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

Professor Martin Irvine
CCTP-820: Leading by Design: Principles of Technical and Social Systems
Fall 2018

Course Description
Why "Leading by Design"?

This course is for all students who want to participate as thought leaders in the use of technologies in any kind of social or organizational context, including public policy, application design, education, and business. To become thought leaders, we need to change our position from being merely consumers or users of technologies to participants with an ownership stake in how things are designed and implemented. This course provides the methods for this reorientation by learning the design principles behind our technologies and how these principles are used in evolving technical developments and social environments.

A major step in this re-orientation is learning how to do thorough re-interpretation of our technologies and media as interfaces to the technical-social systems that make them possible, not as closed black boxes accessible only to technical people. The forces of black-boxing (closing off systems to users) are driven by the current political economy, not by the nature or properties of the technologies themselves. Students will learn the conceptual tools for opening technology and society to the systems view in which we are a part so that we can reclaim ownership over the designs that make everything work the way it does.

We have a deep well of ideas and applications to draw from! Each student will build an interdisciplinary knowledge base with methods unified by the key concepts and approaches in systems theory (complexity, networks, modularity), design thinking, computational thinking, media theory, and recent cognitive science approaches to technology, artefacts, and interfaces. Students will learn the multi-layered extensible design principles behind everything from computation, digital media, and the Internet to the architecture of mobile devices, interactive real-time apps, and Cloud computing.

Combining Design Thinking and Design Doing

Students will work toward learning the key design concepts that will enable them to contribute to design ideas and propose alternatives to the technologies and relationships in our complex socio-technical worlds.

As a CCT Core Methods course, we will focus on learning the methods for interpreting design principles and using them in new applications.

Our learning objectives involve (1) technical and conceptual knowledge (example: how and why are computers, software, and networks based on modular design principles?), (2) integrative systems thinking for understanding technical-social systems (example: why are the forces that we can’t see [standards, policy, intellectual property, industry alignments, cumulative combinations of prior technologies, etc.] the most powerful for any complex, modular technology that we can see like an iPhone?), and (3) understanding how to apply combinatorial design principles for new innovations (example: what do you need to know to design an app if you aren’t the coder?).

Objectives and Outcomes

By the end of the course, students will have acquired an interdisciplinary knowledge base of key concepts, design principles, and analytical methods for understanding computational and media technologies in the complex systems of their social-technical networks, including the conditions required for new developments and innovations. By acquiring the interdisciplinary knowledge and analytical tools developed in the course, students will be able to advance beyond being merely consumers or users of black-boxed technologies to becoming thought leaders for participating at higher levels in the major issues facing business innovation, teaching and education, and policy debates for designing future outcomes.

Classroom location: Car Barn 318

Course Format

The course will be conducted as a seminar and requires each student’s direct participation in the learning objectives in each week’s class discussions. The course has a dedicated website designed by the professor with a detailed syllabus and links to weekly readings and assignments. Each syllabus unit is designed as a building block in the interdisciplinary learning path of the seminar, and students will write weekly short essays in a Wordpress site that reflect on and apply the main concepts and approaches in each week’s unit. Students will also work in teams and groups on collaborative in-class projects and group presentations prepared before class meetings.


Grades will be based on:
(1) Weekly short writing assignments (in the course Wordpress site) and participation in class discussions (25%). Weekly short essays must be posted by 10:00AM for each class day so that students will have time to read each other's work before class for a better informed discussion in class.
(2) A group "design thinking" project (25%) to be presented in class after the 10th week. Presentation date and group rosters will be determined by the 10th week of the seminar.
(3) A final research project written as a rich media essay or a creative application of concepts developed in the seminar (50%). Due date: one week after last day of class.
(Final projects will be posted on the course Wordpress site, which will become a publicly accessible web publication with a referenceable URL for student use in resumes, job applications, or further graduate research) .

Professor's Office Hours
Tues. and Wed. 12:00-2:00, and by appointment. I will also be available most days after class meetings.

Academic Integrity: Honor System & Honor Council
Georgetown University expects all members of the academic community, students and faculty, to strive for excellence in scholarship and in character. The University spells out the specific minimum standards for academic integrity in its Honor Code, as well as the procedures to be followed if academic dishonesty is suspected. Over and above the honor code, in this course we will seek to create an engaged and passionate learning environment, characterized by respect and courtesy in both our discourse and our ways of paying attention to one another.

Statement on the Honor System
All students are expected to maintain the highest standards of academic and personal integrity in pursuit of their education at Georgetown. Academic dishonesty, including plagiarism, in any form is a serious offense, and students found in violation are subject to academic penalties that include, but are not limited to, failure of the course, termination from the program, and revocation of degrees already conferred. All students are held to the Georgetown University Honor Code: see

Instructional Continuity
In the event of a disruption of class meetings on campus from inclement weather or other event, we will continue the work of the course with our Web and online resources, and will arrange for online discussions and meetings with the professor by using the Google Hangout interface in our GU Google apps suite. I am also always available via email, and respond to student messages within a few hours or less.

Books and Resources

This course will be based on an extensive online library of book chapters and articles in PDF format in a shared Google Drive folder (access only for enrolled students with GU ID). Most readings in each week's unit will be to pdf text links in the shared folder, or to other online resources in the GU Library.

Required Books:

  • W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York, NY: Free Press, 2009. [ISBN 1416544062] 
  • Peter J. Denning and Craig H. Martell. Great Principles of Computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015. 
  • 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. 
  • Janet H. Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.

Recommended Books:

Technical Background:

  • Ron White and Timothy Downs. How Computers Work. 10th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Que Publishing, 2015.

Important Background for Concepts and History of the Technologies:

  • James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York, NY: Pantheon, 2011.
  • Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimative Destiny of the World Wide Web. New York, NY: Harper Business, 2000.
  • Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1988 and reprints.

Course Online Library (GU student login required) and University Resources

Course WordPress Site

Learning Objectives and Topics:

Technology is too important to be left to technologists (alone). --Irvine's Laws, 1.

Leading by Design? Why / What / How

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.

How we use the terms "design," "principles," "system(s)," and "architecture" in the CCT context in this course.

