Syllabus: The Computerized Society

the computer in america since world war ii @ suny brockport, spring 2021.

Apple Macintosh personal computer, 1984.

Course Overview

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 has the modern computer changed American and global society? In this course, we examine the history of the computer and its contemporary significance by exploring a range of historical sources. We will explore the computer as a technology, but as we do so, we will also pay attention to how the computer is a cultural creation, one linked to issues of politics, economics, law, race, gender, class, and other factors. A particular focus is placed on the hidden history and continued relevance of women in computer history.

Students encounter a wide range of sources in the course, developing skills of critical analysis, communication, and writing through assignments that pair creative responses to computer history with practice at developing evidence-based historical interpretations that are cogent and compelling. Class meetings feature both asynchronous multimedia presentations by the professor with student annotations and extensive discussion—a hybrid of lecture and seminar approaches.

No previous digital or historical training is required, just a curiosity to explore the topic with a commitment to improving your understanding of how the history of computers relates to their contemporary importance in American and global society today. Satisfies I (Contemporary/Integrative Issues) requirement.

What You Will Learn

In this course students:

  • acquire a deeper historical and cultural understanding of the computer’s significance in American and global life;
  • make integrative, interdisciplinary connections between history of technology, cultural history, film and media studies, gender studies, American studies, sociological, technical, and other approaches to the computer;
  • expand capability to process evidence, information, and arguments from written and visual sources as well as classroom lectures and discussions;
  • sharpen ability to make convincing, compelling, and original evidence-based arguments in dialogue with the interpretations made by others.

How This Course Works

This is a course that combines synchronous and asynchronous learning. The beginning of each week generally features readings, documentary film viewings, and asynchronous lecture material. Annotation assignments help you to do formative assessment of how you are absorbing the course content. Thursdays we convene at class time for discussion of what we are studying together.

That means you need a computer with a camera and microphone or some device that allows you to access the course and a decent Internet connection. Please confer with SUNY Brockport if you do not have access to this equipment and technical requirements. Please show up for class at our regular meeting times (there are a few built-in breaks throughout the semester too). Ideally you can turn your camera on and keep your microphone muted except when you wish to speak. A headset or earbuds with microphone often help a lot too for blocking out extraneous noise. You will also be well-served by finding a quiet, calm place from which to attend class online.

Digital learning during the pandemic is challenging for all of us and I will be as flexible as possible with your particular needs and situations according to SUNY Brockport policy. So long as you are participating in the course in good faith, we can still learn a lot together even though we are doing so under these extraordinary circumstances.

Digital Tools

We will use a few digital tools in the course to facilitate our study together:

1. Computer with Camera and Microphone/Internet Access
  • A computer with a camera and microphone or some similar device that allows you to access the course.
  • A decent Internet connection.
  • A headset or earbuds with microphone.
  • A quiet place from which to attend class.
2. Canvas (Not Blackboard)

I use Canvas instead of Blackboard. In most ways, it works the same as Blackboard, but I think its design, navigation, and performance are far superior. You will receive an invitation to join the course Canvas website at the start of the semester. Think of our Canvas website as the central syllabus, schedule, and assignment submission tool for the course—home base.

3. VoiceThread

VoiceThread delivers course lectures to you digitally. Links will be provided to each lecture on our course Canvas website. There will be required annotation assignments using VoiceThread’s comments function. These allow you to begin to process the primary and secondary sources we will be investigating in the course and set up the writing assignments you will complete in the course.

4. Microsoft Word

We use Microsoft Word, which you can download through Brockport On the Hub, for writing assignments. Occasionally, I also ask you to sketch or draw and use a digital phone or camera to take a photograph of your work to upload along with your essay. either embedded in Microsoft Word or as a separate jpg or pdf file.

5. Zoom

We will use Zoom as our online classroom for synchronous discussions. You can sign up for a free Zoom account if you do not already have one.

6. Additional Digital Tools

We may employ additional digital tools in the course, such as Perusall or Google Docs. If so, I will provide instructions for how to use them.

