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EASE IN COMPOSITION STUDIES
C BRADLEY DILGER
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
C Bradley Dilger
Dedicated to the memory of my grandmothers, Elisa Vanina Dilger (1917-2000)
and Mabel Fulton Boutwell (1911-2001).
First, before all else, and for so many reasons, I thank my wife Erin Easterling.
My doctoral committee-Greg Ulmer, Stephanie Smith, Blake Scott, and Joe
Wilson-have guided this dissertation, helped me develop the long-term project it
represents, supported other research, and allowed me to cultivate an eclectic focus.
Sid Dobrin and Phil Wegner provided extremely valuable assistance throughout
my graduate studies, gladly helping me whenever I requested advice, letters of
reference, or a bit more time to finish an essay. Joe Martin and Lucille Schultz both
helped a graduate student they had never met get a copy of a rare but very important
dissertation which has helped focus this project immeasurably. Jeff Rice, Erich Nunn,
and Traci Gardner read drafts of this dissertation or other related work, and provided
valuable advice and suggestions. Jane Love helped develop the framework of the last
chapter, which includes some of the trickiest material presented here.
Bruce Leland and the faculty of Western Illinois University recently welcomed
me to their campus and asked me to become their colleague.
The players of the WTFL, past and present, have not contributed much which can
be cited in this work, but have helped make it possible by cheerfully rumblin' bumblin'
and stumblin' through many Saturday mornings.
Ronald L. Corbin helped me through high school and to the university. I aspire
to his wisdom and sense of humor, and am proud to have been his student. In many
ways, I still am.
Throughout this dissertation, "contemporary" is used to mean "at the time of
writing being considered." "Current" means at the time this dissertation is being
written, e.g. 2002 and 2003.
Many texts published during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are
quoted in this work. Their distinctive orthography and typography-for example,
frequently capitalizing of nouns, or typesetting single words or phrases in italics-is
reproduced as faithfully as possible here. In many cases, this typography conveyed
didactic emphasis, and it unquestionably has semantic content. Current rhetoric and
composition handbooks make much of their use of four-color printing, extensive
indexing, and tabbed binding; though Isaac Watts and his contemporaries did not have
those means, they did employ the best available printing technologies to make writing
easy. Standardizing or normalizing their work to meet current orthographic standards
would erase valuable meanings which should be considered carefully.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . ............
PREFA CE . . . . . . .
LIST OF FIGURES ....................
ABSTRACT .. .. ... ... .... ... ... ...
1 INTRODUCTION ........
W hy Ease? .........
Upon Further Review ....
2 THE CONCEPT OF EASE.
2.1 Overwhelmed? The Answer is Easy! .........
2.2 Historicizing and Defining Ease ............
2.2.1 Historical and Popular Definitions . ..
2.2.2 Reforming Education in England, 1680-1740
2.2.3 Bringing Ease Home in America, 1880-1930
2.2.4 Humanizing Technology, 1939-1958 . .
2.2.5 Computing Made Easy, 1984-present .....
2.3 The Role of Ease Today ................
3 EVALUATING EASE ......................
. . 15
. . 19
. . 2 1
. . 25
. . 3 1
. . 35
. . 39
. . 45
3.1 Is Ease Good or Bad? ........................
3.1.1 Technology and Ease. . . .....
3.1.2 The Ideology of Ease . . .....
3.2 Critical Evaluation of Ease . . .....
3.2.1 Benefits of Ease . . .. . . .
3.2.2 Problems Caused by Ease . . . . .
3.3 C conclusion . . . . . . . .
3.4 Introduction.. . . . .....
The English Roots of Ease in Writing
Transforming Philosophy to Pedagogy:
Caveat Facilitor . .
Major Figures .
... .. ....
3.4.4 Four Assumptions About Ease and Writing . .
3.5 Students Should Find Writing Easy . . .....
3.5.1 Early Exemplars. . . .....
3.5.2 Strategies for Making Writing Easy . ..... 105
3.5.3 Emotional Needs: Comfort and Familiarity . . 111
3.5.4 It's Just That Easy . . . . . 120
3.5.5 A Mixed Bag of Ease . . .. . . 122
3.5.6 The Results . . . . . . 124
3.6 Students Should Write Easy-To-Read Prose . . . 125
3.6.1 Clarity . . . . . . 126
3.6.2 Brevity and Conciseness . . . . 128
3.6.3 Sim plicity . . . . . . 131
3.7 Teaching Writing is Easy . . . . . 132
3.7.1 Textbooks and Other Tools . . . . 135
3.7.2 The Curriculum . . . . . 137
3.7.3 Composition and the Institution . . 141
3.8 Writing as Gatekeeper to a "Life of Ease" . . . 143
3.8.1 Ease, Vulgarity, and Gentility . . 146
3.8.2 Writing and Upward Mobility . . . 148
3.9 Conclusion . . . . . . . 149
4 BEYOND EASE . . . . . . . 152
4.1 The Endurance of Ease . . . . . 152
4.2 The Transitional Apparatus . . . . . 161
4.2.1 The Principles of New Media . . 162
4.2.2 Supplementing the essay . . . . 171
4.2.3 The Logic of Conduction.... . . . 179
4.3 Supplementing Ease . . . . . . 183
4.3.1 Translucence . . . . . . 183
4.3.2 The Complex . . . . . .... 186
4.3.3 Repetition and Iteration . . . . 188
WORKS CITED . . . . . . . . . 192
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . . . . . 199
LIST OF FIGURES
2.1 Kodak Advertisement, 1884 . . . . . . 20
3.1 LG Electronics Advertisement, 2001. . . . . 67
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
EASE IN COMPOSITION STUDIES
C Bradley Dilger
Chair: Gregory L. Ulmer
Major Department: English
For many Americans, the idea of "ease" shapes understanding of complexity
and difficulty. Though many consider ease of use a twentieth-century phenomenon
associated with personal computers, its origins date from the seventeenth century.
"Ease in Composition Studies" investigates the role of ease in American culture,
especially college-level writing.
I begin by defining ease and tracing its history through four critical periods of
development dating from 1700 to the present. I show that ease can be defined using
a list of eight qualities opposed to other important concepts: comfort, transparency,
effortlessness, simplicity, pragmatism, femininity, expediency, and pictorialism.
Calling on the work of Evan Watkins, I show problems which can occur when ease is
uncritically demanded or mobilized-as is frequently the case when consumer models
of ease, based on simple transaction, appear in educational contexts.
With ease defined, I demonstrate that current-traditional rhetoric, the simplified
approach to writing developed in American nineteenth-century colleges, includes a
pedagogy based on ease. Nineteenth-century composition portrays the act of writing,
writing style, and teaching writing as easy, and position writing as the gatekeeper
for the "life of ease." By investigating textbooks, teaching methods, and strategies
which writers of supposedly easy rhetoric use, and calling on the work of Lucille
Schultz and Sharon Crowley, I identify specific connections between writing and ease,
charting the transformation of ease in the classroom from close identification with
"easy" pedagogical techniques (atomization, alliteration, and gradation) to a less clearly
defined, but no less powerful concept.
The connection of ease and writing established in current-traditional rhetoric was
not disrupted by the pedagogical reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. Today ease shapes
the development of teaching writing using computers and new media. Can composition
instructors continue to mobilize ease to teach electronic "writing" technologies, given
the differences in institutional practices and subject formation associated with them-
what Greg Ulmer calls "electracy?" My research suggests otherwise. I conclude
my dissertation by outlining an electorate supplement to ease: concepts suitable for
practicing, learning, and teaching electronic discourse.
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance
As those move easiest who have leam'd to dance.
-Alexander Pope, An Essay On Criticism
1.1 Why Ease?
Robert Johnson's outstanding book User-Centered Technology begins with a
sort of apology for its ordinary focus. Johnson makes his case for working with the
mundane, the common, and the everyday-common things which are so familiar that
they are all but invisible. The concept of ease is often associated with this natural,
comfortable character: it conjures up images of elegant simplicity, gracefulness,
painless use, pleasant speed, and welcome diversion. But there is nothing simple about
the way ease influences American culture and the practice of writing in American
colleges and universities.
Much of my research focuses on the role of ease in composition studies, the
institution of English, and American culture. However, better understanding of ease
is not my principal research concentration. My interest in ease is means, not end.
As I see it today, my life's work will be the development of physical and virtual
writing environments, along with pedagogical practices, forms of communication and
expression, and institutions which support them. I have spent a terrific amount of time
studying ease because, as my first investigations suggested six years ago, ease has a
huge role in the institution of composition studies, and a significant influence in the
nascent electronic classroom.
Though I approach ease, electronic writing, information technology, new media,
and hypermedia1 from the standpoint of composition studies, not media studies, I
share many long-term research goals with Gregory Ulmer, my doctoral committee
chair. In Heuretics and the recently published Internet Invention, Ulmer observes
that the apparatus of literacy is in transition, being supplemented by the technology
of digital computing. While print literacy remains the primary and most important
communicative apparatus, its status is changing as the importance of the emerging
apparatus grows. Like Ulmer, I see this ongoing shift as an opportunity for the
humanities, especially the language arts. As Ulmer says of his 1994 Heuretics:
My interest is not only in the technology itself but also in the problem
of inventing the practices that may institutionalize electronics in terms of
schooling. [. .] It may be that eventually the screen will replace the page
(and the database replace the library) as the support of all academic work.
[This book] is intended as a means to achieve that transition in the most
productive way, including using book strategies to help with the invention
process and revising paper practices in the light of the new possibilities of
thought manifested in electronic technology. (17)
I follow Ulmer's desire to invent and discover practices suitable for our tran-
sitional moment. As well, I share the long-term ambition, reflected most directly
here in Chapter 5, of inventing practices which will be usable beyond the transitional.
Ulmer's neologism "electracy," used to signify the equivalent of literacy for electronic
writing and communication, provides a suitable target. As Ulmer notes, "[e]lectracy
does not already exist as such, but names an apparatus that is emerging 'as we speak,'
rising in many different spheres and areas, and converging in some unforeseen yet
1Throughout this dissertation, Ini media" will signify hypermedia, hypertext, digital cinema, and
other forms often produced with and displayed on computers. "Hypermedia" will describe a smaller
subset of new media made of objects connected by links, often using a branching-tree structure. Nci'
media object" will describe a work of new media. The somewhat undesirable phrase "old media" will
signify oral, printed, and telecommunicative forms not numerically represented or modular.
malleable way" (Internet Invention 7). I hope my work with ease will capitalize on that
malleability, shaping both current and future pedagogical practices.
My first formal research into ease was provoked by my interest in the Unix
operating system, which I used while working with students in the Networked Writing
Environment (NWE) at the University of Florida. The unique NWE system combined
elements of "easy to use" graphical user interfaces with command-line environments
which most people consider difficult and arcane. The NWE's system architecture and
liberal administration philosophy facilitated experimentation, enabling me and other
graduate students to push the envelope of the boundary between "easy" and "difficult."
When I began teaching in the NWE, the ideas of easy computing had been
codified for more than ten years (as the Apple Human Interface Guidelines-see page
40 below). Why were my students having so much difficulty using something they
grew up with? I could understand the frustration of students who found the NWE
interface difficult upon first use-while designed with user-friendliness in mind,
the interface was a bit different from that most used on their home computers. But
students expressed chagrin with having to use a computer at all, even when I scaled
back assignments to involve little more than word processing. Why were interfaces
designed with ease in mind, at the cost of millions, failing all but a few students?
Why, also, did ease seem to function in exactly the opposite manner it was
supposed to? Instead of enabling productivity, allowing students to become comfortable
with computers in a protected virtual space, and gradually maturing into more chal-
lenging and creative arenas, ease seemed to cause incapacitation. Few students moved
from easy patterns into experiment and deep engagement. Any perceived resistance on
the computer's part became a stopping point. The NWE system's seeming difficulty
enabled sharp attacks on "stupid computers" and some fairly harsh comments on course
evaluations. Some students were able to use their computer or their software, but not
the NWE's-which I considered analogous to being able to drive a Ford, but not a
More seriously, student attitudes about the ease of computing spilled into other
arenas. Even in the courses I taught without using computers, significant numbers
of students resisted challenge, claimed to lack creativity or writing skill, abhorred
theoretical or abstract readings or assignments, and sought the easiest path to an
A-all but requesting a diagram illustrating the procedure for completing the projects
outlined in the syllabus. T. R. Johnson argues that standardized testing, an increasingly
programmed curriculum, and a masochistic culture of mastery have encouraged
students to expect education to be difficult, banal, and boring (645); I believe that
expectation motivates students to seek the easiest, least emotionally and labor intensive,
course experience-minimizing their acknowledgment of schooling. (Hence Johnson's
title, "School Sucks.") Consistent with Johnson's argument, most of my students
avoided showing confusion or difficulty in front of others, and if blame for their
difficulties could not be shifted to my unreasonable assignments, the general sucky
nature of college, or other agents, became enraged or horrified. Projecting an easy
aspect in front of their peers was extremely important for students, even those from
very different social and peer groups.
Stephanie A. Smith suggested the phrase "the ideology of ease" to describe
the patterns of ease I was seeing in computers, education, and American culture. In
the spring of 2000 I connected the classroom desire for ease I had observed in the
classroom, and the pedagogical difficulties it caused for me, to cultural pressures in the
essay "The Ideology of Ease." This first publication established some of the conceptual
limits, definition, and history of ease investigated in more detail in chapters 2 and 3 of
this work, "The Concept of Ease" and "Evaluating Ease."
"The Concept of Ease" establishes a specific definition for the current shape of
ease using an account from a popular magazine as representative of current attitudes
about the roles of ease, complexity, difficulty, and technology. In its oldest sense,
ease was defined by comfort, transparency, and effortlessness. I demonstrate how
it expanded beyond those original meanings during four historical periods. English
educational reforms between 1680 and 1740 extended the definition of ease through
simplicity and pragmatism. Near the turn of the twentieth century (1880-1930),
budding American consumerism built on the feminine component of ease (the often
ham-handed association of women with comfort and nurturing) by establishing women
as the central target of advertising and marketing for new gadgets which made life
easier. World War Two and the post-war boom in technology (1939-1958) brought
expediency, and the era of personal computing (1984-present) pictorialism. During
each of these time periods, the functions of ease also grew, with ease shifting from a
state of mind to a commodity which could be produced by certain practices. Postwar
technological development changed ease to a commodity which could be purchased in
certain circumstances; the "information revolution" meant it could be had anywhere,
In "Evaluating Ease," I scrutinize the concept of ease developed in Chapter 2,
contextualizing it in the Western ideal of technology, and documenting its ideological
function. I acknowledge the benefits of ease, then call on Johnson, Evan Watkins,
and other critics to show some of the negative effects of ease, offering examples
from composition studies when possible. Unfortunately, I find many complications:
maintenance of an novice/expert division, self-reinforcement, discouragement of
critique, and a lamentable construction of femininity. Though composition studies has
acknowledged these tensions and in many ways is confronting the paradoxical nature of
ease, my critique isolates some areas where more attention to ease is needed.
After publishing "The Ideology of Ease" I turned to the role of ease in com-
position studies. Several presentations at national conferences and considerable work
invested in my doctoral exams allowed me to discover several other notable trends.
Most importantly, I confirmed my suspicion that ease was introduced into the class-
room before the time of computing and new media, with a history in composition
dating back to the seventeenth century. I present portions of this extensive history in
"Making Writing Easy," Chapter 4 of this work. Working forward from English philo-
sophical antecedents, I trace the deep connection of ease to current-traditional rhetoric,
the writing pedagogy developed in nineteenth-century America. The correlation of
ease with Enlightenment epistemology supported two compactly stated assertions:
that anyone could easily express their thoughts in unproblematic language, and that
such expression was easily taught. My analysis shows the way ease, as the primary
pedagogy of literacy, affected writing style, students' image of writing, and the insti-
tutional organization of American colleges and universities. The concepts of literacy
and writing still operant in American schools owe a tremendous debt to the qualities of
Continuing my inquiry into the role of ease in the discipline of Computers and
Writing convinced me the role of ease in composition was, if anything, becoming
larger. At conferences, I was attacked for suggesting the need to think twice about
the use of ease as a pedagogical tool. For many, my argument was quite literally
counter-intuitive, and despite my pleas for measured consideration, questions about
application of ease often fell back onto old debates about interface design.2 My
attempts to connect discussions of ease in American culture with its appearance
in computer classrooms had very limited success. From this experience and other
research, I conclude that ease is still shaping university information technology
in many ways, and that this influence is not fully acknowledged in composition
scholarship. I am frustrated by the amount of resources spent on courseware and other
expensive software which "makes education easy," given the limited capacity of these
systems and their tendency to sacrifice creativity and pedagogical flexibility in favor of
implementing least-common-denominator ease of use.
In Chapter 5 I take up this issue, discussing the future of ease mentioned earlier:
my proposed creation of a supplement for ease which serves the same function (a
pedagogy for English education) for the nascent apparatus of electracy. After I present
the terms of the grammatological analogy which will guide my work, I review the
technical principles of new media, as defined by Lev Manovich, and the institutional
and social framework of Ulmer's textbook Internet Invention. The juxtaposition of
these two works will allow me to project a tentative supplement for ease, through
revision of some qualities of ease, as well as establishment of new pedagogical devices
based on patterns which emerge when the two books are juxtaposed.
