21A.350J | Fall 2011 | Undergraduate

Cultures of Computing


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session

Course Description

This course examines computers anthropologically, as artifacts revealing the social orders and cultural practices that create them. Students read cultural analyses of historical and contemporary computing worlds alongside influential texts in computer science. Students explore the history of automation and capitalist manufacturing; cybernetics and WWII operations research; artificial intelligence and gendered subjectivity; the creation and commoditization of the personal computer; the growth of the Internet as a military, academic, and commercial project; the making of new social and economic forms online; the worlds of hackers and gamers; technobodies and virtual sociality; robots and new material substrates for computing. Emphasis is placed on how ideas about gender and other social differences shape labor practices, models of cognition, and material and symbolic practices of networking.


Students will write three 7-page papers. For the third paper, students choose an artifact from the history of computing or from the contemporary world of computing and write an essay about the social meaning of this artifact; appropriate examples include the punch card, the listserv, iCloud, Kinect. Students deliver an in-class presentation on their third paper, on the last day of class. Each of the three assignments represents 25% of the subject grade. No extensions without a documented medical or personal excuse. Late papers lose a full grade a day. Students will also be evaluated on class participation, including discussion and in-class writing exercises (25% of grade). Punctual attendance obligatory. There is no final.


Paper 1 25%
Paper 2 25%
Paper 3 and Presentation 25%
In-class Participation 25%


1 Introduction  
2 Medieval & Renaissance Cosmology, Clockwork, Cross-Cultural Connections  
3 The Industrial Revolution and Calculating Engines: Analytics of Capital and Gender Difference in the Work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace  
4 World War Two and the Cold War: Cybernetics, Communication, and Control  
5 Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Life, Cognition, Gender Paper 1 due
6 Computing and Proof Guest lecture: Stephanie Dick, Harvard University History of Science
7 Computing Countercultures: Early PCs, Hacking, Opensources, Wikiworlds  
8 Computer Graphics and Simulation Guest lecture: Alma Steingart
Paper 2 due
9 Social Networks, Media, and Gaming  
10 Materialities of Networks and Wireless Connections  
11 Robots, DNA Computing, Quantum Computing, Beyond  
12 Class Conference Paper 3 due