Syllabus—The Computerized Society

US Digital Culture Since World War II: The Computerized Society


Dr. Michael J. Kramer

Visiting Assistant Professor, History and American Studies

Co-Director, NU Digital Humanities Laboratory,

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


Do you know why the modern computer was invented? To kill more people more accurately. These are its origins during World War II. So how did the computer get from this militarized origin to its contemporary setting of social media, online shopping, algorithmic culture, and the “Internet of things” (as well as its continued military uses in drones and other weapons)? More broadly, how have computers altered American life since World War II, not only technologically but also culturally, socially, and politically. This course probes the history of the “computerized society” and digital culture in the United States since 1945, approaching the topic from multiple angles: not only technological, but also legal, economic, political, and in terms of questions of gender, race, ethnicity, class, region, and ideology. Together, we will examine both the civilizing and the barbaric sides of computers in modern America. Students attend interactive lectures, read broadly and deeply about the topic, view films, participate in discussion, and complete three short and one longer essay for the course. Occasional surprise quizzes may be given in class if required to guarantee attendance and completion of work.


Course Info

History 300-26 (14135)

University Hall 101

Tuesday and Thursday, 12:30-1:50pm


Course website




Dr. Michael J. Kramer

Visiting Assistant Professor, History and American Studies

Co-Director, NU Digital Humanities Laboratory (

Contact: <>

Office hour: Thursday, 2­–3 pm, Harris Hall 212.


Required Material

  • Blum, Andrew. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0061994951
  • Ceruzzi, Paul E. Computing: A Concise History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0262517676
  • Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0520272897
  • Additional articles, films, and websites on course website and/or on reserve at NU Library, see our Canvas course page.



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 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. 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 assignments will help you access and upon which evaluations are based. Historical writing asks you to apply your judgment to evidence and what other scholars and people have said about a topic. You must consider and assess how things connect or contrast to each other as well as how or why they do so or not. Rather than test the breadth of your absorption of course materials and spit back information or simply express an opinion, the assignments test your ability to wield knowledge of materials in the course (lectures, readings, viewings) in order to mount effective, creative, accurate, and compelling evidence-based arguments informed by historical awareness and thinking. If this mode of evaluation is not to your tastes, I recommend that you do not take the course.


Your assignments must communicate a convincing, compelling, and precise argument that is driven by description and analysis of meaning in materials drawn from the course (and other sources if needed). Evaluations are 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 snappy conclusion that restates the thesis in new language and closes with a memorable sense of why the thesis matters to our historical understanding

(6) with some exceptions, it is strongly recommended to organize your essay by a thesis followed by subthemes rather than organizing your essay by piece of evidence per paragraph. This will allow you to develop your argument out of pieces of evidence more effectively by bringing them into relation to each other in service of a subtheme of your making. In other words, rather than spend a paragraph on one document at a time, develop a topic sentence focused on a subtheme; then explain how multiple examples of evidence relate to that subtheme. Additionally, it is strongly recommended to avoid “reflection” arguments in which evidence merely substantiates a preexisting point; instead consider how knowledge and meaning arises from the details of evidence: how does evidence produce historical meaning and knowledge?


(7) when applicable, an effective use of multimedia elements (embedded images, video, or audio; relevant links; explorations of design such as size and look of type or relationship of text to other media forms) to deepen and advance an evidence based argument online

(8) proper citations in footnote or endnote form (your choice) as per Chicago Manual of Style guidelines (


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. Assignments that students hand in after the due date without explicit plans for an extension arranged with the instructor and teaching assistant prior to the deadline are deducted three (3) points per day.


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 Website:


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 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:



Class attendance and participation: 40%.

Assignment 1: 10%

Assignment 2: 15%

Assignment 3: 15%

Final: 20%



Tu 9/20 Introduction: The Computerized Society
Th 9/22 Introduction 2: Early Adventures in Programmability


Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 1-21

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film (1992), Part 1

·      Anthony Grafton, “Jumping Through the Computer Screen,” New York Review of Books, 23 December 2010

Tu 9/27 Digital Trajectories: The Computer and World War II


Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 23-53

·      Paul N. Edwards, “Why Build Computers? The Military Role in Computer Research,” in The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 42-73

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film (1992), Part 2

Th 9/29 Gender and the Early Computer


Required Material:

·      Jennifer Light, “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture 40, 3 (1999): 455-483

·      W. Barkley Fritz, “The Women of ENIAC,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 18, 3 (1996): 13-28

