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Information Technologies and Mnemonic Technê

I posted this picture on Instagram as a joke, saying that I'm excited about working with book as soon as this semester has ended. One of the things I realized I didn't do very well in "Architects of Memory" was to highlight key technological moments when/where a small number of people "invented" a type of search, retrieval, or storage technique that later became important for later technologies to function. Thomas Hughes calls these sorts of important techniques/technologies "reverse salients," because they changed the resources available to make decisions with in the future. I was trying to avoid technological determinisms in information technologies while still valuing the materialisms that are important for world building.

No photo description available.

For example, I wrote on Mortimer Taube and his Uniterm technique that indexed documents with a "post-coordinate" system. Post-coordinate systems index terms according to access points that are created by the co-occurrence (Uniterms) of two words in one document. The Uniterm is a hybrid of two words that become meshed because of their continued co-occurrence at the document and the corpus level. Uniterms don't actually have a label--they just because a variable point for search technologies to work with. To my mind these conceptual bits work similarly to a scheme or a trope, with the added caveat that they can be easily used to scaffold bigger algorithmic systems. Those standardized conceptual techniques like Uniterms help to understand algorithmic bias more clearly. My book described how Taube generated the techniques so that they would speak to users of systems. The advantage of reading early technical documents from early information scientists is that they produced numerous appeals/discourse to help legitimize the effectiveness of their systems. I was illuminating theoretical objects to better understand the effects of search engine biases. The term I used to describe those time-bound human/machine hybrids was mnemonic technê.

After reading reviews and talking with a few readers I realized that idea wasn't as clear as I tried to make. The historical work I completed got read as history of information technologies, but not necessarily as a way to understand how rhetoric coordinated public memory through information technologies. One rhetorician asked "Where's the rhetoric?" Readers from the information sciences have commented on the idiosyncrasies of rhetoric's disciplinary terminology while applauding work that better highlights their discipline's history.

So the next book I'm working writing is trying to do a better job of showing the cultural biases that are performed by these algorithmic shorthands that are easier to understand as early information technologies and become technical building blocks for scaffolding later information systems. F.W. Lancaster (the book I posted) is fairly well-known for assessing the earliest databases that were designed for research. He literally spent a lot of his career comparing why one type of encoding technique is better at helping audiences search, which consequently points directly to the intellectual/economic/cultural biases of the time period. The challenge is to locate language/interventions that escape user testing because they've become so deeply engrained in computational infrastructure.

I'll add that trying to do this hasn't been easy. It's been tough to write in the first place, and reviewers don't always know where to place it. For instance, Meredith Johnson and I have a piece on algorithms used for constructing roads by creating shorthands for imaging places/temporality. We tried to pull off the same theoretical argument, and it took a while to convince the reviewers to move forward with it. Anyway, I'm excited to be reading this as soon as grading is done.

Popular Sources/Authors in Professional and Technical Communication

Professional and Technical Communication is a relatively new field, with a fairly small set of journals that are central to the field. According to studies by Smith and Lowry et al. these are the core PTC journals: The Journal of Business and Technical Communication, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, The Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, Technical Communication, and Technical Communication Quarterly. Smith used citation analysis to come to that conclusion. Lowry et al. used the opinions of experts. Neither method is authoritative, but if I had to pick a journal to read to get the best of PTC, it would be one of those. So this is useful to know, but it doesn't get at specific secondary sources central to the field. Journals are one thing, but which books and articles stand out as particularly widely read? I took those five journals and counted citations to primary sources in them between approximately 2005 and 2015. Because of the way that Web of Science and Scopus parse out data files (and limitations in my current access), some of the journals extend to 2004 while some coverage doesn't start until 2009. It's an uneven data set, which I'll being fixing in the future. Still this exercise is good for a rough estimate of what research is seeing play in the field. The ten most cited sources in the field are:
  1. 30 citations. Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design:Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. 24 citations. Miller, C.R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2), 151-167.
  3. 17 citations. Johnson-Eilola, J. (1996). Relocating the value of work: Technical Communication in a post-industrial age. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(3), 245-270.
  4. 16 citations. Russell, D. R. (1997). Rethinking genre in school and society: An activity theory analysis. Written Communication, 14(4), 504-554.
  5. 15 citations. Miller, C.R. (1979). A humanistic rationale for technical writing. College English, 40(6), 610-617.
  6. 14 citations. Bazerman, C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge: The genre and activity of the experimental article in science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  7. 13 citations. Farkas, D. K. (1999). The logical and rhetorical construction of procedural discourse. Technical Communication, 46(1), 42-54.
  8. 13 citations. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. 12 citations. Hart-Davidson, W. (2001). On writing, technical communication, and information technology: The core competencies of technical communication. Technical Communication, 48(2), 145–155.
  10. 12 citations. Starke-Meyerring, D. (2005). Meeting the challenges of globalization: A framework for global literacies in professional communication programs. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(4), 468–499.
Those numbers might seem low, but keep in mind that is only for the five core journals in PTC for the last 10 years. So, for example, Google Scholar suggests that the Starke-Meyerring article has 64 citations in the total 2005-2015 Google Scholar universe. My count is only noting references to that piece from within the five journals. So in all, about 20% of the Scholar citations are coming from the PTC journal set. Since its interesting to know those percentages, I figured them for the whole set. Again, I limited the Googler Citations to 2005-2015 because that's the time period of my corpus.
  1. 30/294 = 10%. Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design:Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. 24/1940 = 1%. Miller, C.R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2), 151-167.
  3. 17/92 = 18%. Johnson-Eilola, J. (1996). Relocating the value of work: Technical Communication in a post-industrial age. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(3), 245-270.
  4. 16/470 = 3%. Russell, D. R. (1997). Rethinking genre in school and society: An activity theory analysis. Written Communication, 14(4), 504-554.
  5. 15/142 = 11%. Miller, C.R. (1979). A humanistic rationale for technical writing. College English, 40(6), 610-617.
  6. 14/1380 = 1%. Bazerman, C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge: The genre and activity of the experimental article in science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  7. 13/54 = 24%. Farkas, D. K. (1999). The logical and rhetorical construction of procedural discourse. Technical Communication, 46(1), 42-54.
  8. 13/32900 = less than a hundredth of 1%. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. 12/64 = 19%. Hart-Davidson, W. (2001). On writing, technical communication, and information technology: The core competencies of technical communication. Technical Communication, 48(2), 145–155.
  10. 12/66 = 18%. Starke-Meyerring, D. (2005). Meeting the challenges of globalization: A framework for global literacies in professional communication programs. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(4), 468–499.
Note that when that percentage starts dropping below 10%, the source is more likely to be an import that's not specifically about PTC. The higher percentages are articles that are field specific. While I was at it, I calculated the most cited authors in my corpus, too. This counted citations across publications. This is no surprise.
  1. C. Spinuzzi: 224 citations
  2. C. Bazerman: 160 citations
  3. B. Latour: 135 citations
  4. C. Miller: 127 citations
  5. E. Tebeaux: 126 citations
  6. A. Freedman: 122 citations
  7. G. Hofstede 114 citations
  8. R.L. Daft: 105 citations
  9. J. Yates: 103 citations
  10. J. Johnson-Eilola: 102 citations
If I were learning PTC as a field, these are the sources and authors that I would read to get up to speed and increase the likelihood that I could have a conversation with a colleague in the field.