Paik Super Highway
Image: From Nam June Paik, Electronic Super Highway (1995), Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Georgetown University
Graduate School of Art and Sciences
Communication, Culture & Technology Program

Key Concepts in Technology and How to Use Them (CCTP-798)
Professor Martin Irvine
Fall 2014

This is the public site for the online course. Course content and resources are available only to enrolled students.
Go to information on how to apply for the course on the CCT site.
[Version 7.27.2014; to be finalized in August]

About the Course

Course Objectives and Grades

This course will provide students  and working professionals with important conceptual and analytical tools for understanding the key concepts behind our current media and computational technologies. The course will be taught entirely online using Georgetown’s Blackboard course platform with video and multimedia presentations, and real-time video conferencing.

A unique value-add for this online course is the online library of relevant book chapters, articles, graphical illustrations, videos, and research publications that only students enrolled in this course can access. This up-to-date digital library of research and learning resources is not available in any other course.

Our course mantra is technology is too important to be left to technologists (alone). The main objective is equipping students with the current methods for understanding the key concepts, functions, and design principles of contemporary technologies to enable better-informed, higher-level participation in any field or profession. Since our digital technologies are now embedded in everything we do, knowledge of the principles of technology is essential for leadership in any field: for participating in public debates about future developments, in decision making, and relevant policy. Using research and theory from multiple disciplines, we will focus on our cognitive, symbolic, and media technologies in their larger socio-technical contexts, and investigate methods for defining their underlying re-implementable design principles and mediating functions. Media, communication, and computational technologies are part of a historical continuum of cognitive-symbolic cultural technologies that extends from earlier uses of writing, mathematics, and image representations to the multiple combined systems of technical mediation since the development of electronics, modern communications and networks, computation, and digital media. We will create a framework for understanding major media forms in a social-historical continuum of technology functions.

Syllabus units will include: introductions to studying technologies through design principles and functions; cognitive science approaches to symbolic representation and computation; key concepts in software, code, and interface design; the principles of digital media and digitization; the design principles of the Internet and World Wide Web (with recent developments and why this architecture will continue to matter); and key concepts in artificial intelligence and ambient computing (embedded and extended intelligence in the lived environment). We will use methods for “de-blackboxing” technologies so that they reveal their networks of social-technical dependencies and major re-implementable functions and design concepts.

Need for Attention and Working Through Difficult Questions and Concepts

To the extent that its feasible for learning with no pre-requisites, students will encounter the "primary sources" of concepts and approaches in the scientific and scholarly literature from the main authors themselves, rather than from encountering the ideas, questions, and arguments in textbook summaries or paraphrases. A major part of graduate-level education is working through the main questions and ideas yourself, and learning how to make the concepts your own!


By the end of the course, students will have acquired an interdisciplinary knowledge base of key concepts, design principles, and analytical methods for understanding our key technologies and ways to participate in higher-level discussions and debates in their own fields and professions. By acquiring these conceptual and analytical tools, students will be able to advance beyond being merely consumers or users of technologies and will be prepared to become thought leaders on major issues in their own fields.


Grades will be based on biweekly assessments, participation in online discussions, a short written assignment, and a final capstone written project. We will have weekly live, synchronous, video discussion sessions, and the professor will host weekly virtual office hours via web video conferencing.

Go to information on how to apply for the course on the CCT site.

Books, Reading, Media Resources


  • W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York, NY: Free Press, 2009. [ISBN 1416544062]
  • Luciano Floridi, Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010. [ISBN: 0745645720]
  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media (London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). [ISBN: 1623567459]


  • Preston Gralla, How the Internet Works. 8th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Que Publishing, 2006.
  • Ron White and Timothy Downs. How Computers Work. 9th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Que Publishing, 2007.
  • Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.
  • Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimative Destiny of the World Wide Web. New York, NY: Harper Business, 2000.
  • Katie Hafner, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of The Internet. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998. [ISBN 0684832674]
  • Janet H. Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.
  • Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1988 and reprints.
  • Noah Wardruip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.
  • Video Presentations and Georgetown University Course Materials
  • Etext Library of book chapters and articles
Learning Objectives:

An orientation to the approaches in the course, focusing on understanding computational, media, and communication technologies through their design principles, implementation of functions, and social-technical systems and networks.

Defining kinds of technologies, and differentiating the cognitive and symbolic technologies (media, information, and communication technologies) from general and instrumental technologies. Learning the methods for exposing and refuting technological determinist assumptions and how to develop descriptions and analyses for a more complete view of media technologies as implementations of human cognitive abilities and agency.

Students will begin learning how to develop conceptual tools for understanding technology that can be mobilized for "myth-busting" (countering misconceptions) and "de-blackboxing" (opening a technology through its system of interdependent social-technical components, histories of development, and distributed agency).

Major topics, concepts, and themes through the course:

  • Technologies as architectures for ongoing combinations of implementable design concepts or abstract models (from tools and writing to complex machines, computation, and software-based media).
  • Modular design principles and the logic of combinatoriality and hybridization.
  • Media and computational technologies as combinatorial symbolic artefacts.
  • De-blackboxing technologies that are received as closed totalities in consumer or business products: why "transparency" makes all technologies opaque for ordinary users.
  • All dimensions of mediation and interface: social, technical, cultural, political, economic
  • The mediating functions of computers, software, pan-digital platforms: media, mediations, and computer devices as a metamedium
  • The continuum of technical implementations and cognitive externalizations: from language and symbolic capabilities to writing, the cumulative histories of media forms, and computer code.
  • The analog-digital-analog continuum: contemporary experience of embedded and externalized media and computational technologies.
  • Understanding major design concepts in computation, software, and digital networks so that you can participate in important debates about the future and betters uses of technology.