Hopefully, by now it is obvious that I do not want to attack every appearance
of ease-or those who seek to find it. I believe that ease, or at least parts of it,
can be rehabilitated or reappropriated-and that an electorate supplement to ease
which minimizes its negative qualities can be developed. One model might be Jeff
Rice's forthcoming textbook Writing About Cool, which I mention because of many
2The most lamentable and frequent distraction: audience participants recasting my argument in the
terms of the HTML-versus-WYSIWIG debate about Web authoring.
commonalities (the use of new media, a cultural studies approach, positioning in the
discipline of composition studies). Rice notes the repeated use of the concept "cool"
in a wide variety of advertising and a fair amount of academic writing. He suggests
developing critical awareness of the way "cool" is used, and builds on that activity to
construct an alternative rhetoric of cool optimized for new media. I hope to develop a
similar approach for ease.
I expect that the ongoing research represented by these five chapters will involve
quite a few publications. Writing this dissertation has helped me shape future work
into three large areas.
First, I want to learn more about the history of ease, especially its connection
to literate epistemology. This is important not only because of the ease-writing
connection, but because a better understanding of the philosophical basis of current-
traditional rhetoric can serve as a model for connecting Computers and Writing (or
other disciplines of composition studies) to postmodern epistemology. (One could
consider Lester Faigley's Fragments of Rationality a well-meaning but less than
successful attempt at this task.) Though I have carefully researched the role of ease
in some periods of composition studies history, an extensive amount of work remains,
notably grammatological study which places composition in the larger context of the
history of writing. In this dissertation, I rely heavily on Sharon Crowley, James Berlin,
and Robert Connors, and now see (as I better understand their important scholarship)
more divergence between my image of composition studies history and theirs.
Secondly, I want to revise and improve the framework for ease presented in
Chapter 2, as noted below. The concepts developed here-the qualities of ease,
the functions of ease, the ease equation, ease mobility, and the ideology of ease-
have excellent potential. A better framework for defining ease, combined with more
effective tools for discussing its power in education and consumer culture, will help
efforts to reform the practice of ease in those areas. I plan to join the voices of those
speaking against the adverse effects of ease I hint at above (and discuss more fully
in Chapter 3). Work in both cultural studies and composition studies is needed: the
cookie-cutter deployment of ease as a pedagogy of literacy is one of the key forces
which legitimates its uncritical use, and composition remains an excellent site for
Thirdly, as noted at the beginning of this chapter, I hope to look ahead to the
electorate apparatus, extending the work of "Beyond Ease" in both the short term (the
production of transitional forms) and the long term (inventing supplements to ease
with accompanying institutional practices). Without a doubt, this work will build on
the first two objectives listed above. The possibility of application of these devices to
the literate apparatus, following Lev Manovich's notion of transcoding (see page 170
below), creates the opportunity to recontextualize newly developed ideas in revision of
current composition pedagogy. As more work like Manovich's appears, and the shape
of the new media apparatus can be more assuredly expressed, I will be able to offer a
more definitive shape for the electorate equivalent of ease.
The stakes surrounding ease-and the shape of Computers and Writing-are
extremely high. A transactional view of language and education, what Paulo Friere
would call the banking model, is creeping further and further into writing programs and
the university as a whole. For example, recently announced changes in the University
of Florida writing program reduce the number of student contact hours and install a
lecture model in writing classes. This will doubtless provide expedient, standardized
teaching, and more student credit hours per full-time instructor, but what does it mean
for critical thinking? As Ulmer notes in Internet Invention, students arrive in English
classes with excellent training in utility, practicality, and other forms of calculativee
thinking," and needing to be taught meditative thinking (74). In much the same way,
I see little if any need to spend valuable classroom time encouraging students to
conceptualize writing as another task which follows the easy transactional logic of
consumer culture. It would be better to encourage a conceptualization of writing which
allows for calculative and meditative critical thinking, a variety of writing styles, and
an approach to education which acknowledged the usefulness of ease but rejected its
universal, unconditional application.
To use local language: it is easy to keep being easy. It is hard to understand that
a counter-intuitive approach may be, for this transitional moment, the best thing going.
Somewhat paradoxically, the questions I raised about my composition courses, echoed
in Johnson's work, may be answered by moving beyond ease for pedagogy and ways
of understanding technology. Surely, it will be challenging for me to suggest revisions
or alternatives to ease without being seen as another William Bennett preaching the
back-to-basics gospel of Boot Camp English or Hooked on Phonics. The history I
present in Chapter 4 shows that the debate has to be more complex than that. The
pedagogy I outline in Chapter 5 begins movement toward the long and short term goals
I sketch out here.
1.2 Upon Further Review...
Ulmer encourages thinking of the dissertation as a "practice book," or dress
rehearsal for a book. To that end, here is my preliminary review of the rehearsal
represented by these five chapters, and a short list of areas of concern to address in my
next performance (in addition to the few areas, noted above, where more research is
While writing this dissertation, I had to learn how to juggle the mountain of
material related to ease, being extremely selective, and bracketing irrelevant content.
My ability to work with a small amount of material, yet keep my entire project in
mind, has improved steadily since I began writing intensively ten months ago. But I
still need to work harder to foreground the critical perspectives which have provided
so many valuable insights for my research, and to keep ideas introduced early in my
analysis viable during a prolonged argument. The work of some writers which may
seem sorely lacking here-like the definitions of ease presented by Roland Barthes or
Giorgio Agamben-are bracketed simply because of sheer volume, and I look forward
to considering their impact on my work as a whole. Also, some texts I really wanted
to consider here just because I like them so much-like Clear and Simple as the Truth:
Writing Classic Prose by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner-are absent or not
very well represented.
To cope with the massive amounts of material relevant to my project, I tried
several approaches to historicizing ease-some more successful than others. Several
reviewers observed that investigating only the historical periods in which significant
change occurred, the cultural studies approach of Chapter 2, works better than the
more comprehensive, but much more tedious, approach of Chapter 4. I agree. I like
composition history and am fascinated by old textbooks, but given the theoretical
ideas mobilized here, I should combine selective inventories of that work with a
more inclusive approach. In some ways, the weight of the material I was juggling
overpowered the apparatus theory, cultural studies, and grammatological frameworks
which have been so valuable for me in many other circumstances.
In several places my historical work missed opportunities to discuss the develop-
ment of American individualism and the role socioeconomic class played in American
higher education. Both certainly had measurable effect on writing. The specifics of the
process by which electronic technologies became a part of everyday life merits further
study as well. These tasks do not require original research on my part, but connecting
my argument about ease to existing scholarship. As stated earlier, my research will
soon be at the point where I must evaluate the composition histories which I rely on
here and determine which of several theories about ease and composition history is
I remain pleased with the idea of the qualities of ease (explained in Chapter 2
and summarized in table 2.1), especially when it is complemented by a multivalent
notion of ease which has several different functions (pedagogy, ideology, technology,
etc.). My repeated reference to the chart of the qualities of ease taped to my white-
board helped keep the dissertation focused, and its success is also demonstrated by the
strength of my argument. However, the framework could use some revisions.
Blake Scott suggested that I might extend the list of qualities of ease. I agree.
Two opposition appear useful and should be added. First, the quality "natural," as
opposed to artificial or synthetic. David Mindell's War, Technology, and Experience
on the U.S.S. Monitor, an account of the lives of sailors aboard that pioneering vessel,
provides the material necessary for situating this development historically (around the
time of the Civil War). Second, "flexible" or customizablee," as opposed to rigid and
universal. Though I am unsure of the historical origin of this quality of ease, or a text
which might be relied on for better understanding of it, I see two possibilities: (a) the
classification of made to order "custom" goods and services as the highest order of
consumerism, as response to the mass standardization of consumer society; (b) the
customization of computing and new media, discussed on page 168 below.
At times, my discussion of the qualities of pragmatism and expediency lacks
specificity, and I need to define those qualities more carefully. Similarly, my pairing
of facility with expediency seems problematic at times: perhaps I should consider the
former a component of simplicity. Also, the qualities of femininity and pictorialism
have very deep internal contradictions, and I wonder if they should be included in the
oppositional structure of the qualities of ease I am working with now. Notably, my
opposite of pictorialism is literacy-but how can that be possible if ease is a pedagogy
of literacy, as I argue in Chapter 4?
Perhaps I should visualize the matrix of the qualities of ease differently. At any
rate, the framework has survived the trials of my practice book, and does connect very
nicely to the history of ease and its role in composition studies-as we shall now see.
THE CONCEPT OF EASE
Between 1850 and 2000, the number of technological objects present in Amer-
ican homes increased drastically. Numerous scientific discoveries and new inventions
became a part of daily life during this 150-year period. And while the convenient,
labor-saving properties of these appliances, tools, and technologies are still celebrated
today, at the same time, other voices wax nostalgic for the "olden days," when apple
pie was made from scratch and not a single clock in America endlessly flashed 12:00.
Not surprisingly, for many, both stories are compelling: any account of increasing
technological sophistication is also a tale of increasing complexity.
A brief query into the history of technology produces many versions of the
narrative of increasing technology and complexity, in a wide variety of forms: liter-
ature, journalism, history, philosophy, and more. Because the tale itself is complex,
and deeply influenced by powerful assumptions about Western culture and American
history, perspectives on what Walter Ong might call "the technologization of daily
life" abound. Despite often shared historical assumptions, one can find critics and
cheerleaders of varying enthusiasm, radicalism, and analytical sophistication, with an
astounding variety of motivations, writing about this change in vastly different ways.
Both Luddites and wireheads, to use common labels, often embrace a deeply paradoxi-
cal stance toward technology, recognizing that it can simplify and streamline daily life,
or befuddle or confuse it, simultaneously.
2.1 Overwhelmed? The Answer is Easy!
A recent cover story from U. S. News and World Report demonstrates these
paradoxes, as well as common assumptions about technology and complexity. The set
of articles which make up the cover story confront issues relevant for American culture
at both ends of the historical period I consider here. The main article, "Overwhelmed
by Tech," which appears in the Business & Technology section of the magazine, opens
with a nostalgic reference to Al Gross, maker of gadgetry which inspired Dick Tracy.
Gross's gizmos possessed a "sense of simple fun [. .] entirely lacking from the
endless numbers of personal organizers, portable phones, and multiple-function whatsits
no self-respecting millennialist can afford to be about" (Lardner, LaGesse, and Rae-
Dupree 31). By contrast, today's technologies are not fun gizmos but "fiendish new
instruments of mental torture" which are anything but enjoyable, and instead difficult to
The consequences of this complexity are indicated in several anecdotes. A
frustrated minister notes repeated trouble with her laptop, but prefers to put up with
crashes and lost files instead of spending two hours on the phone with tech support.
Jeff Hawkins, designer of the Palm Pilot personal digital assistant (PDA) and now
chairman (sic) of Handspring, complains about the problems he has had trying to get
a television, videocassette recorder, and camcorder made by the same manufacturer
to operate in concert: "What a disaster," he laments (32). But the articles look
beyond tales of lost sermon manuscripts and recalcitrant home entertainment systems,
and argue that complexity endangers the entire technology industry. The authors
observe that despite potential for sales of new products such as digital cameras and
downloadable music, consumers have already stopped buying new products, as they
"[try] to figure out how to work the devices they already have" (31). And the bear
market in technology will worsen if sales do not pick up.
The suggested solution, making things easy, has been advanced as the panacea
for numerous technological problems. Noting the "runaway success" and "straightfor-
ward and intuitive design" of Hawkins's PDAs and other popular consumer electronics,
the writers argue that high-tech devices do not have to be high-stress (32). Good
design, rejection of what Donald Norman calls "featuritis," extensive usability research,
and more patient product development offer a path to simplicity and ease. For example,
more sophisticated software could update itself silently, "without the consumer even
knowing" (34). Ben Shneiderman offers an analogy based on automobiles: "[put] the
engine under the hood and [let] everyone but people willing to get their hands dirty
operate the car from the driver's seat" (34). As the article concludes:
one thing has become clear from the blowback high-tech companies have
been treated to over the past few months: Consumers may not expect all
their new gadgets and gizmos to be fun, but they are demanding that at
least they don't make them feel like idiots. (36)
Consumers want things to be easy. But the first paradox of ease revealed
by the article is that "making it easy" will not be, well, easy: "It takes enormous
computer power and programming know-how to make something complicated look
simple" (33). Hawkins's PDAs are easy only because his companies defy conventional
wisdom and use a recursive-and expensive-development cycle which focuses on
ease of use throughout design and production. Unfortunately for consumers, the
writers moan, Hawkins's companies are the exception. The entrenchment of engineer-
oriented cultures at companies like Sony and Gateway regulates the influence of
consumers, insuring product designs best suited for "cocky developers," not Joe and
Jane Consumer. Apparently, Norman and Shneiderman's critiques of these system-
centered cultures have had little effect.
Fortunately, a slightly different version of this "easy is hard" paradox offers a
solution: "Continuing leaps in processing power and computer storage promise more
horsepower to make complex products easier to use" (34). Supposedly, the same
technology which threatens to overwhelm us will soon enable the end of complexity.
Operation through voice commands and hand signals is just around the corner-
it is just a matter of time before advances at MIT "make computing as effortless
as breathing" (34). Increases in technological sophistication promise more natural
computers which work like we do, and enable us to get our jobs done, unlike today's
artificial tools which work as they do, maintaining unnecessary attention to procedure
and systematic concerns. The authors contend that entrepreneurship, in the form of
start-up companies free from profit expectations and developer-centered corporate
cultures, will play a big role in this march toward ease.
But can every technological gadget be made easy? Somewhat grudgingly, the
writers admit that certain devices may not be straightforward and intuitive, and in
order to use them, one must read the manual, purchase training, or work with support.
Such effort and expense could be quite productive: for example, a few hours spent
learning to use filters could save hours of time deleting junk email (36). However, the
admission that "making it easy" is not the only way to approach technology takes up
less than two paragraphs on the last page of the article.
The conflict of common sense present in "Overwhelmed by Tech" reflects the
deeply paradoxical nature of ease and considerable frustration about how to confront
that paradox. Again, this is nothing new: the paradoxes of ease are evident in the
technologies of writing, kitchen appliances, and warfare. However, the degree to
which these paradoxes are acknowledged varies considerably, and I will discuss that in
detail later in this work. For the U. S. News article, one could begin such discussion
with some questions: what happens if the software download which occurs invisibly
contains a bug which causes a program to crash? Who will pay for the cost of the
development required to make products easy to use? "So many gadgets and so little
time," a sidebar to the article, offers one answer. Consumers will pay for ease, at least
if they follow the strategy suggested there for buying a digital camera: "Start with a
low-cost model so there's less guilt if it gathers dust. As a bonus, cheaper versions
can be easier to learn. [. .] If you like digital photography, you can buy a better
camera at next year's plunging prices" (Lardner 36, my emphasis). How purchasing
a second camera will reduce the number of gadgets one owns is unclear-as is what
will become of the old camera and the pictures taken with it. The tentative correlation
between cheaper versions and ease of use contradicts the previously introduced maxim
"Easy to use is hard to make" (though that correlation is consistent with the assumption
that entrepreneurial start-up companies are able to peddle cheap wares thanks to low
expectations of profitability).
A glance at the rest of the magazine in which the article appears establishes that
the U. S. News writers are correct about consumers' demands for ease. In editorial
content, software is praised as "easy for newbies but flexible for techies" and because
it "makes group blogging easy" (Morris 52). Advertising for a hearing aid bubbles,
"Your friends will notice how much more easily you can hear and understand"
(Hearing Help Express 53). Another advertisement promises to "make your computer
as easy to use as your telephone" (Green Tree Press 25). Indeed, this small sample
reflects advertising in other media, where a huge variety of technological and non-
technological products and services are marketed as "easy" or "easy to use."
"Overwhelmed by Tech" presents ease as a solution to a technical and economic
problem. But it leaves open many important questions, the most significant of which
is the nature of ease itself. What indeed is ease? What role does it play in the
history of American culture-and in discourses and disciplines such as composition?
What problems does ease solve, and what new problems does it create? What is its
relationship to technological and non-technological objects, systems, actions, and
agents? Why does ease seem to have a paradoxical nature? Do the contradictions
introduced by paradoxes of ease have affects on those seeking an easier everyday
life? In the first two chapters of this work, I will tackle these and other questions,
while providing a general introduction to ease. My description of ease will start with
historical consideration which provides a frame for definition and introduces several
broad trends in the development of ease. In later chapters, I will investigate the role of
ease in composition pedagogies in detail.
2.2 Historicizing and Defining Ease
"Overwhelmed by Tech" is by no means the only text which presents ease
as a remedy for the growth of complexity in technological products. Several of
the academic and professional experts mentioned in the article have written strong
theoretical arguments advocating ease of use. Norman's The Psychology of Everyday
Things and Shneiderman's Designing the User Interface offer detailed arguments
grounded in cognitive psychology. These two books, other texts published by these
authors, and the work of Jakob Nielsen and Edward Tufte, among others, have
established very influential theories of design (and psychology) which valorize ease
of use and demonstrate that applications for ease extend far beyond the realm of the
"high-tech" devices which are the focus of the U S. News article.
when your camera is built on our "cartridge system." It
enables you to load and unload the camera in broad
daylight-no fumbling around a dark room for missing
keys or pins. Everything but the developing is done
in daylight, and we do that if you wish it-or you
can do it yourself.
THE $500 POCKET KODAK, f~p~r.Sb
THE $800 BULLS-EYE, if s 3. 3
Both are built on the "cartridge system." They embody
the refinement of photographic luxury. From the fine
leather covering to the inmost soul-the lens, they are
perfect, and being perfect they make perfect pictures.
Free pamphlet tells all about them.
EASTMAN KODAK CO.
K Rochester, N. Y.
; _,- s00.00.
Figure 2.1: Kodak Advertisement, 1884.
My research of the historical role of ease underscores this point. Advertising has
mobilized ease for years, developing methodologies for selling products and services
quite similar to those Norman, Shneiderman, and others advocate for their design.
