A Rhetorician Ponders Technology, or Why Kenneth Burke Never Owned a "Personal" Computer
********** KELLER ******* EJC/REC Vol. 6, No. 1, 1996 ******
A RHETORICIAN PONDERS TECHNOLOGY, OR WHY KENNETH BURKE
NEVER OWNED A "PERSONAL" COMPUTER
Dale S. Keller
Truman State University
Abstract. Through perusing selected writings
of Kenneth Burke, the interaction between rhetoric
and technology is considered. It is contended
that though Burke did not express a disdain for
technology _per se_, he did see it impacting
society in dangerous ways if allowed to perpetuate
unchecked. The author urges renewed commitment to
the critical function which rhetoric provides as a
necessary safeguard in an increasingly
The September 27th, 1993 issue of _U.S. News and World
Report_ contained an article in which a "guru" in the field
of computer technology (Howard Rheingold) was asked to
consider some of the "dangers lurking in the growing
[computer] network" ("Networking Perils," p. 13). In
response, he replied with questions like "Who will control
the terms of access to this medium? Who makes the rules
about who says what? Will that information be privatized
and sold back to us at a price that will create a two-tiered
society?" He concluded his remarks by saying that access to
communications is like air and water for democracy in that
whoever controls it, controls information and the citizenry.
This issue of _EJC/REC_ is devoted to the topic of
rhetoric in our modern technological society. This article
links a leading American rhetorical scholar of this century
and the subject of technology. It ponders how Kenneth Burke
might respond to Rheingold's statements above. Would Burke
agree? Why? What can be known of his view of the place of
technology in society?
Burke's Definition of Humans
When dealing with a scholar of Burke's prolific
history, there are arguably many different and equally
viable places to begin. The present study begins with
Burke's well-known "Definition of Man" chapter in _Language
as Symbolic Action_. As a refresher, he defines humans as:
1) symbol-using (and symbol-abusing) animals
2) inventors of the negative
3) separated from our natural conditions by
instruments of our own making
4) goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and
5) rotten with perfection. (1969c, p. 14)
The third clause in that definition states that the human is
"separated from his natural condition by instruments of his
own making." For example, television allows us to see from
a distance, radio to hear from a distance, and telephony to
converse from a distance, actions which would be impossible
to do without that technology.
Burke made it clear in the explanation of his
definition of humankind that technology is dependent upon
language. Without the means to communicate complex ideas
made possible through the reflexivity that language allows,
technology could not develop as it has. The "instruments of
our own making" are inventions that human tool-users have
created via the rationality that is part of language. For
example, it could be argued that the Phoenician alphabet was
the first technology, a complex symbol system which greatly
enhanced the transmission of meaning among our forebears in
a much more complex manner than the limitations of cave art.
The development and proliferation of these technologies
has taken on a life of its own. These inventions or
machines become such a regular part of our lives that they
become a kind of second nature, and ironically come to seem
"natural." (Think of being with enthusiastic sports fans
who yell and curse while watching a favorite team in a big
game as though they were actually at the location of the
contest.) Hence it is no wonder that the myriad of
technologies found in America feel as much a part of our
lives as spears and animal skin (technology in its embryonic
state) eventually did in the caves of our historical
Rhetoric and Technology: A Transformation
There is a crucial aspect of technological development
that Burke forces us not to forget. Technology creates many
unintentional by-products which, warned Burke, easily lead
to the creator becoming slave to the created. An important
perpetuator of the human enslavement to technology is the
rhetoric which a particular technology develops. The
terminology (i.e. the specialized "in language") moves into
a dialectical mode, allowing for transformation to occur.
When language is used to name objects, a kind of "magic"
results in a simultaneous opening of some doors of
understanding and knowing, while closing others. As this
occurs, a new way of seeing emerges which is also,
antithetically, a way of NOT seeing.
Think of computer technology (through which the reader
is _probably_ assessing this article) as an example of how
technology can impact individual views of reality. There
are computer "languages" (i.e. FORTRAN) that allows the
individual to communicate with the machine. The language is
created in order for the creator to interact with the
created at _its_ level. And notice that the individual
creates the language to fit the parameters/capabilities of
the machine. Although a journal article such as this one
may be in a conventionally accepted format such as APA or
MLA, authors who submit to _EJC/REC_ have further
guidelines/restrictions in order to fit limitations created
by the computers which transmit the language. Consider
these sentences from the "EJC/REC Instructions for Authors"
(EJC/REC, 1996) document listed at Subpoint 2 (Submission)
of Mainpoint A (General Policies):
Word processing conventions for producing text
electronically vary greatly. To produce text that
everyone can receive, download, and print,
manuscripts appearing in EJC/REC must conform to a
universal standard. Thus, manuscripts MUST be
submitted in electronic form using ASCII text
For example, consider the convention in electronic text of
the underline before and after words to represent italics.
