Annotated entry – Carnegie’s Interface as Exordium

“Interface as Exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity.” (2009) – Teena M.A. Carnegie, Eastern Washington University

Carnegie, T. A. (2009). Interface as Exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity. Computers and Composition, 26(3), 164-173.

Where Lemay’s “Pattern Language” (2007) took a development-centered approach to understanding component frameworks for interactivity in rhetorical media, Carnegie’s “Interface as Exordium” (2009) instead creates a more broadly cultural and reception-centered answer to the question of how interfaces and interactivity function to engage audiences.

Carnegie separates the rhetorical modes of interfaces into three categories–multi-directionality, manipulability, and presence.  I will briefly address each of these modes in a moment, but first want to touch on the ideas and definitions Carnegie is building from in order to contextualize the significance of these modes.

I – What it means to view interface as rhetorical

For Carnegie, the interface is not only literal, but also figurative and symbolic.  The interface, she argues, is capable of being as rudimentary as the physical page of a book, or any point of interactive contact between two objects, two subjects, or a subject and a object–“the interface is a place of interaction, whether the interactions are between user and computer, user and software, computer and software, user and content, software and content, user and culture, and the user and other users” (165).  From this rudimentary model, she turns back to computer-mediated communication and argues that we have a traditional sense of the interface as including the “physical arrangements and ergonomic configuration of computer systems, user operation of programs, and how the user interacts with the content to solve a task or to learn material” (Marra, 1996, p. 115 as cited in Carnegie, 165).

The core feature of these various definitions, then, is their inseparability, that there is no singular “layer” of interface which exists between user-as-whole and computer-as-whole. This lends a rhetorical interpretation significant power, as the layers of interfacing “function rhetorically by creating interactivity. In other words, the modes of interactivity are the rhetorical modes of the interface” (166, emphasis added).  In fostering an especially active relationship between audience and content (thought this might be debated–any book wonk will tell you that they prefer books over computers for reading in part due to the added active relationship between the material and the human user over the digital), “new media requires action” that “involves and engages the user in using, playing, exploring, experimenting, discovering, and sharing” which effectively creates bodily and spatial rhetorics, while increased engagement produces “higher levels of acceptance, making the user more disposed to persuasion” (166).

II – Multi-directionality

Carnegie explores the suasive nature of heightened interaction through multi-directionality, which she defines through hypertextuality and networked practice (see Castells, Nielsen, Landow for more on this).  For Carnegie, intertextuality is hypertextuality, or at least a form of it, in which “users gain more control over how they discover, view, and connect the discrete units available in the network, [creating] their own paths and organizational structures” (167).

Essential to this is an understanding of the difference between hypertextuality (as referent) and multi-directionality – the latter “applies not just to the roles users can play in the network (receiver, sender, or both) but also to the messages the users communicate” (167). And so multi-directionality is a combination of this commutative role and the hyper/intertext which creat “a feedback model” that allows the user to participate in systems in multiple forms, while the “referential nature of messages is limited”–referentialism being key to increasing (at least apparent) interactivity and thus increased rhetoricity (166-67).

III – Manipulability

However, this feedback does not function as a fully rhetorical form without a belief–or evidence held–on the part of the user that their interactions have a hand in shaping or influencing the interfaced space (imagine, for instance, the rhetorical agency lost in a discussion board which permits comment submissions, but one where you can only see your own comments which are not distributed to other users).

This function of mutability is labelled by Carnegie as manipulability–and does not apply solely to the human interface level of interaction.  She also notes that the very fact that “objects such as images, sound, text [can] become units of numerical code” which are “separated from physical forms” is an expression of mutability, indicating their ability to be duplicated, deleted, combined, scaled, compressed, and so on (168).

Carnegie sees the rhetorical force of manipulability most present, however, in the user’s capability to customize their working/playing/learning environment in digital interfaces.  By adding, deleting, hiding, or moving content, the user exerts their will over the workspace, and as such has a suasive investment in its value, use, and well-suited nature.  That these choices are likely deeply pre-determined by the interests of the designer doesn’t necessarily matter so much as the appearance of choice which suasively functions to enlist users in investment behaviors which makes them “feel empowered and engaged [because] the user is given limited power to construct him- or herself as a user” (168).

Additionally, Carnegie notes that while customization is a nominally low-level manipulability, the ability to add or modify content creates a remarkably high-level manipulability which correlates with an extremely suasive environment centered on interactivity (168-69).

IV – Presence

While the first two modes of interactivity/rhetoricity function as products of networks themselves, Carnegie notes that presence “is a product of the integration of system attributes with user perceptions” (emphasis added), attributes including speed, possible actions, controls, responsiveness, which present the use of the platform “in a natural and predictable manner” which might manifest successfully when users “perceive others as present in the environment created by the medium” and the ability to “gather appropriate and personal information to adequately interpret situations and gain a sense of being connected with others and the system” (169-171).

This equivalence of systems and apparent human connectivity is an essential facet of rhetorical presence within interfaces, and will shape much of my study moving forward.  I will speak more to this notion with my next source for annotation, Alexander Galloway’s The Interface Effect (2012).

V – Interface as Exordium

I will return to these components further moving forward.  However, I would like to end this annotation with a brief quote from Carnegie’s conclusion:

“the shape and design of the interface is not natural and inevitable. The design of the interface is a design of human experience, and, as such, the interface becomes a locus of power. The modes of interactivity it deploys are capable of both enabling empowerment and enacting patterns of control. To see the interface, we must see how it functions rhetorically through modes of interactivity to prepare the user/audience to accept particular world views and constructions of relationships” (172).

I will take this notion, that the interactivity and spatiality of interface and systems functions suasively to prepare users to integrate world views and philosophies/constructions of relationships, much further in exploring my object of study in the coming annotated bibliographic entry.

Carnegie, T. A. (2009). Interface as exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity. Computers and Composition, 26(3), 164-173.

Galloway, A. R. (2006). Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture (Vol. 18). U of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, A. R. (2012). The Interface Effect. Polity.


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