Indeed, the disciplines of usability, human factors engineering, human-computer
interaction, and information architecture show considerable debt not only to Norman
and Shneiderman but to Madison Avenue. For over a century, ease has been associated
with consumer products ranging from paper towels and sanitary napkins to rotisserie
cookers and automobiles. Technologically advanced products were marketed as "easy
to use" long before America Online's slogan was "So easy to use, no wonder it's
number one"-Kodak advertisements argued that "Home photography is easy" as early
as 1894 (see Figure 2.1).
I will consider the history of ease by describing the oldest meanings of ease
which remain relevant today, then turn to four time periods during which supplemental
meanings for ease were established or the scope of objects, systems, or practices
considered as "easy" expanded. While this method will fall short of a comprehensive
history of ease, I will cover critical time periods in its evolution, establishing the
grounds for developing a systematic definition of the qualities of ease which are
powerful today. The definitions of ease I introduce in this historical review will provide
a method for understanding ease in composition studies as well as in American culture
2.2.1 Historical and Popular Definitions
In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first sense of the noun "ease" (I.1) has
economic connotations: opportunityit, means or ability to do something" (31). This
significance remains in current usage as the colloquial "life of ease" or "living on easy
street" which represent the pinnacle of economic achievement (33). While not often
used in a denotative sense, connotations of wealth and well-being remain associated
with ease. By 1700, the second sense of ease, comfortot [or] absence of pain or
trouble," where ease is a state of being, was well established (32). The OED offers
multiple variations of this sense of ease quite relevant today, with many synonyms
and variations reflecting considerable expansion of meaning. Today ease is not only
comfort, but convenience. It is a state of being in which annoyances and problems
are minimized and the possibility of pleasure is imminent. Ease is freedom from
hard work, toilsome physical labor, and excessive strain. A person "at ease" has a
calm, collected appearance and no urgency in her aspect. American common-sense
prerogatives to minimize labor, for maximizing profit as well as in the pursuit of
happiness, offer a powerful endorsement of the system of values implied by ease,
despite the paradoxical condemnation of "taking the easy way out" which can occur if
minimizing labor is taken too far.
Easy objects, systems, or practices can be learned quickly, even mastered,
with a minimum of effort, and their use appears effortless or natural. They are non-
threatening, intuitive, simple, even comforting. Complication, complexity, and difficulty
are absent from easy things, or at least not apparent to the casual user. In most cases,
the use of easy things serves one of two purposes: simplification or mitigation of a
complex or difficult task, or production of a feeling of ease (or feelings congruent with
the characteristics of ease) in the agent. Three qualities of ease which appear in current
definitions were well established in historical definitions.1
188.8.131.52 The qualities of ease: comfort, effortlessness, and transparency
As I note above, comfort is the most fundamental quality of ease, and the quality
on which many uses of "ease" or "easy" hinge, in both historical and current usage.
Though some qualities of ease delineated here are derived from comfort, ease is often
little more than a pure state of comfort, enjoyment, or pleasure. Close association with
comfort or enjoyment encourages the widespread valorization of ease and easy things.
In current usage, "natural" is often used to describe the sense of ease facilitated by
comfortable things, as in the third sense in the OED: absencene of pain or discomfort;
freedom from annoyance" (34). "Intuitive" is another important synonym for comfort
which has gained widespread usage thanks to the popularity of desktop computing-at
times "intuitive" designates a contextualized, familiar, or habitual nature, but its use is
often simply clever marketing.
1The labels I select for these and other qualities of ease outlined here are derived from current
usage and may be somewhat anachronistic.
Effortlessness matches the fourth sense in the OED: absencene of painful
effort; freedom from the burden of toil; leisure;" (34). Ease is a state nearly free from
physical labor and intense activity. Easy things facilitate this effortlessness by reducing
or eliminating the manual labor needed to require a task, or by allowing things to be
done more quickly, possibly creating leisure time (comfort). Historical nautical uses
of ease and easy, as well as the colloquial "take it easy" and "easy-going," reflect
a meaning of calm, undisturbed passage or mental state. The relative position of
effortlessness in the definition of ease increased during industrialization, as a life with
less back-breaking manual labor became possible for more individuals, raising the bar
for the standard of effortlessness required to achieve ease. However, to a large extent,
effortlessness is the mere appearance of being at ease in the eyes of others, and one's
actual condition of effort, toil, or leisure is less important.
Ease frequently appears as transparency: freedom from concern with complica-
tion or procedure. Transparency (also identified as invisibility or passivity) is opposed
to opacity or visibility. This meaning of ease, derived from combination of comfort and
effortlessness, is the sense of "easy" which dominates the U. S. News article I discuss
above. Transparent things appear understandable and enable a person to complete a
task without paying unnecessary attention to details or steps in the process which can
be automated, removed, or completed in accordance with the intended use and design.
But valorization of transparency can make ease quite problematic: it may eliminate or
conceal complication and painful effort for the agent as it displaces it to another less
fortunate, invisible worker. As Evan Watkins has observed, this is one of the means
by which the increasing class stratification in American culture can be ignored: if
the labor of the lower classes is invisible, perhaps they can be invisible too. Also,
transparency can make ease self-perpetuating, because if one learns a specific way of
functioning without a general understanding of a device or activity, accomplishing a
task in a different manner is impossible (or, at the very least, less likely).
Named as "clarity," transparency frequently appears as one of the goals of
writing or argument-indeed, the OED notes that as early as 1711, writing "showing
no trace of effort; smooth, flowing" was considered easy (33). English and American
composition textbooks and writing style guides for other disciplines have valorized
clear, easy to read prose for years, while denying the difficulty of achieving such
clarity, as well as the philosophical arguments which question its possibility. Ironically,
the nature of transparent or clear writing remains quite unclear in many of these
influential texts, which I return to at length in Chapter 4 of this work.
Though it is most often seen as positive, both historical and current definitions of
ease include pejorative variants and connotations. Comfort, especially in its ultimate
sense, can indicate excess or sinful attention to entertainment and frivolity. The Bible
famously warns against lax discipline: "Those who spare the rod hate their children,
but those who love them are diligent to discipline them" (Proverbs 13:24). Puritan
religious teaching-undoubtedly influential in American education-frowned on
excessive mirth and frivolity (Bercovitch 4). Similar assumptions about rigor and
difficulty of instruction create the implication that facilitating comfort and ease is
coddling or pandering-a difficulty anticipated by John Locke in Some Thoughts
Concerning Education (see page 84, below).
Ease also indicate economically enabled detachment-a state of mind in which
one's luxurious lifestyle enables an unrealistic disconnection from the laborious rigors
of daily life. The OED definition reflects this usage with its repeated references to
royalty, whose daily lives included little exertion. As economic development and
industrialization changed standards of living and reduced the arduous nature of many
of the tasks of daily life-or in the case of production of food, erased them almost
completely-this particular negative connotation became less important. Today ease
is seldom seen as detachment or aloofness, though it is still identified with economic
While effortlessness can indicate leisure and relaxation, it can also be evidence
(or the cause of) idleness and sloth. Praise for hard work is codified in many forms
in influential religious and secular texts (again, consider the Puritans). There is little
doubt this praise made the burdens created by everyday life more manageable: if
hard work was evidence of virtue, then moral character-or at least its appearance-
was accessible to even the poorest laborers. Indeed, this correlation has weakened
little since the time when intensive labor was a fact of daily life for all but the very
rich-and one could argue that the correlation of hard work and virtue has increased
since daily arduous physical exertion is now, for many, optional. To be sure, changing
definitions of "hard work" have affected definitions of ease.
Finally, transparency can be a necessity enforced by a lack of mental sophis-
tication. There is a perception that less talented or intelligent individuals require
transparent things in order to be productive. The currently popular "For Dummies"
series of educational texts embraces this sort of perceived need, partially neutralizing
its pejorative character. Regardless, a tinge of guilt or shame often accompanies the
desire for transparency, effortlessness, or comfort-feelings which can be exacerbated
by criticisms of these three qualities.
2.2.2 Reforming Education in England, 1680-1740
Ambivalence toward ease is well-represented in a text published at the end of
the first historical period considered here as part of the evolution of ease. The Art
of Rhetoric Made Easy, written by John Holmes and first published in London in
1738, appeared during an intense period of educational reform. Reformers supported
more vernacular instruction, challenged teaching methods unchanged for centuries,
and sought to supplement traditional curricula with more practical matters such as
geography and bookkeeping (Stoker 1). Holmes acknowledged and supported these
reforms in the Rhetoric and other publications. But his preface shows mixed feelings:
[I]n this Day [. .] School-Boys are expected to be led, sooth'd, and
entic'd to their studies by the Easiness and Pleasure of the Practice, rather
than by Force or harsh Discipline drove, as in days of Yore. For while
some of them are too Copious in Things not so immediately the Concern
of Boys at School, most are too Brief in Things really necessary for Youth
to be informed of, and none at all so happy or methodical as to distinguish
between One and T'Other. (xiii)2
Here Holmes argues that easiness and pleasure lead to a lack of discipline and inability
to tell worthy pursuits from trifles. Despite this problematic, ease (named as such, but
also implied by the "pleasure" and calls for gentler discipline) retains enough value
to appear in the title of his work and to be mobilized pedagogically. This is a new
context for ease-before Holmes's time, pedagogues seldom suggested students should
be comfortable or subject matter accessible, or that teachers or texts make learning
easy. Quintilian was one of few ancient voices suggesting a gentler way of teaching
(Kennedy 42). Though as indicated above Holmes does not unconditionally support
demands for ease made by contemporary schoolboys, his production of a textbook
which offers an easy method amounts to argument for a pedagogy of ease, and support
for reformers like Locke and Isaac Watts.
Brevity and simplification are Holmes's principal methods for making rhetoric
easy to learn. The Art of Rhetoric Made Easy offers "a Short, Plain, Comprehensive
2The dedication, preface, and introduction in John Holmes's The Art of Rhetoric Made Easy are
unnumbered. Therefore, I have cited Holmes's frontmatter as if the first page of the text (the title
page) was numbered with the small Roman numeral "i," the next page with "ii," and so on, making
the final page of the preface "xx."
and Regular Method." Its foundation is "the glorious and extensive Plan of the
Ancients" abridged "by leaving out the copious Parts of their Works" (xiv). As
common in contemporary rhetorical textbooks, long lists of tropes are included, but
uncommonly, their definitions are presented as short verses, and Holmes implies study
of lesser tropes can be omitted. Holmes's "easy" would doubtless fall short of twenty-
first century standards: Latin and Greek quotations fill the Rhetoric, and even though
each is brief, and his system not comprehensive, the list of tropes and definitions to
memorize is lengthy.3
The success of Holmes's work is evidence of the legitimacy of the "easy"
pedagogy of reformers. His Rhetoric was reprinted almost immediately, a second
edition issued in 1755, and another version appeared in 1786. In England and America,
the text "maintained a degree of popularity for well over a hundred years after
its publication" (Howell 137), as the first rhetoric to explicitly identify ease in its
methodology. Outside of rhetoric, it would inaugurate a long series of "How-to" books
which promised arts, crafts, and disciplines "made easy."
But even today many voices object to the absence of discipline assumed to
accompany ease, and demand the preservation of difficulty and discomfort in education
in a wide variety of forms. Many educational practices displace comfort, effortlessness,
and transparency: corporal punishment for misbehaving schoolchildren, the preser-
vation of classic British and American literature as "the canon," standardized testing
rubrics which mandate retention or remedial education for low scoring students, at-
tempts to shore up "soft" curricula, and the preservation of educational practices which
3Holmes argues that other features of his work help make it easy; see page 103 for more discus-
sion of those techniques, and my review of the "easy" rhetoric and pedagogical practices of Holmes's
reform-minded contemporaries and followers.
resemble intellectual hazing (public recitations, dissertation defenses). (See page 113
184.108.40.206 The qualities of ease: simplicity and pragmatism
Holmes's work demonstrates the emergence of simplicity and pragmatism, two
new qualities of ease which supplement the three listed above. Both are largely absent
from the OED definition of ease, even today. However, Holmes's textbook, "Over-
whelmed by Tech," and many other sources suggest they have been key components of
definitions of ease for quite some time.
Simplicity, a lack of complexity or difficulty, is not well-represented in OED
definitions, but readily apparent in "Overwhelmed by Tech," and a key component
of current definitions of ease. Simplicity appears variously as lack of ornament,
uncomplicated presentation, brevity, the absence of difficulty, and an unambiguous
nature. In Holmes's work, simplicity takes two forms: the reduction of complexity
though the omission of unnecessary details, and the reduction of complex ideas
to elemental unities congruent with Cartesian principles. This is congruent with
many senses of simplicity which have been connected with ease over the years. In
some cases experts make complicated objects, systems, or practices easy through
simplification; in others, objects, systems, or practices are developed from the start with
simplicity in mind. Notably, definitions of simplicity in writing and other contexts are
A pejorative cast of "simplicity" appeared very early in the evolution of the
definition of ease, around the same time and with the same meaning as the adjective
"simple-minded." This sense of easy, movedvd without difficulty to action or belief"
(OED 33), was expressed in the colloquial "easy mark" and "easy game." Today
creating this form of simplicity as ease is often called "dumbing down" or "making
idiot-proof'-like the transparency of the For Dummies-style series I mention above.
A class of consumer goods which pretend to "simplicity" appeared contemporary
to the rise of the consumer movement, and remain quite popular today. These goods
are "simple things" representing the "simple life," albeit heavily commodified and
transformed into expensive designer goods and services out of the reach of many
people.4 This simplicity is highly, but quietly, selective: the crooked artwork and
charming handcrafts of the Appalachian farmer are included; abject poverty and the toil
of hand-operated tools are not. Such affected simplicity has the outward appearance of
the simplicity of poverty and low-tech daily life-relevant because, as noted above, it is
the appearance of ease, not its actual presence, which is important.
The reforms which The Art of Rhetoric Made Easy represented included a
pragmatic attitude toward education. As Locke and others argued, geography and
bookkeeping had value in contemporary culture as the tools of colonial mercantil-
ism. Not surprisingly, pragmatism extends much deeper into the definition of ease.
A disengagement from generalization or general understanding is the most powerful
pragmatic tendency present in easy objects, systems, or practices. The practice of
ease suggests that contextualized, specific, local knowledge is preferable to abstract,
theoretical knowledge. Because development of the latter can be difficult and com-
plex, it receives secondary, if any, emphasis. Pragmatic approaches rely heavily on
transparency-achieving a goal or accomplishing a task without unnecessary delay or
obfuscation-and are closely connected to expediency, a quality of ease introduced
after World War Two.
4Retail stores like Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn provide good examples of these prod-
The division between novice and expert common in Western education and
attitudes toward technology reinforces the simple, pragmatic character of ease. Experts
perform processes of simplification and determine boundaries of pragmatic relevance.
Novices, who are not supposed to be able to understand difficult things, and should
prefer easy alternatives or representations, must accept the expert interpretation of
importance. The pragmatic character of ease discourages developing skills which
enable the rise from novice to expert, like understanding Cartesian method, which
Sharon Crowley argues underlies much composition pedagogy (42-50 passim). Both
simplicity and pragmatism reinforce disciplinary structures, which in turn reinforce the
power of expertise.
Cautions against simplicity also play a large part in the formation of the
novice/expert binary. Because simplicity is often associated with ease, and is the
province of novices, difficulty is reserved for experts, and easy things appear less so-
phisticated and unsuitable for expert usage-simple imitations of the complex original.
For writing, Jacques Derrida charts this process using Plato's Phaedrus: "According
to a pattern that will dominate all of Western philosophy, good writing (natural, living,
knowledgeable, intelligible, internal, speaking) is opposed to bad writing (a moribund,
ignorant, external, mute artifice for the senses). And the good one can be designated
only through the metaphor of the bad one" (Derrida 149). Here, again, is the paradox
of ease. So simplicity and pragmatism enforce the novice/expert split in both direc-
tions: encouraging experts to look down on easy things, portraying them as deficient to
the original; and discouraging novices from complexity and difficulty, proffering easy
solutions as "good enough" for their less demanding situation.
2.2.3 Bringing Ease Home in America, 1880-1930
The second period of intense change in the nature of ease occurs after indus-
trialization and the development of new technologies affected the daily life of most
Americans. Susan Strasser has chronicled the changes in American culture which
occurred between 1880 and 1930, focusing on the effects on women. Her scholarship
reminds us that accounts of technologization which occurred during this "rise of con-
sumerism" are often radically simplified. Many interrelated agents and forces should
be considered in studies of consumer culture, including attention to ease in advertising,
publishing, and product development.
Contemporary popular and scholarly works show great faith in technological
advancement, presenting an unproblematic account of new wealth and increased
standard of living. In 1919 Christine Frederick collated writings from Ladies' Home
Journal and other sources into Household Engineering, a manual for homemakers
which suggests they could radically improve their quality of life by applying principles
of scientific management to daily routines. The argument of Household Engineering
is a clear and simple syllogism: Taylorist methodologies simplify work, saving steps
and time; newly available household products and devices ease the intensity of manual
labor; therefore, employing both results in a more organized and efficient home, and a
Ease appears in Frederick's text in several ways. First, she argues the tools of
housework should be more "scientifically" designed for comfort in use. Suggestions
include raising or lowering tabletops and sinks to prevent stooping, using a stool in-
stead of standing, and purchasing a stove-top of proper height (12, 18). But "comfort"
is narrowly defined-"effectiveness" seems closer to what Frederick had in mind, given
her descriptions of "comfortable" tools. Second, Fredrick encourages mitigation of
effort and reduction of toilsome labor or difficulty. Throughout Household Engineering,
she argues that newly developed technological devices and household products could
perform labor done previously by hand, change household processes to eliminate labor,
or reduce the intensity of manual labor required for a certain task.
