Beyond McLuhan: Your New Media Studies Syllabus

By Christina Dunbar-Hester

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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.

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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.

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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.

Week Nine: Work

It's a shame that I could only devote a week to this topic. From claims about how technology has been introduced into the workplace to replace human workers, to maintain dominance of certain social groups over others, or to usher in an era of "post-industrial" work, this could be an entire course in itself. Instead the class will have to sample some fairly diverse readings. Venus Green offers an historical case study about African-American women workers in the Bell telephone system that admirably manages to raise several of these issues together. We also read about the re-organization of work to orient to technological flexibility, and consider how to study technology in organizations. Mixing up what "work" even is, Hector Postigo posits that gamers are "working for free" when playing and modifying ("modding") games; this may challenge the stark demarcation of play or leisure from work or exchange of value. Lastly, we read an excerpt of Julian Orr's ethnographic study of Xerox technicians' work.

Week Ten: Changes in journalism practice and analysis

After the disparate studies of work the class examined last week, we now zoom in on one workplace especially apposite for scholars of media and communication, and where radical transformation is often assumed to be occurring: the newsroom. We read Pablo Bozckowski's book Digitizing the News, focusing on news organizations' incorporation of the Web into their existing practices, and some ideas for new analytical frameworks for studying the news.

Week Eleven: A brief history of now

How did computers transform in our collective imagination from dehumanizing machines of command and control into tools for self-expression, shared consciousness, and a new frontier of digital utopia? Does it matter that some of the collaborative ideals now associated with networked computing in fact originated in Cold War military-industrial-university complex research practices? In his book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner challenges the notion that the counterculture of the 1960s rejected the Cold War values into which they were born, arguing instead that these "New Communalists" very much embraced the collaborative styles, celebration of technology, and ideas about looping flows of information that were the legacy of Cold War research. He also shows how these digital frontiersmen's [sic] interpretation of technology, embodied in their founding both the Whole Earth Catalog and Wired Magazine, has left a lasting imprint on the understanding of the Internet held by the wider culture.

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Week Twelve: Invisible technologies: Platforms, containers, and formats

As the readings have shown, it's hard enough to think critically about visible, tangible technologies. What about the ones that are even more abstract, like platforms and formats? This week, I draw these seemingly invisible and intangible matters to the fore. The fact that our MP3 players are designed for holding a lot of music that we play back at a relatively low resolution, and whether we can record, reconfigure, or remix on these devices (even the simple matter of whether they possess or lack a "record" button) are not arbitrary matters--in fact, the recording industry, media activists, users, and designers all have had different things to say about what technologies and recordings we should have access to and how we should be able to use them, with real consequences for us as we navigate our media landscape.

Week Thirteen: Geek politics

Geeks are obviously significant as we think about these technologies. But whatever the geek stereotype may conjure, geeks aren't monolithic--some of them are especially engaged in the politics of their technical practices. The course concludes on some big themes of change and possibility, with readings about geeks who try to build the change they want to see, who imagine their own social existence, and idealized social relations, though technical practice. For free software geeks, design principles and techniques used to create software or Internet protocol cannot be distinguished from ideas or principles of social and moral order. However, as a group of radio geeks discovered, building egalitarianism into technological practice can be unexpectedly challenging.

Images: 1. flickr/stuckincustoms 2. National Archives 3. Library of Congress 4. Nationaal Archief.

Christina Dunbar-Hester's reading list for her PhD-level course.

Week One: What is technology?

Michel Foucault.  "Panopticism."  In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan.  New York: Vintage Books, 1977.  pp. 195-228.

Leo Marx.  "The Idea of  'Technology' and Postmodern Pessimism."  In Does Technology Drive History? ed. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), 238-57.

Leo Marx.  "Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept."  Technology and Culture, Volume 51, Number 3 (2010): 561-577.

Recommended overview:

Pablo Boczkowski and Leah Lievrouw.  "Bridging STS and Communication Studies: Scholarship on Media and Information Technologies."  In New Handbook of Science and Technology Studies.  E.J. Hackett, O. Amsterdamska, M. Lynch and J. Wajcman (eds.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

Week Two: Some theories of media technology

Friedrich Kittler.  Excerpts of  "Gramophone" and "Typewriter".  In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.  pp. 21-38; 183-200.

Raymond Williams.  "The Technology and the Society" and "Effects of the Technology and its Uses."  In Television: Technology and Cultural Form.  New York: Schocken Books, 1974.  Pp. 9-31; 119-134. 

Lawrence Lessig.  "Code is Law." Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.  New York: Basic Books, 2000.  pp. 3-8.

Harold Innis.  Empire and Communications.  Chapters 4, 6-7.  Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2007.

Week Three: Technological determinism?

Merrit Roe Smith.  "Technological Determinism in American Culture."  In Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, eds.  Does Technology Drive History?  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Thomas Hughes.  "Technological Momentum."  In Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, eds.  Does Technology Drive History?  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Langdon Winner.  "Do Artifacts Have Politics?"  In The Whale and the Reactor.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Steven Shapin.  "What Else Is New?"  The New Yorker, May 14, 2007.  Available at:

Recommended:

Sally Wyatt. "Challenging the digital imperative."  Inaugural lecture presented upon the acceptance of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) Extraordinary Chair in Digital Cultures in Development at Maastricht University, 28 March 2008.

