I’m a User, Baby… (Johnson)

(I’m really not that big of a slacker, I promise. Though I have been in a bit of a slump over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading steadily; since much of my writing of late lies close to my research and future analysis, it thus isn’t yet bloggable. Just in case you were wondering. Now, on to bigger and better:)

Johnson, Robert R. User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts. New York: SUNY Press, 1998. Print.

Johnson’s (bright orange) book makes calls to technical communicators, who have been attending to issues of technology and humans for quite some time, to move “more aggressively into the foray concerning technology and humans in a broader, more theoretically and historically based manner” (xiii). (Johnson critiques TC for not watching both ends of the two-edged sword of interdisciplinarity: we have been richly rewarded by the “strong and penetrating perspective” that interdisciplinary research offers, but often fail to contribute back to the wider interdisciplinary conversation about technology (15).

Johnson’s secondary audience is rhetoric and composition researchers and teachers, he is especially concerned with how such parties (along with rhetoric and TC researchers, teachers, and practitioners) think about the relationship of rhetoric and technology. In no surprise from its title, his book treats more extensively of theory than case study, and though his discussion of computer documentation is interesting, I’m more interested in his ideas about “user-centered” (especially as opposed to “user-friendly”) and the ethics of how we think about user knowledge, or mundane knowledge, as a part of our techne.

Johnson’s basic appeal is the wrong-headedness of the “invisibility of the mundane” (3) in our research—especially how “the knowledge of everyday practice” (5) has been efface d and made voiceless in our attention to the “knowledge in the machine” and the knowledge of the designer (4). That is, in our scholarship and discourse about technology, we tend to adopt a theory of agency and use that is based more on the artifacts themselves or the experts who design, build, and distribute them; users’ knowledge and practices are “subverted beneath a discourse of expertise” (10) and thus users have little power or agency to affect technological decision-making. Interfaces, for example, are designed from a highly deterministic system-centered perspective; they are made to be user-friendly (translation: designed so any idiot can use it), rather than designed from the perspective of how users learn, do, and produce with technology, how they take on tasks and actions, and with their input (physical or discursive) in development (32). (I’m struck by how much this speaks to a recent JTWC publication I collaborated on—I think we managed to miss citing Johnson in there, but his perspective quite matches the collaborative, iterative, and user-focused design process that we developed.)

Based extensively on an Aristotelian understanding of techne, Johnson theorizes a model he calls the “user-centered rhetorical complex of technology,” which places users and their contexts at the center of production, just as (the author compares and reiterates at length) rhetoric in its productive strategic nature as an ultimately audience-centered (or use-centered) art.

Another major subject of this text is technological determinism. As Johnson writes: “the issues of technological determinism are not easily answered, and … they are issues technical communicators must engage” in order to “build a user-centered rhetoric that directly confronts questions of human control and technology” (92) Technological determinism is embedded in TC’s assumptions about tech, which makes practical issues of technological determinism essential–we can’t ignore/deny it, must but engage it deliberate(ive)ly. We need to be aware of (and promote awareness of) technology’s power (92), Johnson argues, and dismissing technological determinism as simplistic and dangerous, to be eradicated, undermines our ability to deal adequately with the politics of technology, especially as it involves institutions and large organizations that develop and deploy technologies. (His extended case, which I won’t describe here—read the book!—is computer instructional text. An important implication of his argument for putting users in the spotlight by thinking of their contexts is a secondary centering of the role of writers in agencies and maintaining user-centered systems, in decision-making.)

Much of Johnson’s conclusion is ethical in its implications: agency is shared in a user-centered paradigm, because documentation and other sorts of technical communication is generated through actual interaction of user and writer (163) (Johnson describes a service-esque curriculum, one in which students work with real clients to share agency and understand power in technical documentation). As Johnson writes:

“The knowledge and awareness that students gain is certainly important, but acting through that knowledge is an equally important goal for technical communication pedagogy. Learning how to use communication media in the service of social action is central to nonacademic communication curricula. Further, it is the ability for students to learn how to act with a sense of responsibility, with an awareness of the ethical dimension of their actions that becomes a central issue in curriculum development” (155).

Praxis and Phroneisis, Johnson leaves us with—technical communicators acting as “ethical, active, and fulfilled members of public and/or private institutions” (166).


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