Frederick's work recognizes historical qualities of ease and the economic
pinnacle demonstrated by the contemporary colloquial "easy street" and "life of
ease," (OED 33). Her prescriptions for homemakers demonstrate that as America
industrialized and developed a consumer culture, a new possibility for ease appeared.
Ease itself changed from an abstraction most people could only dream about, or enjoy
in infrequent and fleeting moments, to a commodity which could be produced and
enjoyed in the home, given the right tools properly used. In one sense, this was a
genuine change in the standard of living and working conditions of many people. But
in another, it was just relaxation of the standards of the mythical "life of ease" which
enabled the development of the consumer economy. To some extent, the reality of
change is moot. Because more and more people believed that new products delivered
on promises of ease, it began to build inertia and cultural power.
Like Holmes, Frederick shows some reluctance to "make it easy" unconditionally,
and her approach is quite complex. Though she asserts household engineering would
"enable the homemaker to have leisure time to devote to interests which are more
important than the mere mechanics of living," she insisted that time recovered through
her methods be devoted to the "higher ends of personal and family happiness and
success" (Household Engineering 504, 509). While Frederick argues that household
efficiency is more than a method for getting women to do more work, and envisions
more power for women and a partnership with husband and family, rather than service
to them, her method for achieving that power is "well planned work and equally
planned for minutes of leisure-time" (515-6)-perhaps a bit more structure and
regulation than current concepts of an easy, comfortable, effortless approach might
Contemporary advertisers were not nearly as cautious as Frederick. Numerous
new and old products were touted for their labor-saving properties. Some marketing
suggested that products themselves were easy to use, such as magazine advertisements
from Kodak stating "Home Photography is Easy," or the use of the "Easy" brand name
by the Syracuse Washing Machine Company. However, description of labor-saving
properties and the new leisure time possible by efficient vacuum cleaners, detergents,
or washing machines was much more common. The products Frederick helped market
were just too complicated to be convincingly presented as easy to use-another
example of the paradox of ease. Transparency of technology was, in most cases, not
yet a reality, despite Frederick's call for devices which brought "comfort in use." In
this time period, ease in consumer products was primarily represented by effortlessness,
comfort, and pragmatism; transparency and simplicity were present, but secondary.
During this time reformers critiqued several forms of ease. Thorsten Veblen
introduced "conspicuous consumption" and other concepts such as "trained incapacity"
to the language of sociology and progressivism (18, 68). Veblen's pointed criticisms
of upper-class Americans find fault with many things identified here as qualities of
ease: the desire to improve social standing, rejection of the functional, valorization of
abstention from or reduction of labor, and a life of idleness facilitated by wealth (the
"life of ease"). Around the same time, numerous literary critics, artists, and philoso-
phers involved in the avant-garde, modem artistic movements, and Russian Formalism
embraced complexity and difficulty, rejecting many of the qualities of ease identified
here. Their work questioned many of the assumptions on which the valorization of
ease was constructed. The Formalists praised difficulty in and of itself, identifying
characteristics such as "making strange" and "defacilitation" as the fundamental quali-
ties of literariness. In painting, theater, and literature, aesthetic realism and naturalism
were rejected in favor of more abstract, less directly representative forms. However,
these critiques were exceptions to the rule of gradually increasing strength, importance,
and desirability of ease.
220.127.116.11 The qualities of ease: femininity
Correspondence between ease and femininity strengthened during this time
period. The ancient correlation of women and comfort, through their supportive role
as mothers and wives, was supplemented with new meanings which bolstered ease's
gendered nature. The coarsest equation of ease and femininity, "Women cannot handle
difficulty, so they need easy things," reflected the perception that women were delicate,
fragile, and unsuited for "man's work." Victorian ideals for femininity encouraged
women to cultivate this role, reinforcing the assumption of womanly weakness.
A pejorative sense of "easy" connected feminine comfort and the notion that
women were inferior workers (and thus needed comfort, transparency, simplicity,
and effortlessness). Interestingly, if women cultivated this trained incapacity (to use
Veblen's term), they would find themselves in needs of devices which produced ease,
such as electric appliances, since hand-operated machinery was too hard for their
gentle nature. Frederick encouraged women to embrace ease through consumption:
in Household Engineering she directly addresses women, advising them to purchase
household products which possess qualities of ease, and to follow principles of
scientific management in order to produce ease in the home. Her followup, Selling
Mrs. Consumer, addresses advertisers and marketers hoping to capitalize on the
spending power newly vested in women. These extremely influential works solidified
the gendered nature of ease and helped establish the role of women as gatekeepers for
household consumer spending.
The ambivalent nature of ease was also reflected in contemporary slang: the
sexually promiscuous "easy woman," who is simultaneously attractive and repulsive,
and the use of "easy on the eyes" or "easy to look at" to describe physical beauty-
especially in women (OED 34).
2.2.4 Humanizing Technology, 1939-1958
After World War Two ended, technological advancements made during wartime
began to filter into civilian use, industries commandeered for wartime production
resumed their regular output, and memories of years of depression and rationing were
quickly swept away by uninterrupted economic growth. A 1957 U. S. News article
labeled the decade following the war "ten amazing years," noting a general increase
in wealth, financial security, and the spread of new products and inventions like
television, freezers, vacuum cleaners, and air conditioning-items most would consider
technological goods (28). More and more often, advertising for these products noted
not only ways their use could improve standard of living by producing qualities of ease
such as comfort and effortlessness, but the ways in which the products /theie/\'\ were
easy to use. Electrically controlled, push-button operation replaced "old-fashioned"
types of controls. "Automatic" or "computerized" products became more common.
Wartime weapons development introduced new disciplines as well as new
technologies: nuclear physics, rocket science, and computer science, to name a few,
and provided the bureaucratic structures which ensured their post-war survival. Lesser
known fields like human factors engineering also benefited from huge government
expenditures and the push to make more effective military forces. During the war,
experiments and research efforts were somewhat limited, taking the form of "knob and
dial studies"-analyses of the arrangement of the controls of airplane cockpits and
other complex mechanical devices. Though not widespread, these efforts did improve
the efficacy of the increasingly sophisticated machines of war and paved the way
for organized human factors research. The legitimacy of this new discipline and the
dramatic rise in the popularity of technological devices are evidence of another step in
the evolution of ease. Producing ease through the use of technology, as was the case
during Frederick's time, would not suffice. Now technology itself had to be easy.
The evaluative power of ease had grown remarkably: devices which lacked
ease of use were of questionable worth and could be discarded and replaced with
newer, easier ones. As is often the case, advertisers and manufacturers noticed (and
encouraged) the new attitude toward technology rapidly, mobilizing ease of use in
marketing programs and product design. But academics were not far behind. The
growth of human factors engineering and concern for ease of use is demonstrated
by the formation of new institutional formations. The Ergonomics Research Society
began publishing the journal Ergonomics in 1957, and in 1958 the Human Factors
Society started distribution of its Human Factors. Early issues of these journals reflect
the military heritage of the discipline, focusing on nuclear physics, avionics, and
spaceflight, with most contributors affiliated with American armed forces.
The opening editorial of Human Factors argues that "[t]he ultimate aim of each
human factors effort is toward the optimal utilization of human and machine capabil-
ities to achieve the highest degree of effectiveness of the total system" (Morehouse
1). Most of the prose in the first issue has a similar militaristic, bureaucratic tone.
But a forward-looking letter to the editor written by a member of the Human Factors
editorial board insists upon "good coverage from a wide spectrum of civilian industrial
human factors problems, all kinds of transportation problems, human factors problems
in communications, and in consumer goods and equipment" (Spragg 46). When an
article in issue 1.4 (November 1959) came under attack for exhortatoryy phraseology"
and a lack of technical detail, the authors defended their approach by arguing such
"pedantic 'scientific"' language contradicted the editorial mission of the magazine.
In fact, they pointed out, other reviewers of the article thought it was "unnecessarily
technical" and hard to follow (Dreher and Evans 102). Clearly, some researchers
wanted to make Human Factors easily read, and believed the missions of the journal,
the discipline, and ease extended far beyond military-oriented "knob and dial" work.
These struggles should be considered not only as disciplinary growing pains
but as a continuation of the ambivalence toward ease demonstrated in Holmes's
introduction and Frederick's directives for the use of leisure time. Neither "ease"
nor "easy" appear in early issues of Human Factors, though it is clear (at least in
retrospect) that beneath the militaristic jargon many contributors are valorizing qualities
similar to the new definitions of ease: especially the virtue of expediency.
18.104.22.168 The qualities of ease: expediency
Demand for the first five qualities of ease I identify here (comfort, transparency,
effortlessness, simplicity, and pragmatism) increased notably after the war. The
connections of ease and femininity remained strong, even as women's wartime success
in the workforce was leveraged into limited gains in gender equity. A new quality of
ease, expediency, was developed from the synthesis of pragmatism, transparency, and
general valorization of speed made possible by mass production, industrialization, and
electronic communication. As it appears in ease, expediency is generally congruent
with definitions which date back to Aristotle. The expediency of ease embraces speed
and suppresses of negative consequences or complications. Expediency enables more
effective transparency: it supplements the filter of relevance provided by pragmatism
with a filter of speed.
Many of the easy "convenience products" which appeared during this time
period were valued because of expediency. Fast and frozen food, more expensive
and less healthy than freshly prepared food, are valuable for ease of preparation and
cleanup (cook or buy it, eat it, throw the container away). As was the case with
previously discussed qualities of ease, advertising implied that devices which were not
obviously convenient and easy were unsuitable. Manufactures often proposed shelving
or disposing of last year's gadgets in favor of new and improved models-as was the
case with the digital camera I describe on page 18 above.
Changes in infrastructure also demonstrated demand for expediency: controlled-
access highways appeared during this time, and locally controlled and named roads
were abandoned in favor of federally regulated systems. This had tremendous impact:
as Marshall McLuhan observes, "Great improvements in roads brought the city more
and more to the country. [. .] With superhighways the road became a wall between
man and the country" (Media 94). Similar walls grew between economic classes who
could afford expediency and those who could not. Educational systems were affected
as well: with more subjects to learn at all levels of education, and increasing numbers
of machines and technological processes in daily life, there was a considerable need for
learning quickly and without complication.
Critiques of consumerism which had been gaining steam since Veblen's time
grew along with the American economy. Indeed, the title of Ralph Nader's Unsafe at
Any Speed takes on new meaning if expediency is considered. Consumer protection
and environmentalist discourse called for understanding of the costs of the explosion of
consumer society, both in terms of personal, local effects and perhaps unseen or distant
changes wrought by new technologies and consumerist practices. Other criticisms in
popular writing lamented the loss of knowledge as specialization spread, and hiring
maintenance and repair technicians replaced traditions of owner-operator repair work.
Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not shy about its Platonic
heritage, invoking the figure of Phaedrus to speak out against the increased speed and
pressure of consumer society and the turn away from general knowledge, especially as
manifest in a failure to understand technological devices.
2.2.5 Computing Made Easy, 1984-present
The final development in the meanings of ease I examine here is the extension
of ease to the personal computer, a device exponentially more complicated than any
of the devices Christine Frederick mentioned in her two books, yet more flexible
than machines which human factors engineers of the knob and dial era evaluated.
The Macintosh personal computer, introduced in 1984, was the first commercially
viable computer which used a graphical user interface and was marketed as "easy to
use." Other graphical computers, notably the Xerox Star, existed at the time, as did
computers and software being marketed as "easy to use." However, Apple was the first
to combine the two: in sharp contrast to its principal competitor, the IBM Personal
Computer (PC), which ran Microsoft's DOS operating system (MS-DOS) and had
extremely limited graphical capability, everything about the Macintosh was graphical.
The PC was boxy, boring, silent, and ugly; the Macintosh was curvy, flashy, talkative,
The Apple Human Interface Guidelines, published in 1987, codified many of
the principles expressed in the early Mac OS, enabling transfer of its foundational
principles to other technological and non-technological devices. The Apple design
philosophy, as expressed in maxims which introduce the Guidelines, foregrounded
comfort, transparency, simplicity, and speed. Ease of use is reinforced through
pragmatic novice/expert division (named here as "user/programmer"), and consistent
preference for visual display.
The Apple Desktop Interface provides a consistent and familiar computer
environment in which people can perform their many tasks. People aren't
trying to use computers-they're trying to get their jobs done. (2)
Most programmers have no trouble working with a command-line interface
that requires memorization and Boolean logic. The average user is not a
[The command-line interface .. .] distracts all users from their tasks and
focuses attention instead on the computer's needs. (5)
User activities should be simple at any moment, though they may be
complex taken together. (7)
Users feel comfortable in a computer environment that remains understand-
able and familiar rather than changing randomly. People use computers
because computers are versatile and fast. (8)
The introduction of the Macintosh demonstrated another change in the character
of ease: if a system as flexible, powerful, and technologically complicated as a
personal computer could be made easy, why couldn't anything be easy? Norman's
The Psychology of Everyday Things, also published in 1987, would help legitimate
that syllogism of ease. This book has become one of the most influential books in
the "usability" movement: an outgrowth of the discipline of human factors which
encourages design and development practices which result in easy to use objects and
systems. Norman analyzes the design of doors, light switches, refrigerators, and other
everyday things, critiquing any lack of consistency, user control, feedback, access to
conceptual models, or forgiveness of errors-the same principles which, according
to Apple, made its Apple Desktop Interface easy.5 Norman's prose style matches his
argument: unlike the psychologists working in human factors, who clouded calls for
ease and usability in dense Armyspeak, Norman frequently uses the first person or
5Norman intensifies his critique of difficulty in later work such as The Invisible Computer
"we," and seldom employs technical language. While well-researched, and not at all
anti-academic, The Psychology of Everyday Things begins with anecdotes and direct
address to the reader, not a literature review filled with footnotes or parenthetical
references to other research. For most readers, Norman's extensive background in
cognitive psychology is transparent-in fact, paperback versions of the book are titled
The Design of Everyday Things.
The long-standing connections between transparency, simplicity, and ease have
been strengthened markedly by the Apple Guidelines Norman's Everyday Things, and
comparable publications from other writers, reflecting (and helping to better establish)
further evolution in the character of ease. Consider "Overwhelmed by Tech," the article
which I used to open this chapter: demands for transparency, simplicity, or ease appear
in nearly every paragraph, and the concepts are often used interchangeably. Close
correspondence of transparency, simplicity, and ease enables rapid interchange between
them. Notably, popular writing and scholarship is less often treating the qualities of
ease distinctively, but invoking "ease" and assuming the particular meaning will be
The current shape of human factors research indicates that most people would
name the personal computer or the Web as the current frontier of usability and
ease of use. But from its original incarnation to the present day, the Web would be
nothing without writing, the technology Holmes wished to make easy-and, to this
day, the most important technology involved in the personal computer. Once more,
common-sense reasoning is nearly syllogistic: more than anything else, personal
computers are machines for making texts and communicating. If the computer itself
should be easy, and use of its word processing and typesetting applications should
be easy, shouldn't writing and communicating be easy as well? This expectation is
strengthened immeasurably by the role the qualities of ease has long played in rhetoric
and composition. It is easy to assume the parallel movement toward clarity, brevity,
and simplicity in the goals, style, and pedagogy of writing, and the design, use, and
purpose of other things, is a simple, natural, inevitable evolution.
Critiques of this new role for ease have been limited. A few magazine columnists
attacked the Macintosh because it supposedly failed to measure up for business. John
C. Dvorak even cast the battle in gender terms, calling the Mac "effeminate" and its
principal competitor, the IBM PC, a "man's computer designed by men for men" (Levy
qtdin Brown). Once again, appearance was a problem: the Mac did not look like a
business machine. Almost fifteen years later, Dvorak would say of a new Macintosh
notebook computer, the iBook, "I can only describe it as a 'girly' machine. You expect
to see lipstick, rouge, and a tray of eye shadow inside when you open it up" (34).
However, Dvorak's critiques of the Macintosh interface have disappeared now that it is
apparent visually rich software like the original Mac OS is here to stay.
Updated versions of earlier critiques against ease have appeared, like Neil
Stephenson's In the Beginning Was the Command Line, an argument for the GNU/Linux
operating system which echoes many of Pirsig's concerns about dwindling user know-
how. However, the development of computer operating systems such as GNU/Linux
and FreeBSD has also demonstrated that in the context of networked computing, flex-
ibility and power can be harnessed to create systems which defy conventional wisdom
on ease. Most Linux distributions include command-line and graphical user interfaces
and applications, integrating these "hard" and "easy" environments, making much
of Stephenson's critique of graphical systems irrelevant. Projects like Linux and the
K Desktop Environment show that highly usable computer systems can be extremely
powerful and versatile-contrary to general definitions of ease and expectations com-
mon in in mainstream computing. Though it will take time to affect enduring change,
non-traditional development models now offer an alternative to the system-centered
development model which has preserved the culture of difficulty of computing.
Advertising usually touts the benefits of ease, but some companies have suc-
cessfully mobilized its negative characteristics of ease. Nike's long-running "Just Do
It" campaign argued both explicitly and implicitly that in order to succeed, athletes
must ignore discomfort and inconvenience, embracing hard work and extreme exertion
(as well as Nike products). By contrast, General Motors's "This is not your father's
Oldsmobile," which admitted that the Oldsmobile brand was associated with easy-
driving, somewhat emasculated cars suited for aging men, was unable to shake the
negativity of ease and a younger, hipper clientele. Despite considerable effort, the cam-
paign failed, and the brand was phased out. Both accounts show the endurance of the
ambivalent character of ease-as well as the importance of the image and appearance
of ease in figuring the resolution of that contradiction.
