Intro Cyberculture Syllabus (Rough!)

So, I somehow “volunteered” to create a new course at the undergraduate level, to be offered (mainly) as a service course–i.e., not to our majors, but as part of a humanities breadth requirement. I’ve appropriated the term “cyberculture,” though I probably mean cyberpunkish. This is a very rough draft–I’ve just shared it with my colleagues, who would also be stuck teaching it, no doubt. Would be very interested in feedback: what is missing, etc. Can’t be too weird–this is a course that will need to be defended on a campus-wide basis. (I know, it’s already a little weird.)

FVI 10X: Introduction to Cyberculture

Course Description
Media are, as McLuhan famously claimed “extensions of man,” and fundamentally shape our humanity. In a rapidly changing media environment we should expect changes in how we think about ourselves, our ethics, and our tastes, and these changes play themselves out in cultural and policy venues. Some have even argued that these technologies augur the end of humanity and the coming of a posthuman era. This course examines the development of a culture of machines, from the industrial revolution forward, by analyzing a selection from the cannon of non-fiction and fictional texts, and exploring the ways that these visions converge with and diverge from present reality. It uses this understanding of cyberculture to inform and frame current cultural, philosophical, and legal debates. By the end of the course, students will have an understanding of the roots of modern cyberculture, and be able to present an informed opinion regarding the effects of new media technologies on our lived existence.

This course aims, broadly, to provide a foundation in understanding the relationship between society and technology, with a focus on digital, social communications media. In particularly, students in the course should be able to:

  1. Indicate some of the most important themes and questions that make up a cybercultural perspective.
  2. Be able to articulate multiple perspectives on the ways in which machines have affected what we think of as human, embodiment, intelligence, justice, and identity.
  3. Understand some of the common convictions and motifs that make up a cyberpunk aesthetic.
  4. Demonstrate some familiarity with the technical components and collective processes that inform cyberculture.

Each week we take on a different theme in the development of cyberculture. During the first part of the course we address some of its historical roots, from before the emergence of digital technology, to the early days of the internet. In the second segment, we examine some of the core ways in which these technologies have recently introduced new challenges in terms of social power and the ways in which we think about ourselves. Finally, we look at some of the current trends in cyberculture, and how they may play out in the future.

In each of these weeks, we will be critically engaging in selections of science fiction and speculative fiction, both in visual media and in written form. Students are expected to prepare for the lectures and discussions in each class by reading and watching these selections, engaging in brief experiential activities, and reflecting on these in written or video form.

Course Materials
Students should purchase a set of selected readings from the bookstore before the first week of classes. Additional materials will be linked from the course website, or available on reserve at the library.

Students should bring laptops to each class.

Student Work
Each week students are expected to complete a set of readings and view selections of video. (Some of the shorter video selections may be shown for discussion in class.)
In addition, they will be evaluated on the following:

Weekly one-page responses (5 pts. each, 70 total). Each week, students are expected to write a short response to the material and activities for the week. Questions prompting student reflection will be distributed two weeks ahead of time, and student responses are due no later than Saturday at noon. Students have the option of submitting these in text format or as short web-video presentations.

  1. In-class assignments (5-10 pts each, 70 total). A number of collaborative exercises will occur during the class time, and will require individual or collaborative participation. This may include unannounced quizzes or short writing assignments based on the materials under discussion for the week.
  2. Student produced speculative fiction (60 points). By the end of the course, students are expected to produce a short work of speculative fiction (short story or script) that addresses one or more of the themes encountered in the course.
  3. “Extra” credit. There will be several opportunities during the course to examine issues in more detail and produce work demonstrating what has been learned in these exercises.

The final grade in the course is based on the number of points awarded as a percentage of 200 possible points, according to the usual scale.

Course Schedule
Week 1: Phaedrus, Frankenstein, and King Ludd

What are some of the earliest ideas of how machines might have been related to humanity. We will look at some of the arguments found in the Phaedrus relating to human capacity and the effect of technology, and will trace early visions of the idea of non-human humans (golems and homunculi) through to the early part of the industrial revolution. As part of this exploration, we will examine Descartes, early Luddites, and the ways in which automata affected the understanding of what it is to be human.

Read: Selections from Phaedrus, Frankenstein, and Lord Byron’s 1812 speech on the Frame Breaking Act.

Week 2: Clockwork Society and the Metropolis

The industrial revolution brought a new relationship between society and machinery. Often there was a tension between technological utopias of the late 19th century and the Fordist existence of early 20th century mass society. Much of this tension was focused on the rise of a new form found in the built environment: the metropolis.