Busted Myths

  • Utopian and Dystopian projections of technology
  • Progressivist and other determinist futures for technology

Video Lecture: Our Approach to "Understanding Technology" (Parts 1 and 2)

Background Readings for Context and Framing Issues in the Course:

  • Martin Irvine, Technology Theory: Introduction and Orientation (introductory essay)
  • Leo Marx, "Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept." Technology and Culture, July, 2010.
    • Reading focus: Note the shifting semantic range for the word technology and pervasive beliefs and values supporting "technological determinism" (the assumption that the features and properties of a technology autonomously cause/determine social/cultural/political effects).
    • Note the shifting range of artefacts included in the concept: human control of nature in a built environment, tools and machines for production; industrialization and automation of machines, electronics and computers; concepts of science, engineering, technology.
    • Compare: Technik (German) and technique (French): technical (engineering) knowledge
    • Question: How did we get from this history to the use of the word "technology" today to mean only things computational and digital?
  • From: Norman Donald, The Design of Everyday Things (excerpt)
  • From: Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2008. (excerpt from Introduction)
  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, Introduction, pp. 1-51.

Using Research Tools for this Course (and beyond)

  • Video instructions for using online resources
  • Learn how to use Zotero for managing bibliography and data for references and footnotes
    You can export and cut and paste your references into writing assignments for this course.
  • Georgetown Library Online Journal Search (with Off-Campus Login for enrolled students)
    Access to journals in our fields of study for going further in the research literature for a topic.

baseline knowledge check of technology terms, concepts, and knowledge as you begin the course.


Learning Objectives:

This unit will provide a framework for the main concepts and approaches used in the course. Through an interdisciplinary overview, students will learn important concepts, terms, and analytical tools for describing and understanding media, communication, and computational technologies as developed in recent research and theory.

Continuing from the Introduction and Week 1, the student's goal is to begin assembling a conceptual toolkit for opening up how our technologies work by being part of many kinds of networks--social and technical.

This week we'll look at histories of design principles that have been combined and extended in our current computational and digital technologies, and begin investigating how social/cultural artefacts like computation and digital media are used to extend our cognitive abilities, intentions, and expressions.

Social and technical history over many centuries shows that there's a built-in "ratchet effect" in human systems of symbolic artefacts and communication technologies. Technologies like writing and material media for communications don't have to be reinvented by every generation of people in a society: the state of technical implementations hold in place (like locking in place a gear position on a ratchet) their cumulative history of development, and, further, enable ongoing development by those who extend and combine functions as new technologies emerge. Digital media and graphical displays in all our computational devices are great examples of the results of cumulative development and design principles for recombining technical mediation and social functions.

Introducing Key Concepts and Terms

  • Combinatoriality and cumulative combinations
  • Cognitive artefacts and cognitive technology
  • Social construction of technology
  • Metamedium (media designed for representing other media; e.g., windows-based display interfaces, mobile device screens, tablets)
  • Deep Remix/Remixability (open recombinability as properties of digital media and software)

Introductory Video Lecture/Presentation


  • Martin Irvine, "Technology Theory: An Introduction" (Introductory essay; finish)
  • Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 6 (others as time allows).
  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, Introduction, and pp. 43-49.
    Attend to Manovich's development of the concepts of metamedium (a medium for representing other media like a PC or tablet), hybrid combinations, and the deep remix principle (as an extensible feature of software and digital media).
  • Donald A. Norman, "Cognitive Artifacts." In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Hutchins, Edwin. "Cognitive Artifacts." From The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, edited by Robert A. Wilson and Frank Keil, 126–28. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999.
  • Itiel E. Dror and Stevan Harnad. "Offloading Cognition Onto Cognitive Technology." In Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds, edited by Itiel E. Dror and Stevan Harnad, 1–23. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2008. Read pp. 1-5 and 23-24 for this week.
    [Good survey of topics and concepts that we will explore more fully in following weeks. Read and skim now for basic background.]
  • Zhang, Jiajie, and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.
    [Brief intro to topics we will study in more detail in following weeks. This is a useful, short summary of central issues in this field of research, accessible to non-specialists.]
  • Rudi Volti, Society and Technological Change. 7th ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2014. Excerpts from intro.
    [A useful textbook introduction to mainstream ways that technology history is studies and taught.]

For discussion: concepts and cases

  • What kinds of discourses have we inherited about technology (machines, artefacts) and media technologies specifically? Extrapolating from the reading in weeks 1-2, what major unquestioned assumptions direct our popular thinking about computers, information, and human interaction?
  • How would you describe the features and functions of an iPhone through combinatorial design? What traces do you see of the accrued, cumulative combinations that Arthur describes?
  • What kind of technical artefact is a tablet computing device or smart phone? What cultural/social forces compel us to keep devices "black-boxed"? (We will investigate this question more fully in the following weeks.)
  • Big questions to begin thinking about: What presupposed (unacknowledged) theory of technology do you find in the Apple i-device world? Utopian? Re-mediated? Instrumental? How do technologies get bundled with political or moral determinations?

Learning Objectives and Main Topics:

Learning the major concepts and design principles of modular design in systems thinking for understanding the design and implementation of media, communication, computation, and information technologies.

Key Terms and Concepts:

  • Modularity, modular design
  • Complex system
  • Decomposition, decomposable system (decomposing complex system/network into modules)
  • Abstraction, abstraction layer or level (in hierarchy of modules and system functions)
  • Combinatorial Design

Introductory Video Lecture/Presentation


  • Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Revised. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2010. [Selections: Read Affordances, Hierarchy, Mental Model, and Modularity for this week.]
    Well-illustrated compendium of design concepts. Helps make the concepts and principles intuitively clear.
  • Richard N. Langlois, "Modularity in Technology and Organization." Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 49, no. 1 (September 2002): 19–37.
    [Read sections 2-4, pp. 20-26 for an overview of concepts initiated by Herbert Simon (see below) on complex systems.]
  • Carliss Y. Baldwin and Kim B. Clark. “Modularity in the Design of Complex Engineering Systems.” In Complex Engineered Systems: Science Meets Technology, edited by Dan Braha, Ali A. Minai, and Yaneer Bar-Yam, 175-205. Cambridge, MA: Springer, 2006.
    [This is a summary and application of the main ideas in their excellent book: Carliss Y. Baldwin and Kim B. Clark, Design Rules, Vol. 1: The Power of Modularity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.]
  • W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. Chapters 7, 9, 11 (others as time allows).
    [Compare Arthur's combinatorial model with the specific analyses above.]
  • Janet H. Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012 (excerpts from the Introduction. pp. 1-21).
  • Apple, Inc. User Interface Design Principles for the Mac OS X: User's "Mental Model"
    Note how the "official" design principles for Apple are mainly ways to "operationalize" and "productize" (procedures for implementing functions in specific instances) well-known design principles.