22.214.171.124 The qualities of ease: pictorialism
My list of the qualities of ease concludes with pictorialism. The graphical
and visual nature of the Macintosh interface, Norman's calls for "visibility," and the
changing nature of "transparency" as a quality of ease reflect the drastic shift in the
importance of the visual and pictorial which has shaped twentieth-century Western
culture. Following Richard Rorty, W. J. T. Mitchell calls this shift "the pictorial turn,"
a general recognition that the visual demands cultural attention due to increasing
importance and relevance-or suspicion. Images, valorized in fantasy, spectacle, and
by the immense popularity of visual media, are opposed to the rational discursivity of
the literate apparatus (2-4). In a similar way, ease privileges the pictorial, visual, and
electorate over the graphical, verbal, and literate. It is a reflection of common-sense
knowledge of the status of images: watching a movie is easier than reading a book; a
picture is worth a thousand words.
Pictures seem to possess, naturally and intrinsically, many of the qualities of
ease, notably expediency and simplicity. Without a doubt, the connection of under-
standing and vision ("I see" meaning "I understand;" "vision" signifying "wisdom")
supports this correlation. The awesome influence of Edward Tufte's studies of visual-
ization (Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information)
for usability studies has also bolstered the widespread assumption that ease of use
and the pictorial are, generally speaking, congruent. But Mitchell reminds us that
the pictorial turn is by no means not unconditional. The embrace of the visual and
pictorial is deeply ambivalent: images are critiqued as dangerous, debilitating, and
dehumanizing-especially by those defending the icons of literate culture (1-4).
This ambivalence is paralleled by the ambivalence found in ease: are pictures really
better than words? Do words and images follow the same patterns, where ease is
concerned-for example, are images which are easy to read hard to make, as is the
case with words? Derrida's recognition of the complex nature of the graphical as a
hybrid of visual and verbal underscores the problem with this oppositional formulation.
In The Language of New Media Lev Manovich notes that twentieth-century
pictorialism is shaped markedly by traditional realism, particularly the realism of
Hollywood cinema which Robert Ray calls the "invisible style" (Manovich passim;
Ray 32). Through transparency and effortlessness, here is another connection to ease:
while as carefully, methodically produced as any other, the "invisible style" appears
natural, and its incredible information density is easily assimilated by the viewer.
As Manovich points out, perverse versions of that model of information exchange
infect many areas of desktop computing, such as virtual reality, where Jaron Lanier's
resistance to linguistic forms continues "the fantasy of objectifying and augmenting
consciousness" and "the desire to see in technology a return to the primitive happy
age of pre-language, pre-misunderstanding" (59). I return to Manovich's extremely
important book in the final chapter of this work.
Finally, the idea of "image" is relevant for ease in a slightly different sense. In
some cases, especially the image one projects to others, an appearance (or an image) of
ease is critical, and one's actual condition of comfort, effortlessness, or other qualities
of ease is not important.
2.3 The Role of Ease Today
Table 2.1 summarizes the qualities of ease I introduced in the preceding historical
review, and notes opposites frequently contrasted to them. These qualities still shape
American culture, though shifts in relative importance and desirability have occurred
as new qualities supplemented historically powerful ones. Also, many of the functions
of ease I presented during the historical review remain powerful today. The origi-
nal meanings of ease, abundant wealth and comfort, live on today as the "American
Dream." Ease can also be a state of mind attainable during rest or leisure, a pedagog-
ical device, a commodity produced by a concert of individuals and technology, or a
My historical definition of ease can be summarized as a list of five trends:
1. Over its long history, the number of discourses, disciplines, and areas in which
consideration of ease is relevant has increased consistently.
2. Though it once carried extremely negative connotations, the negativity associated
with ease has gradually decreased, though it remains influential today.
Table 2.1: Charting the Qualities of Ease
quality often opposed to
comfort, enjoyment discomfort, pain, annoyance
transparency, invisibility, passivity apparent, visible, active
effortlessness, leisure intensity, work
simplicity complexity, difficulty
pragmatics, specificity, localization theory, abstraction, generalization
femininity, attraction masculinity, distancing
expediency, facility deliberation, hard to learn
3. Ease has always had a deeply paradoxical nature, acknowledged to differing
degrees over time. The simplest expression of this paradox is, "Achieving ease is
4. The number of different qualities by which ease is made manifest, and which
define ease, has increased over time. New qualities have supplemented older
ones, and are often expressions derived from historical forms.
5. The number of functions which ease serves in society has increased over time,
and the relative importance of functions has shifted so that most recently
introduced functions are most important.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the growing use of new methods, products,
and technological devices have enabled the production of ease in its most fundamental
role (comfort and leisure). Post-war booms in consumption and consumerism extended
the realm of possibility for this production of ease to many other objects, systems, and
practices, and added the criterion that things which produced ease should themselves
be easy. Today, this extension continues, as the development of easy-to-use personal
computers has all but ended restrictions on the application of ease in technological
products or devices, legitimizing demands for ease in nearly any context.
3.1 Is Ease Good or Bad?
In her 1929 follow-up to Household Engineering, Christine Frederick argued
that the logical conclusion of the progress of American industrial society was a shift
in the goals of civilization and culture. Though realization of her vision for America
was delayed by the Great Depression, the postwar explosion in consumerism-and the
growth of ease-followed her prescription to a large extent:
A civilization like ours-unlike that of the Roman or the Greek-centers
its genius upon improving the conditions of life. It secures its thrills from
inventing ways to live easier and more fully; means to bring foods from
more ends of the earth and add to the variety served on the family table;
methods to bring more news and entertainment to the family fireside; ways
to reduce the labor and hardships of living; ways to have more beauty and
graciousness in the domestic domicile; ways to satisfy more of the instincts
of more of the family group. (Frederick, Selling Mrs. Consumer 15)
For many people, this quest for easier, fuller living through variety, entertainment,
relaxation, and beauty is simply natural and instinctive, as Frederick has identified
it here, and the history of American civilization is simply one of betterment, a long
increase in economic, educational, and democratic successes. Ingenuity, technological
advances, and hard work drive betterment, and the valorization of ease is an unprob-
lematic part of that ongoing process. The roles of ease I describe above-as abstract
standard for economic achievement, temporary state of mind, pedagogy, and both
means and end of technological consumer products-are nearly totally naturalized.
But I have also noted that ease has never been accepted outright. Though in
many ways it seems unquestionably positive ("instinctive," as Frederick would have
it), nearly every quality and function of ease has a negative side ranging in strength
from ambivalence which provokes caution to a very strong reservation which prevents
valorization of ease completely (or at least limits its contexts). To summarize: comfort
and effortlessness still carry the stigma of sloth. Those who demand transparency
or simplicity are often labeled as stupid or lazy. Controversy over pragmatism and
expediency frequently appears in education, as well as in ethical and environmental
rejections of consumerism. And as Mitchell argues, the concept of the pictorial turn is
a recognition that the problem of the spectacular image is serious enough to mandate
immediate philosophical and popular attention.
3.1.1 Technology and Ease
The consistent presence of these ambiguities and paradoxes is the first reason
why it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a final judgment about ease-to determine
if it is good or evil. Qualities of ease often appear intertwined, and overlapping
meanings exist side by side. Positive and negative aspects are produced in almost
any situation in which ease is involved. An easy-to-use thing may indeed deliver
tremendous benefit. But what problems does it produce? Are benefits so much the
focus that problems are ignored? Should one consider the effect on other individuals or
systems while attempting to make a case for or against a particular appearance of ease?
In technological thought, the question of good or evil is often answered with deferral:
technology is just a tool, and its good or evil character is determined by the human
agents who use it. Langdon Winner has pointed out that despite its attractiveness and
frequency of invocation, this resolution is problematic. The faults Winner identifies
for the question "Is technology good or bad?" are applicable to the question "Is ease
good or bad?" because the connections of ease and technology run very deep, as I
Evaluation of the good or evil of ease presumes that one can understand fully
the impacts of any given situation where it is present. For technology, Winner reminds
us there are three reasons this is impossible: first, technologies have unintended
consequences which, though they may not be pernicious, are often not visible to the
agents involved, and perceived (much less understood) only with removal of time and
distance (21). Second, though Western common sense about technology assumes that
human beings are the masters of both the natural world and the technology they create,
this is simply not the case. Changes in the natural world, failures of technological
systems, and other factors prevent mastery of technology (26-7). Thirdly, though
Western common sense about technology encourages a conceptualization of technology
as a neutral tool, it is all but impossible for any technology to achieve this neutrality
(30). Doing so would entail the complete absence of the agency of the designer
(problematic for a variety of reasons) as well as achieving freedom from ideological
structures of the culture from which the technology originated. Even the simplest tool
reflects the design choices and ideological assumptions of its creators. One can argue
that foregrounding assumptions made during the design process (through user manuals,
directions, or other explanations) makes it possible for the user to understand a given
design-but that understanding, even if complete, is certainly not neutrality. And that
leaves open the question of unexamined ideological assumptions or predilections not
acknowledged for other reasons. To be sure, the extent to which choices of human
designers are manifest in technology is influenced by a huge number of agents which
affect the production of the device or system and its use. No matter how conscientious
the designer, users can ignore directions and use technologies as they see fit, or be
influenced by cultural pressures unbeknownst to the designers-pressures which could
shift an object, system, or practice from intended use.
Following the usual path of deferral of "good or bad" to "it depends upon the
way it is used" can distract attention from the ambiguity of ease previously discussed.
My answer to the question, then, is "Both," and the course of action implied by
Winner's critique is investigating both the dangers and benefits of ease-not just
legislating against "bad" use and shifting blame for it away from ease itself. It
would be better to preserve of the ambivalent quality of ease through review of some
arguments for and against ease. While it may be quite difficult to predict how ease
affects a given situation, the plurality of arenas in which ease appears legitimate makes
some effect almost certain. In fact, that ubiquity of effect is the next thing about ease
which I will consider.
3.1.2 The Ideology of Ease
Ease has evolved to the point where it has become a powerful ideology with
tremendous effect on American culture. This function of ease may have the power
to trump those discussed in Chapter 2 above. Because there are numerous ways in
which ease is made manifest, and a wide scope of potential application, evaluating
an object, system, or practice often, if not always, includes consideration of its ease.
The ideology of ease is its power to be mobilized as an evaluative tool, especially for
technologies, and the way it functions as a system of representation.
126.96.36.199 Stuart Hall's concept of ideology
Because many theories of ideology exist, I would like to clarify the specific
way I understand the concept. Stuart Hall outlines a theory of ideology which es-
tablishes a balance between classical Marxian concepts, rightly criticized for rigidity,
and postmodernist theory, which in some forms makes theorizing determination or
ideology impossible. Through a selective reading of Louis Althusser, Hall suggests a
complex model of determination and a pluralistic concept of ideology, rejecting simple,
mechanical models in which there is a one-to-one correspondence between determining
base and determined superstructure, and class position the sole criterion for establishing
control of the base.
Hall begins from a complex notion of determination which replaces fixed
correspondence between determining base and determined superstructure with a
connection more like Raymond Williams's setting of limits and exerting of pressures
(Williams 87). This formulation acknowledges complex structures of authority, like
that of the modern state, in which power is articulated from countless positions, and
in diverse ways. It also allows the operation of ideological forces outside the strict
control of the state, and recognizes that ideology may fail to affect certain institutions.
Thankfully, Hall is clear that refusing rigid notions of "determination" does not mean
adopting a wantonly post-structuralist attitude, in which difference is "pushed beyond
the point where it is capable of theorizing the necessary unevenness of a complex unity,
or even the 'unity in difference' of a complex structure" (92). A post-structuralist
critique of determination should mean there is "no necessary correspondence" between
base and superstructure, not "necessarily no correspondence" between the two. Instead
of post-structuralist tendency to become hostage to the privileging of difference as
such," Hall calls for "thinking unity and difference; difference in complex unity" (93).
Hall's concept of determination allows for development of theories of ideology
which more closely match lived experience: economic benefit for the upper classes
is derived from the mobilization of a number of different ideologies which need not
appear simultaneously or consistently (97). Recognition of multiple, interconnected
ideologies, instead of a "dominant ideology," and articulation of complexity and
difference, instead of only difference, better enables representation of "the complex
interplay of different ideological discourses and formations in any modern developed
society" (104). Thus ideologies are articulated recursively, with both structures of
determination and practices-discursive or otherwise-connected interdependently. In
the middle ground Hall establishes, ideologies have both discursive character (as ideas,
thoughts, and other discourses) and material existence (when inscribed in practices).
Hall explicitly reestablishes the importance of language and discourse for ideology:
"language and behavior are the media, so to speak, of the material registration of
ideology, the modality of its functioning" (99). According to the concept of ideology
which he advocates, and which I use here, ideologies are "systems of representation,"
the "systems of meaning through which we represent the world to ourselves and one
188.8.131.52 The ideology of ease today
Ease is one of the many systems of representation which enforce the common
sense of American culture and society, setting limits for the roles of technology and
other artifacts, exerting pressures on decisions made in everyday life, and reinforcing
the assumptions which undergird other ideological formations. For example, as shown
by anecdotes from "Overwhelmed by Tech" on page 16 above, objects, systems,
and practices which cannot be made easy can be discredited by manufacturers and
consumers alike-their use is limited, or completely ignored. In response to the
demands of everyday life, consumers are pressured to see ease as the solution for rising
complexity and increasing technological sophistication. Common assumptions about
technology are shaped by the desire for ease, and the system of representation places
the qualities of ease on the strong side of influential binary opposition.
The close connection of ease with writing and other technologies, established
over time, provides several reasons why the ideology of ease is so pervasive. First,
if demanding ease is acceptable for the process of learning how to write, which is
alternately portrayed as difficult and easy, it should be acceptable for nearly anything.
Without a doubt, the connections between ease and writing, strengthened substantially
by college composition curricula developed in American colleges during the nineteenth
century, facilitated the expansion in the role of ease to certain technological objects,
and eventually, with introduction of the personal computer, to all technological things.
In the next chapter of this work, I will examine the relationship of ease and writing in
much greater detail.
The role transparency has played in ease also boosts the ideological power of
ease by encouraging ideological operations themselves. I do not mean that unseen
agents are duping the citizenry through the invisibility of ease; in most cases, the
invisibility is quite apparent, and willingly accepted. Easy things are valued because
they are easy, not because of nefarious advertisers fooling us into believing they are
not. A "false consciousness" model of ideology is not the point. Rather, it is the
congruence between the operations of transparency, and the function of ideology, which
both encourage acceptance of dominant, accepted, common-sense values (or, to put it
in marketspeak, off-the-shelf solutions).
Most importantly, when ease functions as an ideology, its act of representation
privileges its benefits and deemphasizes its dangers. Obviously, the operation of
ease is beneficial in some circumstances. But its ideological function often enables
sidestepping or dismissing the critiques of ease which have been introduced over the
years, as noted above, and minimizes the pejorative meanings of ease which seemingly
contradict its valorization. Most potential problems with ease are overlooked in
context in favor of the "it's in the way that you use it" ethos which dominates Western
thinking about technology. Critical evaluation of ease, which I begin now, is not on the
ideological radar screen.
3.2 Critical Evaluation of Ease
My critical evaluation of ease begins with examination of the benefits produced
by easy things. I then offer a more extensive discussion of some of the problems
created by the growing legitimacy of ease, its careless valorization, and the increasing
willingness to ignore the adverse effects which can occur when ease is demanded in
situations of high difficulty or complexity. Also, I discuss several problems introduced
during the definition of ease presented in Chapter 2 in greater detail.
The function of ease as an ideology does not mean the demise of other functions
of ease previously discussed, such as reduction of the work needed to obtain basic
human needs, or its considerable role in teaching the use of technologically advanced
systems. Nor does it mean ease should be condemned in all of its forms. There
are varying levels of dangers and benefits in all the functions of ease, and critical
evaluation of ease is intended to acknowledge those benefits, keep them in perspective,
and to better understand other effects which may accompany them.
3.2.1 Benefits of Ease
Because I noted many of the benefits of ease while defining the qualities of ease
in Chapter 2, I will not afford this section exhaustive detail. The reader can provide
more particulars if desired.1
1Donald Norman's work also provides thorough, accessible discussion of the benefits of ease,
though his terminology differs somewhat from that used here.
184.108.40.206 Quality of life
The original meaning of ease included connotations of pleasure, beauty, and
enjoyment; the pursuit of easy objects, systems, and practices can and should provide
opportunities for the same in everyday life, in both leisure and work situations. Small
conveniences, such as getting take-out to avoid cooking and washing dishes after a
hard day at work or while traveling, and much more complex systems in which ease
streamlines a difficult process, present genuine physical and psychological benefit.
220.127.116.11 Safety and security
Easy-to-read traffic signals and signage save lives, as do easy-to-operate emer-
gency medical devices and much simpler things, like irons which shut off automati-
cally. The development of conventions, protective systems built into infrastructure and
technological devices, and the standardization and simplicity they offer has increased
the safety of daily activities. For example, controlled-access highways separate traf-
fic with medians or concrete barriers, reducing the chance of a catastrophic head-on
collision with an oncoming vehicle. On these roads, rest stops are placed at intervals
calculated to encourage breaks which reduce fatigue and the chance of accident (Berger
68). Standardized colors, frequency, and styles of signage makes getting lost much less
likely, and numbered interchanges and route numbers make it easy to give and follow
Following easy models of system design can also increase safety by reducing
the possibility for human error-and by making safe procedures less troublesome to
follow. Ease can embed user preferences or provide instructions to save time safely.
For example, fill-out forms which include directions are more likely to be completed
correctly. Doors which automatically close and lock upon exit reduce the likelihood of
crimes of opportunity; doors which open outward are easier to open for those exiting a
building in a hurry-which, as Norman observes, can save lives during a fire (86).
