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 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 as well as analyze art and literature that actively works with and against media ranging from the book to the digital computer; these foundational works also demonstrate a range of historical imaginings of the future of digital media in particular.

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 about what the contemporary internet is as well as where it is. Subsequently, drawing heavily from thinkers such as Shoshana Zuboff, Safiya Noble and Siva Vaidynathan, we will learn about the extent which large corporations intentionally blackbox and obfuscate how the internet and their deeply biased (and therefore harmful) algorithms work.

However, since 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,” at this point in the class we will promptly 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 experimented with 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 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 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 for Reading/Writing Technology
Week 1

  • Walter Benjamin, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935)

Week 2

  • Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message” (1964)
  • Ted Nelson, excerpt from Computer Lib / Dream Machines (1974)

Week 3

  • Katherine Hayles, excerpt from Writing Machines (2002)

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

  • Amy Wibowo, How Does the Internet (2015)

Week 5

  • Nicole Starosielski, excerpt from The Undersea Network (2015)

Week 6

  • Shoshana Zuboff, excerpt from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018)

Week 7

  • Safiya Noble, excerpt from Algorithms of Oppression (2018)
  • Siva Vaidhynathan, excerpt from Antisocial Media (2018)

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

  • Videotex: Julie 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)

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

  • Donna Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto” (1986)
  • VNS Matrix, “Cyberfeminist Manifesto” (1991)
  • Jaron Lanier, excerpt from Who Owns the Future? (2013)

Week 13

Week 14