Deeper Background (for reference and as time and interest allow)

  • Herbert A. Simon, "The Architecture of Complexity." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 106, no. 6 (December 12, 1962): 467–82.
  • D.L. Parnas, P.C. Clements, and D.M. Weiss. "The Modular Structure of Complex Systems." IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, SE-11, no. 3 (March 1985): 259–66.

For discussion:

  • Developing the central case study of the iPhone: how do modular design principles and systems thinking help explain the complex design and development of smart phones and mobile devices? Do the software interfaces (icons, user controls, feedback, display output, etc.) reveal or hide modularity?
  • Describe a cluster of modules in the iPhone that must connect at a systems level while the details of what happens in a specific module is unknown to the others (abstraction layers/levels, handing off functions, orchestrated combinatoriality).

Assessment 1

Learning Objectives and Main Topics

Learning the major conceptual frameworks for communication and information theory as defined and used in electronics and computation, and ways to critique inherited models to advance more useful concepts for our communication and media environment today. Learning the concepts behind the engineering definition of information and communication is essential for understanding how all information and media technologies work, but because the engineering definitions are necessarily "pre-semantic" (or non-semantic) and bracket off the meanings of digitally encoded information units, the engineering model is not applicable for describing how we encode meaning and the many contexts of meaning that motivate and frame transmitted signals. We need other models of communication from linguistics, semiotics, and cognitive science to complete the description of human meaning making in artefactual communication and media representations.

Communication and information theory from the 1950s-80s is widely taken for granted in discussions of media, technology, and computation. Originally developed as models for transmitting electronic signals, these theories have also also informed models of meaning transmission in communication and in culture more broadly. We need to investigate the main assumptions, then ask what is left out of the signal models for understanding meaning and the social-cultural uses of messages.

For example, the meaning networks of anything expressed in any medium are understood, assumed, and encoded in signal mediums but are not properties of their material form. (The is the basis for using and having symbols: meaning is not a property of perceptible signals.) In any model of information and communication, we therefore need to account for contexts in two senses of the term: both the sender's context (world of meanings and kinds of expressions assumed), and the message's contexts (its relation to other messages both near and far in time). We see many other limitations in the linear one-way models: questions about production and reception contexts that are like networks linked by messages than point-to-point atomic connections.

Further, what kind of models can account for all the communication "modalities": one to one, one-many, many-one, many-many, and dialog (one-other, mutually assumed); synchronous (at the same time) and asynchronous (delays in reception-response, short time span or very long).

Earlier communication and information theory, constrained by a signal-unit model, fails to see that there is never only one message to be communicated or one unit of communication/information but a dense network of prior, contemporaneous, and future messages surrounding anything communicated, including essential meta-information known to communicators using a medium (kinds/genres of messages, social conventions, assumed background knowledge).

Introductory Video Lecture/Presentation

Other online Video Lessons (for background on the engineering model)

  • Kahn Academy Video Lessons: Information Theory in Scientific Descriptions (Basic Background)
    You can work through this introductory set of video lessons quickly; focus on modern information theory.
  • MIT: Digital Communication Systems: MIT Open Courseware Videos.
    This is a good introduction to the electrical/digital information theory and systems design. As is common, "communication" is used for signal "transmission" independent of semantic or conceptual value. View the intro lecture and Lesson 9, as time allows.

Readings: Models of Communication and Information and Their Consequences

  • Luciano Floridi, Information, Chapters 1-4. [For background on the main traditions of information theory, mainly separate from cognitive and semantic issues.]
  • James Gleick, Excerpts from The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. (New York, NY: Pantheon, 2011). Excerpts from Introduction and Chap. 7. [Readable background on the history of information theory.]
  • Peter Denning and Tim Bell, "The Information Paradox." From American Scientist, 100, Nov-Dec. 2012.
    Computer science leaders address the question: Modern information theory is about "pre-semantic" signal transmission and removes meaning from the equation. But humans use symbol systems for meaning. Can computation include meaning?
  • Ronald E. Day, "The ‘Conduit Metaphor’ and the Nature and Politics of Information Studies." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51, no. 9 (2000): 805-811.
    Models and metaphors for "communication" have long been constrained by "transport", "conduit," and "container/content" metaphors that provide only one map of a larger process. How can we describe "communication" and "meaning" in better ways that account for all the conditions, contexts, and environments of "meaning making"? How do network metaphors disrupt the linear point-to-point metaphors?
  • James Carey, "Communication and Culture" (from Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, 1992) [pdf]. Summary of Carey's Views (excerpts)
    [An influential essay by a leader in the modern field of "Communication" that repositions the study of communication and mediating technologies in the cultural, ideological, and economic context.]

Reference and Supplemental: Semantic and Pragmatic (Context) Dimensions

For discussion:

  • The signal-code-transmission model of information theory has been the foundation of signal and message transmission systems in all communication technology from the telegraph to the Internet and digital wireless signals. But is the signal-code-transmission model an adequate model for describing meaning, the semantic, social, and cultural significance of encoded signals? What is missing in the "information theory" model in accounting for messages and meanings? Where are the meanings in our understanding of messages, media, and artefacts?
  • What is "communicated" in a communication act or event? How are message unit "contents" abstractable in transmission?
  • What are the conceptual consequences of the content - container - transport/conduit models of communication-as-transmission?
  • How de we model the contexts and environments of meaning not explicitly stated in the "information" of a "transmitted message"?
  • How de we know what a text message, an email message, or social media message means? What kinds of communication acts are involved? What do senders and receivers know that aren't a matter of sending/receiving the signals (strings of text characters) correctly?
  • Does "communication" theory provide working concepts to explain complex meanings in a media or art object? Are symbolic artefacts "communications"?

Learning Objectives and Topics:

Gaining a foundation in the significance of the research generated by the study of symbolic cognition in intersecting disciplines and sciences--linguistics, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science more broadly--and how this developing knowledge base allows up to ask better informed questions about technology and mediated communication systems.