·      Nathan Ensmenger, “The Black Art of Programming,” in The Computer Boys Take Over, 27-49


·      Marie Hicks, “Only the Clothes Changed: Women Operators in British Computing and Advertising, 1950-1970,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 32, 2 (October-December 2010), 2-14

·      Rhaina Cohen, “What Programming’s Past Reveals About Today’s Gender-Pay Gap,” The Atlantic, 7 September 2016,

Tu 10/04 The Cold War’s Electronic Battlefield


Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 54-80

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film (1992), Part 2

·      Edwards, “‘We Defend Every Place’: Building the Cold War World,” and “Sage” in The Closed World, 1-41, 74-111

·      Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned to Love the Bomb, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1964)

Th 10/06 The Cold War and the Democratic Personality


Required Material:

·      Fred Turner, “The Cold War and the Democratic Personality,” in The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 151-180

·      JCR Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” The Transaction of Human Factors in Electronics (March, 1960), 4-11

Mo 10/10 Assignment #1 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.

·      You have been asked by Wired magazine to develop an analytic essay about the history of gender and the early development of the computer. Select 1-3 items from our required materials thus far in the course to use as your source material. Using specific evidence, precisely referenced and described from those items, develop an article of approximately 1000 words that explains a particular dimension of how gender shapes our understanding of the early history of computation and the computerized society. Rather than creating a static definition of what gender means, consider how our materials suggest the historical ways in which gender played out in and through the development of the modern computer and digital culture. How does the full story of the computer’s development reveal historical assumptions about the role of men and women? Did it alter these assumptions in some way? How did the ongoing state of war that the United States was in from World War II into the Cold War shape understandings and practices of gender? Did gender shape the nature of these wars as well in some way? You might even probe a seemingly strange questions such as: do computers themselves possess a gender? Why or why not? How or how not? You need not address all these questions; they are merely prompts. Pick a particular question that has arisen from your reading and viewing and use it to frame a specific aspect of gender and the history of the early computer. Be sure to refer to the guidelines for assignments in the “Expectations” section of the syllabus.

Tu 10/11 Knowledge Workers: Identity and Power in the Emerging “Information Economy”


Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 81-103

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film (1992), Part 2

·      Andrew Utterson, “Computers in the Workplace: IBM and the ‘Electronic Brain’ of Desk Set,” in From IBM to MGM: Cinema At the Dawn of the Digital Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 16-32

·      Ensmenger, “The Cosa Nostra of the Data Processing Industry,” in The Computer Boys Take Over, 137-161

·      Desk Set, dir. Walter Lang (1957)


·      Daniel Bell, Ch. 2, “From Goods to Services: The Changing Shape of the Economy,” Ch. 3, “The Dimensions of Knowledge and Technology: The New Class Structure of Post-Industrial Society,” and Ch. 6, “Who Will Rule? Politicians and Technocrats in the Post-Industrial Society,” in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 121-165, 339-367

Th 10/13 Automation and Its Discontents


Required Material:

·      Steven Lubar, “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate: A Cultural History of the Punch Card,” Journal of American Culture 15, 4 (Winter 1992): 43-55

·      Alex Sayf Cummings, “Of sorcerers and thought leaders: marketing the information revolution in the 1960s,” The Sixties 9, 1 (Spring 2016), 1-25

·      Lisa Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture,” American Quarterly 66, 4 (December 2014): 919-941

·      Lisa Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits,” Computer History Museum Website, 2 January 2014,

·      Tara McPherson, “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX,” in Race After the Internet, eds. Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2012), 21-37

Tu 10/18 Beanbag Capitalism: From Computing to Communication at Xerox PARC


Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 103-119

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film (1992), Part 3

·      Michael A. Hiltzik, “Utopia,” in Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 52-67

·      Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic (July 1945)

·      Triumph of the Nerds, documentary film (1996)


Th 10/20 Countercultural Computing


Required Material:

·      Fred Turner, “The Shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor” and “Stewart Brand Meets the Cybernetic Counterculture,” in From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 11-39, 41-68

·      Stewart Brand, “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” Rolling Stone 7 December 1972,

·      Evgeny Morozov, “Making It,” New Yorker, 13 January 2014,

WEEK 6  
Tu 10/25 Care For a Nice Game of Chess? The Rise of the “Personal” Computer


Required Material:

