Porter: “Why Technology Matters to Writing” (2003)

I have read Porter’s “Cyberwriter’s Tale” numerous times before, and I’m reading it again for Stuart Selber’s class, “Postcritical Perspectives in Literacy Studies.” Porter’s argument was very helpful as I was writing my thesis. To summarize, he uses his own techno-literacy narrative to argue that technology does matter to writing and that we should view writing technologies from a posthumanist perspective. He chronicles his use of pencils in grammar school, his adoption of typewriters in graduate school, and in his use of computers and the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s. He argues against technological instrumentalism, which sees technologies and humans as separate, and instead argues for “a critical view of technology (one that defines technology in terms of human-computer interaction) and a contextualist view of writing (a scenic view that focuses on production and effects of writing in its political, social, and rhetorical context)” (386-387).

What was most useful to me when I first read Porter’s essay (in fall 2005) was the distinction between humanist views of technology and posthumanist views (e.g., Harraway and Hayles). The humanist approach to technology sees the human and technology as separate and generally comes in three versions: 1) the utopian view, which sees technology as revolutionary or progressive; 2) the dystopian view, which sees technology as threatening our freedom or autonomy; and 3) the neutral or dismissive approach, which sees technology has having no effective on us (or on writing). The posthumanist approach, however, sees technology as an extension or part of humans — in other words, it questions the boundaries between technology and humans. This cyborgist approach, in the words of Hayles, recognizes that “there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (qtd. in Porter 387). Posthumanism, for Porter, allows us to ask and answer the “important strategic question of how: How will will we use technology? How will we design technology? How will we engage technology?” (388).

This posthumanist notion of the cyborgic human was quite shocking in 2005 when I first read it. I remember being quite disturbed by it when we read Porter’s essay in Lisa Ede’s Language, Technology, and Culture class that fall. I even wrote expletives of surprise in the margins (I’m reading the same handout Lisa gave us). I’ve pretty much come around to agreeing with Porter (I think I had by the end of Lisa’s class).

Porter, Jim. “Why Technology Matters to Writing: A Cyberwriter’s Tale.” Computers and Composition 20 (2003): 375-94.

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3 Responses to Porter: “Why Technology Matters to Writing” (2003)

  1. John says:

    As important as Porter’s article is, I think it’s much more fascinating when we juxtapose it with Jeff Rice’s “The 1963 Composition Revolution Will Not be Televised, Computed, or Demonstrated by Any Other Means of Technology.” It’s one thing for us to walk away from Porter’s piece getting the importance of technology, and it’s another thing to realize, as Jeff asks us to, that McLuhan, Ong, Havelock and other orality-literacy and media ecology scholars were making the posthumanist argument in the 1950s and 60s. McLuhan, of course, argued that all media is an extension of a psychic or physical human faculty and one of my favorite Ongian aphorisms, restated in various forms throughout his career, is “there is nothing more natural to humans than the artificial.”

  2. Michael says:

    I’ve been meaning to read that, and I’ll try to this term. I was wondering why Porter didn’t mention McLuhan (at least in a footnote!) when he writes that technology is an extension of himself. It was an obvious allusion (though perhaps accidental?). Thanks!

  3. John says:

    You should definitely read Jeff’s piece. I can’t say why Porter might not have mentioned McLuhan, but I do know McLuhan has had a poor reputation with academics, in part because of his pop culture status and in part because he didn’t write in traditional academic style. And there’s also Beth Daniell’s canonized misreading of Ong (in my more cynical moments I’d call it a hatchet job) which turned a whole lot of composition scholars off of orality-literacy studies. In other words, as Jeff argues, we, as a discipline ignored them so we’re “discovering” what they told us some 40 years ago.

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