Syllabus


Reference

Fall 2013

James Collier
Office: 252 Lane Hall (Bay 5, 2nd floor)
Hours: 1:00-2:00 T,R and by appointment
Cell: By request
jim.collier@vt.edu

Course Description

In this course we will challenge cultural commonplaces regarding technological determinism and living in a "digital age." Belied by these commonplaces and utopian proclamations of the wonders of social networking, for example, are rather more complex stories of how we understand and live through technology. By interrogating these stories we will consider how, or if, technologies (digital and otherwise) transform our notions of progress, humanity, collective wisdom, meaningful work, creative expression, privacy, anarchy and control. Most importantly, we will address critically your place in the stories of how we do live, and should live, through technology.

"Today's person spends way more time in front of screens. In fluorescent-lit rooms, in cubicles, being on one end or the other of an electronic data transfer. And what is it to be human and alive and exercise your humanity in that kind of exchange?" — David Foster Wallace in David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. (See also Brian Christian's The Most Human Human.)

Learning Goals

• To examine, challenge and re-imagine the relationship between humanity and technology;

• To investigate, and to develop in writing expressions regarding, how digital technology affects, and is affected by, our understanding of our selves and our humanity;

• To consider and articulate our standards for living in a digital age.

Digital Device Policy

Please refrain from using digital devices during class. If, however, you must use a digital device (I leave that determination to you), I respectfully request that you access only course materials while class is in session.

Online Design

Before the age of content management systems a few well-intentioned, though foolhardy and often bewildered, educators made course websites. I was among them. As my bewilderment gave way to fascination, I continued to make course websites. Now the practice helps me plan the course, think through ideas and develop and organize materials. And as I find the romantic idea of an open democratic society on the Web hard to shake, I passively encourage the use of my materials, and meaningful participation on our wiki, by an interested pubic.

My background contributes to the idiosyncratic approach found before you. While the digital execution of my pedagogical motives seems quite clear (to me at least), the practical execution of my intentions in the site layout may not be as "crystalline" to the user. What follows, then, is a peak into my thinking (a bit scary, that) regarding how you might best access and use this site. In that spirit, allow me to indulge a too familiar simile.

I view the course website as our home. The home page is the front door through which one can, and perhaps should, should enter the course. I encourage you to bookmark the home page and to access our course materials directly and not through Scholar (it being an entrance found through the garage, perhaps) — unless you so choose.

The course calendar is the central room of our house. All activities run through the course calendar. Each time you come to our website, I suggest consulting the calendar first.

I view Scholar much like a finished garage — a space for storage and to hang out, play and talk. Many neat tools inhabit the garage but, depending on the task, I prefer a hands-on approach.

The wiki I see as an outdoor space — a front porch, perhaps, or patio — which hosts thoughtful conversations and lively debates and where friends may visit as they will.

Our online home has many other rooms designated by the main menu categories (see above) — such as the Assignments and the Syllabus — that I encourage you to explore. Still, if you will forgive the repetition, the course calendar provides a guided approach to our online resources.

Absent my more or less colorful description, please fully acquaint your self with all the elements of the course website, the wiki and Scholar and determine how you might best take advantage of the course resources and your learning goals through our online presence.

Course Narrative

Every course assumes and, hopefully, tells a story. Let me make explicit some assumptions guiding the course so that we might craft a more cogent narrative. The following tale employs rather broad assumptions with which, I trust, you will take issue.

"Living through" a thing — an historical event, a personal milestone, a senior seminar (even so!) — connotes both a story having a beginning, middle and end, and a material extension of our selves. Our course begins in the middle (as far as we can tell). We are in the middle of the "digital revolution" — so called, in part, because of the extraordinary changes brought about by contemporary digital computing and communications technology. Most of you have a vague recollection, at best, of a time before personal computers. Personal computers do not strike you as exotic; rather as an easy, intimate form of gathering information and entertainment. Yet more than any device and, perhaps, more than any person, the Internet-connected computer is the repository, expression and amplification of your identity. You have come not only to live through the historical digital age, but also to live vicariously through digital technology. Digital technology is a prosthesis we cannot remove easily, if at all.

In our course we will take up how we define, and come to understand, technology. We will confront how we affect, and are affected by digital technology, specifically. Our readings offer a range of opinions about the Scylla and Charybdis of the digital age. Often you — your generation of so-called "digital natives" — take center stage in this story. Many assumptions and theories have been born of speculation and experimentation about what "the digital" is doing to you, and to us, and to our humanity. As you might well imagine, as with the trumpeting of any perceived new era, theorists, policy-makers and writers express both great enthusiasm and great doubt about digital natives. You appear all together different (of course the same was said about children of the "television age", including yours truly, but let's momentarily embrace the hyperbole). You multitask. You scan and skim. You mash up. You kill without hesitation (virtually, at least). You contract exotic diseases (welcome to WebMD). You access the sum total of human learning — as long as it appears on the first three Google search pages. All the while through the searches, the diagnoses, the games, you are being changed — as I am being changed. Together, then, we face profoundly difficult and fascinating questions about technology.

