21A.350 / SP.484J / STS.086
The Anthropology of Computing
Fall 2004 MIT
Introduction to the class
This is ANTHROPOLOGY OF COMPUTING — and what that means is that we’ll be
looking at computers as cultural artifacts, and at the idea of computing itself as
connected to wider social, political, economic, ideological, and cultural contexts. In
other words, another name for this course would be CULTURES OF COMPUTING.
Think of CULTURE as the beliefs, ideas, ideologies that organize people’s ways of life
and that are also built into the technologies, infrastructures they use and inhabit.
I’ve organized this class roughly historically, at least to begin — since understanding
how ideas about computation, calculation, cognition have
can afford insight
into the various ways that computers have come into being. We will also pay
attention to different cultural genealogies, heritages for computing, particularly in
reading we do about African mathematical systems in November.
Why culture? “It is a good thing to know something of the customs and manners of
various peoples in order to judge our own more objectively and not think everything
which is contrary to our ways ridiculous and irrational, as those who have seen
nothing are in the habit of doing” (Descartes, 30)
This course is cross-listed with Science Technology and Society.
It’s also cross-listed with Women’s Studies, since some of the cultural contexts we
read about in this class have quite a bit to do with gender — ideas and social
structures organized around perceived differences between the so-called sexes. This
will become particularly relevant, for example, when we read about the early history
of Artificial Intelligence and ask whether the MIND as the AI folks modeled it
contained assumptions about the relation between gender and reason. Why is it
always MAN versus MACHINE?
A word about presentations:
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, Google.
As I calculate it, we have 5 sessions in which it will make sense to do this — times
when a paper isn’t due, or we don’t have a guest speaker, or its too early to make
you freak out. Given that there are X people in the class, that means X/5 per
session. We’ll start the time after next. I’ll create a sign up sheet for that and we can
talk in more detail then.