Beyond McLuhan: Your New Media Studies Syllabus



Editor's Note: A new generation of scholars is trying to come to new understandings of how technology and society shape each other. Christina Dunbar-Hester is among those young lions from her position at Rutgers School of Communication & Information. Here, she walks you through her PhD-level class on technology and media. Along the way, she distills a quarter century of academic work that goes far beyond pop culture's standard takes on how our world changes.

It's tempting to see new technologies, especially new media technologies, as drivers of political and social change. But technological artifacts also embody the values and assumptions -- and conflicts -- of the societies that produce them, in complicated and surprising ways.

"Technology is society made durable."
Bruno Latour

In this course we ask, how can we think about media technologies in a smart and critical way? Do they "re-wire" society and drive social change, as is popularly (and ubiquitously) claimed? How do they reflect our social values and divisions? Is there anything special about media and information technologies in particular? (For example, they are understood to carry "messages" or "meaning," which may make them special when compared to, say, streetcars.)

In order to answer these questions (or at least deeply consider them), the course starts with an introduction to theories of technology and technological change, drawn primarily from the scholarly field of Science & Technology Studies. From these readings, we gain a nuanced sense of how social relations get "inside" technology, including the assumptions about society that may come to be embodied in technical artifacts and knowledge. So for the first half or so of the course, we are mainly just getting our feet wet with these theories of technology.

However, I teach in Rutgers' School of Communication & Information, and this course is for our Ph.D. students. So the challenge is to make these general theories about technology, culture and change relevant for thinking about media and information technologies specifically. Fortunately, this is becoming easier to do: more work that forges links between these areas of scholarship is coming out all the time, which is exciting and makes now a great time to offer this course.

Week One: What is technology?

This week I frame some of the broad issues about studying technology that will recur throughout the course. What do we mean when we talk about "technology?" I asked my students this in our first meeting, which quickly led us to realize that this one word has a lot going on, like whether it's reserved for things that are new (and probably shiny and electronic), or not. What rhetorical work does the term perform? Where does "technology" end and "society" begin (and is this a good way to think about this issue)? What is the relationship between technology and power? What are the consequences of linking the notion of human "progress." with its moral overtones, to technology?

Week Two: Some theories of media technology

Having considered "technology" as a general category, I now turn to a handful of well-known examples about technologies of communication shaping social systems from sweeping historical arguments to a focused study of television that attempts to account for the feedback loops between institutions, audiences, and technology. We also read Friedrich Kittler, who makes a case for near-autonomous evolution of media technologies, and Lawrence Lessig urging us to think about how computer code and internet architecture shape human potential. Through these varied accounts, chosen as much for their diversity (temporal, artifactual, and analytical) as anything else, the class begins to consider the distinct contours of media and information technologies.


Week Three: Technological determinism?

Though I haven't directly addressed it yet, lurking the past couple of weeks is the question of whether technological change follows an internal logic to which humans must react (at best), or to which they are powerless to resist (at worst). The belief that technology "does" things to us and to our society is called "technological determinism." These ideas are rife in our culture, especially in popular sources, so it takes no small effort to stand back and think about them critically. We consider the particulars of the relationships between technologies, power, and social change, reading authors who resist strong technological determinism to grapple with the "momentum" created by the development of large technological systems, and whether certain ways of organizing power and authority are "almost invariably linked" to particular technical devices and systems.

Weeks Four-Five-Six: Theories of Technological Change

Now I have laid the groundwork to really consider some specific ideas about technical change. The first major camp the class will read is called "Social Construction of Technology" (SCOT), developed in the 1980s by Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, and others. SCOT imported the conceptual framework developed in studying the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), which held that to understand how an idea comes to be a "fact", it's not enough to assert that it's simply "right--instead we need to understand scientific authority and widespread agreement as social phenomena. Put simply, "If we want to understand mechanics of power and organization it is important not to start out assuming whatever we wish to explain."

Similarly, SCOT was developed to avoid the conclusion that a given design that "won out" did so because it was simply the "best" design--rather, SCOT asks what "best" is understood to mean, and according to whom, and why, in its explanation of why the material circumstances of our lives developed they way they did. It explains technological innovation by uncovering what the alternatives to a given technology might have been and how the design that prevailed was settled upon. Classically this would occur as "competing" groups jockeyed for the privileging of some property over another, as in whether bicycles would have air-filled tires and whether household refrigerators would run on electricity or gas. Other theorists have laid out research strategies and critiqued SCOT.

Another analytical approach developed to study the emergence and stabilization of facts and artifacts is called Actor-Network Theory (ANT), promoted by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, and John Law, among others. While SCOT largely reduces technological changes to choices made by humans, ANT attempts to seriously account for the agency of not only humans ("actors") but non-human entities ("actants") (including machines, or even scallops). Thus, ANT looks at the development of networks of human and non-human elements. Sound abstract? It is. But it's thought-provoking to have a theoretical framework that attempts to push back against both "technological determinism" and its conceptual opposite "social determinism" by considering the social and the material at the same time.

Week Seven: Users

Early SCOT accounts left out a crucial element: users. Studies soon proliferated of how designers imagined users, how users were or were not constrained or "configured" by artifacts they encountered, how users shaped the interpretation of new technologies and modified existing technologies, putting them to novel and unintended purposes, as scholars moved beyond studying the design and early diffusion stages of new technologies. Last but not least, we read about "non-users" --people who are "left out" as well as people who resist taking up technologies presented to them--and consider what they can tell us.


Week Eight: Flickering signifiers and body-machine boundaries

Bridging from the fairly straightforward interpretation of the idea of "users" of technologies, I next consider linguistic, symbolic, and "post-X" approaches to the relationships between humans and machines. No syllabus would be complete without Donna Haraway's 1985 Cyborg Manifesto, which challenges the essentialism of "human" subject positions and second-wave feminism all at once: Haraway tells us she "would rather be a cyborg than a goddess." We also read N. Katherine Hayles who puzzles over the boundaries between bodily materiality and disembodied information, arguing that we have become "posthuman" through the systematic devaluation of materiality and embodiment. Although often glossed over when we think about media and information technologies, it's no accident that this is the week when we most explicitly consider war.

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