Read: Selections from the Futurist Manifesto, “Metropolis and Mental Life” (Simmel), Looking Backward (Bellamy) , Propaganda (Bernays). Watch: Selections from Modern Times, Metropolis.

Week 3: The Cyberneticists

The end of the Second World War brought about civilian use of machines designed for command and control during the war. The most important of these was digital computing. New ideas of how intelligence functioned came from discussions of these technologies, and the dream of a thinking machine was reinvigorated. The view of the engineered society gained popularity as well.

Read: Selections from The Cyberiad (Lem), The Man in the High Castle (Dick), “As We May Think” (Bush). Watch: Selections from Day the Earth Stood Still, Blade Runner, AI.

Week 4: Hackers

The history of networked computing is hardly separable from the idea of the hacker, a subculture that originated at MIT during the 1960s.The term has evolved over time, and especially during the 1980s when it was associated more closely with unauthorized access, but many of the ethics and values of this subculture shape both modern technological and political ideals.

Read: Selections from Hackers (Levy), the “Jargon File,” Technologies of Freedom (Pool). View: Selections from Hackers, WarGames.

Week 5: The Internet Frontier

The internet, a network of networks, was first envisioned as a tool for researchers, but by the 1980s more and more people were gaining access to the global network. Many people who had never even used the internet knew what it was. The growth and commercialization of the network led to the first substantial attempts to regulate it, and the first efforts to define a new set of social liberties for “cyberspace.” This tapped into a strong anti-authoritarianism and individualism long associated with cyberculture.

Read: Selections from “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (Barlow), Transmetropolitan (Ellis & Robertson). Watch: Selection from You’ve Got Mail.

Week 6: Crypto Wars

The rise of a global computing network provided non-state actors with new kinds of controls. On one hand, these new networks provided the opportunity to more easily surveil the population. On the other, these networks supported both in online social movements like the Zapatista movement, and trans-national criminal organizations. A central point of contention became the use of “strong encryption,” a tool that could maintain privacy of online communications, and was seen as a threat to national governments. This gave rise to a group who identified themselves as â”cryptoanarchists.”

Read selections from TAZ (Bey), Neuromancer (Gibson), Cyphernomicon (May), “Assassination Politics” (Bell). Watch: Selections from Sneakers, Hackers, V For Vendetta.

Week 7: All the World’s a Game

Gaming–and particularly the border between games and real life–remains an important theme in cyberculture. What constitutes play, and when is action real? Are games just entertainment, or can they help us to learn important skills? Can they help us to understand greater truths? Some of the earliest uses of computers were to create games, and much of cyberculture is influenced by participatory role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, and fantasy worlds generally.

Read: Selections from “Nomic” (Hofstadter), Das Glasperlenspiel (Hesse), Finite and Infinite Games (Carse), “A Rape in Cyberspace” (Dibbel), Ender’s Game (Card), “The Veldt” (Bradbury). View: Selections from Total Recall, War Games, Tron.

Week 8: The Matrix

In continuation of the previous week, it seems that today’s world is already “interpenetrated” between virtual worlds and reality. Having established the importance of gaming worlds, we now turn to the technologies of virtual reality, and investigate the state of the art, and what virtuality can tell us about our actual existence.

Read: Selections from Snow Crash (Stevenson), View: Selections from Lawnmower Man, The Matrix, eXistenZ, “Ship in a Bottle,” (Star Trek: TNG).

Week 9: Mobile and Locative Technologies

For a while, there was talk of “cybernomads,” those who could roam from place to place and never really be far from the network. The idea that “meatspace” matters is now common within cyberculture, and the rapid increase in wireless networks and location aware technologies now makes this much more important. What began as mere cellular telephones now put powerful computers easily at hand, and this has resulted in newly mobile lifestyles and social formations, and the first signs of locative and augmented realities.

Read: Selections from Spook Country (Gibson), Little Brother (Doctorow), “The Locative Utopia” (Tuters). Watch: Selections from Strange Days.

Week 10: Cyborgs

The most extremely mobile technology is technology that is part of you. Cyborgs (“cybernetic organisms,” or mixes between humans and technology), have often been envisioned as part of a far-off future, but in fact there are now mechanical robots controlling biological organisms and biological matter controlling mechanical robots. But the argument can be made that eyeglasses, for example, create cyborg forms. This conceptualization of humans as inherently cyborgs brings back questions of what it is to be human, and of posthumanity.

Read: Selections from “The Man That Was Used Up” (Poe), “Bicentennial Man” (Asimov), Cyborg Manifesto (Haraway). Watch: Selections from Cyberman, RoboCop, Ghost in the Shell, Iron Man, Pi.