Individuals new to the technology could access _EJC_ for the
first time and be confused until they come to understand the
new convention. Soon, the "new" convention becomes second
nature. Since not all computers can transmit italicized
text, a new "rule" is created. This is obviously a small
example of how the medium dictates to the language used on
it. Such adjustments are necessary and are not particularly
bad. The cause for concern involves the automatic nature of
such change; what should be a conscious action slides into
the realm of motion.
If one looks carefully enough, s/he can see
transformation in other ways. The technological "second
sense" feels natural and normal. It begins to shape other
areas of the individual's lifestyle. Machines in our homes
"answer" our phones and maintain temperature levels. Music
is recorded on metal tape, first as an analog of the
original stimulus, then as a digital (i.e., "distortion-
free", yet less analogous, and therefore less "real")
signal. Relationships begin and grow through computer
bulletin boards with no face-to-face interaction necessary.
Meetings can be held with others electronically allowing for
participants to see and hear others many miles away,
"virtual reality" offers new possibilities for those bored
or wanting to escape the real problems facing their society.
Referring to the side effects of such transformation, Veblen
(1964) suggested that although the driver drives the car,
the traffic drives the driver.
Using the computer as a technological example, Burke
clarified how this process tended to evolve.
The computer is notoriously stupid; but it can
count like lightning. Hence, any error or
shortcoming in its programming can proliferate
with the speed of lightning. The more one teaches
oneself to think by asking only the kind of
question that the computer can answer, the more
likely it is that we shall have passed from one
experiential world into another. (Burke, 1974)
The above statements combine well with Burke's
conceptualization of motive. As he defined it, motive is
intrinsically linked with the context in which it is
realized. Different contexts, or frameworks, will lead to
different perceptions and hence different conclusions as
what reality is (1965, p. 35).
Burke is not alone in his thoughts. McLuhan (1964)
told us how the media act as the hearth around which modern
humans sit and hear stories of who they are, where they came
from, and where they are going, much as our preindustrial
ancestors got their ontological initiation while sitting
around the campfire listening to their elders make sense of
Coming from a different perspective, Goodnight (1982)
wrote about the impact of technology on argumentation.
Expanding on Willard's (1981) remarks on three spheres
within which argumentation can occur (i.e., the private,
public, and technical), Goodnight understood that these
spheres could separately be ground for an argument, or could
combine to form a composite grounding. He went on to
suggest that the public sphere (in which he suggested
deliberative interaction _should_ occur) is being
overwhelmed by the private and technical spheres. Actors
and performers seems more natural and relevant than thinkers
Certainly technological knowledge has burgeoned
over the past fifty years, but it is not certain
that the general knowledge. . . necessary to
govern a Republic has become any more fixed. . .
As arguments grounded in personal experience
(disclosed by averaging opinion) seem to have
greatest currency, political speakers present not
options but personalities...The mass media
continue to present the drama of politics, but
some vital elements of a deliberative rhetoric are
carefully excised (Goodnight, 1982, pp. 224-25).
Postman (1992) adds an historical perspective regarding
how technology has impacted rhetoric. He emphasized that in
the day of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the common citizen
would be more apt to know the ideological platforms of the
candidates than recognize the politicians' appearance. Of
course, this was largely due to the dominance of the printed
page in the major mass media of that day, newspapers.
Today, because of the ubiquity of new electronic mass media
that includes images, the common citizen would be more
likely to recognize a Presidential candidate visually than
by what her/his platform is. Perhaps this serves as part of
the explanation as to the gradual increase in the number of
former media personalities who are now elected officials.
Technology and Society
Let us consider a moment how technology tends to self-
perpetuate if left unchecked. An example would help
clarify. A new product or process is developed and an
entrepreneur sees the potential it has to be sold on the
market. S/he then exploits its development and sales,
seeking the immediate gratifications resulting from
production and sales, with little or no consideration of the
longer term impact on the society. The created transcends
its' reason for creation and begins a unique existence with
a nature of its own. This nature allows for new creative
possibilities which, in turn, give rise to new technologies.
Think of the many current partnerships being formed among
telephone providers, cable providers and media corporations
in an effort to not be left out in the continuing
development and use of the Internet. Likewise, from the
invention of the telephone alone, there has arisen the
necessity of telephone directories (both on paper and CD-
ROM), answering machines and voice mail, portable and
cellular phones, private lines, pagers, etc. Burke relates
the process to a "domino theory" which, when unchecked,
evolves into a situation where the technology controls us.
