The paper memo: a genre of the (future?) technological apocalypse

I don’t really even bother to teach my technical communication students the format of a traditional paper memo. It typically includes the quaint “MEMORANDUM” as the first line, which strongly reminds me of the equally quaint “FACSIMILE COVER SHEET” on faxes I used to send to the U.S. armed services in a past life.

Email and scanning technology have made the memo mostly obsolete. Distribution lists are about as common as the secretaries who used them to calculate the number of Xeroxes they had to make. Then, in a Vanity Fair piece on the Sony Hack, I read this:

Suddenly it was a pre-Digital Age at Sony. Whoever hacked the company had not only stolen its internal data; they had wiped out everything in their wake. Sony’s e-mail system was down and out, so employees were forced to communicate by paper memos, texts, phone calls from their personal cell phones, and temporary e-mail addresses. The studio’s executives were reduced to using BlackBerrys unearthed from the basement of the Thalberg building.

Perhaps there is some value to teaching the old ways, a kind of “duck-and-cover” digital rhetoric that prepares students for technological apocalypses. Maybe one day I’ll even bring in a typewriter reminiscent of the antique I used to painstaking peck out my middle-school reports (it had an LCD display of your column number!!). A unit on cursive penmanship might also come in handy, though my long string of penmanship “D” grades would necessitate a guest lecturer on that particular topic.

Aporia – what we are missing in many conversations/debates/arguments on the web

Aporia – what is it? Even though I have a BA in Rhetoric, I still don’t have a satisfactory answer, and that is perhaps apropos to the topic of aporia. From Wikipedia (best I could find):

Plato’s early dialogues are often called his ‘aporetic’ (Greek: ἀπορητικός) dialogues because they typically end in aporia. In such a dialogue, Socrates questions his interlocutor about the nature or definition of a concept, for example virtue or courage. Socrates then, through elenctic testing, shows his interlocutor that his answer is unsatisfactory. After a number of such failed attempts, the interlocutor admits he is in aporia about the examined concept, concluding that he does not know what it is. In Plato’s Meno (84a-c), Socrates describes the purgative effect of reducing someone to aporia: it shows someone who merely thought he knew something that he does not in fact know it and instills in him a desire to investigate it.

If we accept this, then aporia is the state in which an interlocutor accepts that their perception, which they thought to be complete, is incomplete, and acknowledges a need to further examine the topic from another perspective. (Aporia can also be used to bait someone into a false admission, but that is not the context that is relevant here.)

Aporia is, essentially, the graceful way to end a debate that has reached an ideological impasse. I don’t have time to pull examples, but this is the common exit for many of Socrates’ conversants. “Purgative” is especially relevant, as it suggests that the conversant can purge the prior belief and start anew; essentially, aporia is a liberating state.

Also, aporia, unlike checkmate, is a temporary status. It is a realization that you do not have the ideological framework to convince your opponent at the time, but require a timeout to collect and reconsider the topic from another angle. (That doesn’t preclude a reversal in opinion, by the way.) In the fire/return-fire nature of comment boards (including Facebook), there is no time for timeouts.

In my personal (and limited) experience on comment boards, aporia has become tantamount to acknowledging defeat or weakness, but that is obviously shortsighted. Having the last word rarely proves you are right, just last. Giving the parting shot on an argument due to impasse is no substitute for acknowledging a path forward; that’s what opposing governments or political parties do, and we can see how well that solves our problems.

My wife and I often admit aporia on topics we debate, both because we are in two different fields (communication and education) and lack sufficient knowledge overlap to prove the other person wrong, and because we have to live with each other (and each other’s imperfect knowledge). Unfortunately, on the web, we experience a different type of interaction.

I think it’s clear what comment thread I am talking about and who I side with (if not, Google me), but I wanted to raise an issue that we could all think about regardless of the topic.