Sunday, October 16, 2005

Hacking as rhetorical invention

x-posted to 8040 blog

I've really not thought this out (though someone more given to hacking perhaps has; I would be surprised if I'm the first), but this article in today's NYTimes Magazine has my wheels turning. Check it out if you can (after Sunday, you'll need to register [free] to read it): "Meet the Life Hackers".

For the purposes of our class, I'm especially interested in the way in which information work is described as inextricably linked to affect:
The upshot is something that Linda Stone, a software executive who has worked for both Apple and Microsoft, calls "continuous partial attention": we are so busy keeping tabs on everything that we never focus on anything. This can actually be a positive feeling, inasmuch as the constant pinging makes us feel needed and desired. The reason many interruptions seem impossible to ignore is that they are about relationships - someone, or something, is calling out to us. It is why we have such complex emotions about the chaos of the modern office, feeling alternately drained by its demands and exhilarated when we successfully surf the flood.

The connectivity of the postmodern economy is the very thing that simulateously fragments and makes us feel part of something.

Life hackers are those who ask if we can't "hack" technology to make the constant interruptions work for us rather than mess us up. On the one hand, this is a question of productivity: once someone is interrupted from their work by, say, an email message, it takes, on average, 25 minutes to get back on task. One researcher found that expanding the size of the screen so that all applications are visible at once reduces the amount of time taken to get back on task.

The visual: we need to see in order to remember what we were doing. The informatic: we want to know in order to be in the know, in the flow of information being circulated. Which gets us to the affective: we want to feel ourselves in the flow, but we want feel anxious because there's always a piece of information tickling the backs of our brains, making us feel undone.

If the workplace is a place where emotion resides, where the feel for information lodges itself in our hands, our eyes, our neural networks, then what kind of rhetorical work is possible, if we conceive of rhetoric not simply as the quotidien persuading us to perform in habitual ways but as invention and intervention (a techne?) Is "hacking" at least one way of intervening in the information economy: hacking not only to perform better, but to live better? [I realize I'm asking something of a "rhetorical" question here: of course hacking is an intervention: my question is what's the quality of that intervention.] And what would that mean? What would it mean to hack not simply to alter job performance (a kind of emotional management, that), but to hack to actually transform those work spaces into something less affectively "controlling"?

I need better language here, but I hope we'll have time to think along these lines in class tomorrow.

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