By Jackie Damrau, Editor
Books Reviewed in This Issue
by Francesca Comunello and Simone Mulargia
by Annmarie Hanlon
by Suzan Flanagan and Michael Albers, eds.
by Charles Lipson
by Paolo Gallo
by John Sharp and Colleen Macklin
by Iris Gottlieb
by Natalia Ilyin
by Marcus du Sautoy
by Jason Maxwell
by Maureen A. Mathison
by John Krige
by Sheldon Krimsky
by Thomas Ramge
by Steven Heller
by Stephen Eskilson
by Saul Carliner and Margaret Driscoll
by Elizabeth Guffey
by Daniel Newman and Olivier Blanchard
by Taina Bucher
Social Media in Earthquake-Related Communication: Shake Networks
Francesca Comunello and Simone Mulargia. 2018. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Limited. [ISBN 978-1-78714-792-8]. 196 pages, including index. US$95.00.]
Many studies have been conducted on communication during and after a natural disaster. The authors of Social Media in Earthquake-Related Communication: Shake Networks maintain that the research so far “appears fragmented and . . . based on single case studies.” In addition, the “research seems to consider ‘social media’ as a whole, . . . or to look only at individual platforms”. In this book, Francesca Comunello and Simone Mulargia attempt to intertwine study results from disparate fields; such as crisis informatics, crisis communication, science communication, and the sociology of disaster; to build a “comprehensive framework for analyzing the role of social media during natural disasters” (p. 1). The book results from an Italian research project in which seismologists and Internet study experts participated.
Previous studies have focused on top-down and bottom-up communication processes. To build their framework, the authors organize Social Media in Earthquake-Related Communication in four parts where they cross these two processes with information sharing and information gathering processes. In each quarter of the book, a review of existing international research is followed by earthquake-specific case studies of Italian citizens based on the research project. The result is four communication scenarios: top-down information sharing; citizen information gathering; institutional information gathering; bottom-up information sharing. These scenarios further sort into either a traditional or networked model.
A crisis, such as an earthquake, is not solely a scientific event. People react emotionally and need to adjust; they may want to provide information or assistance. By examining the research to date using their intersecting method, Comunello and Mulargia have determined that “disaster communication would benefit greatly from a stronger integration of different theoretical and empirical traditions” (p. 152). The bigger picture emerges when various perspectives are understood.
The research into social media use during natural disasters is limited and tends to treat the public only as recipients of institutional messages or sources of firsthand disaster information. Social media are not only two-way but multi-directional media where, besides communicating with institutions, individuals are sharing among themselves and creating a community response to the emergency. Again, Comunello and Mulargia recommend a broader approach to studying social media use that considers the social and psychological factors at play during and after a disaster.
Institutions themselves are slow to adopt social media, except to use them to distribute messages in the traditional way. They are vested in retaining control over the information being disseminated and mostly ignore the multi-directional communication capability of social media, even to take advantage of information they might glean from the public. The authors of Social Media in Earthquake-Related Communication believe institutions would benefit from using social media in emergency situations and that “institutions should exploit social media . . . to gain and maintain a significant status within the communicative network” (p. 160).
Linda M. Davis is an independent communications practitioner in the Los Angeles area. She holds an MA in Communication Management and has specialized in strategic communication planning, publication management, writing, and editing for more than 25 years.
Digital Marketing: Strategic Planning & Integration
Annmarie Hanlon. 2019. London, UK: SAGE Publications. [ISBN 978-1-5264-2667-3. 396 pages, including index. $51.00 (softcover).
Digital Marketing: Strategic Planning & Integration is a feast. There is so much to learn about the world of digital marketing. Even for those who are not working directly in the field, it contains important information for everyone. Say, for example, if you’re an author or in the publishing business, you need to know something about the digital consumer and websites, blogs and search engines, social media, and virtual reality.
As each of these areas grows and matures, more is learned and written about them. What are the differences between the eight or nine major social media? And how have they changed over time? Annmarie Hanlon points out that they started out as ways of connecting people, and many have become big advertising companies and publishers.
What are the key elements in designing a successful website? How do you differentiate a digital native from a digital immigrant? Digital natives rarely watch TV in real time. They prefer YouTube. The norm has become mobile phones, tablets, and wearables. They use WhatsApp instead of writing letters. How do these different media affect the nature of the message? And what kinds of viewers do they tend to draw? Instagram’s focus on pictures and images––tends to draw people in the fashion, tourism, and food sectors.
And how are all these media influenced by the Internet of Things (IoT): how do they all connect and interact? Many websites were designed for desktop PCs and often cannot be read on mobile devices. As a technical writer, it is important to know these things.
It’s a moving target––so quickly are things changing. Take music, and the trend away from vinyl, cassette tapes, and CDs, and towards renting playlists via Spotify, Amazon, and iTunes music accounts. Every era sees disruption from newer technologies. Amazon disrupted the traditional book-selling market. Netflix disrupted the traditional video-rental market. There is an emergent culture of sharing what we have.
As for e-mail, worldwide use may be approaching 4 billion; with an estimated 270 billion e-mails a day by 2018. This will influence more things in our lives: our language, our interpersonal relationships, how and what we buy, how we think, and ultimately, our picture of reality.
Digital Marketing has an incredible breadth and depth of coverage. It is marred only by the endless flow of marketing jargon and the acronyms attached to them. While the terminology may work for marketing professors, it can cause real problems for their students and people not in the marketing field.
Some headings and text are done in light cocoa, yellow, or mauve–– that are attractive. But rather than emphasizing the information, which is their intention, they are “harder” to read because of their minimal contrast with the background (see pp. 185, 205, 213, 266).
Still, there is much to be learned by reading this book.
Steven Darian is an STC Fellow and Professor emeritus from Rutgers University, where he taught business and technical writing as well as other language-related courses. Steven’s most recent book (2019) is the 2nd revised edition of Technique in Nonfiction: The Tools of the Trade. And due out later in the year, a slight digression: The Wanderer: Travels & Adventures Beyond the Pale.
Editing in the Modern Classroom
Suzan Flanagan and Michael Albers, eds. 2019. New York, NY: Routledge. [ISBN 978-0-8153-5446-8. 194 pages, including index. US$47.95 (softcover).]
How should technical editing be taught? What are the best practices in pedagogy, and what is the evidence, if any, supporting those practices? Editing in the Modern Classroom provides a few answers and argues for some research directions.
