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 (temporarily 5208)

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 (report, presentation, and peer-review) 30%


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 an article from any of the following academic journals:

•    New Media & Society:

•    Technology & Culture:

•    First Monday:

You may choose any article in these journals with the exception of book reviews and any articles already assigned for general class reading. Please tell me what article you have chosen by October 6 and fill out the presentation scheduling form located here:

These presentations should have a Powerpoint or some other visual emailed to me before class begins. Presentations are to be done individually and should last at least 10 minutes. They should focus on the main ideas of the text, a very brief description of the author(s), and how the article contributes to understanding the history of digital design in general.

Midterm paper

For your midterm you will write a paper between 1750-2150 words in length 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 well-defined thesis statement.  A good thesis statement makes a debatable claim and tells the reader what the main focus or take-away of your essay will be. The thesis statement is usually located somewhere within the first two paragraphs of the essay. For more on what makes a good thesis statement check out the Purdue Writing Lab.
  • Correctly cite course material. Please use in-line citations and provide a bibliography or work cited page at the end. Any major citation style (MLA, APA, IEEE, Chicago) is acceptable. Make sure to cite at least two of the assigned media we have encountered or will encounter in this class. This can also include what you read for your presentation. Having only these two citations, however, will be considered an under-researched paper. 
  • Reflect a general understanding of digital design’s impact on society through time. Your paper should have a historical element to it but do not focus only on technology. You should also be paying attention to changing social norms, economic conditions, and/or political scenarios.

Mid terms will be graded on the following rubric that totals 15 points:

  • Overall polish and attention to detail. Has this paper been proof-read for spelling and grammar mistakes? Does it read easily? (5 points)
  • Citations of at least two class sources and evidence of research beyond class resources. Did you do ten minutes of googling, quote something from, and say that the commentary there is on par with what was in a peer reviewed journal? Or did you do some careful research on the topic and seek out expert opinions? (5 points)
  • Evidence that the thesis statement and overall paper is informed by ideas encountered in class. Do you make big assumptions about how technology impacts society without thinking through affordance theory? Have you assumed all people looking at their phones are subhuman automatons when we've read several readings that say otherwise? You can certainly argue against conclusions made by authors we've encountered but you still have to grapple with their ideas. A good way to avoid losing points in this area is to avoid phrases that are too broad to be true (e.g. "since the beginning of time", "every human being", "we as a society", "the nature of technology", or "like never before"). (5 points)

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.

Fake News Design Final

Design Context

According to Neiman Labs, 44% of American adults get their news from Facebook. It has also been shown in Facebook’s own A/B testing that displaying non-partisan voting information substantially increased users’ likelihood of voting. According to an analysis from Buzzfeed News, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.” In August of 2016, shares of fake news stories surpassed real news and continued to do so up until election day. Fake news for this assignment is defined as information presented as a factual journalistic product that contains severely misleading or verifiably false information.

Researchers also contend that the sharing of news has more to do with declaring an allegiance to a particular worldview and political ideology than distributing information. Doctoral researcher Hannah Barton puts it this way, stories “go viral to the degree they presented audiences opportunities to express opinions.” Therefore, a service or product that marks information as misleading or false is more likely to yield a negative reaction to the service or product, than cause a person to change their behavior. To change the ratio of fake news to real news requires much more fundamental changes to institutions, individuals’ practices, and technological affordances. Just as industrial pollutants were reigned in with a mix of new technologies, regulations, and political organizing, we seem to be at a similar tipping point with Silicon Valley’s influence over politics.

Group Formation

You may choose a group between 3 and 5 members.


You are a new Committee for National Morale tasked with delivering a report to not only governmental leaders but the heads of major media and Silicon Valley organizations. The report should outline the actions private and public institutions need to take in order to cultivate a media-literate public that is both critically engaged with the news that they consume and capable of utilizing that information in democratic decision-making scenarios (e.g. voting, forming grass-roots advocacy organizations, making financial choices, and so on).

Your report —in a minimum of 1500 words with citations for at least two pieces of assigned course material— should follow this outline (minor alterations are allowed for the sake of narrative flow):

1)    Introduction / Outline of the problem.

a)    What groups / individuals / demographic groups are behaving problematically? Remember: this problem got attention because of Trump-supporting fake news leading up to the election but that does not encompass the entire problem which extends beyond our borders and far back in time.

b)    What are the consequences of their problematic behavior?

c)    A very short (one or two sentences) description of your proposed interventions.

2)    Social theory of digital media usage

a)    Why and in what contexts do people share news over social media?

b)    What are the underlying causes of fake news propagation?

