February 23, 2010 Ben Peters

Three Course Blurbs: Networks, Revolution, Utopianism

Here are several early course blurbs I’m playing with. The first builds off of Richard John’s superb course “Networks: History, Theory, Practice”; the second a lifelong fascination; and the third my current book project. I’d love to hear: what would your ideal course on these topics include? 


Networks: History, Theory, Comparison, Critique

This course surveys and examines the recent outpouring of work among sociologists, historians, psychologists, legal scholars, urban planners, cultural theorists and critics on the topic of networks (social, technical, digital). Organizing questions include, Why the preoccupation with networks, Why now? Why so many male authors? What does our imagination of the network reveal about our tools, sense and sensibilities, connections and culture—what do networks reveal about us? What do terms like groups, systems, structures, sets, crowds, multitudes, mass, etc. offer in its place? Perspectives examined include basic network theory, sociology, history, international comparison, and critical
theory. Texts include, among others, in network theory Barabasi’s Linked (2002); in sociology Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks (2006), Castell’s The Rise of the Network Society (1996), Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (2008), Tilly’s Big Structures (1984); in history John’s Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunication (2011), Otis’ Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (2001), Schnatz’ Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Literature and Film (2008), Turner’s “Triumph of the Networked Mode” (2007); from international perspectives, Grewal’s Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization (2008), Gerovitch’s “The Soviet InterNyet,” van der Vleuten Networking Europe (2006); and in critical theory, Galloway’s The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (2007), Latour’s Reassembling the Social (2005), Rochlin’s “Networks and the Subversion of Choice,” among other works. For context, some attention will also be paid to works of journalism, literature, and visual art on the subject.

Riemann Sphere
Click for a space-time-media (video) demonstration

Space, Time, and Media Revolutions

Harold Innis once said, “Culture is concerned with the capacity of the individual to appraise problems in terms of space and time.” This course surveys and examines the basic relationships of space, time, and media in scientific and social thought. Questions include, What do media do other than store across time and transmit across space? What roles do technologies and their users have in governing and challenging perceptions of space (e.g., flat earth and fantasy fiction, Galileo’s telescope and heliocentrism, general relativity and simultaneity, avatars and virtuality), time (e.g., Biblical time and creationism, the eternal now and cosmology of medieval scrolls, Newton’s time-reversible calculus, universal heat death and Helmholtz’ thermodynamics, string theory’s knots, time travel and instantaneity, time warping and TiVo), and political-social-scientific revolution (e.g., printing press and literate life, Renaissance and objectivist scientific methods, quantum mechanics and postmodernism, digital media and copyright)? Texts include Harold Innis’ Empire and Communications (1950) and its world history told through time- and space-biased media; Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (1987) and Peters’ “Space, Time, and Communication Theory” (2003) for ways of injecting the idea of revolution (scientific, communication, and social) with contingency, context, and politics; Ludvig Holberg’s flat-earth comedy Erasmus Montanus (1723), Abbott’s Victorian satire Flatland (1884), Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1991), Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1984), and Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1988) on writing and time, Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934) on the spatial-temporal distortions of towers, calendars, glass, and clocks, Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1987) on transportation as cultural communication, Carey (1989) on the electric telegraph as the separation of communication from transportation, Rabinbach’s The Human Motor (1992) as an nineteenth-century update to unidirectional time, energy science, and labor politics, Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) on the pre-digital decline of the author and authenticity, David Harvey (1987) on space-time compression, Galison’s “Einstein’s clocks” (2000) on simultaneity, Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999) on media and instantaneous war, among others. Some attention will also be paid to expressions of the manipulation of time and space in other media, such as film, poetry, drama, and dreams.

Cybernetics and The Cold War Dawn of Information Universalism

This course surveys and examines the intersection of Cold War history, information politics, and social thought meant to evaluate and complicate the commitment to the idea that all information can be reduced to a common (digital, symbolic) structure. Although so-called “information universalism” occupies intellectual currents such as classic liberalism, neoclassical economics, Marxism, free speech absolutism, (post)structuralism, and others, this course takes information science—and in particular, the postwar rise of cybernetics—as a lens for focusing on some of the others. Questions include, How do the information sciences reflect the larger world that created them? What is the relationship between information in nature, technology, and political order—and how has that relationship changed over time? How does history color contemporary understanding of communication and code? Readings include both primary materials from the era, including C.S. Peirce’s semiotics and pragmatist ethics, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), John von Neumann (1944) on game theory, Norbert Wiener’s (1948, 1950) cybernetic critique of the information society, Roman Jakobson’s Fundamentals of Language (1957), Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War (1960), Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Raw and the Cooked (1969), Gregory Bateson’s Steps toward an Ecology of Mind (1972), Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, & Utopia (1974), and selections of recent works, including Paul Edward’s The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1998), Slava Gerovitch’s From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (2002), Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Anarchist in the Library (2004), Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006), and Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Socialism (forthcoming), among others. Other media sampled will include films, science fiction, and art from the period.