18.104.22.168 Reduced cost
Development of easy-to-use devices allows users to speed up daily activities by
focusing less energy on mundane tasks and reducing learning by repeated trial-and-
error. Easy devices which store and retrieve user preferences and customizations, and
provide automation of mundane repetitive tasks, save time and frustration, permitting
humans to focus on more creative, less monotonous work.
Many usability advocates have offered quantitative arguments which show
that the impact of saving a typical worker a few seconds here and there can add up
very quickly. Norman argues convincingly that paying attention to the design of
light switches, doors, and other simple devices can reduce long-term operating cost,
despite the increased costs of research and development needed for the production
of easy devices. Carol Barnum's textbook Usability Testing and Research includes
an assignment which duplicates these analyses, figuring the cost per second of any
worker's time and ascertaining the dollar amount which could be recovered from timed
testing (22-3, 28). The time and motion studies Frederick used and advocated for
homemakers follow similar patterns.
Ease enables action by automating or eliminating steps or complication and
relying on systemic defaults or controls to make assumptions about expected behaviors
and outcomes-or by getting something done despite differences in quality or cost. For
example, while developing a customized database-driven web site with accompanying
professional quality printed course materials might be the best way to prepare a
syllabus, many instructors do not have the necessary programming or pre-press skills.
However, using easier alternatives such as a course management system (CMS) like
BlackBoard or WebCT, and photocopies of laser-printed materials prepared with a word
processor, will often provide the educational resources needed. The development of
easy-to-use technologies has enabled the expansion of technological power far beyond
the engineers and technicians who reserved it for themselves little more than a century
22.214.171.124 Legitimation of the pictorial
Mitchell contends that with the pictorial turn, study of the visual arts is on the
rise, and more people recognize the negative effects of conflating "culture" and "literate
culture." Of course, Mitchell illustrates the ambivalence of this movement, especially
continued resistance from defenders of literate epistemology-but certainly, in the ten
years since he penned Picture Theory, desktop computing has embraced the pictorial
turn vigorously. It may be a tangential benefit, but the preference for pictorial and
visual which is a part of ease does increase the legitimacy of pictorial forms. Scholarly
programs in film studies, new media, and related disciplines remain secondary to
traditional literary pursuits. But in both academia and wider culture, critical attention
to pictorial forms is no longer universally dismissed as misguided fascination with
Pedagogues like Holmes mobilized contemporary philosophy to create systems
for learning which endure to this day. Ease has been mobilized as a pedagogy for at
least three hundred years, and in some areas successfully challenged its opposition
(mental discipline, "back to basics" learning, or curricula based on the assumption
that "nothing worth learning is easy"). Making it easy is the model for learning in
educational institutions as well as workplaces and extra-institutional educational
settings ("Quilting made easy" or "Accounting for dummies").
3.2.2 Problems Caused by Ease
Even the most careful and well-intentioned practices which rely on ease for
cultural valorization have unintended effects and consequences. More importantly,
the ideological nature of ease encourages uncritical application: ignorance, willing
suppression, or denial of negative effects. Notably, because ease is often made manifest
only as simplicity or transparency, this uncritical application can rapidly become self-
reinforcing: critical evaluation which makes the ideological articulation of ease visible
is discouraged by ease's valorization of transparency.
Philosophy, literature, and popular writing about technology have noted its self-
perpetuating nature. Plato's objections to writing are well-known, based in part upon
the fact that once schoolchildren learned to write, their memories would atrophy and
their reasoning skills would suffer from a lack of use. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael observes
that precautions taken to protect the harpooneer dangled over the side of the vessel
necessitated further measures to protect his protectors-a cycle of doublings which,
in an attempt to ease dangers, only created more of them (Melville 349). Finally,
texts such as Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, mentioned on page
39 above, argue that the anti-technological mindset common in modem culture is,
for most people, an inarguable matter of faith, and criticize the lack of technological
know-how caused by this technophobia. Similarly, technological and non-technological
applications of ease are self-reinforcing in several different ways.
The definition of ease as transparency or invisibility provides the first and most
powerful self-reinforcement mechanism. Transparent objects, systems, and practices
"just work." To use Norman's language, "affordances" provide prompts or assistance
which reduce the need for fully understanding or memorizing the way something
works. But reducing the level of understanding or knowledge can cause problems
in the absence of transparent systems, or given a system malfunction. For example,
the replacement of gauges with warning lights enables a person operating a device
so equipped (such as an automobile) to use the device without understanding how
to read the gauge, or knowing very much about the system to which it is connected.
If the warning light comes on, the driver takes action (stopping to call a tow truck).
However, lacking the ability to read the gauges, the driver cannot safely operate a
car which uses them. Thus warning lights, intended as a mechanism for facilitating
transparency, become a requirement of use. A preson who drives a car with warning
lights, not gauges, may not develop knowledge of oil pressure, temperature, and other
indicators of engine performance. For that person, it may also be easier to question the
severity of a problem indicated by the sudden appearance of a light, as opposed to the
continuous feedback from a gauge.
Malfunction of easy things can force to self-reinforcement of ease. As Robert R.
Johnson notes for computer interfaces:
[User-friendly interfaces] can mask the complexities of the system to such
an extent that if there is a system breakdown, such as when you receive
a cryptic error message that explains the problem in virtually encrypted
language [. .] you are left helpless, unable to solve the problem, and
continue with your work because you are dependent on external expertise
not available to you in any useful form. (28)
This was the case with the preacher mentioned in "Overwhelmed by Tech": unable
to understand error messages and system operation, and unwilling to cope with
troublesome external expertise, she suffered data loss (see page 15 above). Computers
and Writing scholars were reminded of some of the costs of transparency in winter
2001, when the online CMS provider BlackBoard began charging for what had
previously been a free service. Courseware like BlackBoard is popular because it
enables an instructor with little knowledge of the technical complexity of hypertext to
produce a sophisticated course web site using only a web browser, content prepared in
a word processor, and BlackBoard's online system.
To the instructor adding content to BlackBoard, the complex and technical
nature of the hypertext file structure underlying the site is transparent. But when
BlackBoard changed its pricing structure, and many instructors were forced to stop
using the no-longer-free servers, the cost of this transparency became apparent in
more ways than one. Instructors who wanted to download their information from
BlackBoard had to move each file separately, one at at a time, and were suddenly
forced to deal with hundreds of files they did not even know existed. (Without
technical understanding of hypertext, BlackBoard users saw only "a web site" not "a
collection of files hierarchically organized.") Additionally, there was no automated
method for moving syllabi out of BlackBoard into other CMS systems (Harris).
Suddenly, BlackBoard users' lack of hypertext file management skills was no longer
transparent. Unfortunately, as budget cuts loom, similar difficulties continue to plague
schools which have committed resources to easy-to-use CMS products. Given the
tremendous difficulty of getting information out of the proprietary systems, many
educators are paying increased costs rather than abandoning hours of time invested in
designing courses for specific platforms.
Johnson's User-Centered Technology documents the second mode of self-
reinforcement of ease: exacerbation of the (already mentioned) division between
novices and experts. Western concepts of technology and disciplinary structure provide
a strong basis for novice/expert divisions (9-11). In its manifestation as pragmatism,
ease legitimizes the simplification process by which experts render difficulty easy for
the benefit of novices. Easy things maintain this separation by encouraging users to
cultivate their role as novices for whom an inability to understand difficult or complex
systems is perfectly normal, even desirable. Sometimes novices view experts as saviors
whose mastery of complicated systems earns respect and admiration; in other instances,
experts are seen as "elites" obsessed with detail or particulars simply irrelevant for
the general public. Notably, in both cases, expert knowledge and the possibility of
technical mastery are out of the question. In contrast to experts, normal folks just want
the darned thing to work, and assume that the role of expertise is the transformation of
difficult, even frightening technology to an easy, user-friendly manifestation.
Structures of expertise also contribute to the differentiation of novice and expert.
Johnson argues that most technologies are "system-centered," with all decisions
regarding the technology revolving around the technology itself:
In representations of human life and our attendant technologies through the
system-centered view, however, users are inevitably ancillary, or, in some
cases, they are nonexistent because the system is powerfully hegemonic:
the system is the source and ultimately the determiner of all. System-
centered technology [. .] locates the technological system or artifact in a
primary position. There is no need for the user to be involved with system
or artifact development, this perspective suggests, because the system is too
complex and therefore should be designed and developed by experts who
know what is most appropriate in the system design. (26)
The system-centered model venerates technical systems and the experts who designed
them. Experts responsible for the design and maintenance of a given technological
system often take a quite proprietary, paternalistic stance toward it, refusing to share
information, reserving decision-making power, and relegating anyone without expertise
to subsidiary advisory roles. (Note the gender implications: powerful, masculine
experts do not need ease; but weak, feminized novices do.) In many cases, the expert
view of novice users is quite hostile, and novice demands for transparent, easy-to-use
things are considered evidence of mental weakness or laziness (the negative sense of
idleness or sloth mentioned earlier). However, some experts are less derogatory; the
Apple Human Interface Guidelines I quote on page 40 above provide a gentler example
of novice/expert division. Either way, the power signified by expertise, especially in the
West, provides a huge impetus for experts to design easy-to-use devices and encourage
novices to avoid anything else-strengthening the valorization of ease.
In Throwaways, Evan Watkins argues that true "gender mobility," where a
person of one gender takes the usual role of another gender, is restricted to men. A
man providing comfort or showing emotion (roles usually reserved for women) is
"sensitive"-but a woman who crosses to the male side by showing self-confidence or
leadership is a "bitch" (155). Adapting that concept to my analysis of novice/expert
separation, one might say that "ease mobility" is the province of experts, who can
enjoy easy-to-use artifacts and seek ease without risking their power and prestige. But
novices who cross the expertise line and made suggestions about the system are seen
as uppity, presumptuous, or ungrateful. Additionally, for novices, unlike experts, the
use of easy things and the desire for ease demonstrates their deference to expertise, and
weakness of character.
The common-sense division of novice and expert is reinforced by novices as
well as experts, with some often shrugging off their "idiocy" as inevitable in the light
of technological complexity. For novice users, ease consistently encourages wink-
and-shrug acceptance of this separation, a phenomenon which Norman calls "learned
helplessness," and Johnson labels "technological idiocy."
Users reside on the weak side of the idiot/genius binary. We have embed-
ded the notion of technological idiocy so strongly in our culture that we
actually begin to think of ourselves as idiots when we encounter technolog-
ical breakdowns. Experts are the ones who "know," so we let them have
the power, which of course means we accept whatever is given to us. (45)
Since ease has become more powerful and acceptable, people sometimes blame
themselves for poor design, mechanical failure, or other problems which are absolutely
beyond control (and perhaps the fault of so-called experts). Sadly, this pathology
sometimes becomes an ontology: "I'm not good with computers" or "I'm one of
those people who just can't understand this." Most depressingly, sometimes novices
reverse the syllogism of ease explicated above, reasoning: "If this is easy and I can't
figure it out, I must really be an idiot, and I'm good for nothing." The ideology of
ease plays a huge part in the reinforcement of this corrosive view of complication and
difficulty by consistently and unproblematically mobilizing novice/expert separation
and downplaying the need to truck with, much less engage critically, anything which is
not easy. The selectivity of ease mobility and the ideological status of ease naturalize
novices' seeming inability or refusal to learn, and the cycle continues.
126.96.36.199 Supporting uncritical assumptions about technology
The conceptualization of technology encouraged by the ideology of ease relies
on, and therefore endorses and reinforces, common assumptions about technology
which are questionable, if not completely inaccurate. A review of the "Overwhelmed
by Tech" article which I quoted earlier shows five assumptions about technology which
connect it to, or rely on, assumptions about the function of ease:
1. Technology is not difficult in and of itself. Through manifest intent and hard
work, talented designers and engineers can overcome complexity and produce
easy to use technologies (like Jeff Hawkins's PDAs and the original Macintosh).
Only the most complicated and difficult devices and systems (not a concern for
consumers, so merely alluded to in the article) will not be easy.
2. Simple, transparent technology is good technology. Complex, opaque technology
is bad. When technology is visible, either a mechanical failure as occurred, or
the technology is deficient. (These sentiments are expressed constantly, in quotes
from consumers and experts like Norman, Hawkins, and Alan Cooper.)
3. Because technology is artificial, it is hard to use, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar.
Making technology follow natural patterns makes it easier to use, pleasant, and
intuitive. (Not a major emphasis in the article, but underlying the frequent use of
"intuitive" and similar verbiage.)
4. Technological development and economic growth are correlated on a personal
level: one must own and be able to operate technically sophisticated objects in
order to be economically successful. Such correlation applies nationally, too: in
the modern world, the health of any nation's economy is dependent on being able
to produce technologically sophisticated goods, services, and knowledge. (The
authors repeatedly mention the economic downturn, and quote consumers who
complain about the need to keep up with the latest technology.)
5. Finally, technological progress is constant, consistent, inevitable, and natural. As
technology's power and sophistication increases, its ability to produce ease and to
be easy increases as well. (See page 17 for several quotes which confirm this.)
Scholarly work is also marked by these assumptions. Winner has shown that
critiques of technology from philosophers as influential as Martin Heidegger often
reproduce and reinforce "inevitability" hypotheses despite attempts to overcome them
(14). In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong argues that histories of communication
technology often represent familiar, well-established (e.g. easy) technologies as natural
despite their inarguable artificiality (81-2). While much of his Psychology of Everyday
Things is carefully developed, Norman's work often falls back on many, if not all, of
these assumptions, and he has a tendency to assume conventions established over years
are "natural" (4, 17, 23).2 Combining assumptions about ease and technology into a
single assertion could be accomplished in several different ways. One approach centers
on artificiality: "Technology may seem artificial today, but eventually it'll be natural."
2Several pages on Norman's web site express regret for the terminology in his books. He may
have meant "conventional" instead of "natural," and the forthcoming work Emotional Design (i 2i4)
will confirm the presence or absence of problematic assumptions about the "natural" properties of
Another rendering (well-represented in "Overwhelmed by Tech") would match the
Western faith in technology with faith in ease: "Sooner or later, everything will be
easy." However, if critics of technological determinism such as Winner are correct,
this faith in ease is misplaced and simply unrealistic. The contradictory nature of
common-sense assumptions about technology, and the paradoxical nature of ease, also
call uncomplicated faith in ease into question. Compare assertions one and three: how
can the solution for a lack of natural properties be an increase in artificiality?
188.8.131.52 Reinforcement of stereotypical gender roles
The connection of ease and femininity echoes stereotypical gender roles in a
manner which some might consider innocent, not intended to be derogatory, or simply
a representation of "the way things are." It is impossible to ignore the sheer quantity
of advertising and popular writing which capitalizes on the connection of ease and the
female gender. Casually dismissing these texts legitimizes other contexts in which the
easy-female correlation is made unproblematically, especially its crudest expression:
the assumption that women cannot handle difficulty, or that they become "hysterical"
under emotional stress.
More than anything else, the connection of gender and ease is this perception that
women lack the intellect and fortitude needed to handle difficult tasks. Traditionally,
"hard labor" is the province of men (never mind the labor of childbirth), and women
are better off nurturing the children. It is more "natural" for the physically and
emotionally stronger man to take on more physically and emotionally challenging
tasks. Supposedly, women's genetically imposed weakness, when compared with men,
places them at a number of disadvantages, and can be blamed for their continued
exclusion from certain competitive sports, battlefield roles, and salary equity, among
other things. The gendered nature of ease is built on this and the correlation between
the role of women as familiar, comforting, maternal figures and the familiarity and
comfort present in the definition of ease.
Apple Computer's iMac marketing provides several excellent examples of
"innocent" connection of ease and the female gender. (Indeed, the history of the
Macintosh is marked by frequent correspondence of the feminine gender and the
computer's easy-to-use qualities, and this is one of many possible examples from
Apple.) Shortly after its introduction in 1998, the iMac was marketed in a series
of television commercials which focused almost exclusively on two things: the
external appearance of the iMac and its easy-to-use qualities. None of the technical
specifications of the machine were discussed-not even its oft-criticized lack of a disk
drive. Thus the commercials are already "feminine": physical appearance and aspect
are the focus, not the hard numbers of performance data.
It is hard not to see the iMac commercials as the performance of a group of
scantily clad dancers or synchronized swimmers flirting with the viewer. With the
Rolling Stones' "She's a Rainbow" providing accompaniment, five of the translucent
computers-one in each color available-move around and through the screen, offering
glimpses of circuit boards when the camera moves in for a close-up. The Stones
make it clear the iMac is a girl, as they sing, "She comes in colors everywhere / She
combs her hair / She's like a rainbow." There is little doubt Apple intended the viewer
to consider the iMac a female that was easy to use and came in whatever color one
wanted. The advertisement evidently appeals to traditional models of femininity in
which women are attractive, easy, silent servants of their male masters.
The idea of the "easy woman" or "lady of easy virtue" provides another com-
plicated connection of gender and ease. While on the one hand, the easy woman is
described for being too willing, too sexual, on the other hand, overabundant sexuality
SEAT TISE E-MAIL
Figure 3.1: LG Electronics Advertisement, 2001.
and promiscuity make her very desirable. Like ease in general, this sense of ease is
deeply ambivalent, and the easy woman is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. As
above, this particular meaning of ease cannot be dismissed as a historical oddity (recall
the OED definition mentioned on page 35 above). Instead, it is often assumed that the
meanings are interchangeable. This was the case with a 2002 LG Electronics advertise-
ment which bragged their cellular phone offered "Easy to use email. Supermodel easy."
In this advertisement, several connotations of ease which portray women negatively
are juxtaposed. First, the phone is easy enough to be used by a supermodel (who, as
the highest representation of femininity, must have the lowest technological skill and
intelligence). Second, the phone is as easy to master as a supermodel (who, since she
bares much of her body in advertising, is likely promiscuous).
184.108.40.206 Repression of critique
For most educators, the repression of critique, facilitation of acceptance of the
status quo, and discouragement of critical thinking are the worst problems caused
by ease. Simplicity and pragmatism, which John Holmes connected with ease in
an educational context, are frequently and rightly criticized for encouragement of a
non-critical attitude, which in Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century,
Cynthia Selfe calls "not paying attention." Though Selfe speaks of composition
studies scholars, not students or the general public, the problem applies to all of
these groups-certainly, teachers' attitudes are reflected in, as well as influenced by,
curricula. The problem of not paying attention applies to extra-educational situations
as well: indeed, willing invisibility is critical for the function of transparency in the
service of ease, no matter what the context.
Selfe's argument begins by discussing technology and the dominant methodology
for dealing with it: hoping that it will be invisible. In composition studies (and perhaps
all of English), consideration of technological issues limits real composition work:
studying "the theory and practice of language" (21-2). The desire for invisible (trans-
parent, to use the terms for ease established above) technology in classroom situations
is a reflection of the desire for all technology to "just work," to be unproblematic,
unchallenging, and simple. However, this uncritical acceptance of the technological
situation runs counter to encouraging development of critical thinking skills, one of the
stated goals of most composition courses (as well as, for many, rhetoric itself). Selfe
acknowledges that failure to ask questions about technology will entrench the powerful
expert vs. disenfranchised novice opposition described by Johnson above (143).
Building on her technological analysis, Selfe argues that the desire for com-
fortable, familiar, non-challenging technology is often extended to a lack of paying
attention to other situations, in the hopes that a similarly comfortable environment can
be discovered there (Selfe 23, 38-9). Educators prefer to ignore the effects of technol-
ogy which occur outside the immediate educational situation-in fact, they prefer to
dismiss everything outside the immediate environment, citing their inability to affect
change, irrelevance of "distant" events, or the need to "just get my work done" (a siz-
able dose of pragmatism is evident here). However, as Selfe's analysis of the Clinton
administration's desire to increase "technological literacy" shows, a failure to think
critically about these seemingly unrelated events has real effects for students and teach-
ers. In rather uncomfortable detail, Selfe shows how Clinton administration mandates
resulted in diversion of funds from salaries, construction projects, and other classroom
expenditures to new technological infrastructure, networking and technology-often
without training or support (43-63). At least in part, educators' failure to ask hard
questions about the effects of these new policies led to the entrenchment of assump-
tions about technology which facilitated them-and which are very similar to the
assumptions about technology and ease which mark "Overwhelmed by Tech"-as well
as the development of policies which affected "non-technological" areas of educational
Selfe's solution for this problem is encouragement of the development of "critical
technological literacy" through a cooperative effort undertaken by educators, parents,
and government agencies. She sees this as, following Donna Haraway, a situated
knowledge, a more skeptical, questioning, discursive approach to understanding what
technological literacy might be (147). Language very similar to that which is often
used to describe critical thinking marks Selfe's discussion of this critical technological
literacy, which she describes in detail in the third part of Technology and Literacy.
Unfortunately, the ideological nature of ease means that common sense runs in
exactly the opposite direction. Selfe calls for an end to valorizing invisibility (134)-
as ease makes transparency more and more acceptable. She argues that increasing
students' understanding of technology is not merely a matter of installing network
cables and servers (71-5)-but ease backs the simple, instrumental solution. She
points out that truly understanding a given situation or practice means connecting local,
discursive, and instrumental knowledge with general understanding of its larger context
(146-9)-but ease suggests a pragmatic approach, learning only the immediate context
needed to accomplish the short-term goal. If the qualities of ease are kept in mind
while reading Selfe's work, it is clear reform-minded educators face an uphill battle.
Stephen Katz has critiqued the push for expediency in technical communication
on ethical grounds. The tendency to collapse all deliberative rhetoric into a push for
expediency-speed, efficiency, and efficacy, or "technical criteria as a means to an
end" (257)-shifts rhetoric away from Aristotle's focus on means to a more utilitarian
focus on ends. Katz reminds us that before and during World War Two, the Nazi
government cultivated expediency in nearly all its communications, and gently points
out the horrid consequences of that obsession with ends and disregard for means. For
Katz, the Nazi's ethic of expediency helped prevent internal questioning of the "Final
Solution," the repression of dissent, and the bombing of civilians. Expedient language
made it easier to deal with the nasty business of day to day life as a Nazi official. But
as he points out, problems of expedient rhetoric did not disappear on V-E Day. The
expedient technologization of rhetoric could transform its "democratic decision-making
process" into "techniques of persuasion and audience adaptation calculated to serve"
ends with no attention to means (Katz 271). A highly technologized rhetoric with
an ethic of expediency encourages bypassing deliberation, objections, or less popular
opinions in favor of easy ends achieved through the use of the latest technologies. In
the classroom, this can result in decontextualized learning (the presentation of pure
technique), and more seriously, the debasement of ethics through reduction of concern
for the reader to minimizing the time necessary for transmission of the information
being presented (or another item to check off the list of details to address when
proofreading). Katz's connection of ease, expediency, and technique has great potential
and needs further study.
The repression of critique by ease also occurs because critique often involves
the development or explanation of sophisticated, pluralistic points of view which fail
several tests of ease. First, complex positions take time and effort to develop-it is
easier to reiterate simple, well-established positions backed by common sense, since
they do not require an inventive process for either establishment or protection against
rhetorical attack. Sharon Crowley has noted that the rhetoric most common in first-year
composition encourages repetition of common sense by moving invention outside of
the province of rhetoric-and out of the composition classroom. Secondly, common
sense has the advantage of transparency: it is obvious why one would argue that
way. Lengthy explanations and investigation of assumptions are not required for the
inarguable facts of common sense. As Roland Barthes demonstrates in Mythologies,
common sense is natural, depoliticized, comfortable speech: ideas which are "natural
and without saying" (143). Finally, complex, abstract ideas based on theory are
described as "disconnected," the work of "elites" who do not understand the real
world. Eschewing abstraction in all forms enables highly personalized, contextualized
writing-in both content and style-which, as James Berlin notes, mobilizes individual
experience consistent with American predilections for positivism. To summarize: ease
has the power to neuter critique, reducing it to a trope employed for the sake of form,
because being Fair and Balanced is a Good Thing. Ease can transform critical thinking
to a ritual speed bump over which one slows as little as possible on the straight and
narrow way forward.
220.127.116.11 Increased cost
If one of the benefits of ease is overall reduction in cost despite increased
design cost, how can increased cost be one of its problems? The answer lies in the
paradoxical nature of ease, and in questioning the accuracy of ease as a system of
Valorization of certain forms of ease are built on assumptions about the relative
value of work. For example, replacing home preparation of meals with frozen or fast
food is justified because, as numerous advertisements repeatedly stress, time spent
on meal preparation is better spent working or relaxing with the kids. McDonald's
or Healthy Choice is much easier-and the implication is more responsible-than
preparing a home-cooked meal. There is no doubt these easy alternatives require
less time for purchase, preparation, and cleaning, and higher monetary cost (even
the cheapest fast or frozen meal is substantially more expensive than its home-made
analogue). But does meal preparation (or any other activity) necessarily prevent one
from "relaxing with the kids?" Rapid but perhaps inaccurate movement between
qualities of ease facilitates several assumptions: that meal preparation and enjoying
time with children are necessarily mutually exclusive; that there can be no pleasure in
"menial" tasks like laundry, landscaping, or maintenance of one's home; that filing a
tax return is too complicated for most people, and requires the aid of software or an
accountant. For all these things, a more careful analysis would show the incongruity
of exchange between the senses of ease equated here. Nevertheless, increased cost
is justified by the assumed congruence of qualities of ease: cooking can be a hassle,
therefore it cannot be enjoyable or expedient. Landscaping involves hard work:
therefore it is neither pragmatic nor enjoyable. Tax law is complicated; therefore it lies
beyond the grasp of laypeople.
Once again, Watkins's Throwaways usefully points out several ideological
assumptions which empower the valorization of ease. Watkins argues that "time is
money" only for those who have enough money to consider converting their money
into someone else's time. For the working class, time is not money, but all they have.
That's why spending an hour or two on meal preparation, automobile repair, laundry,
yardwork, or tax preparation (in addition to and despite of the amount of those things
one might be doing for others) make sense. It must make sense-it is the only option
for survival (93). To continue adapting Watkins's work, this is another case of "ease
mobility": paying for an oil change, doing something the easy way, makes sense if you
can afford it-if you enjoy a life of ease. But if you cannot afford the expenditure,
there is no extra money-as-time to exchange for ease.
The ideological drive for ease helps justify the increased cost almost always
present in "easy" things. In many ways tolerance of increased cost is also made
possible by the next negative effect of ease: making cost transparent by shifting it to
another agent, time, or place.
18.104.22.168 Rendering cause or effect invisible
Robert Johnson offers a powerful example of the displacement of causes and
effects typical to the operation of ease:
The most mundane [user-friendly technology] may be the simple light
switch. You flip a switch and a light comes on. Simple enough. You
have, however, through a simple, user-friendly interface just accessed a
complex technological system that uses a vast array of natural, human,
and economic resources in order to function. Every time we flip a simple
switch then we are using a large, possibly controlling, technology: yet
we are virtually unaware of the consequences in any immediate way.
Even though we may read daily of the problems of overconsumption of
electrical energy, we still are likely to (ab)use the technology because it is
so "friendly"-so easy-to-use. (28)
Literal physical displacement of the infrastructure, noise, and pollution of the electrical
power system makes it comfortable. The switch is simple and effortless, and electricity
literally invisible. The monetary cost of electricity is presented only monthly, if at
all; its other effects displaced far from its use. Unless there are massive systemic
difficulties, like the power shortages which plagued California in 2000 and 2001 (and
which are still having political repercussions), the displacment is complete. For ease,
there is no more profound technological change than the switch from human, animal,
and mechanical forms of energy to electrically produced and distributed power, though
the ongoing shift from analog and mechanical things to digital, electronic systems
may displace electricity from this throne-what one might call "the easy chair."
Electrical power is behind nearly all of the technologies which Frederick advocated
for production of ease: even appliances she pushed which did not use electricity,
such as kitchen stoves, furnishings, and hand-operated machinery, were only feasible
because of manufacturing driven by electrical power. The Depression-era drive for
rural electrification provided an important economic stimulus: delivering electricity to
the country created a new market for convenience products and electric appliances of
all kinds (Hughes 464).
A direct, traceable, quantifiable connection between end users and electrical
consumption exists. But the connection between the "distant" effects of that electrical
consumption-pollution, political struggles over petroleum-rich areas, and global
climate change-is much less clear. Distancing allows consequences to be shrugged off
or even totally questioned. A typical result: around the turn of the century, curbside
garbage collection began in New York City, and city residents no longer had to burn,
dispose of, recycle, or be otherwise confronted with their own garbage. When New
Yorkers could simply stack trash by the curb and know that it would be removed
by someone else, the amount of garbage produced per capital grew rapidly, and to
some extent the production of copious amounts of garbage became an indicator of
affluence (Strasser, Waste and Want 124-5, 136). The effects displaced by ease are
often forms of increased cost, not only monetary costs incurred in the production of
easy-to-consume products and services, but ecological, governmental, or societal costs
resulting from unforeseen (or simply unseen) consequences. Spreading, sharing, or
concealing these costs may make them easier to stomach-but their disappearance is
only figurative, and in many ways displacement of cause and effect makes the web of
agency connected to an easy practice quite wide indeed.
Ease can also contribute to obscuring the amount of labor or complication
involved in any particular task. This slippage takes at least three forms. First, one
can show a lack of concern, respect, or acknowledgment of the labor and agency
of other people, as is often the case when considering the labor of those in service
industries (Watkins 159-61). Second, the amount of effort and discomfort associated
with certain tasks is often underestimated or remembered incorrectly-especially for
things naturalized long ago. Mina Shaughnessy contends that some of the problems of
basic writers result from teachers' failure to recall the tremendous difficulty of learning
how to manipulate pen and paper, much less the irregularities of English grammar (14,
16). Thirdly, many people underestimate or misunderstand the complexity of things
which appear to be easy but in fact are quite elaborate or extensive. The example of
the light switch Johnson offers provides one form of this underestimation, but extensive
infrastructure deliberately made invisible, like the electrical grid, need not be involved
for such underestimation to occur-consider the example of the Blackboard users on
page 60 above.
Several forms of forgetting the labor or agency of others involve transferring
decisions made by human designers and agents to technologies or other objects,
assuming that human agency does not exist at all, or allowing one's agency to be
subjugated to another's because of ignorance of (or lack of concern with) cause and
effect. The design features Norman describes as "affordances" can be considered
foregroundings of the intentions of the designer, and as Johnson points out, the
"proper" system model associated with a technological artifact (Norman 9, Johnson
29). Johnson's analysis of system-centered culture recognizes the tendency to blame
the system (or even find fault with one's own actions) when in fact a human agent may
be the cause of a problem. But this form of "forgetting" agency also appears when,
motivated by pressures for ease, people allow decisions about their privacy, security,
or health to be subjugated to other factors. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11,
2001, and the resulting establishment of the Transportation Security Administration,
discussions of American airline security have frequently opposed travelers' convenience
with their safety and security. In all but a few instances, airline and government agents
alike have insisted a system which delivers both is possible. Given the consequences
of the lack of security, the power of ease is demonstrated by the insistence upon its
possibility and the huge expenditures undertaken to ensure its preservation.
22.214.171.124 Repression of experimentation
Because ease is highly pragmatic, it encourages a method of dealing with
problems or completing a task in a manner which eliminates experimentation and trans-
gression. Instead, ease suggests the path of least resistance. Hopefully, following the
dictates of transparency, expediency, and simplicity, that path will not only be obvious,
but will not take much time and will involve no complication. Experimentation, where
the end result might be "failure" to achieve the goal, is not worth the risk if a readily
acceptable, easy method is available, even if ready-mades have obvious limitations, or
are clearly an unacceptable fit for the rhetorical or technical situation. Indeed, without
the channels of transparency to act as a guide, experimentation is uncomfortable stuff.
Experimentation is further repressed by physical or systemic constraints. In
The Invisible Computer Norman imagines solving the problem of the complexity
of computers by replacing the flexible, general-purpose personal computer with a
number of a separate, customized computers-one for each function the computer
serves (28-30). In this "information appliance" model, one would have a personal
finance computer, a music and entertainment computer, and a recipe computer, among
others (253). There are definitely appealing advantages to this type of device, as the
popularity of PDAs shows, but highly customized, specialized machines will by their
nature make experimentation less possible-since restrictions built into the appliances
would likely prevent repurposing a device or modifying its software to facilitate
other functions. To return to the notion of increased cost for a moment, adapting an
information appliance model of computing would be very difficult for someone who
lacked the living space necessary for storing these multiple appliances. Additionally,
the extra time required to purchase, maintain, and synchronize information stored
on the various appliances would result in cost pressures and further extension of the
selective "ease mobility."
In "Overwhelmed by Tech" Shneiderman suggested that technology should
follow the model of automobiles, putting the working parts of a system under the hood,
out of the reach of most people (see page 16 above). But as noted by Stephenson, the
hood is frequently welded shut, sometimes metaphorically, but sometimes literally.
Inability to exercise direct control is often permanent, even if it is marketed as
transient. Watkins observes that increasing technological sophistication of automobiles
and the equipment necessary to work on them has literally made tinkering under
the hood impossible for most car owners. Sophisticated, expensive electronics have
replaced the mechanical tools formerly used to control engine operation, shifting
the focus of auto enthusiasts from manipulating engine performance to obsession
with external appearance (89-92). This is consistent with the focus on image and
appearance common to several qualities of ease. The necessary training and investment
transform what may have been a pleasurable (or at least affordable) weekend activity
accessible to thousands of individuals into a specialization performed only at work.
(Johnson notes the same end effect, in a slightly different context, in his critique of
forced novice/expert separation.)
While being forced to hire mechanics for all but the simplest maintenance
may not seem like a large problem, consider the impact of a more metaphorical
sense of "welding the hood shut." If ease discourages putting an object, system or
practice to work in a method not intended or sanctioned by the its designers, or
even satisfying one's curiosity about the way something works by opening the hood,
willful transgression of those intended norms will become even less likely, as another
ideological force exerts limiting pressures on such activity. Transfer these attitudes to a
situation such as civil disobedience, where small acts of improper use are mobilized for
political effect. Little wonder then, that in America, where ease is valorized unlike in
any other nation, political protest is less and less common, and speaking out against the
government increasingly viewed as unpatriotic and subversive.
The complex history of ease, its strong connection to technological progress
and commodification (forces which arguably drive American consumer culture), and
the development of multiple functions for ease (especially ideology) all stand against
sustained critique of ease. But although it has become quite powerful in many different
situations, ease is not universally demanded or valorized. And ease does deliver
measurable benefits, so unmitigated critique is unwise. I have named several contexts,
critical movements, and popular activities in which the power of ease is limited in
the historical review which began this chapter. These positions, some of which are
powerful indictments of ease, are a small sampling of a larger body of material which I
will consider in future work.
If, as I argue here, the scope of situations where ease can be demanded has
grown to near universality, shouldn't learning be easy, as Holmes envisioned in 1738?
Perhaps so. However, ease meant something very different when used by Holmes than
it does today when advertisers use it to sell nearly every kind of product and service.
What are the consequences of applying the principles of ease as it has developed in
consumer culture to educational systems and institutions? Given the problems with
ease I present above-especially those in composition studies-the development of
ease as a pedagogical strategy should proceed with great care, although lapsing into
a reactive "get tough" mode is undesirable as well. In order to better understand the
pedagogical role of ease today, I will now investigate the development of the bond of
ease and writing pedagogy.
