Notes, reference material, and assignments for Architectural History of Computing seminar at School for Poetic Computation, fall 2016
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#Architectural History of Computing | School for Poetic Computation | Fall 2016

"The ENIAC itself, strangely, was a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one which you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually one that you kind of lived inside."

-- Harry Reed, mathematician who worked on the ENIAC (one of the earliest modern computers created in the United States)

While the hardware that we use to connect with each other has gotten a lot smaller, the room in which we engage in personal computing has gotten a lot bigger. It's not really a room so much as it's a planet. What we think of as personal computers today are small components of larger, more complicated networked system that spans from cables under the ocean to satellites in space. But living inside a computer doesn't look like a cool science fiction movie. It looks like cities, highways, buildings, and the infrastructure that supports them.

In this class, we'll explore how and where we live with computers, and the different spatial politics of computation. The course will do a sort of "Powers of Ten" approach, first moving up the scales to look at massive superstructures of computation and then zooming in to look at the raw materials within consumer electronics--and the landscapes required to obtain those raw materials. We'll do one field trip day to see some relevant sites in New York City and one in-class science project (a dissection).

Assignments

This class will have 1 long-term assignment for the duration of the class, one short-term research assignment, and some (but mostly nonrequired) reading.

Long-Term Assignment: Computation Diary

Over the course of the class, students will keep a "computation diary" observing where, when, and how they interact with computers. The goal is to introduce students to an expanded definition of what constitutes computation--using a Metrocard kiosk or waiting at a crosswalk is as much a human-computer interaction as using a phone is a human-computer interaction.

Students are also allowed to think about the assignment in terms of specific technologies that they might interact with a lot but that they may take for granted--for example, you could go really deep on GPS' history and how it works and keep track of every time you look for directions on a smartphone. The point is mostly that over the course of your time at the school, you’re taking a little bit of time each day to think about how you live with technology.

The medium for the diary is entirely up to the discretion of the participant--photography, drawing, a paper diary, a map, a website, a Twitter bot, all totally reasonable options. Given the number of other assignments that you all have, please don't feel obligated to do something super-ambitious and complicated. Like, try not to spend more than 15 minutes each day of the next few weeks on logging your computer interactions.

You will need to let me know what form you want your diary to take by October 24. I’ll be talking with each of you one-on-one to get a sense of what you’re doing. If you're struggling with this or need some help thinking about the project before then please don't hesitate to reach out.

Short-Term Assignment: Materials Research

Before the third session of the class, students will be randomly assigned a rare earth element used in the production of electronics (cobalt, tantaulan, lithium, etc). They will be asked to come to class prepared to talk very briefly at minimum about the following things:

  • What is this mineral used in? (not just electronics, but other industries)
  • Where is it mined? How is it mined?
  • How much is it worth per ounce?

This assignment will make a lot more sense at the third session.

Reading

Reading that's relevant to that week's class will be available in this github repo, filed by date. All required reading will be listed in the README of that directory. Nonrequired reading is sort of there just in case you get really into any of this stuff and will be updated pretty frequently.

Office Hours

I'll be holding office hours for 2 hours after each class. I'm also totally happy to make time outside of those hours, just send me an email and we'll figure it out.