boards and shareholders are crying to editors to cut the salaries and ranks of newspaper staff to retain their high profit margins. Merrill Brown Eric Alterman certainly expound at length upon the rather dismal future that print media faces, but they refuses to acknowledge the rather large elephant in the room: newspapers are still making money, they’re just making less of it.

Throughout the twentieth century, print media held a monopoly in newsgathering activity – everyone bought a newspaper. It was truly the only consistent source of information that one needed to conduct one’s affairs. From sports to classifieds, the newspaper was a necessity that most urban American dwellers could do without. Rural communities had newspapers that may have differed in style to their city slicker counterparts because their needs were agriculturally centered, but farming communities throughout America also maintained their collective identities through print media. With such a large and dependant readership, newspapers could easily sell advertising – there were no other competitors. Newspaper organization, in essence, had a monopoly on information, and their shareholders raked in record profits every quarter. Eric Alterman remarks that “to own the dominant, or only, newspaper in a mid-sized American city was, for many decades, a kind of license to print money” (2). Print media was traditionally one of the most profitable places to invest, and with 20% – 40% returns shareholders grew accustomed to substantial returns – who could blame them?

The days of high-profit margins are over for print media – they will never return. The age that made a monopoly of information possible disappeared with the introduction of web-based information technology, the pool of information resources grows ever larger. Simply put, the families and shareholders that own today’s print media should no longer expect to have the same profit margins that they had in the past. For better or worse, the profitability of news and information has shrunk, and because of the freedom of the internet, the public no longer feels an obligation to pay for information. From Craigslist to Yahoo News, the public has grown accustomed to a free information source.

The reluctance to accept the reality of a lack of financial growth is leading to some alarming developments. What has been the response of company shareholders to the new news reality? Eric Alterman reveals a troubling reality:

Since 1990, a quarter of all American newspaper jobs have disappeared. The columnist Molly Ivins complained, shortly before her death, that the newspaper companies’ solution to their problem was to make ‘our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.’ (2)

Although it makes perfect business sense to cut the ranks of a corporation that is not making their expected profits – it simply does not work with a news organization. If anything, shareholders need to spend more money on staff and sections that readers find helpful. Shareholders need to expect that their profits will decrease, but if they pare down their employees, they will reduce their companies into irrelevance. America’s print media organizations are fundamental to the news gathering infrastructure, and the newspapers is important because it provides news that is not polarized: “it is designed to appeal to a broad audience, with conflicting values and opinions, by virtue of its commitment of objectivity” (Alterman 2). Losing the newspapers will locate our information into politically and ideologically slanted organizations and writers, and although the blogosphere purports itself to be free and democratic, it simply has not shown the levels of objectivity that the print media has traditionally exhibited. In the final analysis, print media shareholders and owners need to rise above their station as profiteers and become caretakers of a valued resource. Although intentionally disregarding the appeal of high profit margins is seemingly un-American, to destroy an objective and balanced resource will destroy part of what makes one American in the first place.

Hypertext allows an internet user to click on a word, name, or link and be sent away from a page to another site – where a web user may further explore the implications of that information. Davida Charney explores the effect of hypertext on the reading and writing process, and although Charney’s essay was written well before the internet became singularly influential, her assessment of hypertext is prophetic.

As a researcher, former travel writer, and scholar I find great agreement with Charney’s assertion that hypertext can benefit the writing process. It enables the invention process by aiding the writer to generate and select ideas as well as find collaborative opportunities with other writer throughout the web-based world. Hypertext and the internet allows researchers to “access information in the sequence, volume, and format that best suits their needs at the time” (Grice 22 quoted in Charney 87). Web developers ostensibly created a system that was perfectly tailored to each visitor’s needs and constraints. Don’t have enough time to sift through an entire tome of Shakespeare to find a quote? Search engines will help even the most lackluster English Major find his/her heart’s desire.

