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Helmreich, Stefan, 21A.350J The Anthropology of Computing, Fall 2004. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare),  (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Anthropology of Computing

Fall 2004

Photo of four women holding computer boards.
U.S. Army Photo, number 163-12-62. Left: Patsy Simmers, holding ENIAC board Next: Mrs. Gail Taylor, holding EDVAC board Next: Mrs. Milly Beck, holding ORDVAC board Right: Mrs. Norma Stec, holding BRLESC-I board. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Army. Source: Muuss, Mike. "Historic Computer Images.")

Course Highlights

This course features notes for many of the lectures, plus a full bibliography in the readings section.

Course Description

This course examines computers anthropologically, as meaningful tools revealing the social and cultural orders that produce them. We read classic texts in computer science along with works analyzing links between machines and culture. We explore early computation theory and capitalist manufacturing; cybernetics and WWII operations research; artificial intelligence and gendered subjectivity; the creation and commodification of the personal computer; the hacking aesthetic; non-Western histories of computing; the growth of the Internet as a military, academic, and commercial project; the politics of identity in cyberspace; and the emergence of "evolutionary" computation.



Students will write three 5 to 7 page papers. Toward the third paper, students will give a presentation exploring the social meaning of an artifact from contemporary computing not covered in our reading - e.g. the iPod™, Xbox®, or Google™ search services.

Grading Policy

Each of the three assignments represents 30% of the subject grade. Students will also be evaluated on class participation, including discussion and in-class writing exercises (10% of grade). Punctual attendance obligatory. There is no final.

Required Texts

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965. ISBN: 9780262730099.

Edwards, Paul. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997. ISBN: 9780262550284.

Adam, Alison. Artificial Knowing: Gender and the Thinking Machine. London: Routledge, 1998. ISBN: 9780415129633.

Ceruzzi, Paul E. A History of Modern Computing. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. ISBN: 9780262532037.

Helmreich, Stefan. Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780520208001.

Eglash, Ronald. African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780813526133.

Bear, Greg. Blood Music. New York: iBooks, 2002. ISBN: 9780743444965.


1 Introduction  
2 Medieval and Renaissance Cosmology and Clockwork  
3 The Industrial Revolution and Calculating Engines: Analytics of Capital and Gender Difference in the Work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace  
4 World War Two: Cybernetics, Communication, and Control  
5 The Cold War: Coding and Closing the World Paper 1 due
6 Artificial Intelligence and the Construction of Cognition and Gender  
7 Artificial Life  
8 Postcolonial Recalculations: Legacies of African Mathematical Systems  
9 Computing Counterculture: Hacking and Gaming from PC to Internet Paper 2 due
10 Properties of Identity and Collectivity in Cyberspace: Gender, Race, Nation, Opensource

Guest Lecturer: Anita Chan
11 The Materiality of Networking  
12 DNA Computing Paper 3 due   Tell A Friend