This collection of academic topics, nine chapters, is well written and researched. (However, as is typical for academic collections like this, the index is sparse and flat.) Each chapter begins with a list of takeaways that summarize the main points, usually with a focus on theory. And each chapter ends with a list of pedagogical practicalities that recommend teaching practices such as “Make clear to students that all practice [sic], including editing practices, are entangled in theory” (p. 106). Some of the chapters seem to deviate, exploring the side roads of their editing topics, and then they jump right back to the main topic, but in engaging ways. For example, the “Teaching Editing through a Feminist Theoretical Lens” chapter begins with a review of editing theory, includes a personal narrative, revisits the history of “Women in Editing Workplaces” (p. 96), argues how “feminist theory can help us understand how we work with texts and authors” (p. 100) including an extended example from an editor of a feminist journal, and ends with some examples of applying feminist theory to the editing course. I was engaged throughout the topics and only noticed the range when I tried to summarize the content.
Other chapters provide empirical research. The “Editing for Human-Information Interaction” chapter quantifies the types of editing marks made by graduate students. Complete with charts, tables, and statistical analyses of various types of editing marks and comments, this chapter finds that “too many of the students…performed a line edit of a text . . . without evaluating if each sentence, paragraph, and section made sense” on the whole (p. 119). While this chapter makes some interesting discoveries, the research is based on “56 papers, a total of 1,567 comments” (p. 114).
I don’t mean to suggest that this isn’t statistically valid; I am suggesting that we need to repeat this study and conduct many others. I agree with two authors, Lisa Melonçon and Kirk St.Amant, from this collection who recently argued in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 2019, Vol. 49(2) 128-155 for more empirical research, noting that the current state of empirical research in the field “makes it near to impossible for this research to serve as a foundation for sustainable inquiry” (p. 150).
From discussions of editing software and tools to editing for international audiences to a survey of editing courses in technical communication programs, one theme emerges: We are just beginning to study this field. These chapters are an excellent contribution to the body of research, yet we need more research in this area.
Kelly A. Harrison
Kelly A. Harrison, MFA, teaches technical writing at Stanford University. In collaboration with a colleague, she recently received an NEH grant for curriculum development at San José State University, where she has taught a range of writing courses. She has written print and online content for various high-tech companies.
Cite Right: A Quick Guide to Citation Styles—MLA, APA, Chicago, the Sciences, Professions, and More
Charles Lipson. 2018. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. [ISBN 978-0-226-43110-9. 180 pages, including index. US$15.00 (softcover).]
Charles Lipson has again provided an invaluable tool for researchers who must cite sources in their writing. Although he directly addresses students, experienced practitioners will also find the summary tables of citation styles helpful, particularly because requirements within specific fields are continuously changing.
Three of the 11 chapters focus on general points, including why we cite sources in the first place and basic approaches and rules. One piece of advice I greatly like: “Don’t bother trying to memorize any of these styles. There are simply too many minor details. Just follow the tables [in this book], and you’ll be able to handle different sources” (p. 11). The FAQs chapter addresses such questions as, “What about citing a work I’ve found in someone else’s notes?” (p. 161). (Lipson does a real service here by explaining how to avoid promulgating that other person’s errors.)
The central chapters present detailed, up-to-date tables and explanatory notations on the following editions of the major style guides:
- Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (2017)
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. (2010)
- MLA Handbook, 8th ed. (2016)
- Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, 8th ed. (2014)
- AMA Manual of Style, 10th ed. (2010)
- The ACS Style Guide, 3rd ed. (2006)
This information, of course, will go out of date when publishers release new editions. Lipson helpfully notes where you can check for online updates to recommendations within a discipline.
A good deal has changed since the second edition of Cite Right: A Quick Guide to Citation Styles—MLA, APA, Chicago, the Sciences, Professions, and More. A major change is the elimination of the chapter covering the style guide of the American Anthropological Association, which, as of 2015, follows Chicago. (Lipson doesn’t mention this detail but probably should have.) He accurately describes myriad revised material in the guides, such as MLA’s use of the term container and their no longer recommending inclusion of the format of a source.
Unsurprisingly, you’ll find expanded information tied to technological changes. Thus, more space is devoted to access dates for online material, apps, audio sources, e-books, online books, online comments, podcasts, social media (Instagram isn’t mentioned in the second edition), and Wikipedia.
If you’ve enjoyed consulting the second edition of Cite Right, it’s time to get the affordable third edition. Like me, you’ll want to keep it within easy reach of your keyboard.
Avon J. Murphy
Avon J. Murphy is an STC Fellow and technical editor in western Washington. A retired college professor and government writer, he is a contractor, and principal in Murphy Editing and Writing Services, specializing in computer and Web technologies. Avon served as book review editor for Technical Communication for 17 years.
The Compass and the Radar: The Art of Building a Rewarding Career While Remaining True to Yourself
Paolo Gallo. 2019. London, UK: Bloomsbury Business. [ISBN 978-1-4729-5879-2. 288 pages. US$28.00.]
The Compass and the Radar: The Art of Building a Rewarding Career While Remaining True to Yourself is an authentic guide to choosing a fulfilling career and navigating the complexities of organizational culture. Paolo Gallo takes readers on a journey powered by a “compass, an instrument focused on our inner and deepest values… and a radar, which “helps us discover the obstacles, the danger as well as the opportunities we will encounter” (p. 3).
The journey to fulfillment begins with exploring our passions and values so that we can identify a career that lets us remain true to ourselves. The first phase requires creative thinking as we explore our personal and professional identities. Gallo’s thought-provoking questions provide tools for self-reflection, coupled with simple advice such as “Think of the last time you were so absorbed and concentrated in an activity that you forgot about the time that flew by” (p. 27).
The second phase involves interviewing at relevant companies and determining if they’re a good fit, negotiating the job offer, and forging smart relationships with our peers and superiors. This requires a solid understanding of company culture. According to Gallo, “Company culture is what the organization is, as opposed to what it does, sells, has or earns” (p. 36). To know what an organization “is” we’ll first need to gain the trust of our colleagues—and then they must earn ours. Gallo helps us understand who we can trust by categorizing different types of colleagues into groups based on two qualities: “political intelligence, and the orientation to work for oneself or for the organization” (p. 130).
According to Gallo, “There are only two ways to build a career: as decent people or not” (p. 179). These words define the final phase of Gallo’s journey, in which we learn the importance of “deciding whether or not to be free” (p. 174). This means we must avoid corruption and blind obedience, learn to balance confidence with humility when amongst our colleagues, and form relationships with trustworthy, respectable leaders.
