English Ph.D. Dissertations


Computer Algorithms as Persuasive Agents: The Rhetoricity of Algorithmic Surveillance within the Built Ecological Network

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


English/Rhetoric and Writing

First Advisor

Kristine Blair (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Patrick Pauken (Other)

Third Advisor

Sue Carter Wood (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lee Nickoson (Committee Member)


Each time our students and colleagues participate online, they face invisible tracking technologies that harvest metadata for web customization, targeted advertising, and even state surveillance activities. This practice may be of concern for computers and writing and digital humanities specialists, who examine the ideological forces in computer-mediated writing spaces to address power inequality, as well as the role ideology plays in shaping human consciousness. However, the materiality of technology—the non-human objects that surrounds us—is of concern to those within rhetoric and composition as well. This project shifts attention to the materiality of non-human objects, specifically computer algorithms and computer code. I argue that these technologies are powerful non-human objects that have rhetorical agency and persuasive abilities, and as a result shape the everyday practices and behaviors of writers/composers on the web as well as other non-human objects. Through rhetorical inquiry, I examine literature from rhetoric and composition, surveillance studies, media and software studies, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. I offer a “built ecological network” theory that is the manufactured and natural rhetorical rhizomatic network full of spatial, material, social, linguistic, and dynamic energy layers that enter into reflexive and reciprocal relations to support my claim that computer algorithms have agency and persuasive abilities. I also address how computer code figures in digital surveillance environments on the web, as well as how to refigure digital rhetoric and literate practices through the built ecological network. My results help shift attention to the role rhetoric plays in materiality, and further implicates rhetoric as both under the realm of human and material activity.