Programming the World

Global Geographies of Computing

Geography 400
Nick Lally
nlally@wisc.edu

COURSE DESCRIPTION

This course will examine the emergence of computing, its uneven spread across the globe, the worlds it constructs, and the ways it has become embedded within the spaces of everyday life, all through a geographic lens. Students will be introduced to complex political, economic, social, and cultural factors that have shaped the history of computing, cultural understandings of information technologies, and the material effects of this global industry. We will investigate how computers have become an important force in both the production of space and of geographic knowledge. This course does not attempt to build a singular history of computing, but rather, we will look at a diverse selection of theories and methods that scholars have used to understand the complex relationships between digital media, space, and society.

Lally_1901_Eastern_Telegraph_cables
The Eastern Telegraph Co.: System and its general connections. Chart of submarine telegraph cable routes, showing the global reach of telecommunications at the beginning of the 20th century.

Learning Objectives

  • Become familiar with a diversity of theoretical and methodological approaches to studying digital media.
  • Develop analytical tools to critically assess discourses surrounding digital technologies.

  • Understand digital media as a spatial problem with global effects.
  • Apply theories of technology to chosen case studies.
  • Strengthen analytical reading and writing skills.

ASSESSMENT PLAN

Participation & Attendance: 20%
Weekly Homework Assignments: 20%<
Class Presentation: 10%<
Project #1: 20%
Project #2: 30%

Participation & Attendance

You are expected to come to class ready to discuss readings, homework assignments, and projects. Your active participation in discussions and in-class activities is expected and will constitute a large portion of your participation and attendance grade. If you must miss a class, please check Learn@UW for updates, check in with a classmate to receive that day’s class notes, and email me. You are allowed one penalty-free absence over the course of the semester—additional absences will reduce your participation grade. Please let me know if there are extenuating circumstances preventing you from attending class and we can assess on an individual basis.

Student Homework Blogs

In the first week of class, you will be asked to start a blog on the platform of your choice (wordpress, tumblr, blogspot, etc.). You will post weekly homework assignments, projects, in-class exercises, and notes on your blogs. Links to your blogs will be posted on Learn@UW so everyone in the class can share work and ideas with each other.

Homework Assignments

Over the course of the semester, you will be asked to post short critical reflections on the week’s readings. They should be around 300-500 words and focus on an idea, concept, or problematic that you find interesting. They should not summarize the texts, rather, they should critically reflect on and/or synthesize ideas from the readings. You should complete six reflections over the course of the semester and post them on your blog before the beginning of the week’s class.

Other weekly homework assignments will be assigned in class and may consist of blog posts, peer review exercises, and other activities related to class material.

Class Presentation

Each week, two students will be assigned to create a presentation on the week’s readings. Presentations should be about ten minutes long, ending with two to four questions for discussion. Presentations should be a critical response to the readings, which draws out and extends key themes that you find interesting.

Project #1

You will be asked to think deeply and write about a computer that has become embedded within your life—a laptop or cell phone, for example—and trace its history, the commodity chains that enable its existence, the labor that went into making it, the connections it makes with other machines, the practices it enables, your affective connections with the device, and the computational processes that it enacts. Think of your device as a node in a vast global network, embedded within a complex and dynamic history of computing.

Deliverables for project #1 include:

  1. Blog posts in weeks two through eight—see schedule below for prompts
  2. A hand-drawn mind map that illustrates your findings.
  3. A 1500 word essay that summarizes the project. You can focus on one interesting thing you found or the project as a whole.

I would only assign this in a department that requires students to have a laptop or cell phone. This assignment could, however, be expanded to include any computer of interest.

Project #2

Write a research essay of 2500 words on a topic of your choosing. You should choose a case study and apply theories/ideas from class to analyze it. You will receive a separate worksheet to help you get started on the essay. Proposals will be due in week 9 and discussed with instructor in week 10. Drafts will be due in week 13, peer reviews will occur in week 14, and final papers will be due in finals week.

REQUIRED READINGS

Weekly readings will be posted on Learn@UW.

Please purchase a copy of:

Networking the World, 1794-2000 by Armand Mattelart

This text, which is a somewhat traditional global history, will be woven throughout the class. Students will thus be able to contrast it against readings with very different approaches to similar topics.

WEEKLY COURSE PLAN

All materials listed under “Watch,” “Readings,” and “Additional” should be watched, read, and viewed before the beginning of that week’s class.

Week 1: Introductions

Syllabus review

Set up homework blogs

Watch (in class):

Readings (in class):

  • All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan

The film is a speculative reading of global computational networks and their role in financial networks and power relations, while the reading is a short poem from 1967 that can be read in class.

