Final thoughts

Thanks for another great semester, everyone.  For your final post, comment on the text (or texts) that you found most engaging or illuminating this fall.  As with the other posts, be sure to include some textual evidence in your comments.


Philosophy of the cyborg

In the last section of this course, we’ve encountered texts that use discussions of technology to raise philosophical questions about what defines us as human beings.  Both Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner and Philip K. Dick’s original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? use the metaphor of the android or cyborg to posit multi-faceted questions about the nature of human experience. Furthermore, Donna Haraway’s challenging “Cyborg Manifesto” also uses the extended metaphor of the cyborg to draw our attention to certain assumptions about human exceptionalism in the natural world.

Think about the ecological, philosophical, feminist and ethical questions raised in these three texts.  Using evidence from at least one, but potentially each of these texts, analyze how the concept of the cyborg challenges us to think critically about our human-centric worldviews.

Social Media and Occupy Wall Street

First, consider how the political action we’ve been following at the Occupy Wall Street rallies this semester relates to the organizational power of social media and the internet.  Remember to articulate the difference between a one-to-many and a many-to-many broadcast medium: it will be useful to return to readings from earlier in the semester and refer to Buchanan’s Nexus or Castell’s history of the internet in order to include a working definition of distributed networks and the underlying technology of the internet.  Then, consider Ian Bogost’s, Jane McGonigal’s or Sherry Turkle’s ideas about the importance of play in learning—these might also be useful articles to quote and discuss.

Second, bring some of the big ideas from this course together and try to answer this question: Can we read the recreational use of social networking tools or events like flash mobs as a form of playful practice for political action?  You can use Allan Kaprow’s definition of a Happening to help in this paper. (But remember to note the date of his discussion: 1961 and well before the internet of today!)  You can also use Gabriella Coleman’s articles on Anonymous as great sources to discuss that group as a smaller example of this larger phenomenon.  Think about how Anonymous moved from the more playful (but still serious) protests of Scientology and “pranking” to the more politically and socially charged Occupy Wall Street events happening around the country today.  You might also look at articles on the role of social networks and the internet in Arab Spring revolutions.  Feel free to bring in an outside source for this assignment.

Video game theory

Consider how the most recent authors we’ve covered view video games in unexpected ways: Sherry Turkle cites examples of therapeutic uses and describes games through the lens of child developmental psychology, Ian Bogost explores their educational potential in terms of cognitive and behavioral psychology, and Jane McGonigal creates games that tap into the collective intelligence of players to address real-world problems.  Using examples from the readings, what’s your position on these creative approaches to video game development and use?

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

Consider Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother in light of the discussions of digital culture and history of technology in this course.  Use this blog post as a draft for the paper and select at least one short quote from the novel to analyze here.

There are various ways to unpack a selection of fictional text, but first you need to consider what larger question you’d like to analyze in the novel.  No matter what you decide to focus on, whether it’s Marcus and Ange’s relationship, or questions about surveillance tactics or online identity, please be sure to address some aspect of technology or digital culture in your blog post and longer paper.

Here are some ways to approach both the blog post and the paper:

First, this should NOT be a book report where you simply outline the plot!  Focus on a question or problem that the novel depicts and use evidence from the text to discuss it.  This should be evident in the form of a thesis statement in the beginning of your paper.  Your thesis should be a claim that you need to prove using textual evidence.  Second, remember: the novel didn’t just write itself.  Think about why Doctorow makes the choices he makes and write about your insights.  Make some observations: i.e. “Many of the characters seem to have different identities with their family than they do with their friends” or “The teens depicted in this novel use more digital technology to communicate with a peer group that is often anonymous and geographically diverse.”  Then, move into analysis of those observations. What conclusions can you make through your analysis of your initial observations?

Look at the language Doctorow uses to paint his fictional world.  What repeated themes do you discover?  Does he use any neologisms (newly created words) to describe things unique to this moment in technological history?

Describe the characters involved in your selected topic.  What personality traits and other qualities do they have?  What emotions do his characters experience, particularly Marcus?  How are those emotions conveyed?  What are some of the main motivations of these characters?

Think about how Marcus Yallow navigates his world: Why does he believe hacking is a positive thing?  What larger political and social forces loom in the background of Doctorow’s dystopian, near-future San Francisco?  How would you describe the society depicted in the novel?  Why do you think Doctorow included a 9-11 style attack in the background of the story?

How does Marcus use technology?  How do computers, cell phones, X-net, the BART subway stations or emails work in the text?  Think about how these technologies impact the daily lives of Marcus and his friends.  Why is the novel so preoccupied with privacy rights and freedom?