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.

Moving from Being a User & Consumer of Technology to a Thought Leader in Your Field

Students will begin learning how to develop conceptual tools for understanding technology that can be mobilized for "de-blackboxing" (opening a technology through its system of interdependent social-technical components, histories of development, and distributed agency), and universal principles that can be extended to their own designs.

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

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


Course Introduction: Requirements and Expectations

  • Format of course, requirements, participation, weekly assignments, projects, outcomes.
  • Classroom rules: how to use PCs and mobile devices: no social media or attention sinks during class.

Orientation to Key Concepts:
Learning How to Think Like a Design Leader (see Presentations below)

  • The "Key Concepts" and "Principles" Approach to Systems and Design
  • What sense of the term "Design" are we working with?
    • Not "aesthetic," decoration, or styles applied after the fact.
    • Everything made with intended outcomes is by design.
  • Design Principles and/vs. "Design Thinking"
    • Design as universal meta-principles and design thinking applied in methods within communities of practice (e.g., manufacturing ["product design"], IT, visual art and graphic design, architecture, software, business systems...)
  • Systems Theory and Systems Thinking (aka Complexity Theory)
    • Learning to "read" technologies and artefacts as interfaces to the larger system(s) that made them possible
  • The Parallels between Design Thinking and Computational Thinking (see Peter Denning)
  • Differentiating kinds or classes of technologies:
    • general technologies:
      power, industrial engineering, materials science for "stuff" (metals, plastics, etc.), transportation systems, etc.
    • cognitive-symbolic technologies:
      all our communication and symbolic media from language and writing to images, the built environment, mass media (print, TV, phone), computing technologies, and all recent convergences of these in digital media).
    • Important intersections and dependencies:
      communication, media, and information technologies use general technologies (electricity, materials science for components, transportation, etc.) but are not reducible to them (e.g., computation as a conceptual-symbolic technology precedes the current state of its implementation in the kinds of materials we now have).
  • Abstraction, modularity, and nesting (hierarchical design)
  • Combinatoriality: the "generative grammar" of design
  • The Question of Scale: many designs require techniques for "scaling up:" what/why things can or cannot be done "at scale" (any large number of users, products, services)?
  • De-blackboxing and de-productizing: getting at the design principles and system architecture that precedes and enables specific products (see Brain Arthur)
  • The challenges and rewards of interdisciplinary studies, and why it's so hard.

Using Research Tools for this Course (and beyond)

Presentations: Introduction to the Main Concepts in the Course (Google Slides)

Cases for Class Discussion:
applying design thinking to de-blackboxing the modular, combinatorial of apps and services

  • What is "Uber" as a designed system?
    = a design for a service that combines existing technologies and services and affordances of "native" device features; most of the hidden layers behind the app have nothing to do with Uber: what can't we see that's more powerful than what we can see?
  • What is a "mobile device" (smart phones and "tablets" with wireless connectivity):
    how must the system be designed; interfaces to other systems, interconnected modules; business ecosystems; interfaces for translating user actions and intentions?
  • How does our Course Website design work:
    Design decisions in layout and functionality with HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript; activating Web modules.
    What would make it better for students (thinking through affordances and constraints of using a GU web server)?

Learning Objectives:

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

Introducing Key Concepts and Terms

This is a brief overview of some of the key terms and concepts we will use in the course. You will learn the specialized meanings of the terms and how to use these concepts over the first half of the course.

  • The "Systems View" -- Thinking about Design with Systems and Relations (Arthur, Norman). Systems theory includes the concept of subsystem (composing and decomposing a complex system into subsystems that interconnect or interoperate). Any complex design like an airplane, a computational device, or a digital media system is possible to implement by breaking the whole system down into subsystems (or modules) that can be managed semi-autonomously from the whole complex system.
  • Modularity and Levels: Modules and Combinations (Combinatorial Design and Cumulative Combinations (Arthur)
  • Architecture(s): in designs for technical systems, an "architecture" is the "master plan" or overall operational design that links all the subsystems, modules, and levels of a system. A common term in computer system design, software, and network design (as in "Internet architecture").
  • Affordances and Constraints (in design and materials) (Norman, design theory)
  • Principles of Scale and Extensibility (throughout course)
  • Cognitive Artefacts and Cognitive Technology (Norman, others in future weeks)
  • Metamedium (Term introduced by Alan Kay, co-designer of the Apple GUI. Manovich expands on the term. Definition: a medium designed for representing, processing, and interpreting other media; this is the "meta" design principle for all our current PCs and devices with pixel-based screens, windows-based OSs with display/interactive interfaces, and software for interpreting, displaying, or playing all forms of media [data types: text, graphics, photos, music, video/film.)


  • Martin Irvine, Introduction to Design Thinking: Systems and Architectures (Intro essay)
  • Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. Excerpts from chapters 1, 2, 4 [pdf].
    [Arthur is a famous complexity theorist at the Santa Fe Institute. A really perceptive book about complexity in technologies from a "macro" level viewpoint. Note the way that Arthur approaches complex systems, modularity, and design as a generative "language" for new combinations.]
  • William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Revised. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2010.
    [Well-illustrated compendium of design concepts. Skim for this week; we will cover many topics presented here in coming weeks.]
  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command [excerpt in pdf]. Read 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. We will study the background for these concepts and how to apply them throughout the course.]
  • Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. Excerpts from Preface and Chap. 1.
    [This is a popular non-technical introduction to design principles encountered in many kinds of everyday manufactured things from a leading thinker in the cognitive approach to design and HCI (Human Computer Interaction). Norman follows human-centered principles and provides methods for thinking about how concepts and functions can be implemented and "mapped onto" manufactured things.
    Norman is a leading guru of "user-centered" design philosophy and has a background in both cognitive science and computer science. His career spans many university and private sector positions; he is now a fellow with IDEO, a leading design firm in Cambridge, MA and Silicon Valley.]
  • Donald A. Norman, Living with Complexity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010. Excerpts.
    [This is written for a general audience and is a quick read. Focus on his explanations of systems, affordances/signifiers, mental models, and modularity for this week. Key concepts for the whole course.]
  • Donald A. Norman, "Cognitive Artifacts." In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
    [Read first few pages, 17-19, for today for basic concepts. We will study "cognitive artefacts" further in following weeks.]