Charney skillfully explores the positive implications of hypertext, but in an extended prolepsis she offers the positive attributes of hypertext only to launch into a criticism of hypertext. Here her rhetorical ability is most apparent with her development of an enthymeme: “if the goal is to ensure that readers consider a specific set of associations, then a highly organized text format is more likely to achieve that aim than an amorphous network” (89). Charney begins her attack on hypertext by first offering the assertions of researchers who promote the value of hypertext, but she then proceeds to defeat and delegitimize the argument of hypertexts defenders. Charney increases the persuasion of her argument by seeming to be a neutral researcher when her overall strategy is rooted in the desire to delegitimize hypertext. Note how Charney sums up her argument that readers are encumbered by hypertext with a syllogism – a group of ideas working in tandem to produce a culminating argument: “hypertexts, by shifting a large portion of this burden to the reader, by proliferating the readers’ choices about what portions of a text to read and in what order, compound the difficulties of creating a coherent mental representation” (91). Charney’s use of rhetorical strategy allows her to fluidly present proponents of hypertext only to defeat them swiftly using rhetorical moves.

Charney’s Jeremiad implores researchers to “find ways within hypertext to provide appropriate discourse cues, cues that help readers decide what to read, how much to read, and when to read the rich array of information available on the network” (103). The academic community has created search engines that are cognizant of such warnings, yet the vast internet network of information has largely developed without any protocols that aid the work of readers. Instead we find that the capitalistic economy of the internet has created a system that constantly seeks to distract the attention of the reader. Each hypertext, link, and advertisement endeavors to entice away the web user to their site, thus the appeal of the internet as an educational tool is lost in a maze of distraction. In the final analysis, the internet has changed the linear thinking that once helped readers read deeply and thoughtfully. We find Charney’s worst fear surface in the modern age: we are distracted readers who retain information disjointedly.

A Manifesto in Doubt

The internet has certainly revolutionized the way consumers interact with businesses. In decades past if one had an issue with a product or service, snail mail and customer service representatives were the only available avenues for complaint. The internet has given businesses the ability to see, in real-time, complaints, problems, and issues associated with their products. This ability has revolutionized how businesses approach industrial design, product management, and targeted marketing schemes. Is this a better world for the consumer? Is it better for a democratic society?

Jose Van Dijck’s critique raises some alarming questions: Is America is quickly becoming a corporate totalitarian state? This is not a state where a single dictator commands the multitude, but a country where the interests of the multi-national conglomerate are put before those of the middle and lower class American/immigrant – the numerical majority. This process is accomplished rhetorically, for beyond the billions spent on lobbyists – corporations create personas that seem friendly and benevolent. A good example of this is Exxon’s new marketing campaign where they depict scientists who are working on clean energy technologies, but in reality few resources are devoted to research that might conflict with Exxon’s desire to find new oil fields.

Jose Van Dijck’s critique of the latest Web 2.0 manifestos reveals a powerful rhetorical framework that seeks to convince internet users ( and nonusers) that the technological age before humanity will be a new dawn of a synergistic cooperation between consumers and business. Like other manifestos, Web 2.0 seeks “to fashion a new or rehabilitated universal ideal that serves the interests of everyone, and whose benefits are superior to any previous ideal (Lyon, 1999 in Van Dijck, 2009). Certainly these egalitarian motives are laudable, yet any ideology becomes problematic when it indulges in the fantasy that all members of society maintain the same tastes and ambitions.