Gallo’s journey is heavily intertwined with anecdotes, both real and imagined, to illustrate key points. There’s a predominant focus on office culture and career advancement that could perhaps be balanced with additional references to jobs outside the office and the potential to create new value in one’s current role, respectively. Compass and the Radar undoubtedly speaks volumes to those looking to start or change careers in business and is a good reminder for anyone regardless of career or situation. The ability to navigate culture, cultivate relationships, and remain decent people are purely human traits that should never be overlooked as factors for fulfillment.
Gallo’s advice couldn’t be more relevant for us as technical communicators. Our work requires us to quickly learn and adapt to new products and tools, work with different individuals and teams, and take on shifting responsibilities to remain relevant in our organizations. And as technical communication continues to evolve in the information age, learning what “success” and “fulfillment” means to each of us is a critical factor for our industry’s success.
Amy Dunbar is an STC member and a technical writer for Pearson VUE in Bloomington, Minnesota. She has a degree in biology and a graduate certificate in technical communication from the University of Minnesota. Amy’s professional interests include content marketing and video production.
Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure
John Sharp and Colleen Macklin. 2019. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [ISBN 978-0-262-03963-5. 300, including index. US$29.95.]
Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure targets creative practitioners as well as anyone interested in the creative process. Rather than a practical guide of actionable steps, this book is an academic analysis of a range of iterative processes.
John Sharp and Colleen Macklin’s thesis is that failure is the heart of the creative process, because it exposes weaknesses and redirects the iterative process. The first portion of the book defines creativity, failure, and iteration, and examines the relationship between all three. The authors suggest: “Think of failure as a flashlight; it illuminates the things that don’t work and also, when we look closely, shines light on the path ahead toward the next version of an idea, and ultimately, the realization of a thing in the world” (p. 57).
The bulk of the book is a series of case studies in pairs, putting two creative practitioners on opposite ends of a continuum. Each pair explores one of the five types of continua of iterative practices defined by Sharp and Macklin, from material to reflective, targeted to exploratory, and more. The case studies themselves are easy to read and are fascinating looks into an array of creative practitioners: a winemaker, a filmmaker, a radio producer, a professional skateboarder, and others. The authors’ selected case studies “look closely at a variety of practices to help us see the complexity of creativity and its relationship to failure, but also to see the possibilities for iteration when viewed more closely” (p. 83). In other words, every iterative process is different.
While the case studies are easy to read, the rest of Iterate is academic in tone and the authors define things to death, which makes it inaccessible for the casual reader. The first chapter, “Creativity,” introduces four dozen key terms for readers to digest, and juggling the eight types of failure, the five continua of iteration, and other such dissections left my head spinning. However, Sharp and Macklin do use everyday examples (baking cupcakes, for one) to illustrate their terms, and there are numerous humorous illustrations to reinforce the content.
Iterate shows that a single iterative process is not translatable across practices or practitioners. Practically, the authors suggest goal setting to measure failure and find points for improvement. Setting small goals is the key to “Failing Better,” the final chapter’s title. Goal setting lets us assess, recognize failure, and make changes accordingly: “This is the key to the whole business of iterative creative practices: always trying again, being open to learning from your failures so that you might be that much better when you start the process over” (p. 251).
I would recommend Iterate to academics or those interested in a detailed analysis of iteration’s role in the creative process. It is well-researched and highly detailed with plenty for serious readers to digest.
Bonnie Winstel is the product specialist for a small software company in Huntsville, Alabama. She has a master’s degree in English and Technical Communication from the University of Alabama-Huntsville.
Seeing Science: An Illustrated Guide to the Wonders of the Universe
Iris Gottlieb. 2018. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. [ISBN 978-1-4521-6713-8. 152 pages, including index. US$22.95.]
Iris Gottlieb’s book Seeing Science: An Illustrated Guide to the Wonders of the Universe is a work of art. As she says in the introduction, “I want to open up the world of complex science with art and metaphor and storytelling. It is my hope that this book makes science more accessible, less intimidating, and more magical to anyone who has a sense of wonder—and a sense of humor” (p. 7). This book is artistic, full of odd scientific facts, and has references to popular culture.
The book is organized in three parts: life science, earth science, and physical science. Each part has a two-page spread to signify the start of the section and includes a small statement defining the part, a list of the related scientific fields, and a unique illustration. The pages in each part are much the same with a heading, subheading, applicable text, and colorful illustrations. Each page is designed to be aesthetically pleasing with exceptional use of color, negative space, illustrations, and text.
One of my favorite pages has an illustration of a frame containing the image of a pigeon with a sash that reads, “Did Things” (p. 57). The caption beneath the illustration reads, “Cher Ami was a homing pigeon who served in World War I. He flew 25 miles to deliver a message that saved 194 soldiers, but got shot and lost an eye and a leg in the process. Medics saved him and carved him a tiny wooden leg” (p. 57). The illustration is part of a spread about pigeons which includes a couple paragraphs explaining their “natural GPS systems” and theories for how it works.
While Seeing Science is aesthetically pleasing, I didn’t think it was truly effective as a tool for technical communication. The information in the book is interesting, but the actual text is difficult to read. The paragraphs of text on each page are in a sans serif, uppercase font in which the letters are slightly different sizes. It is beautiful and fits the whimsical nature of the book; however, my eyes couldn’t move over the text easily. To cause further frustration, the headings and subheadings are all in a clean, title cased sans serif font that is easy to read. Even the introduction in the front of the book and index and acknowledgements in the back of the book are in the same easy-to-read font. I would have preferred, and believe it would have better served the material, to have the whimsical font for headings and the paragraphs of text in more legible font.
In aesthetics alone, Seeing Science is amazing. I immensely enjoyed the illustrations and appealing design. But I believe Gottlieb failed in her effort to make “science more accessible” by using a font that doesn’t adequately serve the content or the reader.
Sara Buchanan is an STC member and a content strategist at LCS in Cincinnati, OH. In her free time, she’s an avid reader, enjoys cooking, and doting on her cats, Buffy and Spike.
Writing for the Design Mind
Natalia Ilyin. 2019. London, England: Bloomsbury Visual Arts. [ISBN 978-1-350-03497-6. 176 pages, including index. US$26.95 (softcover).]
Design students have two big problems when it comes to writing: fear that they don’t have the ability to write, and the misconception that there’s no need for them to hone this skill. Natalia Ilyin in Writing for the Design Mind attempts to tackle these problems and to provide tips, techniques, and general guidance that will help anyone improve their writing. She addresses these main issues early in the introduction by explaining that, like anything else, if you want to get better at writing, you need to practice, and that many well-known design professionals are all writers. It is these writers who contribute to the current theory, criticism, and dialog surrounding design. Ilyin also explains that designers write all the time; they write emails to clients, business proposals, and have even been conscripted to write advertising copy occasionally, and, therefore, knowing how to write clearly is an essential skill.
