Digital Design in History (STSS/H 4972)

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Digital Design in History (STSS/H 4972)

Tuesdays and Fridays 10:00AM – 11:50AM

Room: Sage 2707

Dr. David A. Banks

Office: Sage 5205

Office Hours: By Appointment


Course Description

This course will trace the history of digital media, design, and art from the 18th to the 21st century, focusing not only on the development of new technologies and design practices, but also on the philosophical and cultural shifts about knowledge, art, and design that occur through and with digital and electronic technology. Through a combination of readings and hands-on interactions with digital design tools, students will think through how the social and technical qualities of digital design tools influence the ways in which we construct and create art, technology, and knowledge.


How does a smartphone work? The answer has many layers: the engineer can explain the technical workings, the experienced user can tell you how to operate it correctly, and the person working at the wireless store can compare its features to other phones that are available that year. How though, does the smartphone work as a participant in social settings? Thinking even more broadly, if we are all conscious beings moving around the world in our fleshy bodies, what particular parts of those bodies are transformed, obliterated, extended, or recreated with the introduction of digital technology?

In this course we will test our assumptions about digital technology including these popular ideas:

·       The digital exists in a separate “world” that is distinct from the “real” world.

·       Technology and magic are opposites.

·       Social interactions that happen over digital networks are inherently artificial while ones that happen in geographic bodily co-presence (aka face-to-face) are always more authentic or real.

·       Technology makes our lives easier or lets us get more done so we have more time to get to things that matter.

·       Digital technology is democratizing.

·       Digital technology is authoritarian.

We may find answers that contradict across time, geography, and context and that is just fine. In fact these sorts of seeming incompatibilities are what draw out important ideas and set us up for lively and interesting debates.

Course Objectives

By the end of this course, students in good academic standing will…

·       Have a solid grasp on what “digital” means in a social, philosophical, and historical context.

·       Understand some of the richer, more nuanced interplays between digital technologies and societies including the way they mutually shape one-another.

·       Clearly articulate the role of digital technology in the broad social trends and movements of the modern era.

·       Have experience in forming an analytical thesis backed up by evidence and ideas drawn from others’ work.

Course Structure and Expectations

This is a reading-intensive course. You are expected to spend no less than three hours a week on reading and preparing for class. Being prepared for class means reading what is listed for that day, bringing the reading to class so that we can engage with it in detail, and generally following directions for assignments and activities. Make sure to take reading notes so that you come ready to have a discussion.

Readings, videos, and/or podcasts listed on the schedule are to be completed before coming to class. That means on September 12 you should come to class having read Gibson’s The Theory of Affordances. Weekly assignments will vary in length so it is up to you to look through the syllabus and apportion your time correctly. When reading longer articles, particularly ones from peer-reviewed journals, you will want to take reading notes and/or annotate your copy of the reading so that you can recall details better, faster, and easier.

All deadlines are 11:59PM on the listed date unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Attendance Policy

You can miss class three times for any reason, with no documentation necessary. If you expect to miss about that much class or more (for sports, clubs, etc.) please get in touch with me. If you miss a class meeting that had an in-class design activity or presentation that you were supposed to be a part of, you must complete the standard make up assignment within a week. The standard make up assignment (regardless of an excused or unexcused absence) is writing a 400 – 500-word reflection on the assigned material for that day. It is the student’s responsibility to check the syllabus and ask if they missed any in-class work. Not making up an in-class presentation or design activity will result in a 0 for that assignment. For every absence after the third, 5% will be taken off of your final grade.


Late assignments automatically get a 5% deduction per day and are not accepted at all 48 hours after the initial due date.

·       Class participation and memos 20%

·       In-class presentations 15%

·       Midterm paper 15%

·       In-class design activities 20%

·       Final design project proposal 10%

·       Final design project 20%



Class Participation & Memos

A big part (20% to be exact) of this class is discussion and answering questions about the reading in class. Discussing the finer points of an author’s ideas requires careful reading prior to class and having a copy of the reading in class to refer to. You can have the readings on digital devices or printed out, but you must have them. At some point in discussion I may ask you to go find quotes or re-read passages to get a better understanding of a complicated topic. This is skill that will pay many dividends in the future.

It’s important to learn how to confidently talk amongst peers but I understand that is not within everyone’s ability. We will also have short memos assigned at intermittent times. These are 200–500-word thoughts and reflections that give you an opportunity to loosely and creatively compare two or more subjects. I want you to take intellectual risks here so grading is much more about the evidence that you’ve digested the course material than getting anything “correct.” A memo is always due the night before the following class. For example your first memo assigned on Tuesday September 12 is due Thursday September 14 before 11:59PM. 

In-Class Presentations

After week 4 you will be asked to sign up for in-class presentations on readings. Depending on the size of the class and the results of our survey presentations may be individual or in a group with a peer review component that will help determine individuals’ grades. These presentations will be either 20 minutes (groups) or 10 minutes (individual) and will focus on main ideas and the subjects of the readings’ relationship to the history of digital design in general.

Midterm paper

For your midterm you will write a paper of a pre-determined length (probably no more than 2000 words) that will utilize two readings from class to make an analytical point about a topic of your choosing. Such a paper might explore the history of nested comments or how digital publishing has impacted journalism. A successful midterm will have a defined thesis statement, correctly cite course material, and reflect a general understanding of digital design’s impact on society through time.

In-class design activities

From time to time we will do in-class activities meant to illustrate a concept or explore a topic in greater detail. These activities will usually take up a significant portion of our class meeting and are graded separately from general class participation.

Final design project proposal

In week 11 you will be asked to form groups to start work on your final design project (see below). On week 13 your group must submit a project proposal that outlines what your design project will cover, what class resources it will utilize, and the scope of your deliverables. A full assignment sheet will be sent out on week 11.

Final design project

In groups of 3 – 6 people you will mock up a designed object, service, experience, or organization that says something about the history of digital design. This might be an imagined art installation that depicts the role of messaging apps in families or a product announcement for a new kind of smart sign for highways. The crucial point is to explore and cite three course resources and explore the ideas found in them through the design process. Deliverables for this project will include a presentation of no more than 10 minutes, some sort of final product that can take the form of a physical prototype or images on slides, and a co-authored paper that is 500 words per team member.




Week 1

Friday September 1

Introductions, Go over syllabus

Visit the course survey and complete it. (Should take about 5 minutes.)


UNIT I – Building a Vocabulary for the Digital

Week 2 – Precursors to the Digital

Tuesday September 5

Friday September 8

  • Eglash, Ron Bamana Sand Divination: Recursion in Ethnomathmatics (PDF)

Week 3 – Spectacle and Reproduced Images

Tuesday September 12

Friday September 15

Week 4- Affordance Theory

Tuesday September 19

  • READ: JJ Gibson’s The Theory of Affordances (PDF First page is cut off a bit but you don't lose too much.)

Friday September 22

  • Read: Davis, Jenny and James B. Chouinard’s Theorizing Affordances: From Request to Refuse (PDF)

Week 5 - Digital Dualism and the Controversy Over Conversation

Tuesday, September 26

Friday, September 29