Research in many fields continues to discover more and more about the consequences of being the Symbolic Species in Terrence Deacon's term. This week, you will learn the main concepts from cognitive science research for describing the "cognitive continuum" from language and symbolic representation to multiple levels of abstraction in in any symbolic representation (spanning writing, mathematics, symbolic media like images and combinations in film and multimedia, and computer code). media, communication, and computation technologies in a continuum of accumulating combinatoriality for symbolic representation, abstraction, and extended cognition in artefacts and computational processes.

The human ability for making meaning in any kind of expression and embodying meaningful, collectively understood expression in media technologies depends on the use of symbols and the features of symbolic cognition.

Overview of Topics and Themes:
Symbolic Cognition, Sign Systems, Mediation > Cognitive Technologies

Within a broad cluster of fields--ranging from neuroscience to cognitive linguistics, cognitive anthropology, and computational models of cognition and artificial intelligence research--there has been a major convergence on questions and interdisciplinary methods for studying cognition, human meaning-making and the "symbolic faculty" generally, including all our cumulative mediations and externalizations in "cognitive technologies." Cognitive science has been closely related to computer science in seeking computational models for brain and cognitive processes, and proposing hypotheses that explain cognition as a form of computation.

Many disciplines now converge around the major question of how our technically mediated meaning systems function with analogous and parallel "architectures" that must include (1) rules for combinatoriality of components (an underlying syntax for forming complex and recursive expressions of meaning units), (2) intersubjective preconditions "built-in" to the meaning system for collective and shared cognition, and (3) material symbolic-cognitive externalizations (e.g., writing, images, artefacts) transmitted by means of "cognitive technologies" (everything from writing to digital media and computer code) which enable human cultures and cultural memory. This recent interdisciplinary research is a "game changer" for the way we think about human communication and media technologies.

In one view, the human symbolic faculty has generated a continuum of functions from language and abstract symbolic thought to machines, media technologies, and computation:

Language > Symbol Combinatoriality > Abstraction > Mathematics > Machines > Computation

The mainstream disciplines in communication and media studies are very conservative (remaining within a demarcated field in the humanities and social sciences) and have not yet incorporated recent advances in cognitive science fields that are directly relevant to core assumptions and research questions on language, symbolic culture, and media technologies. We therefore have an open opportunity to learn from cognitive science fields and reconfigure the inter- and transdisciplinary field in promising ways for both theoretical and applied work.

Related Principles in all Symbolic Systems and Technologies: Combinatoriality, Compositionality, Componentiality, Recursion, Externalized Memory in symbols and artefacts, Intersubjective and Collective foundation of meaning.


Video introduction


  • Martin Irvine, "Cognition, Meaning, Symbol" (presentation, background overview of concepts)
  • Martin Irvine, "The Grammar of Meaning Making: Introduction to Sign Systems and Symbolic Cognition." (Read sections 1-4.)
  • Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.
  • Steven Pinker, "The Cognitive Niche: Coevolution of Intelligence, Sociality, and Language." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, Supplement 2 (May 5, 2010): 8993–99. doi:10.1073/pnas.0914630107.
  • Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Excerpts from chapters 1 and 3.
    Influential work and argument for language and symbolic cognition co-evolving with the human brain. Read for his main argument about language, symbols, and brain evolution.
  • Andy Clark, Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. (Excerpts from Introduction, Chapters 1-2)
  • Herbert Simon, On Symbol Systems and Computation (excerpt from The Sciences of the Artificial).
  • Hutchins, Edwin. "The Cultural Ecosystem of Human Cognition." Philosophical Psychology 27, no. 1 (February 2014): 34–49.
  • James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh, “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 174-196.
    [Edwin Hutchins and colleagues have pioneered research into "distributed cognition," and this work has important implications for our concepts of cognitive technologies, symbols, media, and interfaces.]
  • Deeper Background (for reference and deeper bibliography):
  • Colin Renfrew, “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage.” In Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, edited by Colin Renfrew, 1-6. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999.
    [Important argument to supplement Merlin Donald's view about the evolutionary origins of the symbolic brain: material culture is part of the externalizing cognitive process.]

For discussion:

  • Building on the past two weeks' topics, discuss a way to describe the forms of our symbolic activity as organized in an everyday media form: a software app, a film/video/TV shot or sequence (not a whole movie/video), a series of photographs, a piece of music. Can you describe the "distributed cognition" / "collective symbolic cognition" functions? Does the view of computer and media technologies as "cognitive technologies" or "symbolic-cognitive artefacts" provide a better understanding of these technologies?

Assessment 2


Learning Objectives

Gaining a foundation in the influential theories, key terms, concepts, and interdisciplinary approaches for the study of media and symbolic, technical mediation that have shaped research and popular conceptualization from the 1960s to the present.

The cluster of terms for media and interface are used in so many ways that we need to unpack the history of the concepts and find useful ways of using terms in descriptions and analysis. What is "new" about new media, software controlled media, and network mediation, and what aspects can we understand as a continuum in re-combinatorial functions and processes? How can we best understand, describe, and analyze the concepts and implementations for interfaces and multimodal forms? How do interfaces go "meta" in combinatoriality and presentation frameworks (computer devices and digital display screens as a metamedium, a medium for other media)? How do media technologies media social agency and how do they become major nodes in distributed agency and cognition?

Key terms and concepts:

  • Medium/media as social-technical implementations of communication and meaning functions maintained by roles in a larger cultural, economic, and political system
  • Mediation as a function of a medium (e.g, text/print, image technologies, media industries)
  • Interface as the physical-material contact point for technical mediation with users (social-cognitive agents) of media
  • Technical Mediation (in Latour's terms) as the means of distributing agency in a social-technical network
  • Media System as the interdependent social configuration of technologies and institutions
  • Communication vs. Transmission (in Debray's terms): differentiating media technologies and their functions for almost synchronous communication within a cultural group (e.g., telephone, email, TV, radio) vs. technologies for transmission of meaning and cultural identity over long time spans (e.g., written artefacts, books, recorded media, computer memory storage, museums, archives).