The author approaches the subject of learning to be a better writer in a light-hearted, humorous manner, thus making the book a surprisingly fun read. Writing for the Design Mind is both a fast and a slow read. While the content is handled in an approachable way, the exercises that accompany the book support the content and are designed to help the reader apply the described techniques to improve their writing. These exercises do slow down the reading as they are distributed throughout the text and often designate a recommended timeframe of 45 minutes to complete; some even recommend multiple 45-minute sessions, while others are a bit shorter.
Ilyin identifies her target audience as both design students and working professionals, and there is language that is directed at design audiences as well as inside jokes that only designers might enjoy, such as “Pardon me while I drop this shadow” (p. 27). Yet despite this, anyone who wishes to improve their writing is likely to enjoy the book, but they might not get all the jokes and design references. Most importantly, there is something for everyone, and even the most proficient writers would likely gain some new skills or knowledge from this book.
Writing for the Design Mind echoes some of the great writing books that many have turned to over the years to improve their writing and their output including Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Silvia’s How to Write A Lot and Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Ilyin even encourages her readers to read The Elements of Style in place of completing an exercise in chapter five. Anyone who reads Ilyin’s book and completes all the exercises, 25 in all—not including the assigned reading of The Elements of Style, will certainly become a better writer, and in doing so will be able to take part in creating the dialog, as Ilyin explains, to become leaders in design.
Amanda Horton holds an MFA in Design and currently teaches graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) in the areas of design technology, design studio. and history of graphic design. Ms. Horton is also the director of the Design History Minor at UCO.
The Creativity Code: Art and Innovation in the Age of AI
Marcus du Sautoy. 2019. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University. [ISBN 978-0-674-98813-2. 312 pages, including index. US$30.00.]
In The Creativity Code: Art and Innovation in the Age of AI, Marcus du Sautoy alludes to the power artificial intelligence (AI) has over almost every aspect of our daily lives: from a multitude of apps on our phones that cater to our every whim and necessity, to the elaborate computer programs used in medicine, economics, and other sciences. The algorithms that make these things possible were created by people for people using a top-down programming approach.
But this book’s main goal is to call the reader’s attention to the fascinating, if controversial, trends that have been appearing on the AI horizon. Nowadays, computer algorithms have begun to chart new territory in art, music, and literature.
The modern generation of coders is trying to prove the possibility for the code to program itself using a bottom-up model; a model that might give the machine itself the ability to create an emotionally moving piece of art or music. But can a machine achieve a level of creativity like humans? How can it go beyond “the creativity of its coder or a person who built its data set” (p. 6)?
In the following chapters, du Sautoy discusses each field in depth to help us understand if or when the human creativity code could be cracked by machines. We learn pertinent information on the nature of algorithms, their creation, and ways of training them using huge data sets. We then follow the process of how algorithms evolve and become better at achieving set goals; reliving the battle between AlphaGo, a program created by DeepMind, and the best Go player in the world who was defeated by this self-learning code.
In other chapters, we steadily build up our understanding of painting, the captivating details of musical composition; the logical steps required for a mathematical proof; the development of a song-writing formula; the intricacies of human languages and translation; and poem and novel writing. In a gentle, simple, engaging way, du Sautoy masterfully explains the workings behind each field by infusing the material with a healthy dose of mathematics and computer science. In addition, each chapter contains a brief account of how a top-down programming approach helped solve some problems and discusses various attempts and experiments that have been achieved by the bottom-up programming approach.
Thus, a well-trained, self-learning code becomes the focus throughout the rest of The Creativity Code. While in many instances, the machine code does not create, it nevertheless is becoming a powerful tool for enhancing human creativity. Hence, the concept of AI creativity offers more questions than answers. du Sautoy concludes by saying: “My journey, however, has not produced anything that presents an existential threat to what it means to be a creative human. Not yet, at least” (p. 279). For now, we can exhale and pursue our creative acts without fear of losing our jobs to an algorithm.
Tetyana Darian has an MS in Mathematics and is embarking on an MS/PhD in Computational and Integrative Biology. Her interests include research in synthetic and molecular biology, data visualization, and scientific translation.
The Two Cultures of English: Literature, Composition, and the Moment of Rhetoric
Jason Maxwell. 2019. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. [ISBN-13: 978-0-8232-8245-6. 248 pages, including index. US$28.00 (softcover).]
Teachers, students, and anyone else interested in the study of literature, rhetoric, and composition should find The Two Cultures of English: Literature, Composition, and the Moment of Rhetoric a good read. Jason Maxwell tackles, in this book, the general topic of how today’s universities ask English studies to not so much reflect a liberal arts tradition but instead look at a more vocational curriculum. He looks at the divide between literary studies and composition and feels that English studies today are entering a period of uncertainty and change.
In looking at ideas concerning what he calls the conceptual borders related to the future of English studies, Maxwell feels these borders of English studies are “certain to proliferate at a wild, unpredictable pace in the coming years” (p. 201). He asks, in a big picture way, how “will English and its various fields respond to a world of dwindling economic prospects and impending ecological collapse” (p. 201). After asking this question, Maxwell comes to his conclusion about the unpredictable future of English studies. He ably looks in The Two Cultures of English at the relationship of studying literature, rhetoric, and composition in North American universities in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as he makes his predictions about the future of these studies.
Jeanette Evans is an STC Associate Fellow; active in the NEO community as a newsletter co-editor, currently serving on the newsletter committee; and is co-author of an Intercom column on emerging technologies in education. She holds an MS in technical communication management from Mercer University.
Sojourning in Disciplinary Cultures: A Case Study of Teaching Writing in Engineering
Maureen A. Mathison. 2019. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. [ISBN 978-1-60732-802-5. 216 pages including index. US$27.95 (softcover)].
Sojourning in Disciplinary Cultures: A Case Study of Teaching Writing in Engineering is an interesting and useful book on Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID) through its perspective and content on interdisciplinary collaboration and pedagogy. It is a unique book in that the chapters are written by colleagues who participated as writing consultants in an engineering curriculum reform program, and they each write about different challenges they experienced during that curriculum reform and what they learned from those experiences.
