Digital Zeitgeist

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses

From social networking via the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter to massively multiplayer online games, computer technology plays an ever-increasing role in our daily lives. Where may this phenomenon be taking us in the immediate (and not-so-immediate) future? Is there (or should there be) anything we can (or should) do about it? The miniaturization of electronic computers and the resulting increase in computing power, decrease in short-term cost to harness that power, and ubiquity of computer networks brings people and places together, making distances formerly thought of as insurmountable evermore trivial. With the advent of gigabit fiber-optic networks, smart phones, flip cameras, and RFID tags, information of all kinds (text, voice, images, movies, and more) can flow around the world—between people and objects and back again—in an instant. In this course, we will consider how information can be represented using bits on digital computers and how it can be communicated accurately, efficiently, and “automatically” on the Internet. We will consider some historical context: How does the rise of the Internet compare with the development of the printing press, the telegraph, radio, and television? We will focus on the evolution (or, some would say, revolution) in new media and how that leads to what journalist Bob Garfield refers to as the “Chaos Scenario”: the Internet's effect on traditional media (newspapers, magazines, books, radio, television, film, quaint objects known as “records,” you name it) and marketing as it all migrates online. In many ways, the plethora of smaller, cheaper, faster networked devices improves our quality of life. But we will also consider the dark side of a highly connected society: the more smart phones, the more workaholics; the more cellphone calls, text messages, and e-mails exchanged, the less privacy; the more iPads, the more music and video piracy; and the greater reach of the Internet, the greater the distribution of spam, pornography, and the likelihood of cyberterrorism. To tie many of these themes together, we will read some dystopian cyberpunk fiction that may make your hair (virtual or otherwise) stand on end. This is not a technical course, though at times we will discuss some details that lie behind certain crucial technologies; in particular, the Internet and the World Wide Web.