Video Introduction


Key Traditions and Concepts in Media Theory

  • Martin Irvine, "Media Theory: An Introduction"
  • The legacy of Marshall McLuhan, "The Medium is the Message" (Excerpts from Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man. 2nd Edition). McLuhan's main concepts and arguments for media.
  • Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (excerpt). Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.
    "What is New Media?" ( Note the categories Manovich sets up for defining "New Media")
  • Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000. Excerpts: Intro | Chap. 1.
  • Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. Excerpt from Introduction. [Includes excellent bibliography of references.]

From Media to Media Systems and Mediation

  • Regis Debray, "What is Mediology?" Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.
  • Regis Debray, Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
    Excerpts in pdf: From Chaps. 1-2; from Chap. 7, "Ways of Doing."
    Note important distinction between "communication" and "transmission" (over longer time spans).
  • Martin Irvine, Working with Mediology and Network Theory (introductory essay)
  • Bruno Latour, “On Technical Mediation.” Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 29-64.
    [This is a very accessible essay that outlines Latour's approach to the "distributed agency" in technologies as used and valued socially.]

For discussion:

  • Choose a discussion topic: Consider a digital interface (e.g., a Web browser and its "windows"; the "tiled" iPhone/iPad display; or a specific software interface) in as many dimensions of mediation as you can describe. What are the consequences of software-driven screens implementing the "metamedium" function? Thinking with mediology, describe as many of the concealed ("invisibility cloaked") forces and agencies being mediated or "interfaced" in an everyday digital device (not the "content").

Learning Objective and Key Ideas:
Learning the key concepts in "computational thinking" and the design principles in computation and software code. We will focus on foundational concepts that can be extended for understanding today's environment of "computation everywhere" and "an app for everything."

This unit focuses on the key concepts in computation and core models for software, computer and information design, and all digital media. We will approach the questions from a non-specialist perspective, but it's important for everyone to get a conceptual grasp of the core ideas in computation because they are now pervasive throughout many sciences (including the cognitive sciences), and are behind everything we do daily with computational devices, information processing, and digital media (for example, the Google algorithms for searches, all the apps in mobile devices, the software functions for displaying and playing digital media).

Introductory Video Lecture/Presentation


  • Martin Irvine, An Introduction to Computational Concepts
  • Daniel Hillis, The Pattern On The Stone: The Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work. New York: Basic Books, 1999. (excerpts from chaps. 1-2).
  • Ron White, Excerpts from How Computers Work (9th Edition) [on Operating Systems and Software]
  • From: Robert St. Amant, Computing for Ordinary Mortals. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012. (Excerpt)
  • Denning, Peter J. "The Great Principles of Computing." American Scientist, October 2010.
  • -----. "What Is Computation?" ACM Ubiquity, August 26, 2010.
  • Wing, Jeannette M. "Computational Thinking." Communications of the ACM 49, no. 3 (March 2006): 33–35.
  • -----. "Computational Thinking and Thinking About Computing." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 366, no. 1881 (October 28, 2008): 3717–25.
  • Janet Wing, Computational Thinking (Video)

Learning Project: Lessons on Udacity and Code Academy

Online Reference

Online discussion:

  • Describe what you've learned, what has opened up and questions you have in becoming intuitively clear about key concepts and design features of computation and code.

Assessment 3

Learning Objectives and Topics:

Learning how we got from the model of computation and computers as general logical-symbolic processors to the idea of "personal" computers for any human-software interaction and computational processes for creating, combining, processing, displaying, storing, and transmitting of human symbolic representation in any digitizable medium.

Learning the symbolic and cognitive functions of media supports and interfaces in the history of implementations, and the affordances of computationally (software-based) represented media. What can we learn about abstractable re-implementable functions in the continuum of symbolically mediating material supports from passive interfaces (writing and image surfaces, substrates, recordable media) to metamedia (computer screens, graphical and touch interfaces for controlling software) for representing other media? Can you describe and trace the substrate function (the symbolic use of supports, substrates, surface material media for inscription and memory, images, photographic) to graphical "windows"-based computer displays (functioning as a meta-substrate or metamedium, a surface medium for representing and interpreting other media). How can other, new combinations of media and software emerge from these key design principles?

Key Concepts and terms:

  • Interface (for human interaction with, and control of, software representations and outputs)
  • Graphical User Interface (GUI) and screen interfaces
  • Metamedium / Metamedia
  • Substrate Function (for symbolic representations)
  • Continuum of symbolic functions and the Meta function in computation and digital information/media

Introductory Video Lecture/Presentation


  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, pp. 55-239; and Conclusion.
    Follow Manovich's central arguments about "metamedium", "hybrid media", and "interfaces" and the importance of Allan Kay's "Dynabook" Metamedium concept.
    For Manovich, the main differentiating feature of "new media" is software: media produced, controlled, and displayed with software. Digital media = software mediatized media.
  • Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," Atlantic, July, 1945. (Additional authorized e-text version.)
    A seminal essay on managing information and human thought, leading to the concepts of GUIs (graphical user interface for computers), hypertext, and linked documents. See Wikipedia background.
    See background on Bush's concept of the "Memex," precursor to hypertext information systems.
    Video of a working model of the "Memex".
  • Alan Kay and the Dynabook Concept as a Metamedium:
    Alan Kay's original paper on the Dynabook concept: "A Personal Computer for Children of all Ages." Palo Alto, Xerox PARC, 1972). [Wonderful historical document. This is 1972--years before any PC, Mac, or tablet device.]

    Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media” (1977), excerpt from The New Media Reader, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Originally published in Computer 10(3):31–41, March 1977. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 393–404. [Revised description of the concept for publication.]

    Interview with Kay in Time Magazine (April, 2013). Interesting background on the conceptual history of the GUI, computer interfaces for "interaction," and today's computing devices.
  • Douglas Engelbart and the computing artefact interface: designing the mouse and GUI
  • "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework" (from the Doug Engelbart Institute site).
  • Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Selections:

Steve Jobs on computing and convergence in an archival recording.
Jobs speaking at the International Design Conference at Aspen in 1983:

"Apple's strategy is really simple. What we want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use it in 20 minutes." 

