Critical Histories of Information Technologies

Winter 2012

Students who want to contact the instructor by email should send their messages from their Utormail addresses and include the course code (“INF2198”) in the subject line. Please expect a response within 2 business days. (If you do not hear back within 2 days, please resend your message.)

Students are encouraged to make use of office hours.

Course Catalogue Description

“This seminar approaches information and communication technologies from critical and historical perspectives. We will investigate theories of the relations among technology, information, ideology, culture, and social structure, as well as methods for studying those relations. First, we will survey the available theories and methods for understanding large scale technological systems, including the social construction of technology, technological determinism, feminist technology studies, and the political economy of information and communication. We will ask about the interests, motives, and tactics of news media, pop culture producers, amateurs, universities, corporations, and governments in promoting, sustaining, and interpreting information and communication systems. Finally, we will ask how information systems mediate, alter, or entrench power relations and cultural practices. While our focus will be on media and information technologies, more theoretical or methodological readings will necessarily cover other systems. Case studies may include investigations of writing, the printing press, industrialized printing, telegraphy, telephony, computing, and the internet.”

The Course at a Glance

This course will be taught as a seminar. This means that the students are expected to take responsibility for their learning of the material through active engagement with the assigned readings, through participation in course discussion and through their individual work on a term paper. The students will be graded on their preparation for the class (“memos,” 20% of the course grade), their contribution to class discussion (20%), the term paper (two deliverables jointly worth 50%), and reviews of other students’ paper proposals (10%). Please note that the research paper is a major component of the course and students are encouraged to start working on it early in the semester rather than waiting until the end.

The course will strive to strike a balance between theoretical and substantive approaches to history. To achieve this we will start with two weeks of theoretical readings (weeks 2 and 3), then proceed to looking at studies that explore more closely specific topics in the history of information technology and, as a general rule, have a more substantive focus. (Though, as we will see, most of those studies bring into focus specific clusters of theoretical issues.) Those topics are arranged in a loosely chronological order to facilitate the discussion of the relations between historically proximate events. They do not, however, aim to present a definitive view of the history of information technology and should be read as case studies.

  Date Readings Memos
(20% of the grade)
Class Discussion
(20% of the grade)
Things Due Weight
1 January 10     Introduction    
2 January 17 Theory yes Readings    
3 January 24 yes
4 January 31 History yes
5 February 7 yes
6 February 14 yes
  February 21
No class — reading week
7 February 28 History yes Readings Paper proposals 10%
8 March 6 Paper proposals   Proposals Proposal reviews 10%
9 March 13 History yes Readings    
10 March 20 yes
11 March 27 yes
12 April 3 yes
13 April 10 yes Term paper 40%

Detailed Schedule and Readings

Availability of the Readings

The reading is a selection from a book and will be available on reserve in the Inforum or at Robarts. Use the provided link to find the call number and to see whether the book is currently checked out. (For some of the readings the photocopies are available in the Inforum.) Please make sure you read the right pages.
The reading is available electronically (either through the library or publicly).

Week 1, January 10


Week 2, January 17

Technology and History

Chaired by Selena.

Week 3, January 24

Social Construction of Technology

Chaired by Guy.

Week 4, January 31

Science and Technology before Gutenberg and Columbus (~1300–1500 CE)

Chaired by Matt.

Week 5, February 7

Early Book Printing (~1450-1600 CE)

Chaired by Robert.

Week 6, February 14

From the (Industrial) Enlightment and the Industrial Revolution(s). (~1700–1850 CE)

Chaired by Robert.

Week 7, February 28

Managing Machines and People (~1800–1900 CE)

Chaired by Guy.

Paper proposals due at 13:10. Please bring four copies.

Week 8, March 6

Discussion of the Paper Proposals

Reviews of paper proposals due at 13:10. Please bring two copies of each review.

No readings for this week — work on reviewing the paper proposals.

Week 9, March 13

Managing Empires (~1800–1900 CE)

Chaired by Selena.

Week 10, March 20

The Telephone (~1850–1950 CE)

Chaired by Linda.

Week 11, March 27

Radio and National Identity (~1900–1950 CE)

Chaired by TBA.

Week 12, April 3

Computers and Programmers (~1930–1980 CE)

Chaired by Linda.

Week 13, April 10

Computing in the Global South (~1970–1990 CE)

Chaired by Matt.

Assignments and Grading

The grading scheme is subject to revision until the first day of class.

Class Discussion and Memos

Contribution to Class Discussion — 20%

The students are expected to be present in class and will be graded for their contribution to the class discussion. Please be advised that contribution does not mean attendance. (Of course, you cannot contribute without being present.) Students who attend the class but remain silent will earn no credit. Nor, however, does it mean simply speaking a lot. Rather, students are expected to come to class prepared, actively listen to what is being said by others and then make contributions to the discussion that take advantage of their own understanding of the readings and of what has been said up to that point.

Students who have difficulty speaking in public should see the instructor early in the semester, so that we could discuss possible remedies.

