My dear friend Christina is as humble as she is brilliant, which makes it easy to overlook things like this. Dr. Christina Dunbar-Hester’s Ph.D level syllabus on technology and media at the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers was profiled in The Atlantic back in September and I only just found out about it by poking around her Rutgers bio.
Her comments start by saying that basically, everybody likes to talk about how technology drives political and social change, but it’s important to look at how culture shows up in technology itself. Her dissertation, “Propagating Technology, Propagating Community?” dealt in part with how geeks, particularly political geeks, form their identities. For example, how do you form a geek hobby group with gender equity when the people who show up and WANT that gender equity, are mostly men? Bonus: a friend of a friend called it the only funny dissertation they’d ever read.
In her syllabus, she talks about all sorts of juicy aspects of technology and cultural context. She covers the Cyborg Manifesto, geek politics, technological determinism, how technology designers imagine their users, who gets left out of technology, and how ex-hippies, influenced by Cold War-era information flows, gave us both the Whole Earth Catalog and Wired magazine.
Obviously, there’s plenty for a thinkin’ person to sink hir teeth into, but there’s so much here for the rest of us plebes as well. As someone who has spent a lot of time and energy helping people get more engaged with technology, I can tell you that questions of how to form community, how people come to technology with history, baggage, and sometimes fear, and how to talk about cultural assumptions to people who think that technology is neutral, well, that’s pure gold. Or titanium. Or tantalum. Whatever.
Here are a couple more quotes to warm up your critique centers:
“What are the consequences of linking the notion of human ‘progress’ with its moral overtones, to technology?”
“How did computers transform in our collective imagination from dehumanizing machines of command and control into tools for self-expression, shared consciousness, and a new frontier of digital utopia?”
“SCOT was developed to avoid the conclusion that a given design that “won out” did so because it was simply the “best” design–rather, SCOT asks what “best” is understood to mean, and according to whom, and why…”
“The fact that our MP3 players are designed for holding a lot of music that we play back at a relatively low resolution, and whether we can record, reconfigure, or remix on these devices (even the simple matter of whether they possess or lack a “record” button) are not arbitrary matters–in fact, the recording industry, media activists, users, and designers all have had different things to say about … how we should be able to use them…”