For discussion:


Learning Objectives and Assignment:

Understanding the cumulative steps in the development of the computer industry with machines, equipment, software and devices that developed from military and business contexts to a wide consumer base. How the computer became a consumer media appliance. The unanticipated convergence of telecommunications, computing, and methods for digitizing media (text, audio, graphics and images, photography, film/video). The transition to embedded computation and smaller processing chips in everyday use (examples: sensors, consumer devices, transportation systems).

Understanding the combinatorial path of technologies leading to the iPhone and other multipurpose mobile devices. Understanding the design demands of complex interdependent modular systems and the underlying non-technical and social-technical dependencies and agencies in a device like an iPhone.

Case study methodology for De-Blackboxing the iPhone assignment:

Analyzing technical components as interfaces to the larger dependency network of design principles and the social, institutional, and political-economic forces that have made the components and modular combination possible in this implementation.

Each student will analyze and describe the network system for a functional component (or a set of connected components) in detail (for example, the graphics and video chips, the audio chips for music; the wireless chips for sending/receiving wireless digital data; the camera and digital image processing chips; the SOC [System on a Chip] for integrating and controlling the components]. Students will describe the source and prior history of the functions, the software required to drive the chip or hardware functions, the ecosystem of standards, policies, industry agreements, and government regulations (where applicable). The purpose of the exercise is to understand the paths and convergences of multiple agencies and technical steps that combine to produce the "effects" that we attribute to computational devices.

Introductory Video Lecture/Presentation

Readings: Intro to a social history of the computer up to PCs and mobile devices

  • Michael S. Mahoney, "The Histories of Computing(s)." Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30, no. 2 (June 2005).
  • Campbell-Kelly, Martin. "Origin of Computing." Scientific American 301, no. 3 (September 2009): 62–69.
  • From: Alfred D. Chandler and James W. Cortada, eds., A Nation Transformed by Information How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present. Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.
    Alfred Chandler, Chap. 1, Introduction.
    Lee S. Sproull, Chap. 8, Computers in U.S. Households Since 1977.
  • Thomas Haigh, "Computing the American Way: Contextualizing the Early US Computer Industry." IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, April-June, 2010.

Video sources for computer history

Case Study:
De-blackboxing the iPhone and other devices using Apple's "System on a Chip" (SOC)

  • Design principles for integration of components and miniaturization for mobile devices.
  • Resources on the history of design and technical components of the iPhone
  • Why it matters:
  • Understanding a complex technical device like an iPhone means going beyond the consumer's view to the invisible story of bundled functions and the design principles and technical-social conditions that allowed this kind of convergence at this moment; the many forms of technical mediation and what makes them work; the preparedness of the consumer market for adoption;

For discussion

  • "De-blackboxing" the development of computers by connecting some of the main relationships, dependencies, and conditions that enabled the computer and computing devices to have their power in our current "information age" (largely led by the US): in the related industries and institutions; policy and government funding; private investment and entrepreneurial culture; various states of the material technologies (hardware, and/or software); standards-making across institutions and manufacturers allowing development of markets and the creation of industry ecosystems; social conditions leading to the adoption of technologies, market conditions, and consumer uses.

Assessment 4

Learning Objectives:

Learning how to describe and understand digital media and the affordances and constraints of expressions and artefacts in digital form. What happens in digitization of media (text, images, music, film/video), and what are the consequences and affordances of digital media platforms, interfaces, metamedia devices (mobile, tablets)? Differences between digitized media created in analogue platforms and "new" media "born digital". How are digital media formats and production/playback/display software interfaces designed to re-mediate prior forms and re-implement their social-cultural-political functions (texts, images, photography, film/video/TV, music, news media).

Key terms and concepts to be learned:

  • Analog / Digital
  • Digitization
  • Sample (sample rate)
  • Codec (analog-digital enCODing and DECoding hardware and software)
  • Digital artefact / digital object
  • Digital media format/standard (e.g., .jpg ; .mp3; .pdf; .doc; .mov)

Key questions:

  • What does it mean to create, capture, or record a medium in a digital form, that is, what is involved in producing a digital representation of an analog medium?
  • What are the physical and computational steps in making a digital media form and then displaying or playing it back through our devices and equipment?
  • What are the key factors in digital media that determine the quality of the medium as we perceive it?
Video presentation


  • White and Downs, How Computers Work. Technical descriptions of digitization, sampling, software files, digital media formats.
  • Ron White and Timothy Downs. How Digital Photography Works. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Que Publishing, 2007. Excerpts.
  • Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (excerpts). Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.
    Read selections from chap. 1 ("What is New Media") and chap. 2 ("The Interface"). Note the categories Manovich set up in chap. 1 for defining "New Media."Author's website with supplements to the book.
  • Lev Manovich, "New Media: Eight Propositions." Excerpt from “New Media from Borges to HTML,” from The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, The MIT Press, 2002.
  • Paul M. Leonardi, "Digital Materiality? How Artifacts without Matter, Matter." First Monday 15, no. 6 (2010).
  • Digital convergence and reconfigurations of industries and media device platforms

Case Studies: MP3, Streaming Media, Digital Photography

For discussion:

  • What is a digital media object?
  • How would you describe the analog-digital continuum that all digital media must be designed to implement?
  • What are the differences between media captured digitally (e.g., with a camera or with music recording equipment) and media created totally within a software environment (media "born digitally") and designed for playback and display through decoding equipment that produces perceptible analogue artefacts (music/sound, images/photographs/video; graphics)?

Learning Objectives and Topics:

Understanding the background history and technical design of the Internet and the "Inter-networking" architecture concept embodied in the open protocols and standards of the Internet. Understanding the Internet as a paradigm case of "cumulative orchestrated combinatoriality" (Arthur) with intersecting histories of technical-social-political-economic development and interdependencies. Understanding the consequences of the extensible design principles of the Internet and why these principles remain vitally important in the expanding global and international development of all the media, services, and apps that depend on the Internet architecture.