  • Peter J. Denning and Craig H. Martell. Great Principles of Computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015, chapter 1: Computing.
    [Denning's book is an excellent example of explanation by key principles and concepts. You can begin reading it this week and continue through the course.]

Discussion (link to Wordpress site)

  • [Make sure you've read the instructions for the weekly writing assignment!]
  • Your first weekly writing "post" can be informal and a way to organize some thoughts about the main concepts in this week's readings.
    Thinking with some design concepts from this week's reading, how would you describe the design features and functions of a contemporary electronic device like a "smart" TV connected to a cable service and the Internet? Or a PC multimedia "window" for a software application? A mobile device "app"? Even though our devices come to us as black boxes, can you begin to detect the combinations of modules and design principles used in any version of a device of the same kind -- i.e., deproductize any specific version or corporate brand to discover the "universal" design principles required for anything to work the way that we experience it to work?

Learning Objectives and Main Topics:

Learning the major concepts and principles of modularity for understanding the design and implementation of media, communication, computation, and information technologies. Modularity is one the most important principles of technologies and all aspects of the human built environment

Video Introduction


  • Martin Irvine, Introduction to Modularity and Abstraction Layers (Intro essay).
  • 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.]
  • Richard N. Langlois, "Modularity in Technology and Organization." Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 49, no. 1 (September 2002): 19-37.
    [You'll find the modularity model used in many fields. Here, read sections 2-4, pp. 19-26 for an introductory overview of concepts initiated by Herbert Simon on complex systems. Very accessible introduction to main concepts treated more extensively by Baldwin and Clark, next.]
  • Carliss Y. Baldwin and Kim B. Clark, Design Rules, Vol. 1: The Power of Modularity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000. Excerpts. Read chapters 1 and 3 for this week.
  • W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. Chapters 5-6, 9, 11.
    [Compare Arthur's combinatorial model of modular systems with the specific analyses above.]

See the course Research Bibliography for additional sources on this topic.


Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • We will use the Apple iPhone (or other smart phone/mobile device that you may own) as a continuing case study for applying the concepts in the course. Begin applying the concepts and methods from this week's and last week's readings.
  • How do modular design principles and systems thinking help you to understand the design principles for smart phones and any PC or device with a graphical user interface (GUI)? Can you begin to describe the modules and layers/levels in the "black box" behind the interfaces exposed to us as users (icons, user controls, feedback, display output, etc.)?
  • Use the case of a software application (app) that you use, and find out everything you can about how the software works and "communicates" with other modules, both on your device/PC and distributed across the network. Consider how the concept of the "interface" goes beyond what we can see to all the invisible (unobservable) functions, services, interactions, and transactions in a whole interdependent system.

Learning Objectives and Topics:

Why do we need to differentiate kinds and categories of technologies when learning design principles?

We are studying a very specific category of designed technologies -- cognitive-symbolic technologies. This category includes all forms of media systems, computing systems (large or small), and all that we include in the concepts of communication, information, and data. All these kinds of technologies are designed to serve and implement one or more of our sign and symbol systems -- e.g., language, writing systems, abstract symbolic systems (mathematics, sciences), images and visual representation genres, music, and combinations of these systems (film, video, multimedia). These are all technologies of, and for, meaning, expression, and understanding. We can call them semiotic technologies in the term defined by C. S. Peirce (semiotics = the study of sign and symbol systems and their media of implementation); that is, technologies that provide the material media and distribute the learned codes (interpretive patterns) that a society understands in all forms of expression and representation. Computational systems are our most advanced form of combined semiotic technologies (so far), and they are based on long histories of both abstract and physical implementations in material media.

While many design principles are universal or general -- that is, they are used or apply to all kinds of human-produced things -- semiotic or cognitive-symbolic technologies need to be studied in a way specific to this kind or category of designed system. This introduction to the study of cognitive artefacts and semiotic technologies provides an orientation to the interdisciplinary research and theory traditions that provide foundational thinking about the design principles behind our “technologies of meaning.”

Although we can only do top-level overview here, you will see how our orientation to technology in this course is supported by the study of human cognition and technical mediation in many intersecting disciplines and sciences--including linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, computer science, and cognitive science more broadly. Having some background familiarity with this important developing knowledge base allows us to ask better informed questions about the functions, purposes, and motivations of the design principles for computational technologies and mediated communication systems.

Symbolic Cognition, Sign Systems, Mediation > Cognitive Artefacts
> Cognitive Technologies

Synthesizing views, we can say that the human symbolic faculty has generated a continuum of functions from language and abstract symbolic thought to designs for machines, media technologies, and computation:


Video Introduction:


  • Martin Irvine, "Introduction to Cognitive Artefacts and Semiotic Technologies" (seminar unit intro).
  • Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.
    [All the deep, historical evidence indicates that we are the "symbolic species," which is revealed in the language capacity, human cognitive capabilities (perception, thinking, reasoning), and use of many kinds of symbol systems and symbolic artefacts. The symbolic capacity is what enables our capability for abstract thought, communication, writing systems, mathematics, music, image systems, and the many forms of material media that have served our sign and symbol systems. We are just at one point in a long continuum. Computing and digital media are based on all of our symbolic capabilities, including the design and physical implementation of designs that serve symbolic thought, expression, representation, and communication.]
  • Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Connected excerpts.
    [A good summary of the cognitive psychology background that provided important concepts and assumptions in Human-Computer Interaction/Interface design theory as it developed from the 1960s-2000s.]
  • Donald A. Norman, "Cognitive Artifacts." In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Read pp. 17-23.
    [Norman's research and conceptual models are in a lineage with Douglas Engelbart ("Augmenting Human Intellect"), inventor of the mouse and GUI, whose work we will study in a following week.]
  • Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008) (Excerpt).
    [Excerpts from the Forward by David Chalmers, pp. ix-xi; xiv-xvi (attend especially to the comments in the last 3 pages of the Forward); Introduction and Chapter 1.3: "Material Symbols" (especially the concept of "cognitive scaffolding"). This selection sums up Clark's research over the last 20 years, and contributes to the interdisciplinary community of research developed in the following reading.]
  • 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. 
    [This may be difficult, but do your best to follow, and focus on finding the key points and assumptions (not the details of the arguments). This is an important summary of research conclusions from leaders in cognitive science and its relations to technology and HCI (Human-Computer Interaction design). Hutchin's justly famous book, Cognition in the Wild (1996), provided empirical validation for understanding cognition as a collective and group process involving interpretation of instruments and devices designed to provide interpretable information. As in Clark's research, cognition involves and requires a larger system of human interactions outside and beyond individual minds/brains. We will pick up on this tradition of research and theory for HCI and interface design in the coming weeks.]

