21A.850J | Spring 2009 | Graduate

The Anthropology of Cybercultures


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


This course explores a range of contemporary scholarship oriented to the study of ‘cybercultures,’ with a focus on research inspired by ethnographic and more broadly anthropological perspectives. Taking anthropology as a resource for cultural critique, the course will be organized through a set of readings chosen to illustrate central topics concerning the cultural and material practices that comprise digital technologies. We’ll examine social histories of automata and automation; the trope of the ‘cyber’ and its origins in the emergence of cybernetics during the last century; cyber geographies and politics; robots, agents and humanlike machines; bioinformatics and artificial life; online sociality and the cyborg imaginary; ubiquitous and mobile computing; ethnographies of research and development; and geeks, gamers and hactivists. We’ll close by considering the implications for all of these topics of emerging reconceptualizations of sociomaterial relations, informed by feminist science and technology studies.

Teaching Approach

The course will be conducted as a graduate reading seminar – with contextualizing comments by the instructor followed by student-led discussion of readings. Each week two students will be asked to lead the discussion. Active participation in discussions based on reading, related studies and/or experiences is expected. Be sure to bring marked-up copies of required readings to class.

Each week we’ll discuss the required readings intensively and in relation to each other. The emphasis here is on careful reading rather than quantity; that is, the assignments are not extensive in terms of pages so that you have time to read closely and think about what you’re reading. There are also supplementary readings provided for each week that you can draw on for your Final Projects (see Assignments).

On-line Facilities

See the class Web site for required readings and other course materials, as well as updates from the instructor through out the term.


Required readings will be made available on the class Web site, however these are books that we’ll be drawing from that would make good additions to your library if you’re interested in these topics.


Adam, Alison. “The Knowing Subject in AI.” Chapter 3 in Artificial Knowing: Gender and the Thinking Machine. New York, NY: Routledge, 1998. ISBN: 9780415129626.

Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008, chapter 1, pp. 3-31 and chapter 4, pp. 89-117. ISBN: 9780691135281.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780226321462. See especially chapter 4, ‘Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled: Norbert Wiener and Cybernetic Anxiety’.

Kelty, Christopher. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008, introduction, pp. 1-23; chapter 2, pp. 64-94. ISBN: 9780822342649.

Orr, Jackie. Chapter 3 in Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 79-164. ISBN: 9780822336235.

Fox Keller, Evelyn. “Booting up Baby.” In Riskin, J. Genesis Redux: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 334-345. ISBN: 9780226720814.

Buy at MIT Press Taylor, T. L. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Gaming Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009, introduction, pp. 1-19; chapter 4, pp. 93-124. ISBN: 9780262512626.

Buy at MIT Press Edwards, Paul. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997. ISBN: 9780262550284.

Helmreich, Stefan. Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780520208001.

Kember, Sarah. Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life. London, England: Routledge, 2003. ISBN: 9780415240260.

Suchman, Lucy. Human-Machine Reconfigurations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780521675888. See especially chapters 12 and 13.

Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (20th anniversary edition). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780262701112.


Grading for the course will be done through a portfolio consisting of:

Response to Readings

Each week you will be asked to write a one-page response to the required readings, concluding with questions or topics for discussion. These will be discussed in the seminar and distributed to other members of the class via the class Web site. (20% of mark).

Oral Presentation

Each student will give one 15-minute seminar presentation during the term, based on a their final project-in-progress (see item 3). The aim of this presentation will be to give co-participants in the seminar a sense of the project (its materials, references and arguments) and to get helpful feedback toward its completion (20% of mark).

Final Project

Paper (15-20 pages) to be handed in before class on Week #13.The paper will report on a research project chosen from one of the three options described below. Students are encouraged to develop projects that contribute to their wider graduate work-in-progress (60% of mark).

Course Info

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