The Computerized Society: <Digital Culture> in the United States Since World War II
Dr. Michael J. Kramer
Visiting Assistant Professor, History and American Studies
Co-Director, Northwestern University Digital Humanities Laboratory, www.nudhl.net
The scenario of the computerization of the most highly developed societies allows us to spotlight…certain aspects of the transformation of knowledge and its effects on public power and civil institutions—effects it would be difficult to perceive from other points of view. — Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 1979
How have computers altered American life since World War II? In this course, we will treat technology not as deterministic, but rather as a powerful social phenomenon embedded in economic, political, and cultural struggles. We will examine the history of the computer from multiple perspectives to contextualize the relationship between people and computational machines during the last 70 years: we will look at factors of race, gender, class, and region; we will consider the relationship of the computer to militarism and the Cold War; we will investigate the computer in relation to issues of commerce and culture, politics and justice; we will consider both the national and transnational contexts for digital culture; and we will study the computer as both an industrially-produced machine and the key material product underlying what has become known as the postindustrial “information society.” Students will attend lectures, read intensively, watch films, explore online materials, participate in discussion sections, and complete four writing assignments that emphasize the craft of evidence-based historical interpretation and analysis.
History 330-42 (32766)
Harris Hall L07
Tuesday and Thursday, 12:30-1:50pm
Discussion sections on selected Fridays, see course website and/or Caesar for details.
Dr. Michael J. Kramer
Visiting Assistant Professor, History and American Studies
Co-Director, Northwestern University Digital Humanities Laboratory (www.nudhl.net)
Office hours: Thursday, 2-3pm, Harris Hall 212.
Office hours: Monday, 1:45-3:45pm, Harris 219.
- Martin Campbell-Kelly, William Aspray, Nathan Ensmenger, and Jeffrey R. Yost, Computer: A History of the Information Machine, Third Edition (New York: Westview Press, 2014).
- Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
- Michael A. Hiltzik, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
- Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
- Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (New York: HarperCollins, 2012).
- Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
- Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage, 2010).
- Additional articles, films, and websites on course website and/or on reserve at NU Library, see our Canvas course page, https://northwestern.instructure.com/courses/449.
Attendance: Students are expected to attend all lectures and discussion sections. If a student misses more than three meetings, the instructor reserves the right to issue a failing grade.
Reading/Viewing: This course features roughly 150-250 required pages of reading a week. A number of documentary and fictional films as well as websites are also part of the required materials.
Assignments: Students must complete all assignments to pass the course. These are designed to be fun, but they are also demanding—and perhaps for some, frustrating. Please be aware that historical analysis is not a science in the strict sense of the term. There is no purely objective, machine-like way to develop interpretation within the traditions of historical meaning-making (especially in a course that focuses on the social and cultural dimensions of the digital machine!). This means there is not some perfectly standardized way to evaluate your work. There is, however, a craft to this mode of thinking, writing, and reasoning. It is that craft that we will use evaluations to help you access, participate in, and improve your abilities. Your task is to develop effective and compelling evidence-based arguments informed by historical awareness and thinking. These will often work by applying your judgment and assessment to consider how things connect or contrast to each other: how do different aspects you are studying relate each other? And most importantly, why?
Rather than test the breadth of your absorption of course materials, the assignments test your ability to wield knowledge of materials in the course (lectures, readings, viewings) in order to mount effective and compelling evidence-based arguments. If this mode of evaluation is not to your tastes, I recommend that you do not take the course.
Your assignments must be well written in order to communicate a convincing, compelling, and precise argument that is driven by our description and analysis of meaning in materials drawn from the course (and other sources if needed). We evaluate assignments based on the following rubric:
(1) the presence of an articulated and compelling argument (a thesis statement, see number 4 below for more)
(2) the presence of evidence
(3) the compelling and precise connection of evidence to argument by comparing and contrasting details and their significance to the argument of the essay
(4) an effective opening introduction that uses (a) a “hook” to (b) frame a precise and compelling question in order to (c) articulate a thesis statement that addresses the question and characterizes how and why it matters to our understanding of the historical topic at hand
(5) logical flow and grace of prose: the presence of an introduction that ends with a thesis statement (see number 4), clear topic sentences for each paragraph of the essay, the presence of effective transitions from one part of the essay to the next, and a compelling conclusion that restates the thesis in new language and closes with a memorable sense of why the thesis matters to our historical understanding
(6) proper citations in footnote or endnote form (your choice) as per Chicago Manual of Style guidelines (http://libguides.northwestern.edu/content.php?pid=67073&sid=495340).
If you have any questions about evaluation in the course geared at helping you access and develop the craft of historical analysis, please speak with the instructor or teaching assistants to discuss further.
History Department Writing Center: The History Department Writing Center is available for students working on your assignments. It is not merely for students having difficulty with their writing (we all have difficulty with our writing for it is difficult to write well). It is for students at any level or stage of the writing process: reading evidence, “brainstorming,” generating an argument, connecting argument to evidence, structuring paragraphs and transitions, and improving style and tone. Students wishing to contact the History Department Writing Center should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Academic Integrity: All Weinberg College and Northwestern policies concerning plagiarism and academic dishonesty are strictly enforced in this course. The instructor also reserves the right to assign a failing grade for the course if a student is found to have violated college or university policy concerning academic integrity. See http://www.weinberg.northwestern.edu/handbook/integrity/ for more details.
Special Needs: Students with special needs and disabilities that have been declared and documented through the Northwestern Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) should meet with the instructor to discuss any specific accommodations. For further information, see the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) website: http://www.northwestern.edu/disability.
Class and discussion section attendance and participation: 40%.
Assignment 1: 10%
Assignment 2: 15%
Assignment 3: 15%
|Tu 4/1||Introduction: The Computerized Society|
|Th 4/3||Introduction 2: Early Adventures in ProgrammabilityRequired Material:
|Tu 4/8||Digital Trajectories: The Machine That Changed the World or the World That Changed the Machine?Required Material:
|Th 4/10||Gender and the Early Computer Required Material:
|Fr 4/11||Discussion sections.|
|Mon 4/14||Assignment #1 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm. You have been asked by Wired magazine to develop an *analytic* essay about the most significant aspect of the early history of the computer and the “digital.” Using specific evidence, precisely referenced and described, develop a 750-1000 word article that explains how and why this significant aspect matters to our understanding of the early history of computation and the computerized society. What aspect of this history should we most care about and why? Be sure to refer to the guidelines for assignments in the “Expectations” section of the syllabus.|
|Tu 4/15||The Cold War’s Electronic Battlefield Required Material:
|Th 4/17||Automation, Knowledge, and the Postindustrial in the “Technetronic Society”Required Material:*Note: Don’t worry if you don’t understand the readings for today. They are difficult. Try your best to make sense of them, particularly when the subject turns toward the larger stakes and implications of computers and digital technology.*
|Tu 4/22||Automation, Modularity, and Their Discontents in Cold War AmericaRequired Material:
|Th 4/24||Xerox Parc, IBM, and the Dawn of the Modern Computer Age Required Material:
|Fr 4/25||Discussion sections.|
|Th 5/1||Countercultural to Cybercultural ComputingRequired Material:
|Tu 5/6||Care For a Nice Game of Chess? The Rise of the “Personal” ComputerRequired Material:
|Th 5/8||Cyborgs and CyberpunkRequired Material:
|Fr 5/9||Discussion sections.|
|Mon 5/12||Assignment #2 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm. You have been asked by Apple Computer to design a new personal computer. Your job is to draw a sketch or diagram of this machine (either by hand and then photographed or scanned into your computer, equipment available at NU Library for this if you do not possess it yourself, or by machine). Then, in 1000 words, develop an analytic essay in which you contextualize *what is significant* about your design in the context of the history of the personal computer (from its prehistory at places such as Xerox Parc to the emergence of the personal computer in the countercultural context of the 1960s and 1970s). You will not be evaluated for the excellence of your design (or your drawing skills), but rather by how you are able to develop an evidence-based argument that connects *specific aspects* of the materials from class (lectures, readings, viewings) to an articulated and compelling position about the details of your new personal computer design and how and why they build upon and/or extend the history of the concept of “personal” computing. Be sure to refer to the guidelines for assignments in the “Expectations” section of the syllabus.|
|Tu 5/13||The Rise of the InternetRequired material:
|Th 5/15||Tubes: A Material History of the InternetRequired Material:
|Tu 5/20||Life In the Search Engine: The Power and Ethics of the Algorithmic SocietyRequired Material:
|Th 5/22||Who Owns the Future? The MatrixRequired Material:
|Fr 5/23||Discussion sections.|
|Tu 5/27||No Class|
|We 5/28||Assignment #3 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm. You have been asked to pitch a sequel to The Matrix Trilogy that specifically addresses the development of the Internet. Your pitch should be no more than 200 words and specifically imagine a film that speaks to the material nature of the Internet as a network and/or its changing nature in the context of the rise of Google. Then, in 1000 words, develop an analytic essay in which you contextualize *what is significant* about your pitch to what you take to be the most relevant details, arguments, and analysis from our readings, viewings, and lectures about the phenomenon of the Internet and Google. You will not be evaluated for the aesthetic excellence of your cinematic vision (though aesthetic excellence is welcome!) nor for the probability that you have imagined a Hollywood blockbuster (though more power to you if you have!), but rather by how you are able to develop an evidence-based argument that connects *specific aspects* of the materials from class (lectures, readings, viewings) to an articulated and compelling position about the details of your pitch and how and why they speak interpretively to the stakes of social life in an “Internet” and “Googlized” society. Be sure to refer to the guidelines for assignments in the “Expectations” section of the syllabus.|
|Th 5/29||Conclusions and Horizons: Life In, Below, and Beyond the Cloud Required Material:
|FINALFri 6/13||Assignment #4 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.In 1500-2000 words (6-8 pages, double spaced, Times New Roman 12-point font, normal margins), develop an analytic essay about three related readings or viewings from the course. Your essay must articulate a compelling argument that addresses what we learn about “the computerized society” by bringing together these particular materials and the details within them. You will be evaluated for depth and precision of analysis rather than breadth of coverage; which is to say, your task is to develop, sharpen, and crystallize a sub-theme from the course that your three items most vividly illuminate rather than convey your knowledge of everything in the class. Zoom in on and take us down one compelling stream of history that we have studied and that you have been most interested in from the course. Be sure to refer to the guidelines for assignments in the “Expectations” section of the syllabus.|