Presentations: Martin Irvine, "Cognition, Meaning, Symbol" (Part 1)

  • Background overview of concepts; study on your own, we will discuss some topics in class.
    • Why are computing systems and digital media different categories of technologies? How do the design principles correspond to our symbolic-cognitive capabilities and prior histories for materially mediating them?
  • Semiotic Design Principles of Computing Systems and Digital Media (Part 1) (Presentation/Lecture Notes)
    • Introduction to design concepts that we will study in more detail in coming weeks.

See the course Research Bibliography for additional sources on this topic.

Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • Can you describe the "cognitive artefact," "distributed cognition," or "collective symbolic cognition" functions in our everyday interactions with symbolic technologies? Books and libraries? Navigating by GPS? Offloading concepts, writing, images to digital storage technologies? Using software and the Internet?
  • How does the view of computational and media technologies as "cognitive technologies" or "symbolic-cognitive artefacts" provide a better understanding of these technologies and their specific design principles than simply considering them as generic "machines" or "manufactured products"?

Learning Objectives and Main Topics:

Learning the key concepts in the study of media technologies as interdependent components of social-technical systems. This week's learning goals are (1) learning how to identify unhelpful and contradictory terms and arguments and media and technology (often circulating in popular discourse) and (2) learning the key concepts and approaches that will help clarify useful ways of thinking about media, media technologies, and the social-technical relations that make up our media and technology systems.

This week we will draw on some of the most useful interdisciplinary approaches to understanding "technology," "media," and "culture/society" from related systems thinking approaches. The knowledge base formed through all the related fields and research paradigms is huge and difficult to navigate; the related fields include media and communication studies, information sciences (technical and sociological), semiotics (meaning systems), science and technology studies (STS), and all the intersecting fields in engineering and computer science.

Key Terms and Concepts:

  • Medium/media: social-technical implementations of sign systems for communication and meaning functions maintained by the uses of media in a larger cultural, economic, and political system.
  • Mediation: the functions of a medium (e.g., book/text/print, image technologies, mass media industries, computer devices for digital media) in which communication and information in specific material technologies also form an "interface" for social, cultural, and political relations beyond the "content" transmitted.
  • Interface: 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:
    • Social-political institutions in the political economy: policy, regulation, standards, intellectual property regimes
    • Industry and business ecosystems
  • Sociotechnical artefact: the redefinition of technologies as nodes in a social system.
  • Communication vs. Transmission (in Debray's terms: proximity and distance in space/time):
    differentiating media technologies and their functions for (near) synchronous communication within a cultural group (e.g., telephone, email, TV, radio, Web data searches) vs. technologies for transmission of meaning and cultural identity over long time spans (e.g., written artefacts, books, art and architecture, recorded media, computer memory storage, and institutions for memory [museums, archives, schools, governments, law, religions, library systems]).

Video Introduction:


  • Martin Irvine, "Understanding Sociotechnical Systems with Mediology and Actor Network Theory (with a De-Blackboxing Method)" [Conceptual and theoretical overview.]
  • Pieter Vermaas, Peter Kroes, Ibo van de Poel, Maarten Franssen, and Wybo Houkes. A Philosophy of Technology: From Technical Artefacts to Sociotechnical Systems. San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2011. Excerpts from chapters 1 and 5.
    • You can survey this background quickly to become familiar with the key terms and concepts as a baseline for accepted interdisciplinary views. We will spend considerable time in the course questioning many received views about "technology and society" and the viability of established terminology.
  • Regis Debray, "What is Mediology?" (Also as PDF.Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.
    • In this short article, Debray succinctly summaries the "mediological" approach and explains why the notion of a division between "technology" and "culture" is no longer acceptable and can be removed by reinterpreting the relations through functions of co-mediation, a re-orientation provided by mediology.
  • Bruno Latour, "On Technical Mediation," as re-edited with title, "A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans -- Following Daedalus's Labyrinth," in Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 174-217. (Original version: "On Technical Mediation." Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 29-64. But read the re-edited version.) 
    • Excerpt includes Latour's "Glossary" of terms and Bibliography.
    • Begin at p. 176. This is a very accessible essay that outlines Latour's approach to "delegated" or "distributed agency" in technologies as used and valued socially.
    • Latour's terminology may be difficult to follow if you're not familiar with this school of thought, but we won't get bogged down in specific terms. The take away points are his overall reorientation to studying social-technical relations as networks of distributed agency with multiple kinds of agents.
  • Werner Rammert, "Where the Action Is: Distributed Agency Between Humans, Machines, and Programs," 2008. Social Science Open Access Repository (SSOAR).
    • Focus on pp. 10-18. This is an accessible overview of the theories of distributed agency that help us re-model media and technologies as socially embedded rather than independent "causes" of social "effects".

In-Class: De-Blackboxing Methods and Hacking the iPhone (presentation)


See the course Research Bibliography for additional sources on this topic.


Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • Using the more integrative "systems view" of media, technologies, and sociotechnical artefacts studied this week, explain to someone still using the "technology effects" language and the technology vs. society dualism how we need to think differently for participating in design decisions.
  • 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.
  • Specific example for case study: the touchscreen (a modular system connecting to other modular systems):
    With your background so far, explain how the current touchscreen a modular design for symbolic activities and for connecting to distributed agency and cognition in software and networks.