The book is more than about experiences and lessons learned, though, because each chapter addresses critical issues that interfere with WAC/WID and interdisciplinary efforts at most universities. For instance, perspectives on the value of writing, what writing is, and how to teach writing are often contentious topics among colleagues from different disciplines. One benefit that readers may gain from Sojourning in Disciplinary Cultures is that such issues are discussed theoretically and practically from various disciplinary points of view, and the authors provide suggested strategies that have come about through research and thoughtful hindsight. The range of subjects include learning to write and writing to learn, the separation between content and form, problems that arise when writing is viewed as scribal and not rhetorical, dealing with resistant faculty, team teaching across the disciplines, pedagogical interventions for teaching about graphics, issues of power and gender inequality, and intercultural collaboration. The intercultural collaboration chapter is especially poignant in understanding intercultural dissonance from macro and micro perspectives by explaining the value of applying a Critical Indigenous Studies approach to Watanabe’s sojourning experience as a writing consultant. The explanation of this approach helps readers understand the complexity of issues such as knowledge and power, cultural construction of knowledge, and the binary between quantitative and qualitative knowledge, especially in terms of teaching writing across disciplines. Even more important, though, is Watanabe’s fresh perspective on meeting in the “middle,” a necessary component of any interdisciplinary collaboration, but one that is often overlooked or not achieved.
Sojourning in Disciplinary Cultures is a valuable resource for a graduate class on technical writing pedagogy as well as for any humanities, engineering, and science faculty who may be engaged in interdisciplinary collaborations or who teach interdisciplinary classes, especially with a WAC/WID focus. One of the most valuable lessons from this book is learning about disciplinary points of view regarding writing and learning how to respect and work through those differences and still be productive and effective in teaching writing to students from all disciplines.
Diane Martinez is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University where she teaches technical and professional writing. She previously worked as a technical writer in engineering, an online writing instructor, and an online writing center specialist. She has been with STC since 2005.
How Knowledge Moves: Writing the Transnational History of Science and Technology
John Krige. 2019. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. [ISBN 978-0-226-60599-9. 444 pages, including index. US40.00 (softcover).]
Under what conditions, if any, should countries limit the export and import of scientific information? And what are the consequences of such restrictions? The articles collected in John Krige’s How Knowledge Moves: Writing the Transnational History of Science and Technology explore this question by examining historical examples of regulations designed to control the transnational flow of knowledge. Ideally, scientists and researchers prefer that knowledge flow freely within a transnational community of academics and researchers. What the articles show, however, is that if history is a guide, knowledge will continue to be controlled by countries for their own geopolitical interests.
These questions are particularly timely given the ways many countries have increasingly infiltrated each other’s research facilities and technology companies. Especially in the U.S. the issue has assumed paramount importance because the uncontrolled spread of knowledge threatens American economic and military power. Intellectual property covertly obtained by other countries (especially China) shows up later in subsidized products developed as part of a mercantilist strategy to undermine western economic, political, and military strength. Yet such stratagems are neither new nor modern: sixteenth-century Spain, for example, kept knowledge of its seafaring routes and maritime charts, and the knowledge of its captains and pilots, under tight bureaucratic control (p. 414).
The book’s international contributors consider not only the role of the regulatory state, but also broader questions about the impact of the transnational movement of knowledge in complicating and blurring cultural and political distinctions: The rise of English as the “lingua franca” of knowledge transfer (p. 26); the merging of scientific knowledge with “political and military might” (p. 413), particularly in America but also increasingly around the world; the confusing “hybrid selves” that arise from attempting to balance “one’s identity as a knowledgeable body with national and political allegiance” (p. 26); and the fundamental paradox at the root of many of these themes—that “transnational knowledge/power subverts efforts to draw stark national divisions” (p. 416), yet “transnational history” also gives “readers a sense of place, of belonging, of identity” (p. 412).
Can such paradoxes, in fact, be resolved, and if so, how? It is hard not to be sympathetic to the contributors’ desire for unencumbered knowledge transfer, but it is also inevitable that unless the sovereign nation-state is replaced by global government, the exchange of knowledge will continue to be controlled by the interests of each country, and the restrictions decried in this volume—export controls, regulations, passports, crises of personal and cultural identity, borders themselves—will continue to shape how and when knowledge moves across borders.
The present study’s impressive collection of deeply researched, wide-ranging historical analyses is of foundational value in characterizing the issue and lays the groundwork for developing a more productive way of sharing scientific and technical knowledge internationally, especially when sovereign restrictions are expanding as information becomes an increasingly critical national resource.
Donald R. Riccomini
Donald R. Riccomini is an STC member and a senior lecturer in English at Santa Clara University, where he specializes in teaching engineering and technical communications. He previously spent twenty-three years in high technology as a technical writer, engineer, and manager in semiconductors, instrumentation, and server development.
Conflicts of Interest in Science: How Corporate-Funded Academic Research Can Threaten Public Health
Sheldon Krimsky. 2019. New York, NY: Hot Books. [ISBN 978-1-5107-3652-8. 392 pages, including index. USD $27.99.]
Eroding public trust in science as exemplified by the anti-vaccine movement and climate change skeptics makes Conflicts of Interest in Science: How Corporate-Funded Academic Research Can Threaten Public Health particularly relevant today. If scientists are viewed as biased, the results of their research may be dismissed, even if they are scientifically sound. That is why even the appearance of a conflict of interest is detrimental to scientific integrity, Sheldon Krimsky notes.
The book collects his published writings on the prevalence and potential impact of (perceived) conflicts of interest among scientific authors, particularly in biomedicine. It presents 21 articles published between 1985 and 2017 in chronological order. Topics include the social cost of corporate sponsorship of academic research, financial ties between guideline panel members and pharmaceutical companies, scientists as entrepreneurs, the editorial practices of medical journals, and transparency of financial ties between study authors and companies that might profit from their results, among others.
As might be expected with this approach, Krimsky’s study results are re-used in multiple articles on similar topics. He traces the distinction between “pure” and “applied” science to the 17th century. Nowadays, however, Krimsky differentiates between purely academic and industry-funded research. Focusing on medical studies, he observes: “Many medical schools operate on a system where faculty may have tenure but must raise their own salary from sponsored research” (p. 107).
Such a system raises questions about the trustworthiness of the reported results. While financial interests, such as the need for sponsored salaries, do not always influence the research outcome, they may well determine what is—and is not—studied. Such conflicts of interest may also introduce unconscious bias on the researcher’s part. And then there is, of course, direct influence, such as Krimsky’s own experience with industry trying to suppress his students’ environmental report.
In an afterword, Krimsky recommends: transparency through disclosure policies, including sanctions for authors who fail to disclose their conflicts of interest; rejection of private university funding that limits investigative autonomy; strict adherence to government guidelines on advisory board members and their financial interests; a ban on government employees’ financial interests in for-profit companies in their field; public availability of company research on drugs, medical devices, pesticides and chemicals, and independent evaluation of these items and substances. “No company should serve as both manufacturer and sole evaluator of their products,” Krimsky concludes (p. 315).
While Conflicts of Interest in Science raises many interesting issues and provides useful evidence, it could have benefited from more thorough copy editing, especially of the front and back matter.
Barbara Jungwirth writes about medical topics (www.bjungwirth.com) and translates medical and technical documents from German into English (www.reliable-translations.com). She has written for print and online media since her high school days and majored in media studies. You can find her on Twitter at @bjungwirthNY.
Who’s Afraid of AI?: Fear and Promise in the Age of Thinking Machines
Thomas Ramge. 2019. New York, NY: The Experiment. [ISBN 978-1-61519-550-3. 122 pages. US$9.95 (softcover).]
Open your newspaper on any given day and you’ll read about an aspect of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that is appearing on the horizon.
In his book, Who’s Afraid of AI?: Fear and Promise in the Age of Thinking Machines, Thomas Ramge makes the statement that “artificial intelligence will change the world like electricity did” (p. 19).
One of my favorite places to travel is to Amish country in southern Minnesota. It’s like going back into time. Driving down dirt country roads, it’s common to pass a horse and buggy and lush farm fields with men, horses, and simple farm machinery. There are large white houses with no electrical lines leading to them. It seems like going a step back into time when there was no electricity.
Today, we stand on the threshold of AI that is poised to take us into a future of technology and robots. We are coming to a point when we will interact with AI in some way in our jobs and daily life.
Ramge addresses many ways our lives will be impacted by AI. Some of the AI benefits are already helping us handle disasters such as Fukushima. As a result, countries competed to determine how to use robots for use in disaster control. South Korea’s entry, CRD-Hubo, won the first trial run in June 2015.
He mentions the well-known 2008 movie, Wall-E, about a robot who developed a personality, and the famous writer, Isaac Asimov, who wrote about robots in the 1950s. Much has happened with AI since these media were released.
Ramge opens his book by taking you from Kitty Hawk in the Introduction to Tesla in Chapter 1, where machines make decisions. In Chapter 2, he picks up with post World War II and lays out the history of AI. Next, he explores how machines learn. In Chapter 4, he describes virtual assistants like Alexa, Echo, and AI in the medical field. In Chapter 5, he discusses robots as coworkers and describes cobots, that are programmed to help people with specific activities. Two of the notable ones are Sawyer and Baxter. He closes by addressing superintelligence and poses the question: Will robots seize control?
Ramge describes various ways in which AI is already being used. Robots are taking over picking fruit from orchards and mowing lawns. Wall-Ye V.I.N., a two-armed robot, can prune up to 600 grapevines a day and record the health of the plants while doing so. The medical industry is already using AI to identify malignant tumors. Aibotiz, a survey drone, can do the work of a survey team and survey 40 acres and complete the survey in 8 minutes!
In a few years from now, we may wonder how we ever got along without AI in the medical arena and the farm fields. We will likely be working alongside a robot.
Rhonda Lunemann is a technical writer with Siemens PLM Software, a senior member and serves on the Program Committee of STC’s Twin Cities Chapter, and a member of the MN (Minnesota) Bot Makers.
Teaching Graphic Design History
Steven Heller. 2019. New York, NY: Allworth Press. [ISBN 978-1-62153-732-8. 304 pages, including index. US$24.99 (softcover).]
How do we teach graphic design history? Is it something that is covered within the studio curriculum, does it warrant its own course? And who will teach that course? For many higher education institutions, these questions represent the core dilemma around the instruction of graphic design history to students of the field. Steven Heller’s newly released book Teaching Graphic Design History presents many of these issues and more.
At the outset, the audience for this book seems quite narrow, primarily graphic design history instructors. However, as you read through the contents, it becomes clear that the book can serve a much broader audience, which is good since there are relatively few graphic design historians, especially in comparison to art historians. Many instructors will find the book beneficial to their instruction and curriculum development, whether they are engaging students in studio projects that include an element of design history or diving into the teaching of graphic design history on its own.
At some institutions, the curriculum does not include a specific course directed at the study of graphic design history. Therefore, studio instructors find the need to work this history into their courses instead. Alternatively, there is often a need for art historians to teach a course on design history, which may fall outside their specialty; this book will serve those instructors as well. Finally, this book would also be an excellent resource not only for new instructors of graphic design history wishing to build their curriculum but also those who are veterans of teaching graphic design history who wish to stay current or are looking for ways to improve their courses. The book may also appeal to graphic design history students who are interested in understanding in-depth who and what we study when we study graphic design history and why.
Teaching Graphic Design History contains a broad selection of essays relevant to the teaching of design history, interviews with design history instructors on what is graphic design history and what are the implications of its instruction, relevant stories on teaching design history, a variety of thematic approaches as well as examples of syllabi and assignments which show how broadly this subject can be covered. The sample syllabi and assignments alone make this a valuable source for instructors, very often these examples include substantive descriptions of how and why the curriculum is taught the way it is, and offers detailed schedules for projects and the semester as a whole. The interviews include many well-respected design historians and authors, such as Louise Sandhaus and R. Roger Remington. Essays and thematic approaches are included from Johanna Drucker, co-author of a graphic design history textbook; Ellen Lupton, Curator of Contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt Design museum; and of course, from author and historian Steven Heller. Teaching Graphic Design History may not answer all the questions on how best to teach, after all some answers must come from the individual giving the instruction, it is an excellent resource on where to begin.
Amanda Horton holds an MFA in Design and currently teaches graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) in the areas of design history, theory, and criticism. Ms. Horton is also the director of the Design History Minor at UCO.
Graphic Design: A New History
Stephen Eskilson. 2019. 3rd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. [ISBN 978-0-300-23328-5. 472 pages, including index. US$55.00.]
Graphic Design: A New History is an elegantly written book that comprehensively covers the evolution of design from hieroglyphics to the digital era. With a focus on art movements and specific artists, it situates graphic design in its historical roots in both the United States and Europe. The book is broken down into chapters that describe the major art movements as they relate to graphic design and has a detailed bibliography organized by chapter along with a very useful glossary that includes definitions of the various art movements, a particularly helpful feature.
One of the great pleasures of reading and reviewing, especially outside one’s expertise, is the discovery of a volume that offers education, enlightenment, and perhaps even a bit of amazement. When an author creates a work that immediately elicits a visceral reaction due to its scope or attention to detail, they are challenging the reader to reach a new level of understanding.