If you have questions about the technical requirements for the course, or about the hybrid nature of the course, please feel free to contact me.


We will be doing a fair amount of reading and viewing for this course, but we will also work on skills of skimming for key ideas.

  • Weekly annotation assignments for formative assessment help me to gauge how you are processing and making sense of course content.
  • Four short essays based on course material, each featuring a creative prompt and an analytic component that asks you to wield evidence precisely to make a compelling argument in graceful, stylish prose.
  • A final essay asks you to develop an overarching analytic argument about course content, wielding evidence precisely to make a compelling argument in graceful, stylish prose.
  • We will join together remotely to practice the art and craft of historical discussion: sharing ideas, articulating perspectives, asking good questions, and developing both individual and shared understandings of the past we are studying together.

Required Materials

  • 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
  • Wardrip-Fruin, Noahand Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003.ISBN-13: 978-0262232272
  • Numerous essays, articles, films, and websites on Canvas


WEEK 01 Introduction: The Computerized Society

  • Required Materials Week 01
    • Canvas website, aka the course syllabus
    • Roy Rosenzweig, “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet,” American Historical Review 103, 5 (December 1998), 1530-1552
    • James W. Cortada, “Studying History As It Unfolds, Part 1: Creating the History of Information Technologies,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 37, 3 (July-September 2015), 20-31
    • James W. Cortada, “Studying History As It Unfolds, Part 2: Tooling Up the Historians,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 38, 1 (January-March 2016), 48-59
    • Raymond Williams, “The Technology and the Society” (1974), in The New Media Reader, eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003), 289-300
    • Timeline of Computer History, Computer History Museum
  • Asynchronous: Introduction—The Computerized Society
  • Meeting Week 01
  • Assignment: Course Contract and Student Info Card

WEEK 02 Early Adventures in Programmability

  • Required Materials Week 02
    • Ceruzzi, “Chapter 1: The Digital Age,” 1-21
    • Part 1, “Giant Brains,” The Machine That Changed the World documentary film, dir. Nancy Linde (1992)
    • Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950), in The New Media Reader, 49-64
    • Jeff Thompson, “The Physical Infrastructure of Human Computing,” Jeff Thompson website, 5 April 2015
    • Optional: Angela M. Haas, “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice,” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19, 4 (Winter 2007): 77–100
    • Optional: David Suisman, “Sound, Knowledge, and the ‘Immanence of Human Failure’: Rethinking Musical Mechanization through the Phonograph, the Player-Piano, and the Piano,” Social Text 28, 1 (March 12010): 13–34
  • Asynchronous: Early Adventures in Programmability
  • Meeting Week 02

WEEK 03 Digital Trajectories: The Computer and World War II

  • Required Materials Week 03
    • Ceruzzi, “Chapter 2: The First Computers,” 23-48
    • Part 2, “Inventing the Future,” The Machine That Changed the World documentary film
    • 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
    • Norbert Wiener, “Men, Machines, and the World About” (1954), in The New Media Reader, 65-72
  • Asynchronous: The Computer As Killing Machine and/or As Giant Brain
  • Meeting Week 03

WEEK 04 Gender, Cold War, and the Early Computer

  • Required Materials Week 04
    • Janet Abbate, “Introduction: Rediscovering Women’s History in Computing,” “Chapter 1: Breaking Codes and Finding Trajectories: Women at the Dawn of the Digital Age,” and “Chapter 2: Seeking the Perfect Programmer: Gender and Skill in Early Data Processing,” in Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 1-72
    • Clive Thompson, “The Secret History of Women in Coding,” New York Times, 13 February 2019
    • Rhaina Cohen, “What Programming’s Past Reveals About Today’s Gender-Pay Gap,” The Atlantic, 7 September 2016
    • Jennifer Light, “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture 40, 3 (1999): 455-483
    • Barkley Fritz, “The Women of ENIAC,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 18, 3 (1996), 13-28
  • Asynchronous: Gender and the Early Computer—The Women of ENIAC and NASA
  • Meeting Week 04
  • Assignment: What is the Contemporary Relevance of Computer History?