Orientation to the Internet as Socio-Technical System:
As users, consumers, citizens, and workers with business functions depending on the Internet, we only see a small interface view of the Internet. Socialization into media and computers, consumerist ideologies, and focus on technology productization keeps the Internet blackboxed and the deeper histories and dependencies closed off from awareness and understanding. The cumulative technologies and bundles of functions that are now so well-integrated in Internet design and digital media have deep histories in the affordances of symbolic mediation in technical artefacts. We see an essential continuum in the design history of symbolic substrates and systems for symbolic representation (the development of ancient tablets up to modern writing technologies) and in the abstraction of symbolic message units into code in the telegraph leading to the latest implementations in mobile devices and computational tablets. The Internet with its affordances for meta-media transmission and representation is part of a long history that we will uncover while studying the specifics of the technical architectures.

“What can be studied is always a relationship or an infinite regress of relationships. Never a ‘thing.’ ” -- Gregory Bateson

The Internet as a system is our "mother of all case studies" for deblackboxing social-technical systems and questions of distributed agency and distributed cognition. We can pose many useful questions by using the Internet and Web as a paradigm of mediation, agency, and transmission: the significance of the convergence of all digital (digitized) media forms across a global network using common protocols and standards; the industry, policy and technology ecosystems that enable the Internet to function and grow with new innovations. Given that Internet protocols are "open" and standards based on industry collaboration and consensus with confirmation by NGO policy groups (except in cases of monopoly dominance) and that networks are distributed systems with no one center, where are the real sources of power and authority? How do we "re-orchestrate" regulatory policy in the political-economy regimes for media, data, entertainment (TV, radio, cable), and communications after convergence on the common platform of the Internet?

From the socio-technical complex systems view, the Internet is a global, international "network of networks" connected by computing systems using Internet protocols (the core TCP/IP suite) and client-server architectures designed to support Internet protocols on any kind of computing device (all Web software, smartphone apps, cloud, etc.). This system design would be impossible without the invisible institutional and political-economic agreements and policies (e.g., international telecom and data traffic agreements, cross-border long-haul data lines), hardware and software standards (defined in standards groups and implemented by major multinational companies like Cisco and Google), regional ISPs and wireless networks, and the multiple dependencies in "agency networks" for everything that happens between--and among--end users and the globally distributed system.

So, the "Internet" isn't a thing or external object that can have "effects" on us: the Internet is a social-technical-political-economic system enacted through distributed agency in one of our most complex "orchestrated combinations of prior combinations." Forming a useful answer to a simple question like "what is the Internet?" takes us into a systems of relations that resists reification in an "it"--no thing or object as a singular referent of the term. This decentralized, distributed "system" (technical - social - political - economic), though weighted at the nodal concentration centers of global power, has many consequences and challenges for simplistic (instrumental, operational) models of agency and power. A big macro, international question today: how is the Internet--and everything done and enacted through it--to be controlled, governed, regulated, and accessed? Who "owns" the Internet? How can all the actors/agents and their interests be managed in a global and international system?

Introductory Video Lecture/Presentation

Readings: Background and History of the Internet

  • Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000. Excerpts
  • Preston Gralla, How the Internet Works. 8th ed. [selections]
  • From: From: Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2008. (excerpt from "The Internet as System and Spirit")
  • Robin Mansell, Imagining the Internet: Communication, Innovation, and Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. [selected chapters]
  • Vint Cerf, David Clark, et al. “A Brief History of the Internet.”
    Also in another format: "A Brief History of the Internet," Internet Society.
    The Internet Society also hosts a directory of other well-documented histories of the Internet and the Web.
    [Read around in these histories to get a basic sense of development.]

Videos with Reliable Sources for Learning

Philosophy of Internet Design and Architecture

  • Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, "A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication." 1974, IEEE.
  • David Clark, "The Design Philosophy of the DARPA Internet Protocols," Originally published in Proceedings SIGCOMM ‘88, Computer Communication Review Vol. 18, No. 4, August 1988, pp. 106–114.
    [This is a very useful article on the design philosophy of Internet Protocols, mostly accessible to non-engineering specialists.]
  • Clark, David D., Karen Sollins, John Wroclawski, and Ted Faber. “Addressing Reality: An Architectural Response to Real-World Demands on the Evolving Internet.” In Proceedings of the ACM SIGCOMM Workshop on Future Directions in Network Architecture, 247–57. FDNA ’03. New York, NY: ACM, 2003.
  • The Internet Ecosystem (ISOC)

Social and Cultural Frameworks

  • Curran, James, Natalie Fenton, and Des Freedman, eds. Misunderstanding the Internet. London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2011. Excerpts.


For discussion:
Design principles and the Internet as metamedium

  • The Internet and all its subsystems provide one of the most complex systems for thinking about mediations, interdependencies, and agencies. Most people only see functions presented at the interface level--and an interface works by making itself invisible (by design and by our cultural expectations). The complexity of the computer and network architecture are invisible. From the reading this week, could you give a clear answer to the question, "what does it mean to be 'on the Internet'"? How can we resist talking about "the Internet" as a totalized, reified, or uniform "technology" and actively take into account the variety of subsystems, subcomponents, and social institutions that must be orchestrated to work together?
  • For discussion this week, take a case--like an app or digital media type--and investigate the network of socio-technical dependencies, histories of technological development, economic ecosystems, institutions of mediation (standards, policy and regulation, industry groups, patents?), markets and demographics.

Assessment 5


Learning Objectives:

Learning the key design principles and means of technical implementation for the Web and interface "apps" that use Web and Internet technologies. Learning the important background history of information and text concepts that led to the design the Web over the Internet. De-blackboxing "the Internet" in common discourse as a totality with some kind of unified force that can have "effects" on societies and cultures. What kind of "orchestrated combinatoriality" was required for the network design? What affordances are "permanently extensible" by design?

From a methodological perspective, what can the socio-technical study of the Net and Web open up for a newly visible analysis of forces and networked interdependencies usually blackboxed? With the convergence of telecommunications, computing, information science, hardware/software, and digital media, the Internet and Web have subsumed our prior media into a new mediasphere and metamedium, a system of ongoing reconfigurations of material technologies, software and algorithms, content, and the institutions and industries that create the "Internet" as such. The design is "permanently extensible" as new developments and hybrid technologies emerge for the Internet/Web system.