Learning Objectives and Main Topics:

This week is an introduction to some key concepts that we will use in the study of the design principles behind our digital representational displays (including graphical interaction interfaces and corresponding software layers) in PCs, tablets, and smartphones, i.e., everything that uses a pixel-grid for a graphically-rendered screen.

Following our conceptual modeling methods, we will begin at the “macro” level of universal design principles that hold over many kinds of things, and then focus on principles more specific to cognitive-semiotic artefacts in the various forms of technical and physical implementation. We will then extrapolate from these principles to study how they are implemented in our computational technologies with design methods for representing, formatting, and transmitting symbolic media in digital form.

Although the “use” features of everyday artefacts are all by design, we rarely think about them consciously. Design (in any domain) is about making the underlying principles conscious, intentional, and implementable. An important starting point for becoming aware of design principles is to understand how we work with affordances, constraints, and interfaces.


Background and Reference:

  • Interaction Design Foundation, The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd. Ed.
    [Useful open-source reference. Don Norman is one of the advisors. You can come back to this reference throughout the course.]

See the course Research Bibliography for additional sources on this topic.


Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • Describe and analyze as many of the affordances and interfaces as you can of the book as an artefact design. Why and how are affordances and interfaces transferred to computational and digital media displays. Consider form factor (use on a human scale, serves functions and constraints of hands, eyes, distance limits of optimal vision).
  • Thinking with Janet Murray's use of key design concepts, can you see how screen and interface design work in new ways? Could you describe your experience with screen organized information and the affordances of this kind of computer interface in richer and more detailed ways than you could before?
  • What are the affordances and constraints in an app interface, from initiating the app from an icon (or other action-intention link) to how the software takes over the whole screen of a smart phone or tablet device? Can you see what the design principles are and why they are choices and not simply necessary properties of software and pixel-grid screens? How much of the design is for using affordances for our human capacity for symbolic expression, and how much is for controlling the attention of a user?
Learning Objectives and Main Topics
  • Learning the major terms, concepts, and technical applications for information theory as defined and used in electronics, computation, and digital media for signals and digital-electronic states.
  • Learning how and why the engineering definition of information in our electronic and digital context is essential for the way all information and media technologies work (based on discrete states represented by bits, units of binary values, transmitted in time to different physical locations in space).
  • Learning why these technical implementations for signals are necessarily “semantic-agnostic” (not-knowing or unaware of meaning-correlations), but must presuppose motivated meanings by senders and receivers of messages and any kind encoded information. Without human meaning intentions there would be no sending and receiving of messages encoded in signals!
  • Learning why the engineering transmission model (sender-signal-receiver) is not applicable or sufficient for describing the communication of meaning, values, and intentions that we encode in sign/symbol units.

Key Terms and Concepts:

  • Information defined as units of probability and differentiation (differentiability) from other possibilities.
  • The Transmission Model of Communication and Information.
  • The dominant conceptual metaphors (and their consequences):
    conduit (“channel”), container (and “content”), source, destination.
  • The “bit” (binary unit) as minimal encoding/encodable/encoded unit (2 possible values in base 2 number system with one of two values represented = 1 bit of information), and how/why binary code units map onto electrical circuits and electronic states (a value can be represented in an electronic state).
  • Discrete (digital/binary) vs. Continuous (analog) signals or information sources.

Video Introduction

Readings: Information - Transmission Theory Models

  • Martin Irvine, Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information (read first)
  • Luciano Floridi, Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010. Read Chapters 1-4. Excerpts.
    [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. Whole book recommended.]
  • 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? Yes, computation is motivated by meaning.
    [An expanded version of this essay is in Denning and Martell. Great Principles of Computing. Chapter 3: Information.]
  • 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?

Interdisciplinary Case Study: Samuel Morse: The Life of Code (in class)

  • Live demo of telegraph with 19th century equipment. Understanding communication technologies as sociotechnical systems: Samuel Morse, art and code, the telegraph, beginning of electronic code for messaging, government funding, patent wars, the telegraph system as national and international standardization, global telecommunications.
  • Introduction to Morse and Code (background and dossier of sources) (Irvine)


See the course Research Bibliography for additional sources on this topic.

Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • Describe the main features of the signal transmission theory of information and why the signal-code-transmission model is not a description of meaning (the semantic, social, and cultural significance of encoded signals)? Why is the information theory model essential for everything electronic and digital, but insufficient for extending to models for meaning systems (our sign and symbol systems)?
  • What are the conceptual consequences of using the content - container - transport/conduit metaphors when describing communication? Why aren't meanings "in" physical signals or "contents" in boxes needed to be transferred?
  • Think through a case study on your own: How do we know what a text message, an email message, social media post, or digital image means after being successfully transmitted and received as information? What do senders and receivers know about the transmitted data signals that isn't a physical property of the signals?

Learning Objective and Key Ideas:
Learning the key concepts in "computational thinking" and the design principles in computation and how programming code in software enacts processes a computer architecture to form a "computer as a system."

This unit focuses on the key concepts in computation and the models for programming languages that enable all our software, computer and information design, and 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).

Video Introductions:


  • Martin Campbell-Kelly, "Origin of Computing." Scientific American 301, no. 3 (September 2009): 62–69.
  • Jeannette Wing, "Computational Thinking." Communications of the ACM 49, no. 3 (March 2006): 33–35.
    [Short essay on the topic; Wing has launched a wide discussion in CS circles and education.]
  • Peter J. Denning and Craig H. Martell. Great Principles of Computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015, chapters 4, 5, 6.
    • Denning has worked on his "Great Principles" project for the ACM for many years. For a summary of the approach behind the book: Peter J. Denning, "The Great Principles of Computing." American Scientist, October, 2010.
  • Michael S. Mahoney, "The Histories of Computing(s)." Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30, no. 2 (June 2005). [The different research and development communities behind concepts and applications for computing.]

Main Reading for Background on the Introduction to Coding Tutorial:

  • David Evans, Introduction to Computing: Explorations in Language, Logic, and Machines. Oct. 2011 edition. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; Creative Commons Open Access:

    Focus on this text as the core reading for this week. Read chapters 1-3 (Computing, Language, Programming); others as reference and as your time and interest allow at this point. You can always return to other chapters for reference and self-study.
    [This is a terrific book based on Evans' Intro Computer Science courses at the University of Virginia. The book is open access, and the website has updates and downloads.]

