Thursday, February 2, 2012

Defining Perspective in New Media

In Lingua Fracta, Collin Gifford Brooke proposes “a rhetoric of new media” that prepares writers and designers to make their own choices rather than merely analyze others’ choices (15). To construct his rhetorical framework, he defines a plethora of “p-words” that mirror the traditional rhetorical canon.

Wordle: Perspective_ENG866

Here, I will focus on Brooke’s treatment of perspective and some implications thereof. Brooke defines perspective as “a method for displaying three-dimensional objects and/or scenes in two-dimensional space” (120). In this sense, perspective applies equally to new and ancient media. A plot of farmland in ancient Sumeria becomes a series of carved lines on a flat stone surface; the burning Twin Towers become an image in a newspaper, a webpage, or one’s writing.

Following this further, Brooke’s definition of perspective clearly connects to Gane and Beer’s discussion of interface. If inferfaces are “conceptual and materials devices that occupy and enable key points of contact within networks” (53), then they necessarily create and use perspective in the way they translate information into two-dimensional space. In other words, interfaces influence their users through the way they enable “contact” among computers and humans. Emails, for example, communicate messages much differently than phone calls and vice-versa. As Brooke himself notes, “interfaces position us perceptually” and “redescribe our perspectives” (140).

For example, the "interface" of the word cloud structures the reader's perception and understanding of the information by highlighting the re-occurrence of words. The reader knows "perspective" is important but not why. The relationship among the words remains hidden and/or open to interpretation. The "interface" of the simple table below, however, constructs a very different perspective on the information, one in which the relationship between Brooke's "p-words" and the rhetorical canon emerges. 

Brooke also explicates the “paradox of perspective – a term that, as Keith Moxey (1995) notes, can mean ‘either one point of view among many, or the point which organizes and arranges all the others’” (114). Perspective’s ambiguity facilitates the analysis of interfaces and new media in general. After discussing Richard Lanham’s “at/through distinction” (133), Brooke adds, “Just as we look at and through interfaces, we also look from a particular position (140). Hence, we can examine the full, dynamic range of a user’s experience of an interface, from “invisibility” (looking through it) to “visibility” (looking at it) to how it structures what information we see and how we understand it (looking from the interface).

Though Brooke seeks to create a comprehensive “rhetoric of new media,” I believe his discussion of perspective alone provides an invaluable framework for analyzing, understanding, and creating new media. Writers and designers should ask themselves, “How – and to what extent – does an interface shape or position the user’s perspective, sensual experience, comprehension, and/or knowledge?” Such a question foregrounds the complex, dynamic user-experience of an interface and the impact of this experience on human understanding. Foregrounding the “at/through/from” continuum of user-experience can either illuminate the positives and negatives of an existing interface or facilitate the thoughtful production a new one.

Works Cited

Gane, Nicholas and David Beer. New Media: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008. Print.

Collin Gifford Brooke. Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2009. Print.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this for two reasons. First, your table, as simple as it is in its perspective!, was super helpful and I wish I had drawn one for myself. I have been keeping a print out of the traditional names for the canons and trying to remember each time I encounter one of Brooke's new names which it matches with. Your table = a perspective I never considered before and now think, "Why did I not think of that?"

    Second, your discussion of how perspective truly focuses us on "the complex, dynamic user-experience of an interface" was so well-put. You capture well how a new media lens for these ideas forces us to keep always in mind the interaction between creators and users, and that is something I feel is often forgotten or overlooked in rhetorical analysis. You actually are prescient for your next reading -- I peeked at your McLuhan blog too because I am reading _Understanding Media_. What you write here fits exactly with McLuhan's discussion of how often, in the media pairs that exist, we ignore the one that brings us the content -- we ignore the action, the interface. I think McLuhan would like Brooke's definition of perspective, as he would see it as a way to remind people to study the medium as the extension of man. I had not thought of this connection before reading your blog.

  2. I enjoyed how you started to dig into perspective. I think your play in your reflection imitates how a lot of theory gives us just enough to grab on to some meaning and then slips away with options. I like that perspectives two main "definitions" have that same sense of play/slippage.

  3. This was a great encapsulation of this chapter. I too thought your placing Brooke's terms next to the canons was a deceptively simple way to keep track of the main ideas of this book.

    What I particularly found useful in your discussion on perspective was your bringing it back to Brooke's comment on page 15 from his chapter on Interface. In spite of having a background in graphics, I personally was having difficulty following the rationale for Brooke's selection of the theorists he does in light of perspective and visual design (Nietzsche wouldn't have been my first choice). In fact, I wonder if my background was a bit of a hindrance as I've already got a set way of thinking about these decisions.

    However, but you bring it all back to Brooke's statement "A rhetoric of new media, rather than examples of the choices that have already been made by writers, should prepare us as writers to make our own choices" (emphasis Brooke's). We don't have to be merely examining theory OR merely examining texts (although that's very helpful for people like me), but rather Brooke is looking at the spaces in between theory and application, where the decisions are made.

  4. That’s a good example of differentiating how concepts can be fuzzy in a word cloud, and easily conveyed in the tabular form. I haven’t learnt how to build a word cloud as yet, so when I see one I take from it purely based on my interpretation. I always thought word clouds were similar to the tag clouds we use in blogs, but your example makes me think they’re slightly different.