A course mixing computer history, computer science, and science fiction
This spring, I’ve started teaching a “Special Topics” course in the department of communication at Utah. I call the course “The Culture of Computing.” The goal is to explore the history and culture of computing (largely in the US context) through three streams: historical scholarship (predominantly the excellent history from Paul Ceruzzi), the writings of computer scientists, and science fiction. The basic questions we’re exploring include: what exactly is a computer? How are computers used? How have they affected our culture, and how do they reflect our culture? What is intelligence? Can intelligence be created in a machine? What is the computer’s heritage as a military machine? What role does the Internet play in our lives? What role do women play in the culture of computing? Where do we go from here?
To give an example, if we want to explore the idea of computers and labor, we can do the following:
- Consider the original meaning of the word “computer”: a person who computes. As David Grier’s excellent book shows, from the late 19th century on, the work of tabulating astronomical or ballistics tables was done in rationalized, factory-like settings where one person might do addition, one subtraction, and one division. This work was predominantly done by women.
- Examine how computerization of work affected labor processes (here I’m thinking of David Noble’s work).
- Look at fictional depictions of computerization of labor and the larger move to rationalization of bureaucratization of daily life. A great example is Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, as is Philip K. Dick’s story “Autofac” or Asimov’s “Profession.” Of course, we can go back to Lang’s Metropolis for early depictions, too. And we can draw on The Matrix for a very hellish depiction of how living labor can become enslaved by dead labor.
- Read the work of computer scientists and engineers who link brains to robots. Look no further than Tim Lenoir’s recent talk at Frontiers of New Media for an overview of this.
So, as you can see, given the three streams and the big questions being asked, this course is probably not a well-oiled machine, but rather a rusty spaceship held together with crumbling epoxy and prayers. It’s pretty exciting, but always in danger of falling apart. But really, I don’t have any lofty goals with the course, other than to always ask how we culturally perceive of computers and for the students to have a strong grasp of the history of computing.
Ultimately, I think this course isn’t really about computers at all, but about what it means to be human in the age of the smart machine. As Sherry Turkle has argued, we use computers as “things to think with” about ourselves. We all know (and probably take for granted) the computational metaphors we use to describe ourselves – we think of our brains as binary computers, we talk about “processing” events, we talk about having enough “bandwidth” to handle workloads, and so on. Given that my students (and I) have only known a world of PCs and networks, we really must critique this computational mindset – we can’t take it for granted – because its ubiquity informs our very perception of how the world (should) work.