Marcus and Ange’s relationship is not described as it might be in a typical teen novel.  Think about how Doctorow discusses first love.  What makes his approach refreshingly different than other teen romance novels?  Also consider how women are depicted in the novel.  Ange is self-sufficient and smart; to Marcus, her appearance is of secondary importance to her intelligence.  What qualities make Ange stand out as a strong woman?  What makes Marcus a positive feminist male role model for teen men?

As you can see, there are a variety of ways to approach this assignment, and I’m open to other topics as long as they are in some way relevant to the issues of the course.  Also, if you wish to bring in another reading from earlier in the semester to illuminate your discussions, please do, but be sure to focus mainly on analyzing and unpacking the novel itself.

“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

As you read Nicolas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” consider how he describes the impact of new media technologies on the human mind.  He notes that these technologies are not just simply external tools that we use, but that they also change the nature of human consciousness and how we comprehend the world.  You might not have considered the mechanical clock a technology that radically changed the way we perceive the world and the human mind, but sure enough you’ve heard the phrase “her mind worked like clockwork!” What similar metaphors can we consider for the way the computer might make us (as Apple advertisements put it) “think different?”  In particular, Carr gives some surprising anecdotal examples about his own growing difficulty with reading longer texts:

My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

As “digital natives,” do you agree or disagree that you have grown up reading and thinking differently?  Are you overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information online?  Do you think this has negatively impacted your critical thinking skills, and do you experience something akin to Carr’s inability to concentrate on complex texts or arguments?  Are you surprised, then, when he notes historically similar anxieties about the printing press weakening students’ minds because they could so easily access books and didn’t need scholastic authority to provide their education?  Analyze Carr’s position on the impact of new media, which is a fairly negative one, but also address why he points out the limits of his critique and suggests that readers should be “skeptical of his skepticism.”

Computers: The great equalizer?

Yesterday we discussed Langdon Winner’s “Mythinformation” and his critique of utopian narratives surrounding the computer “revolution” of the mid-1980s.  Consider the concerns he raises and think about the ways in which computing technology impacts your own life in the current moment, some 25 years after this article was written.  Given an example from his article and establish whether you agree or disagree with his critiques of the optimistic narratives surrounding new technology (You may find yourself doing a bit of both!).  Consider in particular his key points about information versus critical thinking, or his critique of the idea that increased democratization and political participation arises from increased computer access.

Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) on Mashup/Remix Culture

How does Miller describe remix culture and global networks in his lecture at EGS?  Consider some of the points Miller raises in light of some of our previous readings in this course, particularly Ong, McLuhan, Kittler and Manovich.  Consider his specific examples: What parallels does he draw between graffiti tagging, urban landscapes, hip-hop sampling and the internet?  How does the concept of the network function both artistically and politically for Miller?  What does digital media contribute to artistic production?  Write as if you’re explaining and introducing Miller’s work to an audience that is unfamiliar with it.

Manovich’s The Language of New Media

Consider the selection that you read from Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media and our class discussion today.  We broke down the five main concepts that Manovich identifies as essential to new media analysis: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding.  In your blog post, select one of his five terms, discuss how he defines it, and give an example of its relevance or application in analyzing new media artifacts.

Networks and writing technologies

We’ve started to think about the histories and material underpinnings of the internet and writing technologies in the past two weeks.  Consider the reading selections from Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Friedrich Kittler, Manuel Castells and Mark Buchanan as you respond to this post.  You may choose to respond to one article or make interconnected points between various readings, but be sure to include and unpack at least one quote from the readings in your post.

While some of these readings are quite challenging, think about and discuss why we might look to a material history of writing and communication technologies in order to understand other theoretical or aesthetic aspects of the course.  We will return to many of the concepts introduced in the past two weeks as we analyze different digital artifacts.

For example, why is it important to understand the military history behind what we currently think of as the internet?  Consider how Mark Buchanan and Manuel Castells discuss ARPAnet and the military rationale behind networked communication systems.  Why should we understand the difference between distributed versus centralized networks?  What does “small-world theory” indicate about emergent social groupings?

When Marshall McLuhan claims “The medium is the message,” what do you make of his iconic and provocative phrase?  We talked about how we often consider content to be a “pure” expression that isn’t influenced by media technologies, but what does McLuhan suggest about such assumptions?  Explain his example of the light bulb or the steam engine.  When a new technology is introduced, how does McLuhan analyze counter-intuitive or unexpected consequences?

Walter Ong gave us ways to consider differences between oral and print cultures.  Much like McLuhan, Ong helps us to think about the unanticipated impact of new writing technologies on human consciousness. What do you make of his claims that the introduction of the printing press leads to a wealth of other societal effects, including the development of science, the Enlightenment, democracy, and even our contemporary concepts of human history?

As always, you may respond to one or more of these prompts, or explore other aspects of the readings that interest you.