Porter, “Why technology matters to writing: A cyberwriter’s tale”

Porter, James E. “Why Technology Matters to Writing: A CyberWriter’s Tale.” Computers & Composition 20 (2004): 375-394.

As Porter writes early in this article, he offers his own literacy narrative—specifically focused on writing technologies—in order to consider this question: “How have writing technologies changed my writing process, my conception of writing, and my understanding of rhetoric over time” (377)? Or more concisely, given that “technology matters to writing”, “Why and how does technology matter to writing” (376)?

Porter specifically contrasts his article with David Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixels”: Baron’s argument, as described by Porter, is that “the computer is just another in a long line of writing technologies…these tools foster incremental change that aids our writing process—but writing, language, and communication remain pretty much the same as before” (384). Porter, on the other hand, agrees that technology builds from one another—he alludes to QWERTY as being a calling card of the typewriter—he believes that the emergence of the new writing environment via the new technologies constitute a (“rhetorical”) revolution. Porter’s revolution might be distilled into two premises: (1) his understanding of what constitutes technology, and (2) specifically, how new technologies are re-organizing social networks. Both points, really, are interrelated

Toward he first point, Porter attributes Baron’s miscalculation on his focus on the computer: “rather the revolution is networked computer and the social/rhetorical contexts it creates and the ways its use impacts publishing practices. All that is revolutionary” (284-5). Here, the key idea is first “networked” and also “use”–“The revolution lies in use” (285). Alluding to posthumnist approaches to technology (see: Hayles; Haraway), technologies are enmeshed with social/human activity and vice versa. A technological instrumentalist approach ignores the social fabric that all technology is tethered to. Instead, as his narrative notes, technologies redefine how and who he connected with. He specifically points to the role of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger): “a group of people who were learning and theorizing and teaching each other about new writing technologies…Much of this learning took place in unplanned and ad hoc ways, in the academic cracks” (381-2). But, as he continues, when technologies became networked, the community of practice that was once face-to-face became increasingly virtual: “a new kind of learning community—a virtual one—began to emerge” (382). Concisely, he explains, “the real rhetorical revolution started with networking, when those of us at Purdue began using email in a social and collaborative way” (382).

In this way, Porter wants the field (of computers and writing) to walk away from “computer” because it is too much focused on that particular machine as opposed to a wider understanding of technology, which is rhetorical, and in a symbiotic relationship with the social. In this way, the revolution is marked by a re-organization of social interactions in which this new technology certainly does.

Key terms: technology, the field, community of practice, digital, new media


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