Upon thoughtful rhetorical analysis, Web 2.0 manifestos reveal some striking fallacies that should give any believer pause. A hasty generalization or faulty significance occurs when asserting that what is true about a part is true about all parts; this fallacy is particularly dangerous when forming political ideology. Fascism and Communism certainly demonstrated how the perception that all members of a group are uniformly united behind an ideal can become violently dangerous – that kind of solidarity is impossible and it creates an ideology that is seemingly unchallengeable legitimately. Van Dijck notes that “it is a far stretch to extend the spirit of collectivism to all (commercial and non-commercial) endeavors on the internet by assigning a collective, goal-driven consciousness to all users.” The faulty reasoning of the Web 2.0 authors offers an opportunity to understand that the internet is a reflection of human society. A collective identity is bound together by certain ideals, but individuals have varying levels of participation within smaller to larger groups. It can be argued that the internet, in fostering solitary activity, fosters smaller and more defined collective identities that may center around a single common activity (gaming, chat rooms, dating, etc.), but those collective identities lose their significance when they venture beyond the pale of that activity.

There may indeed be many dedicated and devoted Web 2.0 webeconomic employees, slaving away in the glow of the blue LED light of their computer screens – making the net a better places one keystroke at a time. Although I applaud any type of ideology that fosters togetherness and cooperation – beliefs that attribute the actions of the few to the many are simply repulsive and dangerous. Manifestos and rhetorics of this sort often obscure a more sinister plot to undermine independence and creativity as “they all claim a brave new world where the spirits of commonality are finally merged with the interests of capitalism” (870). Note Van Dijck’s warning: “this is the power of technologies and regulatory systems governing our everyday lives and defining individual identities vis-à-vis collective identities” (871). American intellectual independence will be lost slowly through a series of technological developments that invite greater influence over critical thinking by those who seek consumerist drones to buy their products.

Davida Charney’s apocalyptic glimpse to a literary future where concentration levels would make any gnat proud should give the English major in all of us pause. Although it is certain that a world connected through streams of information maybe the road to utopian harmony, Nicholas Carr warns “the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle” (1). There is certainly great value in a system of information that aids the researcher to draw upon enormous resources of data, but one should be aware of how technological advances will alter the form and functionality of information. Even as language and literacy constructs human consciousness – so do changes in that literacy alter that linguistically founded consciousness. The argument may be offered that those changes will be positive or negative, yet I hesitate to predict if those concerns will impede the public thirst for an ever expanding pool of knowledge.

Hypertext, like most innovations of information systems, is directly related to the bibliography pages found at the end of scholarly texts. We scholars often peruse through the back pages of a text to find articles that may aid our research; in the past we ventured forth to the library for a text and more recently we located online journals using academic search engines. Internet developers, familiar with those scholarly desires, endeavored to simplify the process of locating citations. Our internet gurus may have had egalitarian motives, yet their innovation merely perfected an academic desire to further link ideas together – that is the true value of hypertext. However, it is the ease of hypertext that contends with levels of concentration, for perhaps hypertext easily allows a reader to become held hostage by that very human characteristic of perfectionism. It’s what Kenneth Burke referred to being “rotten with perfection.” We are never satisfied with what we have, and in the pursuit of information we skip from one idea to the next searching for a more perfect union of ideas.

I contend that this desire for a more perfect union of ideas fosters disunity and disorganization, for the value that an author offers readers is not merely perceptive insights but in structuring and organizing ideas into a comprehensible form. Note Charney’s conclusion of the cognitive dimension of textual organization:

In fact, the development of linear text form, with their careful sequencing of ideas, may not reflect constraints of the print medium so much as the needs of readers and writers, who depend on the text to help them effectively sequence the flow of ideas through focal attention. (89)

Walter Ong’s research into of how thought processes are different in orally-based culture and literate culture emphasizes the importance of Charney’s statement, for changes in literacy will certainly effect the methods by which the human brain processes information. If the Google empire gets its way, every human brain will eventually have a direct link into the internet, and although I find the idea of memory augmentation attractive – how will that innovation effect my perception of reality?