For Reference: Background on the Technical Design of Today's Computers

  • David A. Patterson, and John L. Hennessy. Computer Organization and Design: The Hardware/Software Interface. 5th ed. Oxford, UK; Waltham, MA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2013. Excerpts from Chapter 1: focus on pp. 13-29.
    [Excellent overview of important concepts for system architecture from PCs to tablets. For beginning computer engineering students, but accessible.]
  • Ron White, How Computers Work. 9th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Que Publishing, 2007. Excerpts.
    • Part One: Boot Up Process (History and Architectures)
      [Use for reference and conceptual understanding of basic PC computing architecture. This is extensible to mobile devices with further modularization and miniaturization of components.]
    • The Basics (hardware and software architectures)
    • Software Applications
      [Use this book as a reference for the operational nuts and bolts of hardware components and the computational principles behind them. Note that the systems architecture described is applicable to the miniaturization and modular design of mobile devices as functions become integrated in fewer chips and smaller space.]

Main Assignment: Hands-On Learning Project On Code Academy

  • Create an account on Code Academy:
    • Sign up for the self-paced tutorial lessons on the Python programming language "track": (
    • The tutorial will prompt you through the lessons. Go as far as you can this week.
    • These lessons will guide you through basic computing concepts and also let you write some basic code and see the results when it runs.
    • Python is now the most widely used "teaching language" in introductory computer science courses. The concepts learned about programming methods here are extensible to most other computing contexts (including Web interactive content and mobile apps).
  • (And if you have time and interest, you can follow up with the Web Fundamentals "track": )

Presentation (In-class): Computational Thinking and Computing: Symbolic Systems

See the course Research Bibliography for additional sources on this topic.


Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • Describe what you learned from working through the CodeAcademy tutorial and making connections to the computing principles introduced this week. Were any key concepts clearer? What questions can you describe now after having a little more background.
  • Can you see how a programming language (and thus a software program or app) is designed to specify symbols that mean things (represent values and conceptual meaning) and symbols that do things (symbols that are interpreted in the computer system to perform actions and/or operations on other symbols). Computation (or "running" software) is a way of defining transitions in information representations that return us interpretable symbol sequences. (This is what the software layers running on your device right now are doing to render the interpretable text, graphics, images, and window formatting from the digital data sources combined in a Web "page," image or video file, and many other behind-the-scenes sources.)

Learning Objective and Main Topics:

  • Learning the background design history for the models of computing that led to the development of interfaces for human interaction with programmable processes.
  • Understanding the important steps in the transition from the post-War "number crunching" model of computer systems to the expansion of computation applied to symbolic-cognitive needs.
  • Learning the concepts behind the technical architectures in all our devices that support the graphical and interactive interfaces that we now take for granted.

“Technology at present is covert philosophy; the point is to make it openly philosophical.”
--Phil Agre, 1997

I've intentionally bounded the readings this week to conclude with the developments of interface design and computing as “augmenting human intellect” up to the late 1970s and early 1980s so that we can pause and consider the concepts and unfulfilled “histories” of computing system designs that preceded our contemporary era of productized “Metamedia”.

Key Concepts and terms:

  • Interface and Interface Design (for human interaction with, and control of, software representations and outputs), and concepts developed in the beginnings of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) as a field within computer science and engineering
  • Graphical User Interface (GUI) for screen interfaces
  • Metamedium / Metamedia
  • Continuum of symbolic functions and the Meta function in computation and digital information and media

Introductory Video:


  • Martin Irvine, Introduction to Symbolic-Cognitive Interfaces: History of Design Principles (essay). Read Parts 1-2.
    [I've synthesized a lot of background history for today's design concepts. Includes a research bibliography if you want to follow up on any of these topics.]
  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, pp. 55-106, on the background for Allan Kay's "Dynabook" Metamedium design concept. Excerpts in pdf.
  • Bill Moggridge, ed., Designing Interactions. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007. Excepts from Chapters 1 and 2: The Designs for the "Desktop Computer" and the first PCs.
    [This is valuable collection of interviews with the main designers of the interfaces and interaction principles that we use every day. Includes interviews with and background about Doug Engelbart and the design team at Xerox PARC with Allan Kay (Stu Card and Larry Tessler).]
  • Peter J. Denning and Craig H. Martell. Great Principles of Computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015, chapters 7 (Memory) and 9 (Design). [Concluding background on computer system design.]

Historical and Conceptual Backgrounds for Computer Interface Designs

  • Collection of original documents in pdf. You do not need to read these texts fully, but review them for their historical significance and as they are referenced in the readings for this week. (Graduate students should have access to the primary texts in their original form.)
  • Contents:
  • Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," Atlantic, July, 1945.
    • A seminal essay on managing information and human thought by a leading computer engineer and technologist during and after World War II. Bush's pre-modern computing extrapolations lead to the concepts of GUIs (graphical user interface for computers), hypertext, and linked documents. His conceptual model, though not yet implementable with the computers of the 1940-50s, inspired Doug Engelbart and other computer designs that followed in the 1970s-80s and on to our own hypermediated era.
    • Wikipedia background on this essay, and Bush's concept of the "Memex", precursor to hypertext information systems.
  • Ivan Sutherland, "Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System" (1963)
    • Expanding on techniques for screen interfaces for military radar, Sutherland was way ahead of his time, and it took many years for the whole combinatorial array of technologies to catch up for implementing the concepts. The Sketchpad concepts inspired Engelbart, Alan Kay (Dynabook), and the development of all screen interactive technologies that we know today.
  • Douglas Engelbart, "Augmenting Human Intellect"
    • Engelbart's research and development teams at Stanford in the 1960s-70s were influenced by Vannevar Bush's vision and motivated by a new conception of computers not simply as business, government, or military machines for instrumental ends but as aids for core human cognitive tasks that could be open to everyone. Engelbart's expansion of computation into user interaction led to:
      • The "Desktop" metaphor for a virtual interface to a user's content
      • The mouse and pointer cursor
      • Display editing and outline processing
      • Multiple remote online users of a networked processor
      • Multiple windows
      • Intra-file linking, Hypertext and Hypermedia linking ("clickable" linking between media objects)
    • Also available online at the Doug Engelbart Institute:
      HTML annotated edition of "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework" (the Doug Engelbart Institute site).
    • For the original design concepts for the mouse, see Engelbart's Patent Application (with diagrams) for an "An X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System" (aka, mouse).
    • Background on Doug Engelbart at the Computer History Museum and the influence of Vannevar Bush's ideas.
  • Xerox PARC, Alan Kay, and the Dynabook/ Metamedium Concept for a "Personal Computer"
    • Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media” (1977), originally published in Computer 10(3):31–41, March 1977. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 393–404. 
    • 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.]
    • 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.

