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ENGLGU 4911: Technologies of Dissent

Fall 2017
Prof. Dennis Tenen | dt2406 at columbia
M (lecture) 2:40pm-3:55pm at 603 Hamilton Hall
W (lab) 2:40pm-3:55pm at Butler 208b
Office Hours: M&W 4-5pm Philosophy 408e

Our engagement with technology entails political, not just instrumental choices. Email clients, social networks, and word processors have a profound effect on the way we relate to each other: work, organize, relax, or make art. Yet, we rarely have a chance to reflect on the civic, cultural virtues implicit in numerous everyday acts of computation: connecting to a wi-fi access point, sending a text message, or sharing a photograph online.

This course will introduce students to foundational concepts in computer literacy. We will pry open many “black boxes”---personal computers, routers, mobile phones---to learn not just how they work, but to interrogate them critically. Readings in ethics, philosophy, media history, and critical theory will ground our practical explorations.

This course advances research in computational culture studies understood both as the study of computational culture and as computational approaches to the study of culture and society. In addition to traditional reading, discussion, and writing components of the class, participants are expected to work on a semester-long data-driven lab-based research project. Students and scholars from any field, at any stage of their academic or professional career, and at all levels of technical and critical proficiency are welcome to attend.

Course Requirements and Grading

  • 25% Class & Online Participation
  • 25% Weekly Lab Assignments
  • 25% Midterm Exam (Passage IDs covering the reading)
  • 25% Final Exam (Passage IDs covering the reading)

OR (for graduate students only)††

  • 25% Midterm Project Proposal
  • 25% Final Project (individual or group, to be approved by instructor)

Concise weekly forum posts responding to the reading, asking questions / sharing expertise regarding the lab assignments.

†† Undergraduates wishing to pursue an independent project still have to take the midterm and the final exams.

Academic Integrity

Columbia University Undergraduate Guide to Academic Integrity contains the following statement:

Academic integrity is the cornerstone of our intellectual community. All scholarship – teaching, research, and student learning – is the product of intellectual exchange. Whether this exchange takes place in books and journal articles, in laboratories, in the design of experiments and the analysis of data, in the classroom, or in students’ written work, it is these joint undertakings that create Columbia’s intellectual community.

The value of our collective inquiry relies upon trust and honesty – for our individual discoveries are dependent upon the discoveries of our peers and predecessors, here at Columbia and elsewhere. And all intellectual work must be evaluated – the work of students is evaluated by faculty; the work of faculty is evaluated through peer-review. We must, therefore, be able to trust that others are honest in their work and others must be able to trust that we are honest in ours.

Academic writing can be very challenging, for it requires us to create original work from our synthesis of the work done by others. In these pages you will learn strategies for developing original work, ways to ensure that your work is trustworthy, the consequences for submitting work that is dishonest, and the resources available to assist you in achieving your best work.

When in doubt, consult the Columbia University Undergraduate Guide to Academic Integrity or check with me directly!

Provisional Schedule

Week 1: Introduction

  • The spirit of the class. Ethics charter. Structure. Assignments, participation, grading, schedule.

Week 2: Technology and Disobedience

Wednesday Lab: Machine prep. Intro to command line. Read the Software Systems chapter in Kernighan's Understanding the Digital World (2017), Chapter 6, pp. 87-104. Worksheet 1 due on Sunday, 11:59pm.

Week 3: Political Artifacts

Lab: No lab this week!

Week 4: Metaphor Machines

Lab: Encoding. Read "ASCII and A Cast of Characters" in Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold, pp. 286-301. Worksheet 2 is due Sunday evening as usual.

Week 5: Laminate Text

  • Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 1 (September 1, 2008). You can find this on JSTOR.
  • Murray, Donald. “Setting Type by Telegraph.” Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers 34, no. 172 (May 1905): 555–97. Read up to 569 and then selectively after (skipping the synchronization section, unless interested).
  • "Near Print and Beyond Paper: Knowing by *.pdf" (pages 111-135) in Lisa Gitelman's Paper Knowledge (2014).

Lab: Privileges and permissions. Worksheet 3.

Week 6: Implied User

Lab: Networking. Read the Communication chapter in Kernighan (pp 119-159). Worksheet 4.

Week 7: Digital and Analog

Lab: Midterm! Graduate student research proposal is due (guidelines here).

Week 8: Shadow Libraries

Lab: Pirate libraries. Worksheet 5.

Week 9: Peer Production and Intellectual Property

Lab: Intro to Version Control I (Git).

Week 11: Fall Break

Lab: Intro to Version Control II (GitHub). Worksheet 6.

Week 12: Concealment and Exposure

No class on Monday, Nov 13 & Nov 20. We will discuss the readings on Wednesday, at Butler 208b.

Week 13: Surveillance & Counter-Surveillance

Lab: Tor and VPN. Worksheet 7.

Week 14: Algorithmic Governance

Lab: Columbia surveillance project Wed & Mon.