Future Histories of the Internet Syllabus

Community Memory teletype machine

Below is a syllabus for a sophomore-level class I hope to teach in Fall 2021. This class is a reflection of my ongoing work on a cluster projects I call “Other Networks“–attempts to uncover and document the technical specs and functionalities of pre-internet networks (particularly from the 1970s and early 1980s) as well as artistic experiments on these same networks.

“To propose an alternate history is to propose that history can be altered, to change directions, to inaugurate an alternate future.”

Sofia Samatar, “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism”

General Class Description:
This class explores questions, fears, and ideas about technology and the future through literature about technology, literary technologies, and narratives about the future that move across periods, regions, and disciplines.  We’ll get acquainted with literary styles, genres, movements, technologies, and histories.  Our cultural and historical approach will illuminate how race, gender and sexuality, class, and nationality structure seemingly neutral research and development, usage, and innovation.  Ultimately, our goal is to see how we’re not simply passive consumers but active participants in reimagining the present and future of technology. This class also fulfills the diversity requirement by providing students with skills to understand gender, race, marginalization, and multiculturalism in relation to the study of literature and technology.

Specific Class Description:
This iteration of the class begins by introducing students to foundational works from media studies to give them tools to analyze media, art, and literature that actively experiment with the limits and possibilities of media ranging from the petroglyph to the book to the digital computer. These foundational works also demonstrate a range of historical imaginings of the future of digital media in particular and they also clarify the particularity and partiality of western media theory while introducing students to Black and Indigenous media studies. We will then use claims from this unit, such as Ted Nelson’s 1974 urgent invocation for us to “understand computers NOW,” to move us into the next cluster of readings that first teach students how to understand what the contemporary internet is as well as where it is and where it isn’t. Subsequently, drawing from thinkers such as Shoshana Zuboff, Safiya Noble and Siva Vaidynathan, we will learn about the extent to which large corporations intentionally blackbox (or hide) how the internet and their racial and gender biased algorithms work.  We will then study artists and coders like Joy Buolamwini and Stephanie Dinkins who critique these algorithms and redeploy them in poetry and memoir.

We take seriously Sofia Samatar’s declaration that “To propose an alternate history is to propose that history can be altered, to change directions, to inaugurate an alternate future.” Hence at this point in the class we will move back to the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s to investigate what alternatives to the internet have existed–and still might exist–and how artists and writers used these networks. We will look at mail art networks, lesbian newsletter networks, socialist and countercultural teletype machine networks, time-sharing networks, slow scan TV networks, videotex networks, and Bulletin Board Systems. Finally, in case students are left with the sense that the only viable alternatives to the contemporary internet are dead networks from the past, we will end our class by a) learning about a range of contemporary Indigenous, Black, feminist, anti-capitalist, and artistic alternative networks and b) learning how to build your own sneakernet and your own mesh network. In this way, we will deeply internalize lawyer and writer Lizzie O’Shea’s moving statement that “The networked computer represents an exciting opportunity to reshape the world in an image of sustainable prosperity, shared collective wealth, democratized knowledge and respectful social relations. But such a world is only possible if we actively decide to build it.”  We will, then, learn how to build this future world.

Course Requirements and Policies
In addition to a class presentation on a writer or theorist, you will be required to contribute to online discussion forums on our class blog, write a research paper, and produce a group project. Since our class is paperless, I don’t mind if you bring your laptop to class but of course this means I expect you to use it appropriately. I’m sure you’ve probably already found you learn better, concentrate better, and distract others around you less if you don’t use your laptop in class

You will also be required to contribute to class regularly. Participation begins with attendance.  Both absences and tardiness will affect this portion of your grade.  For this course, you are allowed three absences without penalty; these should be reserved for sickness, holidays, tiredness, laziness etc.  A fourth absence will result in the reduction of this portion of your grade by a full letter grade.  A fifth absence will result in the reduction of this portion of your grade by two full letter grades.  A sixth absence will result in the reduction of your final grade by one full letter grade. A seventh absence will result in the reduction of your final grade by two full letter grades.  Anything more than seven absences results in failing the class (given how much class material and learning you’ll have missed out on).Arrival in class more than 15 minutes after it begins will be considered an absence.  You are responsible for contacting me or a class member if you miss a class, and you are expected to be fully prepared for the next class session.

Your participation grade will also reflect the quality and thoughtfulness of your contribution in class, respect shown to class members, your attitude and role in small group exercises, and evidence of completion of reading assignments.  Please remember, then, that ALL in-class discussions and exercises assume (and depend upon) you reading the assigned material.  Review your syllabus frequently, and plan your workload accordingly.

Your final grade will be calculated as follows:

  • Two Online Discussion Forums: 15% (or 7.5% each)
  • Essay (7 pages): 25%
  • Individual Presentation: 20%
  • Final Group Creative Project: 25%
  • Participation: 15%

Weekly Schedule

UNIT 1: Foundations
Week 1

  • Walter Benjamin, excerpt from “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935)
  • Amiri Baraka, “Technology & Ethos” (1970)

Week 2

  • Marshall McLuhan, excerpt from “The Medium is the Message” (1964)
  • Ted Nelson, excerpt from Computer Lib / Dream Machines (1974)
  • Armond R. Towns, excerpt from “Toward a Black media philosophy” (2020)

Week 3

  • Katherine Hayles, excerpt from Writing Machines (2002)
  • Edgar Garcia, excerpt from Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu (2019)

UNIT 2: Technology Today / The Internet: What, Where, Who
Week 4

  • Faye Ginsburg, “Rethinking the Digital Age” (2008)
  • Amy Wibowo, How Does the Internet (2015)

Week 5

  • Nicole Starosielski, excerpt from The Undersea Network (2015)
  • Marisa Elena Duarte, excerpt from Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet across Indian Country (2017)

Week 6

  • Simone Brown, excerpt from Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015)
  • Shoshana Zuboff, excerpt from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018)

Week 7

UNIT 3: Technology Past / From Mail Art to Bulletin Board Systems
Week 8

  • Mail art: Chuck Welch (ed.), excerpt from Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology (1995)
  • Simone Osthoff, “From Mail Art to Telepresence: Communication at a Distance in the Works of Paulo Bruscky and Eduardo Kac” (2016)
  • Electronic Museum of Mail Art

Week 9

  • Newsletters: Cait McKinney, “The Internet that Lesbians Built: Newsletter Networks” (2020)
  • Teletype Machines: Project Cybersyn (Eden Medina, excerpt from Cybernetic Revolutionaries) (1971-1973), Community Memory (1973-1975)

Week 10

Week 11

  • Minitel: Julien Malland and Kevin Driscoll, excerpt from MINITEL: Welcome to the Internet (2017)
  • Bulletin Board Systems: THE THING BBS Message Archive; Lori Emerson, “‘Did We Dream Enough?’ THE THING BBS as an Experiment in Social-Cyber Sculpture” (2020); Charlton McIlwain, excerpt from Black Software
  • DVD networks: Kimberly Christen, “Gone Digital: Aboriginal Remix and the Cultural Commons” (2005)

UNIT 4: Subversions Past and Present to Reimagine the Future
Week 12

  • Sylvia Wynter, excerpt from “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism” (1984)
  • Donna Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto” (1986)
  • VNS Matrix, “Cyberfeminist Manifesto” (1991)
  • Malini Johar Schueller, excerpt from “Analogy and (White) Feminist Theory: Thinking Race and the Color of the Cyborg Body” (2005)
  • Jaron Lanier, excerpt from Who Owns the Future? (2013)

Week 13

Week 14