Introductory Video Lecture/Presentation

The Cumulative History of Information Concepts Leading to the World Wide Web

  • The history of classifying and linking books and texts as physical documents (meta-information)
  • Imagining a universal linked library: how we got to hypertext (linked text) and linked media in all digital forms
  • Background readings on Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart, J. C. R. Licklider, Ivan Sutherland, Ted Nelson, Tim Berners-Lee

The World Wide Web and Interfaces to the Web

  • Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimative Destiny of the World Wide Web. New York, NY: Harper Business, 2000. Excerpts.
    Tim Berners-Lee's original proposal for the Web (1989) (pdf)
  • The Web and the Internet: how the layers and architectures work
  • Overview of Web design, services, standards, and multimedia architecture (case: the extensible design of HTML5)
  • Apps and mobile device interfaces: channeling and fragmenting Internet/Web architecture for commerce and consumerism

Data and Google: How Does Google Shape the Experience of the Web

  • Battelle, John. The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. New York: Penguin, 2005. (excerpts)
  • Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. (excerpts)

For discussion:
Design principles and the Internet as metamedium

  • Questions: With a better understanding of Internet and and digital media design principles, how can we provide better informed policy arguments on key issues; for example, debates about regulation of TV/media/entertainment industry "content" delivered over the Internet as something for the FFC on the model of cable TV or broadcast? on the metamedium level, what is the difference between a "web browser" and an iPad app--both technically and philosophically as an interface for users? What are the consequences of Google's dominant gateway to Web content?

Main Themes and Topics:

"AI can be defined as the attempt to get real machines to behave like the ones in the movies."
--Aaron Sloman, School of Computer Science, The University of Birmingham

An introduction to major concepts in "Artificial Intelligence" research, and making connections to other ideas in covered in the seminar (distributed cognition and memory, computation, human-computer interaction).

AI and Intersecting Fields
Many concepts and research projects in AI since the 1960s extend back to "human machine symbiosis" paradigms in cybernetics and the quest to find ways to program "learning machines," that is, machines or "intelligent" systems (software and hardware) that can learn, self-adapt, and "re-program" their software routines based on self-correcting responses to inputs from the world (interpreting information from sensors and physical data) and inputs from interactions with humans (simulating speech and language, and developing semantics, concepts, and higher order abstract reasoning). AI research and assumptions thus overlap with many specialized research programs in robotics, cognitive science, "smart" and automated computer/device systems, and human-computer interaction more generally.

Why We as Non-Specialists Should Care About AI Questions
One of the most highly-- and contentiously-- debated questions in the overlapping fields of AI, cognitive science, computer science, and philosophy of mind is the extent to which computational models and simulations of human cognition and "intelligence" (however we define these to be) are also reversible in the sense that higher-level human cognitive capacities (like reasoning, inferring, learning, error correction, problem solving, symbolic interpretation) are themselves best understood as forms of neurally based computation. A major philosopher of science calls this modeling problem the "epistemological engine" problem: a dominant technology becomes a paradigm for descriptions of human functions. If all things computational are artefacts of (collective) human cognitive faculties, how can they "transcend" the human mind? Even though we don't have the specialist background to intervene in this debate (or can hope to "cover" the issues in one week!), it is very important for non-specialists to have a sense of what is at stake and learn as much as possible to ask important questions.

De-Blackboxing and the Popular Culture Fantasy Context
Popular culture has been saturated with all kinds of fantasies--dystopian and utopian--about advanced computer "intelligence" with independent agency. This imaginary and speculative dimension has had two consequences: imagined scenarios can provide visionary prototypes for motivating real research (what if we had intelligent robots that could do precision diagnosis and surgery to save lives?), but popular culture fantasies usually make understanding and de-blackboxing the science and technology more difficult because of the unfounded projection of independent agency on computational systems.

This week we will gain some basic insights into the key assumptions of of AI research and briefly investigate one highly publicized case of futurist extrapolation of AI in Ray Kurzweil's description of a supercomputing "singularity." He also makes many assumptions with unaccounted for presuppositions about the human and "mind" and "intelligence" that makes them capable of "reverse engineering" in computational models. As time permits, we considered IBM's highly-publicized "Watson" system and the Siri voice recognition system as forms of AI currently in use.

Introductory Video Lecture/Presentation

Udacity Online Course: Intro to Artificial Intelligence

  • Work through this course as an intro tutorial. This course, taught by two Stanford CS professors, was big news a year ago and proof-of-concept for Udacity's CS teaching platform. This version is self-paced and pitched to those with basic CS and math backgrounds. As part of the weekly essay, take notes on the points that you discover, and note--but don't be put off by--the areas requiring more CS and math background.


Backgrounds on AI from Developments in Cybernetics

  • AI and Cognitive Computing: Introductory Readings [pdf]
  • J. C. R. Licklider, Man-Computer Symbiosis. IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics,
    volume HFE-1, pages 4-11, March 1960.
    [Seminal essay in AI and networking; vision of an "internet" before the Internet by one of the main players in the creation of the Internet later. Review for main topics.]
  • John McCarthy, "What is AI?" A classic, accessible Q&A essay by one of the main founders of the field.
  • Bruce Buchanan, "A Very Brief History of AI." AI Magazine, American Association for Artificial Intelligence, 2005.
    Also a very useful overview of the scope of AI topics on the interdisciplinary site by The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. See the Overview of AI Topics.

Ray Kurzweil, on the "Singularity," AI and Utopian Futurism

Major Popular Instances of AI: IBM's "Watson" & "Deep Blue" and Siri (to be discussed)

For discussion:

  • As you survey some of the main topics in AI research and theory in the context of our seminar, what do you find that non-specialists can (or should) learn about in this field? Why do these technologies and the field itself seem especially blackboxed and problematic in terms of questions about agency and mediation of functions? Consider one or two questions or problems that you find important and would like to learn more about if you had the opportunity.

Assessment 10



Final Assessment (Assessing Your Ability to Work with the Key Concepts)

Final Capstone Project

  • Instructions for researching and writing a 10-12 page "white paper" on a major technology issue in an industry, sector, or field that can be better analyzed or understood through the approaches in the course. Will be submitted digitally in Blackboard. Can be customized as a study useful for your career and current position.