WEEK 05 Cold War Electronic Battlefield

  • Required Materials Week 05
    • Paul Edwards, “‘We Defend Every Place’: Building the Cold War World,” in The Closed World, 1-41
    • Paul Edwards, “Sage” in The Closed World,” in The Closed World, 74-111
    • Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned to Love the Bomb, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1964)
    • Ceruzzi, “Chapter 3: The Stored Program Principle,” 49-80
    • Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic (July 1945), in The New Media Reader, 35-48
    • JCR Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” The Transaction of Human Factors in Electronics (March, 1960), 4-11, in The New Media Reader, 73-82
    • Optional: Jill Lepore, “Project X,” The Last Archive podcast
  • Asynchronous: The Cold War’s Electronic Battlefield
  • Asynchronous: From Giant Brains to Man-Computer Symbiosis?

WEEK 06 The Cold War and Democratic Personality

  • Required Materials Week 06
    • 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
    • Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message” (1964, from Understanding Media) and “The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society (1969, from The Gutenberg Galaxy),” The New Media Reader, 193-210
    • David C. Brock, “Meeting Whirlwind’s Joe Thompson,” Computer History Museum Blog, 20 February 2019
    • Donna J. Drucker, “Keying Desire: Alfred Kinsey’s Use of Punched-Card Machines for Sex Research,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 22, 1 (January 2013), 105-125
    • Mar Hicks, “The Mother of All Swipes: A working-class woman from East London invented computer dating more than half a century ago,” Logic 2 (1 July 2017)
    • Joy Lisi Rankin, “Tech-Bro Culture Was Written in the Code,” Slate, 1 November 2018
    • Robert McMillan, “Her Code Got Humans on the Moon—And Invented Software Itself,” Wired, 13 October, 2015
    • Optional: Joyce Bedi, “A Movie Star, Some Player Pianos, and Torpedoes,” Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation website, 12 November 2015
    • Optional: Hidden Figures, dir. Theodore Melfi (2016)
  • Asynchronous: The Cold War and the Democratic Personality
  • Asynchronous: Sex, Statistics, and Punchcards
  • Meeting Week 06

WEEK 07 Knowledge Workers in the “Information Economy”

  • Required Materials Week 07
    • Desk Set, dir. Walter Lang (1957)
    • 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
    • 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
    • Jill Lepore, “How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future,” New Yorker, 3/10 August 2020
    • Optional: Jill Lepore, “The Computermen,” The Last Archive podcast
  • Asynchronous: Computers in the Workplace
  • Asynchronous: Automation and Its Discontents
  • Meeting Week 07
  • Assignment: Gender and the Computer Op-Ed

WEEK 08 Rise of Silicon Valley—Integrated Circuits, Operating Systems, and Beanbag Capitalism

  • Required Materials Week 08
    • Ceruzzi, “Chapter 4: The Chip and Silicon Valley,” 81-97 and “Chapter 5: The Microprocessor,” 99-119
    • 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
    • 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
    • Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace poem
    • Optional: Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), “Technology and Ethos,” Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965 (New York: Random House: 1969), 155-157
    • Optional: Silicon Valley, dir. Randall MacLowry and Tracy Heather Strain (2013)
    • Optional: Douglas Engelbart, From Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (1962), in The New Media Reader, 93-108
    • Optional: Theodor H. Nelson, From Computer Lib / Dream Machines (1970-1974), in The New Media Reader, 301-338
    • Optional: Joan Greenbaum, “Questioning Tech Work: Computer People for Peace,” AI Now Institute, 31 January 2020
  • Asynchronous: Integrated Circuits as Culture, Culture as an Operating System
  • Asynchronous: Beanbag Capitalism—From Computing to Communication and Business Culture to Counterculture (and Counterculture as Business Culture!)
  • Meeting Week 08