3)    Proposed action

a)    What cultural or artistic interventions need to exist to foster better contexts and motivations for social media usage. Remember: the least effective campaigns tell people to directly do something.

b)    What institutions should be built to reduce the negative consequences of profit-driven social media companies? Remember: we live in an era of record-low trust in present institutions.

c)    What new technologies should be implemented in existing systems? Remember: most fake news is not a matter of accidently sharing unverified sources. Some sort of fact-checking service is not a suitable recommendation.

This report is due as a .docx file sent to by 11:59PM on December 5, 2017.

Your group must also make a presentation that describes the three main sections of your report. This presentation should be between 13 and 17 minutes long, and each group member must speak. Any presentation materials, digital or otherwise, must be turned in immediately after the class meeting in which you present.

Grading Rubric

You can earn a maximum of 50 points for this assignment.

·      10 Points: overall polish of the report and following directions. Does it read well? Are there obvious spelling and grammar errors? Is there a work cited section and is it properly formatted? Did you following directions and effectively answering the questions in the outline? Have you cited enough class sources? (You can cite as many things as you want, so long as two are class resources.) Is the report long enough? Does it generally follow the prescribed outline? Did everyone in your presentation speak? Was the presentation engaging or was it obvious you did not practice? Did the presentation time fall within the prescribed range?

·      20 Points: Effective use of information to make solid arguments. Is there a clear relationship between what you cite and the recommendations that you made, or do your recommendations run counter to what you cite? In other words, would the authors you cite agree with your proposals? I.e. This would be wrong: Tufecki shows how more data can create more effective ads because it directs the most relevant information to the right audiences, thus allowing them to make rational choices on which candidate to support. This is wrong because she reminds us that, “Social scientists increasingly understand that much of our decision making is irrational and emotional.” And that most of the targeted advertising selected through data analytics pulls on heart strings.

·      20 Points: Evidence of class content recall. Regardless of what you cite in your report, I’ll be on the lookout for recommendations or claims in your report that run counter to what we’ve learned in class thus far. If you say that, for example, algorithms are a great way to remove bias from a decision-making process, that would cause you to lose points.

·      All groups will earn a baseline grade. A peer-review survey will go out on December 5 which will determine individuals’ grades. The peer-review has the ability to raise or lower an individuals’ grade up to one letter grade (5 points).

Notes to Get You Started

·      Remember to use our readings as tools and ask yourself questions like: what can our research into Ghanaian Internet café users teach us about our own media practices?

·      Don’t approach this as a problem in need of fixing. While the goal is to make an impact on fake news, your charge is primarily to, “cultivate a media-literate public” which means creating digital designs that intervene at multiple levels: culture, law, politics, economics, and technology.

·      Sometimes it is a helpful thought experiment to start with the desired end condition and work backwards.

·      You want to focus on the desire or underlying motivations for sharing fake news, not the technological affordances or other present conditions that allow or encourage the spread of fake news.  




UNIT I – Building a Vocabulary for the Digital

Week 2 – Precursors to the Digital

Tuesday September 5

·       Bowman, Leslie Fiber Optics

·       Complete survey by end of day.

Friday September 8

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


Make a fortune-telling system that helps first years divine their college years. It should,

·       have an interesting, meaningful way to get a seed value. Think about meaningful artifacts that can be counted, but their number could predictably fall into a relatively small range. Hours, containers of food or drink, steps, classroom numbers, etc are all good places to start. 

·       You must iterate at least twice (i.e. seed value gets fed into a second step and then the result of that step gets fed into another which produces a new value)

·       Assign meaning to possible outcomes so that the process is “useful” for weaving a story. Meaning that if you run your geomancy a few times you get several different coherent “stories” or fortunes. 

Week 3 – Spectacle and Reproduced Images

Tuesday September 12

·       READ: Tiernan Morgan & Lauren Purje’s “An Illustrated Guide to Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’”

·       WATCH: The new iPhone announcement scheduled for that day. You can find the whole keynote at but you only need to watch about 15 minutes of it.

·       OPTIONAL: Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle.”

MEMO: Write 500 words on how the iPhone event is an example of Debord’s concept of the spectacle.

Friday September 15

·       Benjamin, Walter Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:


Week 4- Affordance Theory

Tuesday September 19

·       READ: JJ Gibson’s The Theory of Affordances (PDF)


List 10 affordances for each of the following.

·       The interior wall of a building.