Week Four: Theories of Technological Change I: Social Construction of Technology

Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker.  "The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other."  In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology.  Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, eds.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Michel Callon. "Society in the Making: The Study of Technology as a Tool for Sociological Analysis.  In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology.  Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, eds.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Ruth Schwartz Cowan.  "The Consumption Junction: A Proposal for Research Strategies in the Sociology of Technology."  In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology.  Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, eds.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Recommended: 

Jan Golinski. "Introduction" and "Chapter 1: An Outline of Constructivism".  Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1998.  pp. 1-46.

Week Five: Theories of Technological Change II: Heterogeneous Engineering, Large Technical Systems

Thomas Hughes. "The Evolution of Large Technological Systems." In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology.  Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, eds.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

John Law. "Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion."

In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology.  Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, eds.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Revisit from Sept. 23:  Thomas Hughes.  "Technological Momentum."  In Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx.  Does Technology Drive History?  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Week Six: Theories of Technological Change III: Actor-Network Theory

Bruno Latour and Jim Johnson.  "Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer." Social Problems, Vol. 35, No. 3 (1988): 298-310.

Madeleine Akrich, "The De-Scription of Technical Objects." In Wiebe Bijker and John Law, eds.  Shaping Technology / Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Bruno Latour.  "Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts."  In Wiebe Bijker and John Law, eds.  Shaping Technology / Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Madeleine Akrich and Bruno Latour.  "A Summary of a Convenient Vocabulary for the Semiotics of Human and Nonhuman Assemblies." In Wiebe Bijker and John Law, eds.  Shaping Technology / Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Week Seven: Users

Lucy Suchman,  "Located Accountabilities in Technology Production."  Published by the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University.  Online.

Nelly Oudshoorn, Els Rommes & Marcelle Stienstra.  "Configuring the User as Everybody: Gender and Design Cultures in Information and Communication Technologies."  Science, Technology & Human Values 29 (2004): 30-63.

Steve Woolgar.  "Configuring the user: the case of usability trials."  In A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on power, technology and domination.  John Law, ed.  New York: Routledge, 1991.

Susan Douglas.  "Chapter Six: Popular Culture and Populist Technology: The Amateur Operators, 1906-1912."  In Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Ronald Kline and Trevor Pinch.  "Users as Agents of Technological Change: The Social Construction of the Automobile in the Rural United States."  Technology and Culture 37 (1996): 763-795.

Sally Wyatt.  "Non-Users Also Matter: The Construction of Users and Non-Users of the Internet."  In How Users Matter.  Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, eds.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2003.

Recommended:

Ignacio Siles and Pablo Boczkowski.  "At the Intersection of Materiality and Meaning:

Rethinking the Role of Agency in the Use of Information and Communication Technologies."  Working paper.

How Users Matter.  Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, eds.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2003.

Week Eight: Flickering signifiers and body-machine boundaries

Donna Haraway.  "The Cyborg Manifesto."   In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  New York: Routledge, 1991.

Paul Edwards.  "The Army and the Microworld: Computers and the Politics of Gender Identity."  Signs 16 (1990): 102-127.

N. Katherine Hayles.  "Chapter 2: Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers."  In How We Became Posthuman.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.  

Week Nine: Work

Venus Green.  "Race and Technology: African American Women in the Bell System, 1945-1980."  Technology and Culture 36, Supplement: Snapshots of a Discipline: Selected Proceedings from the Conference on Critical Problems and Research Frontiers in the History of Technology, Madison, Wisconsin, October 30-November 3, 1991 (1995): S101-S144.

Gina Neff and David Stark.  "Permanently Beta: Responsive Organization in the Internet Era."  In Society Online.  Philip Howard and Steve Jones, eds.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.  Online at: http://www.sociology.columbia.edu/pdf-files/stark4.pdf

Wanda Orlikowski.  "Using Technology and Constituting Structures: A Practice Lens for

Studying Technology in Organizations."  Organization Science 11 (2000): 404-28.

Hector Postigo.  "From Pong to Planet Quake: Post-Industrial Transitions from Leisure to Work."  Information, Communication & Society 6 (2003): 593-607.

Recommended:

Julian Orr.  Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Fred Turner.  "Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy: The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community."  Technology and Culture 46 (2005): 485-512.

Week 10: Changes in journalism practice and analysis

Pablo Boczkowski.  Digitizing the News.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Fred Turner. "Actor-Networking the News."  Social Epistemology Vol. 19, No. 4, 321-324.

Joost van Loon and Emma Hemmingway.  "Organisations, identities and technologies in innovation management: The rise and fall of Bi-Media in the BBC East Midlands."  Intervention Research 1 (2005): 125-147.

Week Eleven: A brief history of now

Fred Turner.  From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Recommended:

Thomas Streeter.  "The Romantic Self and the Politics of Internet Commercialization." Cultural Studies 17 (2003): 648-668.

Week Twelve:  Invisible technologies: Platforms, containers, and formats

Tarleton Gillespie. "Designed to 'Effectively Frustrate': Copyright, Technology, and the Agency of Users." New Media & Society 8 (2006): 651-669.

Christina Dunbar-Hester.  "'Free the Spectrum!' Activist Encounters with Old and New Media Technology."  New Media & Society 11 (2010): 221-240.

Jonathan Sterne. "The MP3 as Cultural Artifact."  New Media & Society 8 (2006): 825-842

Tarleton Gillespie.  "The Politics of Platforms."  New Media & Society 12 (2010):  347-364.

Week Thirteen:  Geek politics

Christopher Kelty.  Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software.  Duke University Press, 2008.   

Christina Dunbar-Hester.  "Geeks, Meta-Geeks, and Gender Trouble: Activism, Identity, and FM Radio."  Social Studies of Science 38 (2008): 201-232.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/09/beyond-mcluhan-your-new-media-studies-syllabus/63061/