Such is the case with this monumental, encyclopedic volume, eloquently written and visually engaging by Stephen Eskilson. If you are a graphic design professional, Graphic Design may well become a regular reference, part of your larger library. But if you are a student in the field, or more likely simply an interested, inquiring reader, this volume offers a masters level understanding into the long history, concepts, and personalities of the most influential artists and graphic designers.
A major strength of this book is the artwork, which consists of over 500 images that excellently illustrate the designs of the times. Eskilson deconstructs war time propaganda posters, magazine covers, and album jackets that reveal the underlying messages within their historical context. Numerous examples of art and architecture fill the pages demonstrating the visual styles popular during the various art movements along with their effect on the commercial enterprises, such as logos and advertisements.
I especially enjoyed the discussion on the impact of more recent art trends and his explanation of how technology has had an impact on graphic design. Eskilson expertly shows how MTV, comics, manga, anime, and graffiti have influenced—and continue to influence—graphic design. During this period, desktop publishing programs and other technical advances in the field broadened it to include film, television sequences, and video games that “popularize[ed] a smooth, exuberantly colorful, and futuristic textureless style” (p. 402). The graphic designer’s role has also expanded to include user experience and user interface design, a venue previously the realm of computer programmers.
At roughly 470 pages and slightly less than six pounds, this third edition provides readers with both an intellectual and physical workout. Make no mistake, it is a tome and it would be easy to let it sit on the table radiating potential. But like your favorite pleasure food, once you start reading, you can’t stop.
Lynne Cooke is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor at Arizona State University where she teaches courses in technical communication, digital writing, and usability. She has presented at several STC conferences and has published two articles on eye tracking in STC’s Technical Communication journal.
An Overview of Training and Development: Why Training Matters
Saul Carliner and Margaret Driscoll. 2019. Minneapolis, MN: Lakewood Media Group. [ISBN 978-1-0990-4538-7. 303 pages. US$29.95 (softcover).]
Saul Carliner and Margaret Driscoll guide their readers through the world of training and development (T&D) in their book, An Overview of Training and Development: Why Training Matters, by offering a wealth of information and resources that help you de-mystify what T&D professionals do. Chapter 1 introduces the topic, while Chapters 2 and 3 cover the work itself, including the deliverables and the people who produce them. Chapters 4–7 examine the various processes and tools that training professionals use when crafting programs. Chapters 8–9 explore the training profession through the lenses of client focus and business development. The final chapter helps readers strike their own path upon the T&D journey.
Just as most journeys have guides along the way, each chapter concludes with a T&D professional profile pertinent to the topic. For example, in Chapter 9, “Envision Performance Solutions,” president Irene Stern Frielich shares her most important business insight: “aligning the learning solution with performance needs in support of the business goals of an organization. Without that alignment, the learning solution isn’t really a solution and is not likely to achieve success” (p. 260).
An Overview of Training and Development features several well-designed tables and figures that summarize key concepts. Notable examples include typical questions asked during the analysis portion of ADDIE (pp. 100–104), the ABCDs of writing an objective (p. 139), a summary of planning documents used for instructional design projects (pp. 239–243), and the average time needed to create one hour of instruction for various delivery modes and levels of complexity (p. 247).
Besides the clearly organized sections and other useful components, this book encourages active reader participation through its various end-of-chapter activities (quiz questions and answers, discussion questions about various scenarios, and professional assessment checklists) that help the reader synthesize what they just read. For example, the Chapter 3 activity invites readers to rate their levels of interest in working in various training roles, including assessing current and future skills needed (pp. 86–93). To conclude Chapter 10, Carliner and Driscoll designed a thorough, yet easy-to-use, career planning worksheet (pp. 291–298) that assesses all aspects of professional development covered in the first nine chapters.
Overall, An Overview of Training and Development is a valuable resource, not only for people who simply want to know what T&D professionals do, but also those who “want” to (or already) work in the profession. For future and current practitioners, these chapter exercises and assessment tools are like having a mentor sit alongside you. At first, I thought those who just want to know more about the profession could skip the end-of-chapter activities. However, these exercises can help managers and supervisors with mentoring their staff. Finally, even seasoned training professionals, especially those who “stumbled” into instructional design, will benefit from the resources listed throughout the book. After all, Carliner and Driscoll say, “the most valuable preparation is on-the-job experience and development” (p. 271).
Jamye Sagan is a Senior Member and active in the Instructional Design & Learning SIG, where she has contributed reviews of several Summit sessions for the SIG’s newsletter. She has over 15 years of technical communication experience and is the Pharmacy Communications Advisor for H-E-B in San Antonio, TX, Jamye also has written several book reviews for this journal.
Designing Disability: Symbols, Space, and Society
Elizabeth Guffey. 2018. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic. [ISBN 978-1-350-00427-6. 224 pages, including index. US$26.95 (softcover).]
Elizabeth Guffey’s Designing Disability: Symbols, Space, and Society provides a readable, detailed, and well-referenced history and discussion of the International Symbol of Access (ISA): the now ubiquitous icon of a human figure sitting in a wheelchair. On the surface, the icon appears simple; however, as Guffey explains, the symbol’s evolution, development, and proliferation are complex. Numerous years were required to address the wicked problem of developing an internationally acceptable and usable icon.
Whether the ISA’s humanizing but disproportionate head should even be present is discussed in depth—the issues surrounding the use of that head mirror multiple past and current conflicts around the ISA. Deftly, Guffey discusses multiple rhetorical, political, social, and identity-drive tensions and polarities that impact the icon as well as larger cultural and social (mis)understandings around disability. A few examples: whether responsibility for addressing access was an individual’s responsibility of that of the welfare state; how much development and design can or should be done by an individual versus that of committees and working groups; how much should authority and power be given to design, and those creating designs to represent access and disability, versus the communities that are represented. Readers interested in the politics, power, and design will enjoy Guffey’s work and they can follow up on specifics with multiple sources.
Guffey’s writing is passionate and connected, but she is not partisan. Her book unveils a wicked problem that multiple communities—disability activists, designers, governments, social workers, colleges, lawyers, and wheelchair users among them—try to address. For readers or scholars new to disability studies, Designing Disability is an excellent examination of an everyday familiar icon. Educators working with undergraduates could easily crib key concepts or chapters from “Part Two: Redesigning Signs and Space (1961–1974)” to integrate disability in conversations about the complexities of sign or icon creation. For communication practitioners, Guffey’s study reveals how multiple well-intentioned parties collaborate, betray, fight, and promote—all while the icon at issue’s meaning is in flux socially.
