Note: I am not teaching this class in Spring 2020.
Check out STS 4040 and STS 2240 instead.

STS 3561 - Computing Cultures (Spring 2019)

Tue, Jan 22
Welcome, Computing Cultures!
An introduction to the class. We’ll review course mechanics and get a sense of the puzzles and problems we will tackle.

Here is some information on the 2013 UN Women campaign we discussed in class:

Action items:

Sign up for our course page on (we're "STS 3561").

Complete tutorial on how to avoid plagiarism (no need to send in grades).

Basics: Concepts, Tactics, Sensibilities

Thu, Jan 24
Some Pretty Big Claims about Computing
Much talk about computing is characterized by rather strong and simple narratives. In this session, we will analyze a number of examples, explore the notion of "cyberbole", and learn some useful analytical tools.
  • Woolgar, Steve. “Five Rules of Virtuality.” In Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality, edited by Steve Woolgar, 1–22. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Crawford, Kate. Think Again: Big Data. Foreign Policy, May 10, 2013.

Tue, Jan 29
Case 1: “Computers”
What are computers and where do they come from? We’ll look at some of the (surprising) ways in which people have approached the history of computing.


Grier, David Alan. “Human Computers: The First Pioneers of the Information Age.Endeavour 25, no. 1 (March 1, 2001): 28–32.

Lunenfeld, Peter. The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading: Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011, pp. 142-178 (Chapter: Generations).

Graham-Cumming, John, The Greatest Machine That Never Was. TEDxImperialCollege, 2012.

Thu, Jan 31
Case 2: “Users”
When people talk about computers, they also talk about “the user”. In this session, we’ll have a closer look at this rather strange and mystical figure.
  • Wyatt, Sally. “Non-Users Also Matter: The Construction of Users and Non-Users of the Internet.” In: How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology, edited by Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, 67–79. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2003.


Woolgar, Steve. “Configuring the User: The Case of Usability Trials.” The Sociological Review 38, no. S1 (May 1, 1990): 58–99.

Tue, Feb 5
Case 3: “Cultures”
New technologies are often said to be embedded in, represent, or make up “cultures”. But what does that actually mean? How can we think about cultures of computing? For this class, we will try to answer some of these questions through an ethnography of internet scamming.


Lysloff, Rene T.A. "Musical Community on the Internet: An On-line Ethnography." Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 2 (2003): 233–263.

Turner, Fred. "Where the Counterculture Met The New Economy: The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community." Technology and Culture 46, no. 3 (2005): 485–512.

Deadline for Essay 1 (Offline Life Diary): In class
Thu, Feb 7
No Class

Section 1: Private Worlds

Tue, Feb 12
Privacy and Boundaries
What counts as “private” and “public”, and why does it matter? How do people go about drawing the line between the two in practice?
Thu, Feb 14
Networked Privacy
Privacy is not just an everyday practical challenge, but also an important political issue. In this session, we’ll review and compare different approaches to conceptualizing privacy.


Nissenbaum, Helen. “A Contextual Approach to Privacy Online.” Daedalus 140, no. 4 (2011): 32–48.

Tue, Feb 19
Networked Privacy (ii)

Thu, Feb 21
Surveillance: Terms & Conditions May apply


    Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” n.d., 3–7.

Thu, Feb 28
What to do in view of all this talk about surveillance? We’ll have a look at some of the strategies people have employed to deal with new forms of surveillance.


Brunton, Finn, and Helen Nissenbaum. “Vernacular Resistance to Data Collection and Analysis: A Political Theory of Obfuscation.” First Monday 16, no. 5 (April 26, 2011).

The Zuckerberg Files.” The Zuckerberg Files. Accessed December 27, 2014.

Deadline for Essay 2: Friday, Mar 1, 5pm
Tue, Mar 5
We’ll have an in-class debate about a particular controversy. The exact topic will be announced closer to the date.
  • Prepare for discussion by doing you own research. What issues have come up on around the topic? Who is concerned about what? Have there been specific cases that can illuminate our understanding of the case?

