Creating Spaces for Strategic Contemplation:

A Collaborative Webtext



By David Maynard and Christine Denecker

Designed by Megan Adams


Proceed with Caution: Exploring the Potential Dangers of Digital Composition


Having surveyed some of the many benefits of incorporating multimodal composition into the writing classroom, I now turn my attention to some of the potential risks of doing so. I had the mixed fortune to grow familiar with such risk as I reflected upon the creation of my video essay for the “Ask the Expert” assignment. I came to recognize that one of the greatest dangers that often accompanies the incorporation of new media technology into the classroom is a danger that is likely inherent to all technology, namely that as I grew more comfortable with Windows Movie Maker as a composing tool, I grew less conscious of it as a piece of human-made technology that is imbricated within relations of power. As S. Scott Graham (2016) explains in his summary of Heidegger’s “theory of tool-being,” a technological object’s “being recedes from notice” when it is operating as expected (p. 113). However, even as we become unware of a given technology as it becomes incorporated into our daily routine, the technological object “is still implicated in an order of activity, a regime of practice” (Graham, 2016, p. 113). In other words, even the most seemingly mundane technologies participate in complex social and material networks of activity, activity that often operates below the surface of user awareness.


While I first experienced Windows Movie Maker as an unfamiliar object, one that I had to continually wrestle with in order to compose a coherent audiovisual text, over time it became increasingly familiar, and my interactions with it became increasingly unconscious. Furthermore, given my narrow goals for my video essay at that moment (e.g. accurately reflecting pedagogical perspectives, receiving a good grade, and making sure I still had time for other professional duties), the last thing on my mind was to consider the larger ideological and material implications of my technology use. Yet, as Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe (1994) remind us, “computer interfaces . . . [are] non-innocent . . . borders,” and one of the consequences of  my embracing Windows Movie Maker as a neutral tool for composition was that I failed to recognize how ideologically messy and materially entangled my use of, not just Windows Movie Maker, but potentially any digital composing technology often is (p. 495). In retrospect, my approach to Windows Movie Maker enacted what Nixon (2011) has called “instrumental rationality” in that my use of it was circumscribed by my goals for the project, which effectively squelched any desire to understand the technology as a socially-enmeshed phenomenon (p. 85). While valuable as a means of increasing efficiency and saving time, the drawback of such single-minded engagement is that it tends to ignore the ways in which one’s technological practices may contribute to the circulation of attitudes and behaviors that do not align with one’s beliefs and values (or those of our field).


Case-in-point, when I was using Microsoft’s Windows Movie Maker to produce my video essay, I was definitely not thinking about the Microsoft Corporation’s potentially troubling relationship with the National Security Agency (NSA), an issue that has come to occupy my attention in the months and years following my completion of the “Ask the Expert” assignment. The issue of NSA surveillance has been explored in other research (see Beck, 2015, “The Invisible Identity,” p. 128; Beck, 2016, “Writing Educator Responsibilities”), but its threat to the privacy of U.S. citizens is so significant and the threat of government overreach remains so unsettling that the subject merits further inquiry. For instance, on January 19, 2018, President Donald Trump signed the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 into law and, in doing so, reauthorized Section 702 of Title VII of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (Trump, 2018). According to Trump (2018), Section 702 “allows the Intelligence Community, under a robust regime of oversight by all three branches of Government, to collect critical intelligence on international terrorists, weapons proliferators, and other important foreign intelligence targets located outside the United States.” While Trump (2018) is emphatic that Section 702 “prohibits the Government from using it to target Americans and persons located in the United States,” critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch and the Electronic Frontier Foundation  have argued that the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 serves to “expand surveillance under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), grant the government more authority under other provisions of FISA, and could be read to codify current unlawful surveillance practices” (Access Now et al., 2017).


Section 702 of FISA came under public scrutiny in 2013 when whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked top secret documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post that outline ongoing surveillance operations in which the NSA taps directly into the servers of major web companies in order “to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats” (Greenwald and MacAskill, 2013). According to these documents, the list of companies compromised through this surveillance program, known as PRISM, includes Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube and Apple (Gellman and Poitras, 2013). Perhaps most alarming for instructors and administrators of first-year writing, however, is that the documents identify Microsoft as PRISM’s first target, with data collection stretching as far back as 2007 (Greenwald and MacAskill, 2013). The documents leaked by Snowden suggest that the emails students, instructors and administrators exchange via Microsoft Outlook may be subject to collection by the federal government as it operates under Section 702 of FISA.