WEEK 09 Rise of the “Personal” Computer

  • Required Materials Week 09
    • Paul Ceruzzi, “Inventing Personal Computing” in The Social Shaping of Technology, eds. Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1999), 64-86
    • David Sims, “How Apple and IBM Marketed the First Personal Computers,” The Atlantic, 17 June 2015
    • Meryl Alper, “‘Can Our Kids Hack It With Computers?’ Constructing Youth Hackers in Family Computing Magazines (1983–1987),” International Journal of Communication 8 (2014), 673–698
    • William F. Vogel, “‘The Spitting Image of a Woman Programmer’: Changing Portrayals of Women in the American Computing Industry, 1958-1985,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 39, 1 (July 2017), 49-64
    • War Games, dir. John Badham (1983)
    • Optional: Episode 576: When Women Stopped Coding,” Planet Money, 17 October 2014
    • Optional: 8 Bit Generation: The Commodore Computer Wars, dir. Tomaso Walliser (2016)
    • Optional: Silicon Cowboys, dir. Jason Cohen (2016)
    • Optional: Halt and Catch Fire, Seasons 1 and 2, created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers (2014-2015)
  • Asynchronous: Care For a Nice Game of Chess? The Rise of the “Personal” Computer
  • Asynchronous: 1984
  • Meeting Week 09

WEEK 10 Rise of the Internet

  • Required Materials Week 10
    • John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996)
    • Ceruzzi, “Chapter 6: The Internet and the World Wide Web,” 121-154
    • 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
    • The Machine That Changed the World documentary film, dir. Nancy Linde (1992), Part 4, “The Thinking Machine”
    • Martin Dodge, An Atlas of Cyberspaces, 1997-2004
    • Internet History, 1962-1992, Computer History Museum Website
    • Optional: Halt and Catch Fire, Seasons 3 and 4, created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers (2016-2017)
  • Asynchronous: The Rise of the Internet
  • Meeting Week 10

WEEK 11 Tubes: A Material History of the Internet

  • Required Materials Week 11
    • Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 1-103
    • The Machine That Changed the World documentary film, dir. Nancy Linde (1992), Part 5, “The World at Your Fingertips”
    • Christine Smallwood, “What Does the Internet Look Like,” The Baffler 18 (December 2009), 8-12
    • Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Ari Loutonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen and Arthur Secret, “The World Wide Web” (1994), in The New Media Reader, 791-798
    • Katrina Brooker, “‘I Was Devastated’: Tim Berners-Lee, the Man Who Created the World Wide Web, Has Some Regrets,” Vanity Fair, 1 July 2018
  • Asynchronous: A Squirrel Ate Your Internet
  • Meeting Week 11
  • Assignment: The Past and Future of the “Personal” Computer—Design a New “Personal” Computer for Apple

WEEK 12 Search Engine: Ethics and Power in the Algorithmic Society

  • Required Materials Week 12
    • Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Introduction: The Gospel of Google” and “Render unto Ceasar: How Google Came to Rule the Web,” The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), xi-50
    • Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Welcome to the Surveillance Society,” IEEE Spectrum, June 2011, 48-51
    • The Matrix, dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski (formerly the Wachowski Brothers) (1999)
    • Jaron Lanier, “The Online Utopia Doesn’t Exist. We Need to Reboot,” Wired, 5 April 2013
    • Jaron Lanier, “Fixing the Digital Economy,” New York Times, 8 June 2013
    • Jaron Lanier, “Digital Passivity,” New York Times, 27 November 2013
    • Optional: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, dir. Werner Herzog (2016)
    • Optional: Terms and Conditions May Apply, dir. Cullen Hoback (2013)
    • Optional: The Matrix Reloaded (2003); The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
  • Asynchronous: The Googlization of Everything
  • Asynchronous: Who Owns the Future?
  • Meeting Week 12