Section 2: Data Worlds

Thu, Mar 7
Raw, Big, and Other Data
Data is “the new oil”, people say. But what actually counts as “data”? Is there such a thing as “raw” data?
  • Rosenberg, Daniel. “Data Before the Fact.” In Raw Data Is an Oxymoron, edited by Lisa Gitelman, 15–40. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.
Tue, Mar 12
Databases and Classification
Collecting information and entering it into a database sounds harmless. But in real life, the way we organize and process data can have profound consequences.
  • Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. “The Case of Race Classification and Reclassification under Apartheid.” In Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, 195-225. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
  • Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime. Spiegel & Grau: New York 2016, ch. 1 and 2.


Law, John. “Seeing Like a Survey.” Cultural Sociology 3, no. 2 (July 6, 2009): 239–56.

Thu, Mar 14
Activity: Algorithmic Walk
In this class, we will go on a walk – an algorithmic walk. Please dress appropriately. We will go rain or shine.
  • Instructions in class.
Tue, Mar 19
The Politics of Algorithms
We will debrief the walk and think a bit further about algorithms. How to make sense of these powerful yet inscrutable entities?


Helmreich, Stefan. "Recombination, Rationality, Reductionism and Romantic Reactions: Culture, Computers, and the Genetic Algorithm." Social Studies of Science 28, no. 1 (1998): 39–71.

Seaver, Nick. "Algorithmic Recommendations and Synaptic Functions." Limn no 2 (2016).

Ziewitz, Malte. "Governing Algorithms: Myth, Mess, and Methods." Science, Technology & Human Values 41, no. 1 (2016): 3–16.

Thu, Mar 21
Automation and Discrimination
Fairness is a big concern when it comes to “big data” applications. Who is responsible for associations and predictions made by statistical tools?


Ananny, Mike. “The Curious Connection Between Apps for Gay Men and Sex Offenders.” The Atlantic, April 14, 2011.

Tue, Mar 26
Rating Cultures
What happens when you invite people to rate their dishwashers, doctors, lawyers, hotels, haircuts, and ex-boyfriends online?
Thu, Mar 28
Design Challenge: Devise a Rating Scheme
We're going for an in-class design challenge: devise a rating scheme that solves a social problem (without creating too many new ones!).
  • No readings. Think about a social problem that might be tackled through some sort of review or rating scheme.
Deadline for Essay 3: Friday, Mar 29, 5pm
Tue, Apr 9
Poster Session and Presentations
We will conduct a poster session and present selected projects in class.
  • No readings.

Section 3: Material Worlds

Thu, Apr 11
The Stuff of Computing
In the final section, we will attend specifically to materialities. How to think about the "stuff" computing cultures are made off?
  • Licoppe, Christian. “Understanding and Reframing the Electronic Consumption Experience: The Interactional Ambiguities of Mediated Coordination.” In Living in a Material World: Economic Sociology Meets Science and Technology Studies, edited by Trevor Pinch and Richard Swedberg, 317–40. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
Tue, Apr 16
Maintenance and Invisible Work
This session is about the invisible work we all depend upon but rarely talk about: IT support, software maintenance, data cleaning.


Irani, Lilly C., and M. Six Silberman. “Turkopticon: Interrupting Worker Invisibility in Amazon Mechanical Turk.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 611–20. CHI ’13. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2013.

Thu, Apr 18
Global Trash
What happens to your iPhone 5 when you buy an iPhone 6? In this session, we will have a look at trash, and how it's travelling around the world with different implications for different people.
  • Gabrys, Jennifer. Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011, chapter 3, ‘Shipping and Receiving,’ pp. 74-100.
Tue, Apr 23
Undersea Networks
This session is about a set of things we take for granted: the vast network of undersea cables that connects us across continents and cultures.
Extended abstract for Essay 4 due: Wednesday, Apr 24, 9pm
Thu, Apr 25
Bonus Session: Your choice!
This session is kept open for a guest lecture or a topic of your choice.
  • TBD


Tue, Apr 30
Peer Review and Feedback
You’ll read and discuss each other’s feedback on extended abstracts.
  • Two assigned extended abstracts from your classmates.
Peer reviews due: before class
Thu, May 2
Movie discussion: TBD
  • TBD
Tue, May 7
Conclusion: Lessons and Leftovers
Time to say goodbye and look back at what we learned this semester.

Essay 4 due: Tuesday, May 14, 2019, 4:30 PM