So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood,
how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.
(I Cor. 14:9)
Many works in composition studies tell the story of the development of writing
pedagogies in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The best known
of these works, Alfred Kitzhaber's Rhetoric in American Colleges, 1850-1900, Sharon
Crowley's The Methodical Memory, James Berlin's Writing Instruction in Nineteenth
Century American Colleges, and Robert Connors's Composition-Rhetoric, provide
an overview of the development of the uniquely American pedagogy called "current-
traditional rhetoric" or "composition-rhetoric."3 Several make specific arguments
which move beyond history or historiography. Crowley focuses on the ways current-
traditional rhetoric pushed the canon of invention out of the classroom, creating a
basic rhetoric for budding writers from a simplified blend of Cartesian method and
the canon of style. Similarly, Berlin's comparative analysis charts the demise of
classical and romantic rhetoric from an epistemological standpoint, connecting trends
in twentieth-century composition to antebellum rhetoric.
This chapter will follow the path charted by Crowley and Berlin, telling the
story of current-traditional rhetoric with a particular focus: its bond with ease. Early
American rhetoricians, textbook writers, schoolteachers, and professors drew on
classical sources, Scottish and English writers, and their own innovations to fashion
a writing pedagogy which, in its attitudes toward writing, teaching, reading, and
economy, was deeply marked by ease. As current-traditional rhetoric matured and
developed into a powerful force shaping the educational experiences of children and
young adults from Harvard Yard to the Inner Quadrangle at Stanford, its connections
to ease strengthened. Between 1700 and 1900, the power of ease shaped the discipline
of rhetoric and composition-perhaps more than any other single force-and the
bond formed between ease and writing would endure well past the waning of current-
traditional rhetoric's domination of composition pedagogy.
31 am following Berlin and Crowley, not Connors, in using the former term, instead of the latter.
3.4.1 The English Roots of Ease in Writing
The rise of ease in American writing pedagogy, like many of the trends which
characterize American composition, has roots in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century
England. In The Methodical Memory Crowley shows how the massive changes in
"thinking about thinking" which occurred during this time undergird the assumptions
about thought, language, and the individual which characterize current-traditional
The development of that rhetoric began with changes in the role of the indi-
vidual and the relationship of writing to lived experience, human thought and divine
inspiration. Philosophers such as Rene Descartes and John Locke considered knowl-
edge production as an individual phenomenon, unlike in classical frameworks, where
knowledge was "enshrined in authoritative books and commentaries or in God's law
made manifest in the nature of things" (5). They believed language was capable of
representing, unproblematically, both the knowledge produced in individual minds
and things observed in one's environment. And they had strong faith in the power of
reason and the desire for learning to overcome human frailties, ensuring the accuracy
of individually produced knowledge, and supporting the assumption that rigorous
knowledge production facilitated humanity's continual moral, social, and technological
To replace traditional sources of authority (God and history), seventeenth-century
thinkers radically changed the status of a writer's text, and by doing so, imposed
new conditions for its production. Validation of one's argument became a matter of
workmanlike presentation-"an orderly completed text, which reproduced the history
of the thinker's investigation, was assumed to constitute sufficient testimony to the
authenticity of its findings" (8). In other words, given the facts being considered, and a
clear history of their development, any reader could understand the truth offered by a
text. Writers who made their texts orderly, transparent, and enjoyable to read-easy-
created authority through their manner of presentation. Consequently, directives for
clear, easy-to-read writing begin to appear during this time, and ornate prose structures
began to disappear under pressure from numerous sources.
Cartesian method, in particular, would be immensely influential in composition
pedagogy. Its four basic rules-accept no unclear judgments, divide difficulties
into parts, think in order from simple to complex, and be complete, leaving nothing
from consideration-provide a philosophical basis for atomization, gradation, and
simplification: key strategies educators would use to make writing easy. Descartes's
ideas were also adapted to composition style and content as well: clarity had long
been considered a virtue in writing, but Cartesian philosophy added a huge boost to it,
and provided a partner, "distinction," with whom clarity would appear in composition
textbooks published from the early eighteenth century.
Questioning the nature of knowledge helped legitimize questions about the
nature of learning. Notably, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, and Petrus Ramus (Pierre
de La Ramee) openly questioned the efficacy of the classical curriculum of the liberal
arts, the nature of the student-teacher relationship, and prohibitions of the use of the
vernacular in education, among other things. Educators began to believe children and
young adult learners could learn without harsh discipline and the confines of rigorous
ancient curricula. While the pace of change was slow by current standards, reforms
proposed by John Amos Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky) and Locke, among others,
were considerable. British and American educators influenced by these men would
suture writing and ease by repeatedly acknowledging the effects of emotional and
physical comfort on their students' ability and desire to learn.
Locke's 1693 treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education, originally written
as a series of letters to Edward Clarke, reflects the trends in contemporary philosophy
which Crowley traces. It provided both philosophical arguments and concrete, often
incredibly detailed suggestions for parents and educators, and was very influential in
both Britain and the American colonies (Cremin v-vi). Locke's work, which owes
some debt to Comenius, undoubtedly paved the way for future reformers like Johann
Heinrich Pestalozzi, as well as legitimizing writing about education such as Jean
Jacques Rousseau's Emile. Lucille Schultz cautions that "[i]t would be a mistake
to point to similarities among these four writers-Comenius, Locke, Rousseau, and
Pestalozzi-and assume they were alike in every aspect of their thinking about a child's
education." However, as she demonstrates in considerable detail, these four educators,
and many American rhetoricians influenced by them, "shared a concern for tailoring
education to coincide with the child's developmental level" (Composers 62, 63). Locke
in particular is interesting because of the comprehensiveness of his work-he outlines
an educational plan which stretched from cradle to grave. Interestingly, many of
his directives suggest students should be made to feel "easy" or "at ease." For that
reason, and because many of his ideas were adopted by American writing teachers and
educational theorists, his work will be considered in detail here.
Locke is perhaps best known for his arguments against the widespread use of
corporal punishment, or "beating" as he calls it. But these are part of a larger philoso-
phy of child-rearing and education which favors a positive approach-encouragement
and the cultivation of good habits-rather than negativity-punishment and the enforce-
ment of rules. Some Thoughts Concerning Education asks teachers to make learning
enjoyable for children. "None of the Things they are to learn," Locke argues, "should
ever be made a Burthen to them, or impos'd on them as a task" (52). Over and over
again, in language often reminiscent of educational psychology, he suggests methods
for presenting education as if it were play. From an early age, children should be
encouraged to enjoy what they learn, and learning should gently guide them toward
lessons, not enforce a prescribed curriculum. In this way Locke recognizes the power
of comfort and enjoyment, as well as effortlessness and leisure, the first and third of
the qualities of ease I name in Chapter 2 of this work. But Locke's philosophy did
not encourage "cockering and tenderness" (21): he asked parents to cultivate tough
children by methods which, three hundred years later, seem questionable, if not cruel.
He suggests a plain and simple diet, with few sweets and not too much meat (10, 14);
immersing children's feet in cold water to build their constitutions (4); and refusing
to allow them to cry (91). Instead, children must learn to develop self-denial, which
Locke sees as "the Principle of all Virtue and Excellency," and which should be "made
easy and familiar by an early practice" (25).
Locke's call for a balance of denial and indulgence repeatedly invokes the idea of
ease. On the one hand, he maintains that "My Meaning therefore is not, that Children
should purposely be made uneasy." But he argues that children's "Minds, as well
as Bodies, [can] be made vigorous, easy, and strong, by the Custom of having their
Inclinations in Subjection, and their Bodies exercis'd with Hardships" (86). Indeed,
Locke acknowledges the difficulty of this task for parents:
To avoid the Danger that is on either Hand is the great Art; and he that has
found a Way how to keep up a Child's Spirit, easy, active, and free; and
yet, at the same time, to restrain him from many Things he has a Mind to,
and to draw him to Things that are uneasy to him; he, I say, that knows
how to reconcile these seeming Contradictions has, in my Opinion, got the
true Secret of Education. (30)
In these arguments for self-denial, as well as claims for the superiority of a more
natural style of learning foreign languages, the benefits of frequent but measured praise,
and proposed reforms of the classical curriculum, Locke may seem to collapse the
difference between children and adults. This would be consistent with the dominant
contemporary conceptualization of childhood as a debased state of being which should
be arrested as rapidly as possible (Schultz, Composers 24-5). For example, at times it
is unclear if Locke is speaking of adults or children, as he remarks on the power of his
We would be thought rational Creatures, and have our Freedom; we
love not to be uneasy under constant Rebukes and Brow-beatings; nor
can we bear severe Humours, and great Distance, in those we converse
with. Whoever has such Treatment when he is a Man, will look out other
Company, other Friends, other Conversation, with whom he can be at Ease.
However, more often, Locke writes as if there are fundamental differences between
children and adults, balancing calls to challenge children with the connection he
makes between childhood curiosity and the Enlightenment-style desire for knowledge
Crowley discusses. Locke argues for simplicity: "Long Discourses, and Philosophical
Reasonings, at best, amaze and confound, but do not instruct Children" (61). Instead,
teachers should use as few words as possible, and speak plainly. This instruction
extends even to the Bible, which for children, but not adults, is best avoided in favor
of an abridged version (167). His arguments for atomization and gradation-dividing a
complex or difficult subject into smaller chunks, and moving from simple to complex,
so that it can be more easily understood-provide a template for educational practices
which remain in use today. Note that, in the following excerpt, Locke suggests not
only breaking down ideas into smaller units but ensuring each sub-idea is "simple."
Building on Cartesian philosophy, Locke was one of the first to suggest difficult
materials could be taught successfully in this manner without transformation or, to use
current parlance, "dumbing down."
But in this, as in all other Parts of Instruction, great Care must be taken
with Children, to begin with that which is plain and simple, and to teach
them as little as can be at once, and settle that well in their Heads before
you proceed to the next, or any thing new in that Science. Give them first
one simple Idea, and see that they take it right, and perfectly comprehend
it before you go any farther, and then add some other simple Idea which
lies next in your Way to what you aim at; and so proceeding by gentle and
insensible Steps, Children without Confusion and Amazement will have
their Understandings opened and their Thoughts extended farther than could
have been expected. (158)
Additionally, Locke's pragmatic approach to curriculum, suggesting inclusion
of skills relevant to contemporary commerce (geography, navigation, and Western
European languages), included considerable allowance for children's intellectual
development. Other ways in which Locke valorizes ease-preference for the concrete
over the abstract (72, 173), positioning cultivation of an "easy" conversational style as
measurement of good breeding (122-4), insisting on an "easy calm temper" (143) for
educators, repeatedly echoing the value of an "easy" writing style, and arguing for the
use of "easy" picture-books (135)-will be considered in future work.
Notably, shortly after Some Thoughts Concerning Education was published,
the word "easy" began to appear in the titles of rhetoric and grammar textbooks.
In 1704, Thomas Watt penned Grammar Made Easie, which taught Latin grammar
using English, "rendered Plain, and Obvious, to the meanest Capacity" (i). John
Holmes's The Art of Rhetoric Made Easy, introduced in Chapter 1 of this work, put
Locke's ideas into practice, with frequent use of atomization, brevity, and simplicity, an
extensive preface for instructors which outlined methods for best using the text, and a
detailed table of contents, and other features. These works would be the first in a long
line of books continued today in composition by titles such as Andrea Lunsford's Easy
Writer and Michael Keene and Katherine Adams's Easy Access.
3.4.2 Transforming Philosophy to Pedagogy: Major Figures
While more historical work is needed to track precisely the ways ease was
popularized in teaching writing, several very influential writers included considerable
mention of ease or advocated methods for teaching writing which mobilized the
qualities of ease. Between 1700 and 1850, a wide variety of influential texts would
build on the work of philosophers like Descartes and Locke, making possible a solid
connection between ease and writing. Four men will be considered here: Isaac Watts
(1674-1748), John Holmes (1703-59), John Walker (1732-1807), and John Frost
Perhaps more than any other eighteenth-century writer, Isaac Watts would call for
both a style of writing and a method of teaching writing with ease at the core. Though
best known for his hymns and religious writings, in his time Watts was "a popular and
respected author in the fields of education, theology, philosophy, and poetry" (Davis
ix). Watts wrote many books which focus on educational theory, some published in
multiple editions, and portions of his writing were often reprinted in other works.
(Titles such as Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language (1715) and The Knowledge
of the Heavens and the Earth Made Easy (1726) offer great promise for future research
but will not be the focus here.) His educational theories and practical advice shaped
the work of thousands of British and American teachers. In philosophy and writing,
Watts's best known work is Logick: or, the Use of Right Reason in the Inquiry after
Truth (1724), which draws heavily on Ramistic thought and Cartesian method to
mobilize logic for the broader goals of education and general improvement of the mind
(Hoyles 159). Crowley remarks, "The influence of Watts' (sic) Logick on rhetorical and
4I include birth and death dates here because there are several men with these names living around
this time period.
logical pedagogy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cannot be underestimated"
(177)-an argument reinforced by the sheer numbers of editions printed on both sides
of the Atlantic (Howell 341-2). Thus, Watts was one of the most important figures
in terms of synthesizing ease and writing pedagogy, since the content of the Logick
repeatedly valorizes ease and clarity, and encourages atomization and simplification.
Watts's writings would help popularize Cartesian method and make it applicable to all
levels of rhetoric and composition.
The last section of the Logick offers seven well-illustrated rules for method
which "[amount] to a theory of composition" (Crowley 42). For Watts, method is "the
Disposition of a Variety of Thoughts on any Subject in such Order as may best serve
to find out unknown Truths, to explain and confirm Truths that are known, or to fix
them in the Memory" (340). Watts encourages using method to prevent "Confusion,
Darkness, and Mistake" (339) as well as avoiding discomfort or embarrassment in
readers and learners-in other words, to ensure their comfort and enjoyment of reading
or learning. Watts admits that his concern with method focuses on the "Communication
of Knowledge," rather than on production and verification of it, and his examples and
more detailed explanations make his didactic emphasis quite clear.
Of the seven rules of method, the second stands out: "Let your Method be
plain and easy, so that your Hearers or Readers, as well as your self, may run thro' it
without Embarrassment, and may take a clear and comprehensive View of the whole
Scheme" (351). Compositions should begin with obvious things and proceed "by
regular and easy steps" to more difficult matters. Teachers and learners should be
patient, avoiding hasty movement to new ideas. Sentences and paragraphs should
be simple, not crowded with "too many Thoughts and Reasonings" (352), and long
parenthesis or subordination should be avoided. Finally, "a clear and easy way of
expressing your conceptions" should be cultivated from an early age.
The other rules Watts pens also valorize ease and its qualities, though not
as directly: rule three, "Let your Method be distinct," provides specific guidelines
for atomization (again, following Descartes and Locke, and further establishing the
connection between method and ease), and rules four and five address the value of
simplicity and brevity. Indeed, Watts develops his seven rules in a manner which
makes his writing an example of the principles being explained-his method develops
without haste, technical terms are defined in footnotes, and his method of atomization
is quite methodical.
Watts's second large area of influence was popularizing Locke's educational
ideas. Like Locke, Watts believed that children were different and needed to be treated
differently than adults:
Watts, of course, is predominantly Lockean in his concept of education. It
would be comparatively simple to show that most if not all of his theories
come from Locke's educational works; but this is not so important as to
note that through his popularization of Locke, Watts helped to prepare the
ground for modem education. The influence of John Locke played a large
part in undermining the Ciceronian concept of education still in vogue in
eighteenth-century English schools. Although Watts can by no means be
placed besides his master as an educational influence, he did a good job
in providing suitable texts for a more liberal curriculum. He helped to
make Locke practicable. Because of this humble but necessary service,
he deserves a small place among the influential secular educators of the
century. (Hoyles 101)
In other words, Watts was careful to practice what he preached, making Locke easy to
read for educators, and suggesting the best way they in turn could teach was by making
education easy. His encouragement and practice of a more "practicable" viewpoint is
another example of the growing importance of pragmatism, one of the qualities of ease
which, as I argue in Chapter 2 above, was gaining strength during this time.
Consistency of message and presentation extended to Watts's writing style.
"Such was his devotion to the plain style in prose, that he felt it necessary to apologise
for any sally into figurative speech he may inadvertently have made" (Hoyles 225).
Indeed, the phrase "plain and easy," noted from the Logick above, appears to have
been rather marketable-several printers who produced posthumous editions of Watts's
work created titles of their own including it, and it appears in several other works by
Watts. In summary, Isaac Watts was a key player in the construction of ease-writing
connections at a variety of levels, and his extensive bibliography demands much further
John Holmes, the English schoolmaster whose Art of Rhetoric Made Easy is
introduced in the first chapter of this work, is not considered a major figure in British
rhetoric by most scholars, but still deserves mention here for two reasons. First, while
Rhetoric Made Easy was not nearly as popular as Watts's Logick, it was the first of
several books designed specifically for young learners which were used widely at
English schools (Howell 126).5 Holmes's immediate influence, through his contacts
with other schoolmasters, cannot be discounted, and his influence on American writers,
especially Richard Green Parker, is sizable. Second, in his Rhetoric and other writings,
Holmes employed a wide variety of devices intended to make rhetoric easy, drawing
on suggestions from Locke and other writers, but also creating innovations of his own.
These devices will be discussed in detail below. While Holmes did not produce the
number of books intended for children which Isaac Watts was able to publish during
his much longer life, his work had definite impact.
5Unfortunately, several of these works, published as pamphlets or single broadsheets, are incredibly
difficult to find.