Week 2: Theories and Methods

Introduce project #1

Test blogs

Watch (in class):

  • The Mother of All Demos,” by Douglas Engelbart, 1968 (excerpts)

Readings:

  • Chun, W. H. K. 2005. On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge. Grey Room 18:26–51.
  • Rose, G. 2015. Rethinking the geographies of cultural “objects” through digital technologies: Interface, network and friction. Progress in Human Geography.
  • Kitchin, R. 2014. Thinking Critically About and Researching Algorithms. The Programmable City Working Paper 5. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2515786

Due:

  • One paragraph proposal for Project #1 that describes your chosen object of study and briefly outlines what you might want to write about.

The readings are three different approaches to studying digital media, which will help students begin thinking about their first project. Chun’s article covers materiality, ideology, gender, and labor, providing a wide, conceptual approach. Rose’s articles points to the instability of digital objects and the need for new methods in cultural geography to deal with them. Finally, Kitchin’s article covers multiple approaches to studying algorithms, from looking at code to studying wider social contexts.

Week 3: Computers and the Productions of Space

Readings:

  • Kirsch, S. 1995. The incredible shrinking world? Technology and the production of space. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 13(5): 529-555.
  • Thrift, N., and S. French. 2002. The automatic production of space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 27 (3):309–335.
  • Kitchin, R., and M. Dodge. 2011. Code/space: Software and Everyday Life. Software Studies. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. (Chapters 3 & 4, 47-80)

Due:

  • Blog post on possible research methods for you device.

This week introduces students to spatial theories of computation. These articles apply Lefebvre, Simondon, and de Certeau to computers in accessible ways. They will help inform critical readings of future texts.

Week 4: The Promise of a Connected World

Mapping device connections exercise.

Readings:

  • Mattelart, A. 2000. Networking the World, 1794-2000. Minneapolis, Mn: University of Minnesota Press. (Chapter 1, “Networks of Universalization,” 1-22)
  • Turner, F. 2005. Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy: The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community. Technology and Culture, 46(3), 485-512.
  • Brunwasser, M. 2015. A 21st-Century Migrant’s Essentials: Food, Shelter, Smartphone. New York’Lora. 25 Aug. http://nyti.ms/1LytwqA

Optional:

  • Castells, M. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford ; Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers. (Chapter 1, 28-76)

Due:

  • Blog post on how your device makes space.

Readings will show some of the early utopian hopes of computing (and networking in general). Mattelart’s book looks at the utopian claims made around telegraph networks in the early 1800s, which sound a lot like current discourses around the internet. It is also a large scale, global approach to history. Turner’s article describes the role of back-to-the-landers in California in the development of personal computing and early computer networks. The last article shows how migrants are using smartphones.

Week 5: Infrastructures

Readings:

  • Star, S. L. 1999. The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3):377–391.
  • Mattelart, A. 2000. Networking the World, 1794-2000. Minneapolis, Mn: University of Minnesota Press. (Chapters 4 & 5, “The Bipolar Geopolitics of Technology” and “Transnationalization and Geoeconomic Rationality,” 49-74.

Additional:

Due:

  • Blog post on how your device does or does not fulfill the promises of a connected world and your affective connections with it.

Star’s classic essay on how to study infrastructures sits aside Mattelart’s history and some contemporary attempts to map internet infrastructures. The hope is that Star’s essay will explode infrastructures beyond their usual imaginaries.

Week 6: Societies of Control

Readings:

  • Deleuze, G. 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59:3–7.
  • Galloway, A., and E. Thacker. 2004. Protocol, Control, and Networks. Grey Room 17:6–29.

Optional:

  • Galloway, A. R. 2004. Protocol: how control exists after decentralization. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Due:

  • Blog post on your device’s commodity chains.

Deleuze’s short and hugely influential text is put to work in Galloway and Thacker’s study of protocols. It will be interesting to discuss in relation to the previous week’s blog post.

Week 7: Surveillance

Project #1 check-in

Mind mapping

Readings:

  • Agre, P. E. 1994. Surveillance and capture: Two models of privacy. The Information Society 10 (2):101–127.
  • Kitchin, R. 2015. Continuous Geosurveillance in the “Smart City.” dis magazine.

http://dismagazine.com/issues/73066/rob-kitchin-spatial-big-data-and-geosurveillance/

Additional:

Due:

  • Blog post on your device as an instrument of surveillance.

Two takes on surveillance, twenty years apart. They will be interesting to discuss in light of NSA revelations and continued debates on surveillance, in addition to the unfolding project #1.