Week 11: Cross-cultural and Anachronistic Influences

Cyberculture is heavily influenced by a mix of themes and global cultures that is particular, and far-reaching. In the work already encountered, we have seen indications of this. Particularly influential is Japanese culture, often through the lens of Japanese animation. Rastafarianism also appears frequently, as does pirate lore, cowboy themes, and Chinese motifs. Victorian themes appear frequently enough to give rise to a complete subculture: steampunk. And, as suggested by the term “cyberpunk,” clearly some elements of the punk ethic cross over. What is it about computing technology and the hacker aesthetic that seems to attract this sort of cultural bricolage?

Read: The Difference Engine (Gibson & Sterling), The Diamond Age (Stephenson), League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Moore & O’Neill). Selections from Watch: Selections from The Time Machine, Wild Wild West, Firefly, Blade Runner, Dr. Who, Equilibrium, Steamboy, Metropolis (2001).

Week 12: Collaborative Creative Culture

There has been a major shift in how people use the internet over the last five years. Sometimes this is called “Web 2.0” and sometimes it is called “Social Media.” Taking its cue from open source programming, people are using the internet as a means to work anonymously and collaboratively toward a shared goal. Wikipedia is just one example of this, and political campaigns are increasingly borrowing from that model.

Read: Selections from Little Brother (Doctorow), Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Doctorow), Wealth of Networks (Benkler) .Watch: Selections from Revolution OS, V For Vendetta .

Week 13: Recrafting

The industrial revolution spelled an end to craft, in favor of the assembly line and mass production. The pendulum is swinging the other way, with customization and one-off creation gaining new strength. Crafters and “makers” find their roots in hot rodding and hacking, but as amateurs are able to access “prosumer” level tools, they are able to make products that combine the best of store-bought and hand-crafted, using components that are off-the-shelf or out-of-the-dumpster.

Read: Selections from Diamond Age (Stephenson), Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Doctorow), “News from the Future” (O’Reilly), FAB (Gershenfeld), Make Magazine. Watch: Selections from Iron Man, Real Genius, The Great Escape, The Conversation, Brazil.

Week 14: Body and Brain Hacking

Brain-machine interfaces have long been a mainstay of science fiction, and are just one of the technologies that mark the shift in hacking from hardware to wetware. Daring individuals have always experimented on themselves, but the same tools that allow for expert-level crafting now mean that people can change themselves in a range of ways, from body-modification to genetic experimentation. Are we evolving our replacements?

Read: Selections from Oryx and Crake (Atwood), Schismatrix Plus (Sterling), Wetware (Rucker), H+, The Singularity Is Near (Kurzweil). Watch: Selections from Gattaca, X-Men, Becoming Transhuman.

Course Policies

Participation: You are expected to participate in each class. There will be several opportunities to earn credit during class-time. While there will be extra-credit opportunities, students who do not attend class on a day when an activity is presented or a quiz administered will have lost the opportunity to earn those points.

Respect: Each participant in the course–the students, guests, and the professor–are expected to engage in civil, respectful dialog. Disagreements are both inevitable and encouraged: debating important ideas is at the heart of a good learning experience. But those debates should remain respectful of those engaged in them, and focused on the ultimate aim of increasing understanding.

Late work: Unless otherwise noted, work turned in after the deadline will be assessed a letter-grade penalty for each 48-hour delay in submission.

Integrity: Students are expected to create and submit original work for this course, and are responsible for understanding what constitutes plagiarism. At its heart, plagiarism occurs whenever you use someone’s ideas without citing them, or use their words without quoting and citing them. You must adhere to the Academic Integrity Policy found in the Student Handbook. While you are encouraged to talk about the ideas of the course with your classmates, this may not occur during exams. And while you are welcome to check and edit one another’s work for written assignments, the actual writing must be yours alone. Acts in violation of the Integrity Policy will result in significant and long-term penalties. Students who plagiarize or otherwise cheat often claim time constraints as the reason. Please plan accordingly, and if faced with a zero on an unfinished assignment, be assured that this is much better than a black mark for cheating. If you ever have a question about how to effectively cite (or how to avoid plagiarism), please contact the instructor–he is happy to help.

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  1. alana
    Posted 11/20/2008 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I want to take this course. Might want to include something on the mainstreaming of the geeks. I recall articles during the dot-com boom about how it was now hip to be a geek. Not just geek pride, but mainstreaming of geekdom.