Kevin Kelly questions what an evolving technology wants. Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz explore our rapidly advancing efforts to transcend our biology. Evgeny Morozov describes the kind of thinking that results from our fevered digital imaginations. Douglas Rushkoff wonders if the immediate now warps not only our sense of time, but also our sense of self. Finally, Jaron Lanier urges us to refine and practice anew what it means to live as human beings.

These extraordinary ideas and claims bring us back to fundamental questions: "Can we define technology?" "Does technology control us?" Can we manage technology or is technological progress inevitable? We will explore these questions through our writing and discussion, but we will reach only temporary answers. In part, the story of the course turns on how we form the kinds of questions we want to answer over the long-term. We want to form and approach meaningful questions not just for the sake of a class, but for the sake of one another. If the truth resides anywhere in the digital hype, and we are connected as never before, then we are mutually implicated by the kinds of questions we ask and try to answer about technology and the digital age.

So here we are — mutual inquirers formulating, and provisionally answering thorough reading, discussing and researching, some of the central questions of our time. Let's investigate, analyze and consider how technology, digital technology in particular, affects, and is affected by, our understanding of our selves and our humanity. Our investigation and our story will be serious, challenging and fun.

Assignments

Assessment

Class Presence
"Eighty percent of success is showing up." — Woody Allen
Woody Allen's words speak to a simple truth: A strong correlation exists between attending class (or anything else for that matter) and performing well. Likely, this class is one of the last you take at Virginia Tech and you deserve an experience where a collective effort yields the intellectual experience you desire. We — your classmates and I — expect and need you in class. We need your focus, your energy, your curiosity, your questions and your insights. And, practically speaking, many of our assignments depend on your presence both in class and online.

To promote class presence, I request that your refrain from using digital devices (unless absolutely necessary) during class (please see the digital device policy).

To assess class presence, I will consider attendance — in mind (and so, again, the digital device policy) as well as in body — preparation and participation in class discussions, and collective contributions. My assessment of class presence will come at the end of the term and play an important role in determining final, especially borderline, grades. However, if you have any questions about your standing in the class during the term, please ask me.

Considered Replies: Part I and II
This assignment provides specific criteria as to the number, schedule and length of postings, and to parameters regarding the postings' structure and style. Grades on Part I and Part II of the assignment will be based on those criteria. Please refer to the grading rubric for Part I of the assignment (doc file 34 KB) and the grading rubric for Part II of the assignment (doc file 34 KB). Given the time sensitive nature of the assignment, you will not have an opportunity to revise.

Essay/Exam
You may substantively revise your essay based on my feedback and your judgment. Or, if your exam goes off the rails, I will allow you to re-take a new (different) exam. I will average the grades on each revision or re-take.

Leading Discussion
Once during the semester class members in small groups will pose questions to, and provide keywords for, the appropriate forum on the wiki. The group will then lead the class discussion. After the class, each group member will provide a synthesis based on the questions, keywords, responses and class discussion.

Members of the class will evaluate the class discussion through an on-line form. Scores and comments will be forwarded to me. I will share the comments, absent names, with the presenters. I will provide an overall assessment of the questions, keywords, presentation and synthesis.

Participating in Discussions
Class members not leading a discussion (please refer to the calendar for dates) will provide 350 to 500 word responses to selected questions on the appropriate forum on the wiki. As the responses are time sensitive, you will not have an opportunity for late submission. Grades will be assigned as follows:

    • 4 responses: A
    • 3 responses: B
    • 2 responses: C
    • 1 or no (0) response: F

Manifesto: Part I and II
Both Part I and Part II of the assignment provide specific criteria as to the structure and content of the assignment. You will have an opportunity to substantively revise Part I of the assignment as many times as you wish until the end of the semester, based on my feedback and your judgment. Please refer to the grading rubric for Part I (doc file 34 KB). I will average the grades on each revision. Part II of the assignment is due by the scheduled end time of the final exam.

Texts

Texts are listed as they appear in the course:

• Kevin Kelly. What Technology Wants. Penguin, 2011.
• Braden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz. The Techno-Human Condition. MIT, 2012.
• Evgeny Morozov. To Save Everything, Click Here. PublicAffairs, 2013.
• Douglas Rushkoff. Present Shock. Current Hardcover, 2013.
• Jaron Lanier. Who Owns the Future? Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Honor System

This course follows university policies pertaining to academic honesty and plagiarism. If you any have questions please ask me, or consult the Honor System web site.

Principles of Community

This course adheres to Virginia Tech's Principles of Community. If you have any questions, please ask me or consult the Principles of Community web site.

Living Through Technology