The situation as defined looks tragic, and indeed it
may be so. Technology, as a human creation, seems to have
taken on an existence and power of its own. Although not
inherently bad, if left unchecked, Burke suggests it will
increasingly self-perpetuate to become rotten with
perfection. He wrote "...without radical changes in (our)
technologic ways, the world is headed for a calamity that
would ultimately be as bad as were a large-scale nuclear war
to break loose" (1974, p. 5).
Restating the same concern, Rule and Attewell (1989)
contend that "technological innovation is not so much a
response to human needs as a generator of such needs.
Technologies, in other words, create the mind-set that makes
their adoption at first appealing, then indispensable" (p.
226). Postman issues a similar warning in his book
_Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology_ (1992)
by reminding his readers that we need to remember that
technology can take away as well as give. So often we are
told by technocrats how we will benefit from the latest
technological breakthrough, while we are rarely exhorted to
consider what impact or loss such implementation may
initiate. It is precisely at this point of critical
analysis that the rhetorician _must_ be heard.
Rhetoric in a Technocracy
How should rhetoric serve a technological and
democratic society? Let us focus on television for a
moment. Consider the recent "debate" on _Larry King Live_
between the Vice President and a billionaire. Many scholars
of rhetoric would focus an analysis of this event primarily
on a printed transcript of the interaction. While valuable,
such a limited analysis is tragically short-sighted. Think
of how the medium of television has transformed the term
"debate." The interaction was broadcast over a medium that
is primarily used for entertainment, and more specifically
on a regularly aired and widely known talk show format which
has developed conventions of its own in most viewers minds.
Such conventions _must_ be considered in a rhetorical
analysis (see Conover & Feldman, 1984; and Graber, 1990).
How would such a "debate" compare to a tournament sponsored
by the American Forensics Association, a tournament with a
much different set of conventions based on a much different
understanding of "debate."
Brummett and Duncan (1992) argued that the role of the
medium in a process needs to be reconsidered and included in
future rhetorical critiques. Citing McLuhan (1964) they
suggest that the medium would be better understood as
"mediation," the process of extension. In other words, it
is not just the medium (the electronic impulses on a cathode
ray tube in a television) that needs to be considered, the
larger context also needs inclusion.
We have known since the Sophists that speakers,
texts, audiences, and contexts interact to manage
power distribution. But critical studies have
created an increased awareness of how power is
managed through the creation of the elements of
that process. There is one exception: This
critical work has preserved a static, positivist
ontology for media while describing a discursive
ontology for all other aspects of communication.
. . We argue in this paper that media are
discursive constructions fully as much as are
"messages," "texts," or even human subjects
involved in communicating (Brummet & Duncan, 1992,
Brummett and Duncan define a medium as a discursive process
involved in the integrated, unified communicative
experiences that people construct throughout everyday life.
Hence, when one says they are watching television, the
medium is _more_ than just the electronic box that sends
pictures and sound. It includes, in McLuhan's (1964)
thoughts, how and where one sits when watching, whether or
not friends have stopped by to watch, and what one expects
of the medium. All of these things combine to create a new
context which impacts how the transmitted messages are
decoded and understood. This closely parallels Burke's
stress that motive and framework are inseparable as they
blend to create perspective.
Most people "watch" television primarily for
entertainment (notice the intransitive nature of the verb as
opposed to the transitive verb most often associated with
books; "reading"). Through continual exposure to television
in this manner, the viewer becomes subconsciously trained in
the "proper" or "natural" method of interacting with
television. If this repetitive training is not consciously
realized and challenged, the viewer may make decisions about
information retained from television in a much different
manner than similar information gleaned from a newspaper,
magazine, or book. The entertainment value might outweigh
and/or overwhelm a critical analysis of the message alone.
In the words of a recent television commercial "image is
When rhetorical messages are recorded electronically,
the study of participants' rhetorical strategies must be
regularly expanded to include nonverbal cues (be they
spontaneous or planned) as part of the message package. The
scope of rhetorical analysis _must_ be broadened, especially
when exposure by the intended audience to such messages is
mainly through an electronic medium and not via words on a
page. (For one example of such analysis, see Weitzel's
(1994) remarks on interpreting Martin Luther King's "I have
a dream" speech.) Likewise, using a medium such as e-mail
which lacks most nonverbal cues, more careful attention must
be paid to message construction due to the user's tendency
to subconsciously fill in for this lack (see Kiesler, 1986;
Smeltzer, 1986; Fulk, Schmitz, & Steinfield, 1990; Walther &
Individuals working with the mass media are aware of
the impact technology has on a message it carries, and allow
such insight to inform decisions made about how messages are
constructed. Gozzi and Haynes (1992) argue that electronic
media, especially television, have created a new
epistemology, one that overwhelms and even replaces a linear
and literacy-based epistemology. What are the implications
of such a claim?