Steven Johnson and others argue that advances in information technology have certainly impacted the new generation’s ability to immerse themselves in a text for long periods of time: “we may all read books the way we read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit here” (4). However, the average American teenager writes more than the generation before – it may be in text, email, or Facebook, but the amount of contact with writing and reading has risen exponentially in the past few years. The enormous popularity of the Harry Potter and Twilight novels, where teens stand in lines for hours to purchase their copy, is evidence that literacy is changing but it certainly is not disappearing. The organizational demands that literacy embeds in the human brain will not disappear – there will be organizational changes related to types of information, but I am certain that generations to come will be more literate, more educated, and will vastly improve their understanding of the human condition. Perhaps the Mayans had it right, will 2012 be the birth of a new humanity? European Westerners linked their socio-religious fears of an apocalypse to the Mayan calendars, yet for the Mayans, 2012 marks the beginning a new a more perfect human culture – maybe its time to invest in Google if you haven’t already.

“Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven” – William Shakespeare. Rhetoric examines the ways in which we come to believe and asks “how do we know what we know?” The rise of the printing press is of particular importance to the rhetorician because of its alacrity to distribute and disseminate knowledge, beliefs, and challenges to ways of thinking. It was the printing industry that really sparked the rise in academic pursuits, for scholars could exchange ideas and innovations rather easily over great distanced and do so at relative little expense. Certainly we might find a similar evolution in the scholar’s ability to access articles via library databases, search engines, and, of course, online scholarly articles.

A discussion of the methods of transmitting information is important to the discussion of how technological innovation has sparked the advancement of knowledge throughout Western societies. The printing industry, crucial to the dissemination of knowledge, was uniformly reliant upon the means by which printed material is moving from the local to the national and international. Research into the technological and systemization of information conduits is important into understanding how the contest between governmental and underground control over the flow of information transforms the rhetorical capabilities of information. The present research into Early Modern European information transmission system is inadequate, and the purpose of this essay is to offer some clarification into the importance of informational conduit systems.

The hallmark of modern society is the active and consistent transmittal of information. The systemization of a reliable postal service was an extremely important development in early modern European society. A reliable and working postal system allowed the transmission of ideas both domestically and internationally. The importance of a reliable postal system should not be overlooked, for cultural, political, and ideological developments of Western society were habitually dependant upon communication.

France and England both officially organized their respective postal services in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was extremely important to the monarchs of England and France that they control the flow of information both internationally and domestically. The postal system, that is the governmental courier service, was systematized through royal decree. The postmaster, the royal appointed overseer, maintained a vast network of couriers and post offices (or posts). Logistical and organizational obstacles required a capable administrator who could maintain domestic and international communication.

The differences between the English and French Royal Post and courier services were immense. The English Royal Postal service was slow and corrupt, while the French Courier services were fast and reliable. International Postal couriers who carried ambassadorial communications needed to be fluent in the lingua franca of the respective countries through which he was traveling. France and England required international couriers to carry official papers on their route, health, and nationality. Employment in the postal service was an extremely dangerous occupation; bad weather, thieves, plague, and international relations placed the courier’s life at risk.

Diplomatic relations in early modern Europe could not have existed without a Postal and courier service. French and English governments relied upon loyal couriers to convey ambassadorial information. More importantly, diplomatic relations were based entirely upon the communication of monarchial governments whose communicated through couriers. Royal governments had to be certain of the loyalty of their couriers, for the outcome of war, commercial developments, and other vital information could be compromised if state secrets were to fall in the wrong hands. Consequently, most ambassadors began their careers as royal couriers, for their trust was certain and their international savvy proven.

The postal service became the foundation of espionage in both France and England. It is important to note that domestic uprisings were crippled by the intelligence gained from seized letters, as in the Jacobite resistance in England. Some couriers were trusted spies who worked internationally for their respective governments; reporting on troop movements and governmental developments their services became the basis for modern international espionage.

There must be further research into technological innovations of the transmission of knowledge during the Early Modern Period of European History because it clarifies how modern information systems are constructed. One must consider how information is disseminated to determine how control of information influences what a populace comes to acknowledge something as truth. In the final analysis, the means by which information is presented to us limits what we know, therefore, we must rhetorically analyze informational systems to ascertain their significance.