We can begin to develop a more nuanced appreciation of the ways in which the use of networked digital technology such as Microsoft Outlook may subject us to government surveillance by attending to the text of FISA itself. For instance, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 states that, “upon the issuance of an order” (2008, p. 2438) from the FISA Court (2008, p. 2437), “the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence may authorize jointly, for a period of up to 1 year . . . , the targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information” (2008, p. 2438). While FISA states that the government “may not intentionally acquire any communication as to which the sender and all intended recipients are known . . . to be located in the United States,” the use of qualifying phrases like “intentionally” and “known” make it difficult to meaningfully understand how often, in what ways, and for what ends U.S. citizens’ data is swept up along with that of foreign targets (2008, p. 2438). This lack of transparency is worrying for many reasons, and it opens the door for government agencies such as the NSA to acquire U.S. citizens’ networked digital communication as long as 1.) the initial target of the investigation is not a U.S. citizen and not located in the United States and 2.) at least one of the senders or recipients of the message is not a U.S. citizen and is not located in the United States (2008, p. 2438). As such, Section 702 of FISA authorizes an up to one year investigation of any electronic exchanges that are created by or participated in by U.S. citizens in which one of the participants is neither a U.S. citizen nor located in the U.S.


In their testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of the ACLU, Jameel Jaffer and Laura Murphy (2013) also express concern about the ways in which Section 702 empowers the U.S. government to surveil citizens foreign and domestic. According to Jaffer and Murphy (2013),


[t]he target [of Title VII surveillance] could be a human rights activist, a media organization, a geographic region, or even a country. The government must assure the FISA Court that the targets are non-U.S. persons overseas, but in allowing the executive to target such persons overseas, Section 702 allows it to monitor communications between those targets and U.S. persons inside the United States. Moreover, because the FISA Amendments Act does not require the government to identify the specific targets and facilities to be surveilled, it permits the acquisition of these communications en masse. A single order may be used to justify the surveillance of communications implicating thousands or even millions of U.S. citizens and residents. (p. 11)


Given the commonplace, often mandated use of Microsoft Outlook and other government surveillance-implicated networked digital technologies on campuses across the nation, as well as the frequency of international collaboration within academic work and the diverse nationalities represented within faculty and student populations, it is worrying that all electronic correspondence between U.S. and non-U.S. citizens is likely susceptible to government collection.


While resistance to this tracking is made difficult due to the largely invisible nature of the government’s surveillance practices, it is vital that writing professionals attend to the potential risks that accompany engagement with such technologies. As Jennifer Sano-Franchini observes in “Interfacing Cultural Rhetorics: A History and a Call,” it is by critically attending to the materials produced by institutions that we begin to adopt “a complex view of how institutional structures, policies, governance, processes, stakeholders, histories, politics, cultures, practices, and objects rhetorically interact to shape human experiences, including human agency, labor politics, power, and oppression” (Cobos et al., 2018, p. 149). Whether through government documents like FISA or “lengthy and complicated terms-of-use agreements,” institutional discourse often impacts citizens in profound ways even as corporate and state entities effectively render these artifacts inaccessible to the majority of citizens through features such as opaque language and sheer length (Reyman, 2013, p. 521). Like some neoliberal will-o’-the-wisp, the meaning of such documents often remains just out of reach, ducking and hiding within labyrinths of legalese that serve to frustrate citizens’ efforts to exert meaningful control over the flow of their information.


This tendency for even the most life-impacting institutional documents to hide in plain sight illustrates the negative consequences of what Arundhati Roy (2016) has called “the Expert’s Anthem,” an orientation in which the knowledge citizens require to exert meaningful control over their lives becomes increasingly privatized within domains of corporate and political power (p. 189). Extending Roy’s critique, Nancy Welch (2008) observes that this cult of expertise “does more than refute the notion that policy-making authority should be extended to any kind of mass public. It also trains a population in the belief that most people lack the means to comprehend, let alone weigh in on, the complexities of the issue at hand” (p. 138). In the face of such challenges, it is understandable if writing professionals wish to ignore their “role in the circuitry” of complex issues like government surveillance, especially when it is difficult to fully understand what that role is (Roy, 2016, p. 189). In the face of such overwhelming forces, apathy can be a survival mechanism. However, far from being “an aberration in our current economic and political system” such “apathy” is “precisely what the system has depended on through all its phases and transformations” (Welch, 2008, p. 139). In other words, while we may attempt to opt-out of issues like government surveillance by ignoring such issues, it is unlikely that state and corporate entities will choose to opt-out of their power to affect our lives. Despite these very real challenges, I continue to believe that studying the legal and other institutional discourse that effectively authorizes unequal power relationships such as those embodied by FISA is a productive first step toward meaningfully understanding and perhaps even transforming these coercive power structures.




Next Section: Now What? Navigating the Digital Frontier