While Guffey presents the engagement around access and the ISA, she provides brief social and activist histories as well—histories that show how the ISA empowered communities as well as being unrepresentative and inaccurate for most other disabled communities. Guffey’s work includes a brief history of the wheelchair, helpful and relevant illustrations, heavy bond paper for easy reading, a solidly developed index, and an impressive bibliography.
Designing Disability helps readers understand how highly motivated, ethical, and active individuals and communities can come together and create, struggle with one another, and yield an icon that helps both signify an identity, rights, and understanding to outsiders—and yet, by doing so, at the same time create new, inaccurate stereotypes whereby many citizens assume that if someone is not in a wheelchair, or the disability is not clearly visible to them, then that person must not be disabled.
Gregory Zobel is an associate professor of Educational Technology at Western Oregon University.
Human/Machine: The Future of Our Partnership with Machines
Daniel Newman and Olivier Blanchard. London, England: Kogan Page Limited. [ISBN 978-0-7494-8424-8. 246 pages, including index. US$19.95 (softcover).]
As Daniel Newman and Olivier Blanchard argue in Human/Machine: The Future of Our Partnership with Machines, the advent of increasingly powerful, pervasive artificial intelligence (AI) in our lives is not only inevitable, but also evolutionary. Humans, the authors contend, “cannot succeed as a species without enhancements” (p. 4) and technology in all its forms—including AI—represents just such enhancements, whether as a rock for hammering or as an abacus for counting.
Technology is traditionally understood as strictly instrumental, serving as a “physical extension of a human user’s will: an attachment” (p. 3), like a stick that increases reach or leverage. AI moves beyond instrumentalism into decision-making, changing the relationship between humans and technology from “user and instrument” to “user and helper” (p. 6). If sophisticated enough, the “helper” could end up replacing the human entirely. The optimum solution is not to replace but to augment human abilities by integrating the strengths of AI—especially its ability to manage repetitive, predictable patterns of work—with the irreducibly human qualities of creativity, intuition, experience, wisdom, and above all, sensitivity to context.
Newman and Blanchard illustrate the contextual limitations of AI by asking how a self-driving car should decide between driving into a wall and “possibly killing its occupants” or driving “into a crowd of pedestrians, saving its occupants but possibly killing the pedestrians” (p. 205). Humans might not have an immediate answer to this moral dilemma either, but at least they would be aware of the moral dimension at issue and might improvise a context-specific way to resolve the problem.
How then to determine the appropriate level of AI-human interaction? The authors offer three models. “Big Brother” results in the “surveillance economy” we experience today, with human interactions and communications tracked ubiquitously and surreptitiously. “Big Mother” has good intentions but ends up “overbearing and intrusive, like an overreaching, overzealous parent” (p. 36). “Big Butler,” in contrast, operates as a helpful digital assistant who, unlike Big Brother and Big Mother, respects privacy, completes simple, repetitive tasks, can take limited initiative, and is programmed to alert the user to ambiguous situations rather than independently solve them in rigid, counterproductive, and possibly destructive ways. As a corollary, the authors advise users to distrust any AI system not “under their complete control” (p. 177).
Newman and Blanchard offer detailed proposals and case studies, showing how current workers can actively engage rather than shun AI by developing precisely those skills AI cannot replicate, such as judgment, flexibility, creativity, and initiative in dealing with the unpredictability that stymies AI systems. Schools should focus on broadly educating workers, not simply training them. STEM alone is not enough. Most importantly, the authors emphasize that AI development should “incorporate more human–machine interactions” (p. 132) from the start, to augment rather than replace humans—a fundamental principle all AI designers should heed.
Donald R. Riccomini
Donald R. Riccomini is an STC member and a senior lecturer in English at Santa Clara University, where he specializes in teaching engineering and technical communications. He previously spent twenty-three years in high technology as a technical writer, engineer, and manager in semiconductors, instrumentation, and server development.
If…Then: Algorithmic Power and Politics
Taina Bucher. 2018. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 978-0-1904-9303-5. 216 pages, including index. US $27.95 (softcover).]
Taina Bucher’s If…Then: Algorithmic Power and Politics is delightful: she presents multiple engaging critiques about algorithms while simultaneously addressing contemporary issues like fake news, news feeds, and technology “black boxes.” Her writing is intellectually interesting and exciting. Chapter 2: The Multiplicity of Algorithms is a fresh and accessible read on multiplicity. While discussing algorithms’ complexities, and how they are not simple or easily explainable constructs, Bucher explores multiplicity through Mol’s (2002) lens, which initially centered on bodies and medical practice. She fills If…Then throughout with similar moves; she connects interesting, relevant ideas to algorithms, thereby integrating multiple disciplines and fields and making her work more readable and accessible.
Chapter 3: Neither Black Nor Box: (Un)knowing Algorithms will hopefully be anthologized in technical communication, science, and technology studies readers. Bucher interrogates the black box concept’s illusions and ideology, and then she effectively questions—if not destroys—rhetorical and political moves that attempt to label technology and algorithms as “black box.” As Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression (2018) decimates technological neutrality myths, Bucher demolishes technocratic territories and sloppy academic research methods that obey borders defined by meritocratic, profit-driven technology ventures or their surveillance state allies. Allowing technology to be labeled “black box” has political impacts and material implications. Bucher’s work reminds scholars and practitioners that we are responsible for questioning and examining technology and content—even that which is labeled “black box.”
If…Then is relevant in today’s political climate; three chapters readily connect with general readers with less experience reading critical theory or technology studies. The fourth chapter, Life at the Top: Engineering Participation, and the sixth chapter, Programming the News: When Algorithms Come to Matter, are timely, given increasing public and political questioning of technology monoliths like Facebook. Similarly, with Trump era fake news claims and social media interventions by multiple parties with unclear agendas, Bucher’s heavily cited chapters offer frames for understanding these miasmas. Either chapter is easily excerpted and shared with fresh articles coming out earlier this week, month, or year. Similarly, this method could help undergraduates make connections between research and scholarship based heavily in theory while connecting to contemporary social and political issues.
Throughout If…Then, Bucher retains and asserts her humanity with relevant examples of personal experience before eliding into scholarly critical theory that grounds back into lived, daily technology-driven experiences. Her transitional fluidity mirrors Virginia Woolf’s (2008) skillful perspective shifts in Jacob’s Room. Result: pleasurable and impressive scholarship. She models excellence, and Bucher shows how we can do meaningful research in these anti-intellectual times.
Bucher’s conclusion, her meditation, is neither dreary dystopian nor delusional utopian. She ends with questions that can further drive research and activism: questions about who can access algorithms, when and where, as well as who or what gets to be part of an algorithm.
Gregory Zobel is an associate professor of Educational Technology at Western Oregon University.