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Course Description

Certain new technologies are greeted with claims that, for good or ill, they must transform our society, the two most recent being the personal computer and the Internet. An examination of what made these technologies seem revolutionary, and how perceptions changed as people began use them as a part of everyday life. Issues such as on-line privacy, the culture of cyberspace, media depictions of technology, hackers, and the rapid rise and fall of internet companies will be discussed in the context of broader historical and cultural perspectives. Students will work in teams to perform research and produce a web site.


Overall Credit Breakdown:
bullet20% Midterm Examination
bullet30% Class participation and discussion (see below)
bullet20% Class presentation and short paper
bullet30% Group Project

Discussion: Classes are based primarily on discussion of the assigned material, with some use of lecture segments to supplement this. It is vital that you prepare for it thoroughly and do all the assigned readings. Discussion questions are posted on the course website for each session -- you should be prepared to give a reasonable answer to any of these.  An average of about 70 pages of reading will be set for each meeting.

Attendance: Attendance at class is compulsory. If you miss more than two classes during the semester without a good reason then you will be required to submit a makeup paper of 2 to 3 pages (double spaced, 12 point times, 1 inch margins) covering one or more of the discussion questions for the class you missed. If you are absent for more than five classes without makeup then you will fail the course.

Breakdown of the Participation and Discussion Mark: Between them, attendance and participation count for 30% of the total class mark. The grade for attendance and participation is made up as follows:
bullet60% for showing up. Deduct 10% from this for each absence over 2 (unless made up).
bullet40% for participation in discussion. A portion of this credit is available for each session, but quality counts as well as quantity. More credit is awarded for contributions which demonstrate an in-depth reading of the assigned material than for those based on general knowledge. A bonus will be applied accordingly.

Not all students feel comfortable volunteering to take part in class discussion. Participation credit is also available for written answers to discussion questions and from 1:1 discussion during office hours. Such credit can only be awarded within two weeks of the class in question.


You hear me talk a lot about the "themes" of the class, and how you should address them in your papers and projects. To remind you of them, here they are. There should be something here you can address in your research projects!

bulletHow technologies are shaped by and can incorporate the cultures of the social groups that pioneer them.
bulletWhat changes in its apparent meaning and social significance as a technology spreads from one social space to another. (For example, as the PC passed from the hacker culture of the Homebrew Computer Club and into the living rooms of America).
bulletThe idea of an "information revolution" or "information society" and how it can be used by different people for different purposes.
bulletThe relationship between technological change and social change, and the idea that technology does not act in isolation from existing social and cultural contexts.
bulletThe things we can learn about the past and about the present by examining the differences between how we think about familiar technologies now and how they appeared when new.
bulletThat the Internet is not entirely unprecedented -- that only by comparing it to other technologies (electronic and non-electronic) can we truly understand what is different about it.
bulletThe importance of community and place in technological development (and the question of how this can be reproduced on-line).
bulletThe power of existing technological systems to maintain supremacy, sometimes in the face of technologically superior challenges.


Then there are also the topics we covered. I won't try and be complete here (you have the syllabus and discussion questions for that), but here are some of ones we seem to run into a lot.

bulletSources of support for technological research and development. In the early computing period, frequently military or governmental.
bulletThe evolutionary nature of technological progression, and the earlier developments upon which apparently revolutionary achievements such as the Mac, ENIAC or the Internet rest.
bulletHacker culture in its different manifestations, from the radio boys of the 1910s through the MIT Hackers to the home computer enthusiasts of the 1980s and today's open source coders. Its good and bad points, its connection to masculinity.
bulletThe enormous difficulty of turning a technological invention into a successful product.

About Me

For more computer history resources, and for my research interests, writings and resume, see my home page.

Course History

I wrote something very close to the current description in the proposal for a course I taught as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. It was great to have the chance to propose and have accepted an entirely new course based on my own research an interests. Here is the original syllabus. I had originally planned to enlist the help of Atsushi Akera, a colleague then finishing his dissertation, who helped early in the planning stages. In the end, however, I co-taught the course with Nathan Ensmenger. This worked out very well -- students enjoyed the extra energy that came from having two instructors, and Nathan helped to select a number of the readings. One resource I found invaluable in constructing the syllabus was the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies -- full of book reviews and links to online syllabi to do with computers, culture and communications.

For the current version of the course, I cut out a number of readings and shortened others. (You may find this hard to believe). I added a midterm, and created the on-line discussion questions and resources in order to guide students through the reading and help the class discussions. I also added new material on the commercial use of the internet. If you're interested in seeing how a class can evolve, you might want to see Nathan's revised version of the course, which he has adapted from the original seminar format into an introductory lecture-based class.


Page copyright Thomas Haigh -- email thaigh@sas.upenn.edu.    Home: www.tomandmaria.com/tom. Updated 01/18/2002.