21A.850J | Spring 2009 | Graduate

The Anthropology of Cybercultures


Reading Responses

Students contributed their reactions to the week’s readings before each class. All student work is used with permission of the authors.

1 Course introduction None
2 Automata ancestries (PDF)
3 Automation (PDF)
4 Cybernetics, cold wars and closed worlds (PDF)
5 Cybergeographies, cyberpolitics and postcolonial computing (PDF)
6 Robots, agents and humanlike machines None
7 Bioinformatics and artificial life (PDF)
8 Virtual identities and second lives (PDF)
9 Cyborgs and technobodies (PDF)
10 Ubiquitous, mobile and ambient computing (PDF)
11 Making machines: inside the R&D lab (PDF)
12 Project presentations None
13 Computing and social movements/Geeks and hactivists (PDF)
14 Sociomaterial re(con)figurations (PDF)

Research Project

Your paper should be developed around one of the following three project options. Project 1 involves research drawing on multiple sources, and reading across historical, popular and academic texts. Projects 2 and 3 involve some empirical research – Project 2 is aimed at exploring aspects of ‘cyberculture’, 3 the design and use of a computer-based information system intended to provide online services. Whichever project alternative you choose, your paper will be evaluated according to:

  • The care and creativity demonstrated in your investigation of your topic;
  • Your ability to draw on diverse sources and work them together into a coherent narrative;
  • The quality of your writing in terms of structure, clarity and scholarship.

A project plan of 500-1000 words will be due on April 15. This plan will not be marked, but will be used to help guide the development of your project. The suggested form for your project plan is described at the end of each project option description.

Project 1

New information and communications technologies, along with a growing number of other computationally enhanced artifacts, figure prominently in recent rethinking about the sites, subjects, objects and practices of anthropological research. Pick a topic that interests you from the range of issues covered in the course. Your focus might be debates within contemporary anthropology regarding the location or practice of ethnographic study in relation to technology-mediated practices; the cultural foundations of information theory and the trope of the ‘cyber’; some aspect of practices of technology design and/or use; debates regarding online sociality, artificial intelligence, artificial life, and/or cyborg studies; or hactivism and new social movements as just some examples. Select at least one principal source from each of a) relevant course readings, b) the World Wide Web, and c) popular media (e.g. magazines, novels, television, films). Beginning from your principal sources and following the references that you find there, develop an analysis that includes:

  • Some aspect of the history of your topic;
  • Ways in which your topic appears in fictional and/or popular accounts (e.g. advertising, films, TV shows, science fiction, magazines articles);
  • Academic discussion of your topic in the social sciences (e.g. sociology, anthropology, feminist research, science and technology studies, cultural studies).

The aim of your paper should be to compare and contrast representations of the topic that you’re investigating, both over time, and across your various sources. What continuities are evident, and where are there interesting differences? How does the comparison help to deepen your understanding of the issues that you find interesting?

Your project plan should provide 1) a brief abstract of your topic and the aspects of it that you want to explore, and 2) a list of the principal sources that you’ll draw on.

Project 2

This project is organized around an empirical study of everyday practices of ‘cyberculture’. You might begin with a particular technology, or with an event, a relevant social group, a current debate, or some other topic that interests you. Whatever you choose, your investigation will focus on the ways in which your subject of study figures in or operates through the social and technical infrastructures of information and communications technologies (the Internet/WWW, mobile phones, digital cameras, etc.) Your project will be to establish a set of relevant ‘field sites’ for your study, and to explore your chosen topic through both secondary sources and original research. The latter should include some form of participation in relevant technology-mediated practices, as well as interviews with selected other participants. Your report on your project should include the rationale for your research design, selected ‘fieldnotes’ on your observations and participation, and an account of the analytic insights that you were able to draw from your inquiry, informed by current discussions within the academic literature. You’re encouraged to incorporate as well supporting materials, e.g. photos, printouts, media representations.

Your project plan should 1) describe your chosen topic and the grounds for your interest in it, 2) explain how your study will be sited and 3) identify the resources you will draw on in your analysis.

Project 3

Investigate the design and use of a computer-based information system intended to provide services to clients or to the general public. Examples could include a travel-related service, banking, the online catalogue system at the library, or the various information services provided by the University to students regarding resources available on campus. For whatever service you choose, your assignment is to investigate it both from the point of view of a member of the public approaching the organization as a would-be user of the service, and from the point of view of professionals within the organization providing the service. A strategy for your fieldwork could be the following:

  • First, formulate a query that exemplifies the kinds of information one might seek from that service, and then pursue answers to your question starting first ‘online,’ then ‘offline’ (that is, finding a person to ask). For each mode, you should describe your experience from the point of view of a client or user of the system. Central issues might include: Which approach (online or face-to-face) seemed most effective? Did getting your answer require crossing over from one medium to another? For each case, what aspects of the interactions worked well? Where were the gaps or breakdowns? How might the service be redesigned to fit more usefully with the interests of its users?
  • With this analysis in hand, identify at least three people involved in developing or providing the service and interview them. Central issues in this phase of your project might include: What initiated the move to online services? What role did the members of the organization have in the online system’s development? How does the system work (or not) from the point of view of information providers?

Finally, compare and contrast the perspectives that you gain from your experience attempting to make use of the system with those of the information providers that you interview. In your essay, relate your findings to discussions in the course readings on social practices of design and information technologies-in-use.

Your project plan should 1) identify the service that you plan to investigate, 2) state the question(s) that you’ll bring to the service, and 3) list some academic resources that you’ll use to frame your analysis.

Student Papers

On-Object: a Ubiquitous Tangible User Interface.

“Connections: the double interface and constructing the cyborg body.” (PDF)

“Alternative Narratives of Nighttime and Illumination: An Exploration of Central Square in Cambridge, MA.” (PDF ‑ 1.6MB)

“Site Visit Tools.” (PDF)

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2009
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples