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On June 5th-7th, I attended the workshop portion of the Rhetoric Society of America’s biennial summer institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Finally got to use that Dept. Rhetorical Travel Award I won last August!)

The workshop I attended, Rhetoric’s Algorithms, was hosted by Dr. Jim Brown (Rutgers University) and Annette Vee (University of Pittsburgh). They described the workshop as:

More than just tools to produce text, image, or sound, computational procedures are persuasive and expressive. In this workshop, we’ll dive deeper into the machine: We’ll consider the rhetoric of computation by examining code itself as rhetorical. By annexing code into rhetoric, we can reconsider both the rhetorical possibilities of algorithms and the algorithmic possibilities of language production and persuasion. Thus, in this workshop we will aim to see how both rhetoric and computation change in light of the other. Given the ever-expanding role of digital computers in our various rhetorical ecologies, it is essential that rhetoricians build theoretical tools for grappling with computation’s various rhetorical dimensions. The workshop will take up emerging work in rhetorical theory that addresses computation (including a forthcoming special issue of Computational Culture edited by the workshop leaders). However, attendees will also undertake algorithmic re-readings of foundational rhetorical texts.

The workshop was a great networking experience. The group was evenly divided between individuals interested in rhetoric as machinic/ process/ algorithm and those (like myself) who are interested in computation/ algorithms as rhetorical. To introduce our work, each participant prepared a short 20 slides X 20 second presentation. Mine was “What is data?” and looked at the substance of born-digital, found, social data that is commonly used in big social analytic applications (that presentation is included below).

While I am happy I attended the workshop, I did find myself wishing we had discussed scale and contemporary technology more. As a hands on workshop, we did tinkering exercises throughout with early computer programs (such as Stachey’s Love Letter Generator), and that was a lot of fun and showed us the value of opening up the “black box” for creative exploration/ learning. However, the tinkering was an exercise with small machines and the concepts we discussed were largely attached to this level of analysis. I frequently asked, if our technologies and tools are scaling upwards, how should our rhetorical concepts change to scale up as well? I am glad RSA is beginning to pay attention to computation and rhetoric (another workshop led by Collin Gifford Brooke discussed Rhetorics and Networks), yet I still feel the discipline is behind the curve by at least a decade.

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