During most weeks class discussion will follow a structure within which each student will take one of the following three roles: the chair, a panelist, or a regular participant. Each student will be asked to pick one week during which they will serve as the “chair” for the discussion. The chair will prepare a written memo and a list of questions based on memos submitted by other students (see below) and will present those at the beginning of the class. Additionally, 3–5 students will serve as “panelists” for the discussion. (Each student will be asked to be a panelist four times during the semester.) After the chair’s introduction, the panelists will spend 30–40 minutes discussing the questions asked by the chair, with the rest of the class serving as the audience. After that, the discussion will be open to all students present in class (the “regular participants”).

One of the classes will be dedicated to discussion of paper proposals and will follow a different structure. (See below.)

Memos — 20%

For all weeks with assigned readings, the students will prepare “memos” on the readings assigned for that week. Each memo should be no longer than 1 page and should be formatted in accordance with this template: memo_template.doc, memo_template.odt, memo_template.rft.

The purpose of the memos is to help you make better sense of the readings and to increase the quality of the in-class discussion by ensuring that all students arrive to class having done the readings and having spent some time thinking about them.

Each memo should:

Each student must submit 10 memos during the semester. In other words, you can skip one.

The memos should be completed and shared with all other students (via email, as PDF files) by noon on Monday of each week. The student serving as the chair that week will then be responsible for reading all the memos and producing a one page aggregate memo and a list of questions for discussion. (All students are encouraged to read all memos, however, especially the panelists.)

Please note that the memos must strictly be submitted on time to receive full credit. Memos submitted after the Monday at noon deadline but before the class will get half credit. (Such memos should be printed out and brought to class in addition to being emailed to other students.) Memos not submitted by the start of the class will not be accepted under any circumstances. There will be no exceptions to this rule. (Students who fail to submit a memo on time on a given week should focus their efforts on the next week’s readings.)

Term Paper

Each student will write a term paper exploring a particular topic in the history of information technology. There are three deliverables related to this term paper, jointly worth 60% of your course grade.

Paper Proposal — 10%

Prior to developing the paper, each student will prepare a paper proposal.

The main text of the proposal should be up to 2 pages long and should answer the following questions:

Your proposal should also include an annotated bibliography of the sources you intend to use. Each source should be accompanied by a brief description, stating what it is about and how you plan to use it. You do not need to be deeply familiar with all the sources at this point, but you should have a plan as to what you are going to do with this source.

Paper proposals are due by 13:10 on February 28. Please bring four copies of your proposal to class. (Three of the copies are for your reviewers, one is for the instructor.)

Late proposals will be subject to the standard late policy and will not be handed out for review.

Paper Proposal Review — 10%

You will share your paper proposal with three other students and will receive three proposals in return. You will then be asked to write a review of each proposal. The reviews should be constructive in their focus and aim to help the author of each proposal improve their paper. In particular, even if you find the author’s central argument dubious, your review should try to assist the author in strengthening this argument rather than explaining to them why their argument is wrong. The reviews should be 1–2 pages long and can include a bibliography (if appropriate). If you include a bibliography, do not count it towards the page limit.

During the class discussion of the paper proposals one of the reviewers will present the proposals and the other two reviewers will make their comments after that. (The authors will not be presenting their own proposals.)

The reviews are due at 13:10 on March 6. Please bring two copies of each review to class. (One copy goes to the author, another one is for the instructor.)

Late reviews will be subject to the standard late policy.

Final Term Paper — 40%

The final deliverable is a paper of 6,000–8,000 words, due at the end of the semester. The papers will be shared with other students and will be evaluated by the instructor according to the following criteria:

The due date for the final papers is going to be announced later, but will be some time during the week of April 10.

Late papers will be subject to the standard late policy.

Normally, students will be required to submit the term paper to TurnItIn for a review of textual similarity and detection of possible plagiarism. In doing so, students will allow their essays to be included as source documents in the reference database, where they will be used solely for the purpose of detecting plagiarism. The terms that apply to the University’s use of the service are described on the web site.

Students who do not wish to use TurnItIn for submitting their work should approach the instructor to discuss alternative ways to establish the originality of the paper. This discussion needs to happen before the student begins working on the paper.

For information on how to use TurnItIn, please see this handout: turnitin_instructions.pdf.

Late Assignments and Extensions

You are expected to complete assignments on time. Assignment not submitted by the exact time when their are due will be considered late. (E.g., “17:00” means “17:00”, not “17:05.”)

Late memos will recieve half of the credit if submitted before the beginning of class. Memos not submitted by the time the class begins will not be accepted at all.

For all other assignments there will be a penalty of half a grade (e.g. from A to A–) for any assignment not submitted on time, with an an additional half-grade penalty deducted for any further 24 hours that the assignment is late. Work that is not handed in one week (168 hours) after it was due will not be accepted.

Graduating students are advised that late submission of the term paper can make it impossible for the final grade to be issued in time for graduation.

Special Needs

Students whose circumstances require special accommodations should approach the instructor at the earliest opportunity (ideally during the first week of the semester) to discuss the situation and the possible accommodations.