WEEK 13 Crises of a Computerized Democracy

  • Required Materials Week 13
    • Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Introduction: The Problem with Facebook is Facebook,” Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019): 1-30
    • Zeynep Tufekci, “The Latest Data Privacy Debacle,” New York Times, 30 January 2018
    • Zeynep Tufekci, “Facebook’s Surveillance Machine,” New York Times, 19 March 2018
    • Zeynep Tufekci, “We Already Know How to Protect Ourselves From Facebook.” New York Times, 9 April 2018
    • Zeynep Tufekci, “The Looming Digital Meltdown, New York Times, 6 January 2018
    • Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg and Jack Nicas, “Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis,” New York Times, 14 November 2018
    • Nicholas Confessore and Matthew Rosenberg, “Sheryl Sandberg Is Said to Have Asked Facebook Staff to Research George Soros,” New York Times, 29 November 2018
    • Gabriel J.X. Dance, Michael LaForgia and Nicholas Confessore, “As Facebook Raised a Privacy Wall, It Carved an Opening for Tech Giants,” New York Times, 18 December 2018
    • Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Natasha Singer, Michael H. Keller, and Aaron Krolik, “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret,” New York Times, 10 December 2018
    • Philip E. Agre, “Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy” (1994), in The New Media Reader, 737-760
    • Kashmir Hill, “I Tried to Live Without the Tech Giants. It Was Impossible,” New York Times, 31 July 2020
    • Safiya Umoja Noble, “Social Inequality Will Not Be Solved By an App,” Wired, 4 March 2018
    • Zeynep Tufekci, “What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson,” The Message, 14 August 2014
    • danah boyd, “The Fragmentation of Truth,” Data and Society, 24 April 2019
    • Optional: Jaron Lanier, “How to Think about Privacy,” Scientific American 309, 5 (November 2013), 64-71
    • Optional: Sue Halpern, “Are We Puppets Yet in a Wired World?,” New York Review of Books, 7 November 2013, 24-28
    • Optional: 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. Brendesha M. Tynes and Safiya Umoja Noble (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2015), 21-40
    • Optional: Ali Colleen Neff, “Digital, Underground: Black Aesthetics, Hip Hop Digitalities, and Youth Creativity in the Global South,” The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music, eds. Justin D. Burton and Jason Lee Oakes (Oxford University Press, 2018)
    • Optional: Coded Bias, dir. Shalini Kantayya (2020)
    • Optional: The Facebook Dilemma, dir. James Jacoby (2018)
    • Optional: Her, dir. Spike Jonze (2013)
    • Optional: The Circle, dir. James Ponsoldt (2017)
  • Asynchronous: The Facebook Dilemma—The Privacy Crisis
  • Asynchronous: #BlackLivesMatter: Race Online and Off
  • Meeting Week 13
  • Assignment: The Past and Future of the Internet—Pitch a Matrix Remake

WEEK 14 All Watched Over By Machines (Of Loving Grace?)

  • Required Materials Week 14
    • Ceruzzi, “Chapter 7: Conclusion,” 155-159
    • Zeynep Tufekci, “YouTube, the Great Radicalizer,” New York Times, 10 March 2018
    • Zeynep Tufekci, “Russian Meddling Is a Symptom, Not the Disease,” New York Times, 3 October 2018
    • Emilio Ferrara, “How Twitter Bots Affected the US Presidential Campaign,” The Conversation, 8 November 2016, updated 16 February 2018
    • John Naughton, “Has the Internet Become a Failed State?,” The Guardian, 27 November 2016
    • Jill Lepore, “The Hacking of America,” New York Times, 14 September 2018
    • Tim Berners-Lee, “I Invented the World Wide Web. Here’s How We Can Fix It,” New York Times, 24 November 2019
    • Optional: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, dir. Adam Curtis (2011)
      • Part 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
    • Optional: Hacking Democracy, dir. Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels (2006)
    • Optional: The Social Dilemma, dir. Jeff Orlowski (2020)
  • Asynchronous: Hacking Democracy
  • Asynchronous: All Watched Over By Machines (of Loving Grace)?
  • Meeting Week 14

WEEK 15 Final Essay

  • Assignment: Final Essay—What is the Contemporary Relevance of Computer History?

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