Video Documentary: Demo of Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad, Lincoln Labs, MIT (c.1963)

In-class Presentation: Computing -- The Design View

See the course Research Bibliography for additional sources on this topic.


Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • Referencing 2 or more of the readings for this week, describe the conceptual design steps that enabled computer design to develop beyond earlier designs for military, government, and business applications to broader "general purpose" information processing and presentation in graphical interfaces that opened computing to nontechnical users.
  • What are the unfulfilled concepts and design principles in the "first wave" of user interface design that could be reclaimed and implemented in our current systems? How could we do different designs and have them succeed (both technically and socially)?
Learning Objectives:

Learning how to describe the design principles of interactive computing and the graphical interfaces designed to support interaction (in the computational sense). Since so much of our computing interactions involve graphical screen and pixel-based representation, we will also study the design of digital images and the affordances and constraints of digital images as media objects in all digital environments (PC screens, mobile devices, TVs and streaming media).

Students will also be introduced to digital interface design principles (Murray) and the top-level design principles used in the "presentation layers" of our PC and mobile device software. This knowledge will enable students to go further and learn how to become designers of interface elements and digital content.

Key terms and concepts to be learned:

  • Interactive Computing (precise technical definition)
  • Metamedium: computational devices with interfaces that enable representing, creating, modifying, and transmitting all forms of digital media (in text, image, photo, video, and audio formats)
  • Analog / Digital
  • Digitization; Sample (sample rate)
  • Codec (analog-digital enCODing and DECoding hardware and software)
  • Digital artefact / digital object
  • Digital media format/standards (e.g., .jpg ; .mp3; .pdf; .doc; .mov)


  • Martin Irvine, Introduction to Symbolic-Cognitive Interfaces: History of Design Principles (essay). Read Part 3.
  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, pp. 107-239; and Conclusion (pp.329-341).
  • Peter Wegner, “Why Interaction Is More Powerful Than Algorithms.” Communications of the ACM 40, no. 5 (May 1, 1997): 80–91.
    [Do your best to catch the key concepts here (a famous statement about the Interactive Computing model). Interactive computing is a software and interface system model that enables ongoing communication between human users of the system and processes that can be given choices and directions while in process. Computational interaction is based on layering symbolic representations and cues for initiating and directing computational actions that can work in parallel or concurrently in a local device and across networks. This design is the opposite of the Turing-Von Neumann computational model of one sequential process at a time that terminates (halts) when completed.]
  • Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Excerpts from Introduction and Chapter 2. For reference: Glossary of Terms.
    • This book is an excellent recent statement of the contemporary design principles developed in the cognitive design tradition, which assumes that computer interfaces are designs for semiotic systems.
    • Murray explains four key affordances of digital interactive interfaces. Follow her explanations for how the design concepts for computing and media interactions are operationalized (i.e., made routine for use) in actual implemented interface designs.

Technical Backgrounds: Digital Photography

  • Ron White and Timothy Downs. How Digital Photography Works. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Que Publishing, 2007.
    [ Excerpts that cover the basics of the digital camera and digital image creation, memory, and processing.]

Interface Design "Platforms": Industry Standards for Interface Designs

  • Google: Medium
    • Google's description: "Material is an adaptable system of guidelines, components, and tools that support the best practices of user interface design. Backed by open-source code, Material streamlines collaboration between designers and developers, and helps teams quickly build beautiful products."
  • Apple Developer: Human Interface Design Guidelines
    • See design "rules" for all Apple platforms (iOS, Mac PC, TV)

In-class Presentation (continued): Computing -- The Design View


Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • Following on Kay's design philosophy (and actual implementations) and Manovich's analysis of the "metamedia" principle, can you describe and explain how most of our contemporary "computing devices" (PCs, smart phones, tablets) are not a "medium" in themselves, but a metamedium that implements a complex modular, combinatorial design for processing, representing, interacting with, and transmitting other media now in digital form? What are the consequences of this transition in concepts of computing? Can you distinguish what is continuous (part of our media and technical mediation continuum) and what is new (specific to computation and digital media) in the computing and digital "metamedia" platforms?
  • Using Janet Murray's explanation of interaction design and the affordances of digital media interfaces, describe one of the key principles and reference an example (on the Web, in an app, or in other PC software) that you think implements the design principle well, or does not seem to fulfill the best use of the principle. You may use examples that exhibit Google's or Apple's interface design standards, if you want to follow how they are used.

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 how the Internet is designed as a decentralized network based on a design for "end-to-end" connections.
  • 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.

Key Concepts and Terms

  • Network Architecture
  • Protocol and the TCP/IP protocol suite
  • Data Packet
  • Packet Switching, Packet-Switched Network
  • Client / Server
  • Internet address (IP address)
  • Domain Name System (DNS)

Video Introduction

Readings: History, Basic Architecture, and Design Principles of the Internet

  • Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures (Why Learn This?) [start here]
  • Ron White, "How the Internet Works." Excerpt from How Computers Work. 10th ed. Que Publishing, 2015.
    [A well-illustrated guide to the basic systems architecture and background technologies. Note: this provides background on "how" current Internet technology designs work, not the "why" of design principles.]
  • Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray. Personal Computers and the Internet, excerpt from Computer: A History Of The Information Machine. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014.
    [Read the Intro and pp. 189-201; 275-288 for this week. Excellent background history.]
  • Denning and Martell, Great Principles of Computing, Chap. 11, "Networking."
  • Barbara van Schewick, Internet Architecture and Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.
    Excerpt from Chap. 2, "Internet Design Principles."
    [This is a more technical view, and takes you into the core design principles that makes the Internet what it is: survey the concepts for the modular design of the Internet.]
  • Manuel Castells, “Lessons from the History of the Internet,” from The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 9–35.