We are watching television. A politician is
defending his or her record to a group of
reporters. We hear words spoken. But we are most
impressed by how he or she comes across in total,
by our "gut" feelings, by how this politician
strikes us personally. This is instant empathy at
a distance, a different way of knowing from the
old literate focus on words and the reasoning of
the message. (Gozzi & Haynes, 1992, p. 220)
If such artifacts are left ignored and uncriticized (as
it usually is by rhetorical scholars) technology's impact on
the message exchanges that are vital in democracy could
cause the "useful" to overwhelm the "thoughtful." What is
vitally needed is the protective and preventative role and
function of rhetoric. The rhetorical scholar's insights are
needed as a counter-balance to check the continued and
seemingly unchecked proliferation of technology. Burke
warned us of the dangers when he pointed out that we are
blinded to the irony that computer logic is a parody of
human rationality. Rhetoricians are needed to speak up in
reminding the citizenry (in Postman's words) that technology
is like a Faustian bargain; it giveth, but it also taketh
Rhetorical scholars need to readjust. There is an
urgent need to expand our understanding of the role that
electronic media play in message perception. There are some
hopeful examples. Consider Kathleen Hall Jamieson's nightly
commentary with Bill Moyers on PBS during the 1992 elections
and more recently discussing the topic of health care
reform. These two veterans, one from media, the other from
rhetoric, enlightened their audience on the use and abuse of
electronic communication. Through the technology of
television, a noted rhetorician was given a national forum
to critique selected political events. Included were
remarks on the impact that the technological medium had on
the messages it carried. Here was an example of a scholar
versed in rhetoric as well as media-impact accomplishing a
vital service to the citizens of this democracy. It is
hoped that parallel events continue to proliferate.
It is unfortunate that electronic technicians and
political advisors have learned lessons that rhetoricians
seem largely unaware of or unconcerned with. Perhaps
rhetoricians and mass media scholars need to inhabit the
common ground that is occupied by both disciplines. Both
disciplines want to better understand why certain techniques
are used. Both are interested in how particular techniques
procure their results. Because each looks on the process of
communication from different angles through different
terministic screens, each discipline has insights to expose
and clarify which may be overlooked by the other. The
expanded perspectives that each can offer could enrich the
on-going study in each field via transformation.
More importantly, such interaction among scholars in
both fields could prompt more thoughtful consideration of
the many potential dangers associated with the relentless
onslaught of largely unchecked or uncriticised technological
change. It might mean that rhetoricians would subscribe to
_Critical Studies in Mass Media_ while the mass media
scholars ("mass medians" or "commmedians?") would likewise
subscribe to _Quarterly Journal of Speech_. Without such an
adjustment, it seems the potential for unforeseen and
unwanted side effects caused by technology to our democracy
could steadily increase to the detriment of our society. In
a paraphrase of a popular song of a past generation, we
won't know what we _had_ 'til it's gone.
We come full circle back to the questions expressed at
the beginning of this article. Would Burke have agreed with
the comment printed in the beginning of this article that
"whosoever controls communications controls the citizenry?"
I think he would say "yes." Burke saw the danger inherent
in the unchecked escalation of technical development. As a
rhetorician concerned with how humans use symbols, he
offered a warning. Regarding technology, if we continue to
accept it without question, and to promote it either
directly or indirectly, it is feasible that our tendency to
be "rotten with perfection" could move us toward what Burke
calls a "utopia-in-reverse" (see for example his poem
_Hellhaven_) Tragically, if that happens, we will find
ourselves praising the god of the cult of technology, an
action unlikely if we had taken stock of its impact from a
more rational (and comedic) perspective.
On the other hand, as Burke so frequently pointed out,
it's probably more complicated than this!
 In addition to the works cited within the text, the
author wishes to acknowledge the influence of Burke, 1969a;
1969b; Ellul, 1964; and Hart & Downing, 1992 in shaping the
argument developed in this essay.
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ontology of media. Critical Studies in Mass
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_____. (1969a). A grammar of motives. Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press.
_____. (1969b). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley, CA:
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_____. (1969c). Language as symbolic action. Berkeley,
CA: University of California Press.
_____. (1974). "I want to write a satire." Transcript
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Author Information: Dale S. Keller
Truman State University
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