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Philippa Benson is JEP's new essayist, bringing her views of the world of writing to your screen.
As you fire up all your necessary professional accouterments, you sit back, for a tiny reflective moment, in your ergonomic (or not-so-ergonomic) office chair. You watch the display on your phone tell you you've got seven messages, a total of eighteen minutes, but you figure they can wait, stuck there, helpless, in their electronic holding pen. Your laptop hums, automatically opening your In box with fifty-six new e-mail messages that need to be sorted, the wheat from the chaff. Your portable To Do list blinks out todays imperatives: Install the new translation software so you can view a file sent to you by a new colleague in Gabon, dig out those resources for the upcoming project, a task that will take some skillful surfing, crunch those budget numbers. . . Oh, yes, and beyond the office, you simply must decompress the images that your father sent to you of his fishing trip, so you can talk to him about it when he calls, which he will tonight because the satellite hookup will be just right for him to connect to you from his forest retreat. And for a moment, you sit and look at all this vile machinery and wonder if, at some point, finger length will begin to evolve to support typing. How could daily life and the substance of what constitutes work have changed so much?
No way, I say. The changes over the past decade. . . or half decade. . . of what is on the desk of the professional have only taken us another step away from remembering what it is we all do. And what is that? We use language to convey meaning - for a multitude of different purposes - from one human mind to another, to inform, to entertain, to influence, to coerce. The nature of languaging hasn't changed at all, and that is what I want to talk about each time I write this column. It is the technologies of text that are changing, as they have since the first stylus was stuck into clay.
"Do we write differently with pen than with keystrokes?"
In his treatise on the subject, Aristotle defined rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." In his day, the rhetor reigned, moving from stage to field, weaving from tribe to town, the living thread of language that tied individual to group, and group to oral history and communal imagery. Stage, screen, schoolroom, social hall, political hall, indistinguishable, all rolled into one event, the coming of the rhetor to town.
I observe today, as do my few proud colleagues who call themselves rhetoricians, that the public equates the classical meaning of rhetoric with modern political rhetoric, the spinning of words by those whose aim is to obscure rather than enlighten. Here, in this quiet forum, I hope to explore the ways that we can see the art of rhetoric in the good, old sense of the word, as still alive in what we do, positive and purposeful, if we choose to see it that way.
How do the technologies of languaging that are now available to us, the technologies of text in particular, empower us to move those who hear our voice? And though not absolutely definitive, studies abound showing that when processing written language, readers of all languages must access their acoustical knowledge of written symbols in order to understand meaning; in others words, to understand what we read, we must "hear" language, albeit very subconsciously and quickly. So then, does typographic design make a significant difference in how well a reader comprehends a text? Do we write differently with pen than with keystrokes? Do readers read or remember text differently when they read from paper or a computer screen? Can humans really deal with a paperless office?
None of these questions can be definitively answered. Not now, not ever, because an answer depends on the context of the situation, who is reading, or writing, when, where, why. Nonetheless, these questions are interesting to contemplate as the bits and bytes surge into our tools and the coffee into our brains.
Now back to work. More anon.
Philippa J. Benson is currently the Managing Editor of Publications at the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International in Washington, D.C. She received her Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Carnegie Mellon University in 1994. She has worked as a science editor for the National Institutes of Health, Alcoa Corporation, the American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, and many other organizations. She has also taught scientific communication, and writing in particular, to practicing scientists and to graduate students for well over a decade. She comes to JEP eager to throw light to the still vital reality of the art of rhetoric, that is, the ability to find the available means of persuasion in all things. She can be reached at email@example.com..