Optional Background: Internet History and Reference Sources

Global Internet: Infrastructures and Global Networks (Presentation)

See the course Research Bibliography for additional sources on this topic.

Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • 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.

Learning Objectives and Topics:

Concluding our study of Internet architecture and design principles with the World Wide Web architecture and the principles behind all websites, Web "pages," and the interactive information principles behind mobile apps (on any small device):

  • Learning how the extensible and scalable design principles of the Internet/Web architecture are continuing to be developed and expanded for any Internet device from large office computers to mobile device "apps" to "smart" TVs.
  • Learning the important background history of information and text/media concepts that led to the design of the Web as a hypermedia system for linking files, media content, and accessing complex networked computer services over the Internet.
  • Why does the whole interactive "app" architecture use the structure of HTML, CSS, JavaScript and other interactive programming for interacting with Web servers?
  • What design principles should you learn to understand how anything we do in a Web client (a "browser" like Chrome, Firefox, and Safari) or design in an "app" works the way it does (rather than some other way)?
  • How could you participate in a design project in your organization or profession by knowing what's possible to design?

Key terms and concepts

  • Client / server (in Web architecture)
  • Hypertext / hypermedia
  • HTTP: "Hypertext Transport Protocol"
  • URL: "Uniform Resource Locator": the human-readable Web file "address" on a server
  • HTML: "Hypertext Markup Language"
  • Web "browser" or client program
  • App: short for "(software) application"; on a mobile device, PC. or smart TV = an interface with controls to use Internet and Web resources (content) and services (server-side software, transactions). Another example of "client" software for interacting with servers on the network.
  • HTML5: the current HTML cluster of evolving standards, interoperating Web "languages," and data server architecture for using the Web as an all-purpose platform for connecting any IP-enabled device, any OS, any screen size.


The World Wide Web: Architecture and Design

Background on the Web: History and Design Consequences

  • The W3C: World Wide Web Consortium: Overview of Mission and Standards from the international organization that manages development of services and extensions to Web architecture.
    Review the sections on Open Standards, Design Principles, and Web on Everything
  • Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimative Destiny of the World Wide Web. New York, NY: Harper Business, 2000. Excerpts.
    [A personal, inside account of the development of the Web by the main inventor. These excerpts reveal the concepts behind the design of the Web system and take us up to the point where the Web took off with the Mosaic and Netscape browsers. Berners-Lee joined MIT to begin the WWW Consortium in 1994.]
  • Janna Anderson, and Lee Rainie. "The Future of Apps and Web." (Also pdf format.) Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, March 23, 2012.
    [A view of the debate that emerged in 2012 on the Web as PC media integrator vs. mobile device system interfaces.]
  • Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. Excerpt from introduction and chap. 1. Entire book is available in a Creative Commons version on the author's site.
    [Zittrain's approach shows how the "effects" of present and future of Internet technologies are not hidden, black box operations, but emerge from the larger system of design principles, policy, and business/industry decisions.]

Optional: Reference and Background

In-class presentation:
Web Architecture: Generative/Combinatorial Technology Meets "Appification"

Case Studies:
Further into De-blackboxing the iPhone and other modular computational devices

  • Smart phone and tablet "apps" are often the main interface to the Web for many users. How does the Web's modular design enable app functionality (interacting with many kinds of remote servers, fetching and displaying information, connecting "native" features in the device [graphics software, GPS, audio, phone, voice] to network services)?
  • 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. Considering the many forms of technical mediation and how they intersect in a specific product. How consumers are socialized into functions and features that remain black-boxed and productized.

Discussion Questions (link to Wordpress site)
Use these questions to focus your reading and thinking this week, and choose at least one to write about:

  • Develop a specific case study with the iPhone. any mobile device, or Web data service in a standard Web browser: follow a "program of action" in an interface, software app, background transactions, and media function (e.g., texting, using video, playing music, navigating by maps and GPS) and uncover as far as you can the technical components and software that can be interpreted not as objects or black-boxed products but as interfaces to the whole system that enables the functions we see and use.
  • Put our concepts to work: cumulative combinatorial dependencies (Brian Arthur's method), modular architectures of software layers and hardware components (systems method), and ecosystems of industry relationships (business and economic dependencies). "Who" or "what" is performing the actions that we observe? "Who" is "taking" or "making" the photo on your smart phone? Can you see some outlines of a pattern of distributed and delegated agency (Latour)? What stored or bundled agencies and prior functions do we trigger when we use an app or media feature?

Discussion of Group Projects and Learning from Case Studies

Instructions and Guidance for Your Discussion Topic

The purpose of the group project is to practice developing your ideas in a group discussion for applying “design thinking”concepts and design principles to aspects of a case that you choose. Write up notes or talking points about your discussion and post them in WordPress for this week. (If you want to do slides in Google you can put a link in the WordPress post.) Each group will then have 10-15 minutes to present their findings and analysis in class.

Why do this? In “real world” uses of design principles (both for analysis in understanding designed things -- “designing thinking” -- and product development -- “design doing”) people work in teams where participants have different kinds of “domain knowledge” (specializations) about the combined technologies, modules, levels, and policies that make up the whole system that a design belongs to. We can’t practice all that in a short course, but you can get practice in “deblackboxing” aspects of the complex system that your case was designed within and for. You can practice explaining one or two aspects of the whole combinatorial system, and discover some of the unobservable principles, dependent technologies, or standards that are combined to make what is observable function in the way that we experience it.

Full Instructions (pdf).


In-class discussion: design case studies.

Link to Wordpress site

Final Project Instructions

  • General Final Project Instructions (on the Wordpress site).
  • In-class discussion of projects: we will have a roundtable discussion of your current state thinking and research, and a chance to get feedback and suggestions from the class.
  • Final projects are due to be posted as a Wordpress essay one week after the last day of class.