·      Paul Ceruzzi, “Inventing Personal Computing” in The Social Shaping of Technology, eds. Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (Philadelphia: 
Open University Press, 1999), 64-86

·      WarGames, film (1983)

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film (1992), Part 4

Th 10/27 Cyborgs and Cyberpunk


Required Material:

·      William Gibson, “Burning Chrome,” the Omni (1982), reprinted in Burning Chrome (New York: Harper Voyager, 2003)

·      Dani Cavallaro, “Introduction: Science Fiction and Cyberpunk,” in 
Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction in the Work of William Gibson 
(Continuum, 2001), 1-25


·      Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), 149-181

·      Bruce Sterling, “Preface,” Mirrorshades (1986),

·      Browse The CyberPunk Project,

WEEK 7  
Mo 10/31 Assignment #2 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.

·      You have been asked by Apple Computer to design a new personal computing device. Your job is to draw a sketch or diagram of this machine (either by hand and then scanned or born-digital). 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 computing device design. How and why does your device 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 11/1 The Rise of the Internet


Required material:

·      Ceruzzi, 121-154

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film (1992), Part 5

·      Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 1-103

·      Janet Abbate, “Privatizing the Internet: Competing Visions and Chaotic Events, 1987-1995,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 32, 1 (January- March 2010), 10-22

·      “Internet History from ARPANET to Broadband,” 2007 Congressional Digest

·      John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996),

Th 11/3 Tubes: A Material History of the Internet


Required Material:

·      Andrew Blum, Tubes, 105-271

·      Christine Smallwood, “What Does the Internet Look Like,” The Baffler 18 (December 2009), 8-12, republished at


·      Jean-François Blanchette, “A Material History of Bits,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 62, 6 (April 2011): 1042-1057.

·      Eugene Thacker, “Foreword: Protocol Is as Protocol Does,” in Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), xi-xxii.

Tu 11/8 Life In the Search Engine: The Power and Ethics of the Algorithmic Society


Required Material:

·      Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), xi-148

·      The Matrix Trilogy, films: The Matrix (1999), Matrix Reloaded (2003), Matrix Revolutions (2003)


·      Sue Halpern, “Are We Puppets Yet in a Wired World?,” New York Review of Books, 7 November 2013, 24-28,

Th 11/10 Who Owns the Future? The Matrix


Required Material:

·      Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything, 149-217.

·      The Matrix Trilogy, films: The Matrix (1999), Matrix Reloaded (2003), Matrix Revolutions (2003).



·      Electric Frontier Foundation, “NSA Spying On Americans,” [accessed 10 March 2014].

·      Rusty Foster, “When Programmers Scrape By,” The New Yorker, 11 February 2014,



Mon 11/14


Assignment #3 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.

·      You have been asked by a major motion picture company 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.

Tu 11/15


Clouds, Things, Lives: Social Life in the Cloud and Among the Internet of Things


Required Material:

·      Jaron Lanier, “Digital Passivity,” New York Times, 27 November 2013,

·      Jaron Lanier, “Fixing the Digital Economy,” New York Times, 8 June 2013,

·      Adrienne LaFrance, “Your Coffeemaker Is Watching You,” The Atlantic, July/August 2016,

·      Bruce Schneier, “How the Internet of Things Limits Consumer Choice,” The Atlantic, 24 December 2014,

·      Brendesha M. Tynes, Joshua Schuschke, and Safiya Umoja Noble, “Digital Intersectionality Theory and the #Blacklivesmatter Movement,” in The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online, eds. Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes (New York: Peter Lang, 2016)

·      Rebecca Solnit, “Dairy,” London Review of Books 36, 4 (20 February 2014), 34-35,

·      Colin Kinninberg, “Beyond ‘Conflict Minerals’: The Congo’s Resource Curse Lives On,” Dissent, Spring 2014,

Th 11/17 Conclusions, Warnings, Speculations


Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 155-159

·      Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, ;

·      All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Parts 1 (Love and Power: The Influence of Ayn Rand), Part 2 (The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts: Ecology, Technology, and Society), Part 3 (The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey: The Selfish Gene), documentary film by Adam Curtis (2011)

·      Evgeny Morozov, “Solutionism and Its Discontents,” in To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013), 1-16

·      Ensmenger, “Visible Technicians,” in Computer Boys, 223-243



Thu 12/08

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 may embed multimedia and digital design elements into your essay to enhance your argument and narrative (try to integrate them into the essay to push its argument forward effectively). 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 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.


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