  2. Posted 11/26/2008 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    This course as outlined would be challenging for graduate students. I think you may want to revisit the course for undergraduate levels. Specifically, the sheer amount of reading (even assuming that the selections will be reasonably slim) is off-putting. But with that said, I too would like to take this class. In a way, it almost feels like there’s more than one class being rolled into this course. You’re bridging social, technological, and media history with works that encompass the futuristic, the fantastical, and the downright fictional. I get the approach… look at all the different facets from all the different angles and try to apprehend the core concept. I think that for an undergraduate class you might want to shave two units off of the syllabus somehow, maybe three, and redistribute the remaining time so that the last two or three weeks of the semester are spent guiding the students toward some kind of synthesis of all the different pieces. Grad students are expected to be able to do this on their own… I’m wondering how much resistance the undergrad crowd will give you if they feel lost and overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of the subject’s scope.

    An interesting thought occurs to me with your use of the phrase “post human”. I think there’s an underlying philosophy being begged there that humanity is somehow separate from or distinct from nature itself. Therefore we have this philosophical dichotomy where anything produced by living beings aside from humans gets called “natural” whereas anything that we human animals produce gets considered as an imposition on nature. I’m in favor of viewing humans as the animals we are, and technology as being one of our evolutionary advantages. As such, everything we humans produce is a product of humanity AND part of nature, from the asphalt of our roads to the nuclear waste products from our power plants. All natural, just processed by humanity. Technology, cyberpunk, and cyberculture are all just as human as the Middle Ages were. Just different technology. So to my way of thinking, we’ll never be “Post Human”. We may create monsters, but they’ll be built in our own image, and just like with other technological disasters in the past (the Hindenberg, Chernobyl, the Titanic, New Orleans levees, etc) we react with horror and (hopefully!) build a better mousetrap.

    Oh, and you lose major points by not including the remake of Battlestar Galactica (does it get any more cybercultural than that?) in the cyborg unit. And where’s Asimov’s ‘four laws’ from the I, Robot series? Or reference to Dune and the prohibitions against thinking machines? Just sayin’. The cyberculture has its Cassandras as well.

    But yeah, this looks like a hell of a course. A graduate course.

  3. Posted 11/26/2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm. Well, I’m tempted to hold my tongue, but I won’t. The page count here is less than the campus-wide required QU101. If you can’t read 30-40 pages in 9 hours (especially when in some weeks those are from graphic novels), freshman year is a good time to find out. At least for some of the QU syllabi online (PO101, for example), this is right in line. Beyond this, my hope is that we will attract to the undergrad interactive program particularly able students.

    As I note in a more recent post, I’m continually surprised by how little graduate students expect to read (and do) in our program. Granted, it is a professional, far more than academic, program, but my reading lists for ICM courses remain at about a third of the length of my communication (academic) seminars at Buffalo. They are about equivalent to those in the professional program I taught in.

    In many of the courses in my own graduate program, we were expected to read one or two books a week. Of course, the standard load when I was a grad student was between two and three courses a semester, and it was strongly recommended that you not take on part time work while a graduate student. Those who did work part time generally took only a course or two each semester.

    I’m deliberately staying away from “soft” science fiction (with regard to fantasy elements), though some of these issues are already covered. Some of the New Battlestar Galactica might be worth including, though I’m not sure many of the elements there are not better explored in earlier work. E.g., although Dune is one of my favorite books, I think with the combo of Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist stories, and with Atwood’s genetic stuff, we get a better run at some of those questions.

    The breadth is there for an obvious reason: it’s a 101 survey course. Just as poli sci 101 covers everything from social contract to elections, we’re doing a pretty broad look at cyberculture and its discontents.

  4. Posted 12/2/2008 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    *grin* You asked for opinions, you got opinions. You didn’t ask for only those opinions which totally agree.

    I don’t buy the justification that the number of pages of reading each week has a direct correlation with the amount of thinking that needs to get done to apprehend the basic ideas. Survey course or not, I’m sticking by my prediction that your undergrad students will balk specifically at the amount of reading for the syllabus as written.

    Yet on the other hand, I’m a big fan of teaching to higher expectations and letting the class ramp up to meet them. I’ll be watching this blog to see how the course turns out.

    Something else I need to keep in mind is that undergrad classes tend to meet in multiple day sessions, not single seminar sessions, so that would diffuse the assignments somewhat by allowing two sessions for discussion and thought each week. It would give the class the opportunity to see where the instructor is thinking on the class lesson for the first session, and over the break revisit the materials (yeah, I know, ‘revisit’ is optimistic) or at least think about the subject in a more guided nature. In that framework I could see the full courseload working.

    Either way it’ll be interesting to see how things go.

  5. Posted 1/5/2009 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    This course looks amazing. I’d explicitly contrast the role of technology in utopia (e.g., Banks, B. Fuller) and distopia (1984, We, Brave New World), and discuss human computer interaction, especially the move toward social interfaces ( Best,


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