Week 8: Revolts, Resistances, and (H)ac(k)tivism

Watch:

Readings:

  • Raley, R. 2009. Tactical media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Chapter 1, “Border Hacks,” 31-64)
  • Coleman, E. G. 2014. Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: the many faces of Anonymous. London ; New York: Verso. (Chapter 5, “Anonymous Everywhere,” 143-176)
  • Mattelart, A. 2000. Networking the World, 1794-2000. Minneapolis, Mn: University of Minnesota Press. (Chapter 3, “The Power of Propaganda,” 35-48)

Additional:

Due:

  • Project #1

Raley’s chapter talks about a number of tactical media examples, including ones on the US/Mexico border. Meanwhile, Coleman connects hackers in the US and England with revolutionaries on the ground in Tunisia. Finally, Mattelart describes similar sorts of movements using older networked technologies.

Week 9: Case Studies

Readings:

  • Pollock, J. 2011. How Egyptian and Tunisian youth hacked the Arab Spring. MIT Technology Review.
  • Edwards, P., & Hecht, G. 2010. History and the Technopolitics of Identity: The Case of Apartheid South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, 36(3), 619-639.
  • Medina, E. 2015. The Cybersyn Revolution: Five lessons from a socialist computing project in Salvador Allende’s Chile. Jacobin. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/allende-chile-beer-medina-cybersyn/

Due:

  • Final Project Proposal

The Arab Spring, apartheid South Africa, and socialist Chile are all introduced to show the diverse implementations of technology across the globe in particular political contexts.

Week 10: No Class, Individual Meetings with Instructor

Week 11: Global Economies

Readings:

  • Cheng, J., M. Cherney, and J. Dicolo. 2015. Stocks Notch Strong Finish After Reeling From Fake Tweet. The Wall Street Journal. April 23. http://on.wsj.com/ZFVSFG
  • Popper, N. 2012. Knight Capital Says Trading Glitch Cost It $440 Million. New York’Lora. Aug 2. http://nyti.ms/1dxukKo
  • Mattelart, A. 2000. Networking the World, 1794-2000. Minneapolis, Mn: University of Minnesota Press. (Chapter 6, “Globalization: The Networks of Postnational Economy,” 75-96

Two short news articles that show how algorithmic trading on Wall Street can have huge, instantaneous effects on global economic markets. Matterlart’s chapter theorizes globalization using economic networks.

Week 12: Visualizing & Constructing Worlds

Watch:

Readings:

  • Rose, G., M. Degen, and C. Melhuish. 2014. Networks, interfaces, and computer-generated images: learning from digital visualisations of urban redevelopment projects. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (3):386–403.
  • Woodward, K., J. P. Jones, L. Vigdor, S. A. Marston, H. Hawkins, and D. P. Dixon. 2015. One Sinister Hurricane: Simondon and Collaborative Visualization. Annals of the Association of American Geographers :1–16.

This week’s readings show not only how visualizations construct worlds, but also how they interact to produce subjects. Rose et al’s essay is about urban redevelopment in Doha, Qatar using digital models. Woodward et al. show how hurricane visualization team members become collaborators with digital media who, together, produce an understanding of natural phenomena.

Week 13: The Digital Divide

Readings:

  • Oguibe, O. 2004. The culture game. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Part III, “Brave New World,” 149-177)
  • Chen, M. 2014. Is ‘Big Data’ Actually Reinforcing Social Inequalities? The Nation. Sep 29. http://www.thenation.com/article/big-data-actually-reinforcing-social-inequalities/
  • Mattelart, A. 2000. Networking the World, 1794-2000. Minneapolis, Mn: University of Minnesota Press. (Chapter 7, “Fracture: Toward a Critique of Globalism,” 97-120)

Due:

  • Project #2 Draft

Three takes on the digital divide, showing how digital media can produce deeper inequalities, whether through lack of access or data analytics.

Week 14: Labor

Project #2 peer reviews

Readings:

  • Terranova, T. 2000. Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy. Social Text 18 (2):33–58.
  • Duhigg, C. and D. Barboza. 2012. In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad. New York’Lora. Jan 25. http://nyti.ms/NVrVOL
  • humdog. 1994. pandora’s vox: on community in cyberspace.

Articles on labor, from Terranova’s early take, to more contemporary reporting on Apple, to an early message board participant reflecting on self-commodification.

Week 15: The Environment

Readings:

Due:

  • Project #2 peer reviews

The class ends with three short, easy-to-read, but provocative piece on the environmental costs of computers.

Syllabus DOWNLOAD

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