·       Paper clip

·       A contiguous field of grass over 100x100 feet in area.*

·       A contiguous square of asphalt about 10x10 feet in area.*

·       A leaf about the size of a human hand

·       The attentive student

*Go anywhere that has at least this much grass or asphalt and consider the affordances of that area as it actually exists, not as an abstracted entity.

Remember! Describing an affordance requires a subject, object, and predicate.

Friday September 22

·       Read: Davis, Jenny and James B. Chouinard’s Theorizing Affordances: From Request to Refuse


Week 5 - Digital Dualism and the Controversy Over Conversation

Tuesday, September 26

·       Read: Lauren Cassani Davis interviewing Sherry Turkle:

·       Read: Nicholas Carr’s, Is Google Making Us Stupid?:

Friday, September 29

·       Read: Nathan Jurgenson’s, The IRL Fetish

·       Read: Jenny Davis’ Our Devices are Not Turning Us Into Unfeeling Robots: 

·       Read: David Banks’ Making Conversation Great Again


Week 6 – The Material Establishment of Digital Networks

October 3

·       Read: David Banks’ Lines of Power: Availability to Networks as a Social Phenomenon:

October 6

·       Watch: Eden Medina’s "Big Data Lessons from Our Cybernetic Past"

·       Watch: Fred Turner’s “From Counter-culture to Cyberculture” keynote talk:

Presentation sign-ups due.

Week 7 – Digital Labor Pt 1

October 10 – (Indigenous Peoples Day, No Class)

If you’re bored though, consider watching Stafford Beer describe the nation-wide data network he had designed for Chile: (Will give more context to last Friday's class.)

October 13

·       Watch: Sex Work and the Web keynote panel of Theorizing the Web 2014:

·       We’ll have a skype-in from two sex workers, Jessie and PJ Sage who primarily do their work over the internet.

        Alternate Assignment: please read the following essay and then send me 500 words where you attempt to describe something else in your everyday life that is a simulacrum just as the articles does for pumpkin spice lattes:

Week 8 – Cyberspace

October 17

·       Read: John Perry Barlow's Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace

·       Read: Rey, PJ The Myth of Cyberspace

October 20

·       Watch: TRON (1982)

Midterms are due by 11:59PM on October 22nd.


Week 9 – World Wide Webs

October 24

·       Read: Virginia Eubanks’ Digital Dead End Chapter 2 (PDF)

October 27

·       Read: Jenna Burrell’s User Agency in the Middle Range: Rumors and the Reinvention of the Internet in Accra, Ghana (PDF)


Week 10– Designing (Digital) Power

October 31

·       Read: Frank Pasquale’s Digital Star Chamber:

November 1

From 10AM to 9PM EMPAC is hosting a live demo of Microsoft’s HoloLens, “the world’s first fully untethered, self-contained holographic computer.” More information here:’s-hololens-and-future-human-computer-interaction

Going to the demo and/or the talk at 7PM and writing a memo of approximately 500 words that cites a class reading will add 5% to your midterm grade.

November 3

·       READ: Zeynep Tufecki’s: “Beware the Smart Campaign”

·       READ: Adrian Chen’s “The Agency”

·       READ: Brian Feldman’s “Election Interference Is What Facebook Is Built For”


Week 11- This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

November 7

·       READ: Pages 1 – 47 of Phillips’ This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

·       Begin forming groups for final design project.

November 10

·       READ: Pages 49 – 113 of Phillips’ This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things


Week 12 – This is Why We (Still) Can’t Have Nice Things

November 14

·       READ: Pages 115 – 152 of Phillips’ This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

November 17

·       READ: Pages 153 – 170 of Phillips’ This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things


Week 13 – Cities and Digital Design

November 20

EMPAC event Liveware takes place 7:30 – 9:15PM

“Liveware is a new performance duo comprised of Michael Century and Shawn Lawson, both Professors in the Rensselaer Arts Department. The name Liveware plays off a slang term that denotes the “human operator” in computer systems. Lawson is an expert practitioner of “live-coding” using graphics languages he developed himself. Century performs on piano and accordion, and uses software he developed allowing live manipulations.” More information here:

Attending this event and writing a memo of about 500 words citing a class reading will add 5% to your final class participation grade.

November 21

·       Alyssa Bereznak’s Can Real Life Compete With an Instagram Playground?

·       Kyle Chayka’s Welcome to Airspace

November 24 (Thanksgiving Holiday – No Class)


Week 14 - Digital Labor Pt 2

November 28

·       Adrian Chen’s “Meet the Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings out of Your Facebook Feed.”

December 1

·       In-Class group work


Week 15

December 5

·       In-class group work

December 8

Final Presentations


Week 16

December 12

Final Presentations