"The ENIAC itself, strangely, was a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one which you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually one that you kind of lived inside."
-- Harry Reed, mathematician who worked on the ENIAC (one of the earliest modern computers created in the United States)
While the hardware that we use to connect with each other has gotten a lot smaller, the room in which we engage in personal computing has gotten a lot bigger. It's not really a room so much as it's a planet. What we think of as personal computers today are small components of larger, more complicated networked system that spans from cables under the ocean to satellites in space. But living inside a computer doesn't look like a cool science fiction movie. It looks like cities, highways, buildings, and the infrastructure that supports them.
In this class, we'll explore how and where we live with computers, and the different spatial politics of computation. The course will do a sort of "Powers of Ten" approach, first moving up the scales to look at massive superstructures of computation and then zooming in to look at the raw materials within consumer electronics--and the landscapes required to obtain those raw materials. We'll do one field trip day to see some relevant sites in New York City and one in-class science project (a dissection).
- Session 1: Living Inside a Computer
(introduction, taxonomies of computer landscapes)
Assignment for this session (long-term): Students will start keeping a "computation diary" that they will maintain over the course of the class observing where, when, and how they interact with computers. The goal is to introduce students to an expanded definition of what constitutes computation--using a Metrocard kiosk or waiting at a crosswalk is a kind of human-computer interaction as much as using a phone. The medium for the diary is entirely up to the discretion of the participant--photography, drawing, a paper diary, a map, a website, a Twitter bot, all totally reasonable options. Students don't have to determine the exact form they want the diary to take until session 3, but since we'll be doing a field trip on session 2 they might find it useful to pick one sooner than later.
Relevant readings/sources introduced:
exerpts fromThe Real World of Technology, Ursula Franklin
"Situated Knowledges", Donna Haraway
- Session 2: Field Trip!
This will probably be more or less the same route and material from the spring version of the one-day workshop for this class--walking from the financial district up to SFPC and visiting various landmarks of New York telecommunications history. (anything you've found with your contact at Bell would be amazing to introduce here or you might want to include as complementary material to your class?)
- Session 3: Cloud Studies
Because we can't really visit and there aren't many super-sized data centers in the immediate New York City area, I want to spend one day talking a bit about large-scale cloud computing systems, their geography, and their politics.
Assignment for this session (short-term) : Students will be randomly assigned a rare earth element used in the production of electronics (cobalt, tantaulan, lithium, etc). They will be asked to come to class prepared to talk briefly about the following:
What is this mineral used in? (not just electronics, but other industries)
Where is it mined?
How much is it worth per ounce?
In class activity: we'll be working in pairs to dissect electronics (I'll be providing the used electronics), and as we look at different components, students will be asked to talk about what they learned about the element critical to that component.
Lecture/other reading material: conflict mineral histories, examples of work exploring the state of raw commodities and supply chains (maybe bring in Marina Zurkow for a lunch talk this week?)
Relevant reading/sources for this session:
Nathan Ensmenger's "Toward an Environmental History of Computing"
Electronics recycling and its complexities/discontents, e-waste, politics of maintenance, repair, theories of care and technology (reference points: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Jenny Odell, Donna Haraway's most recent book)
Presentation and Discussion of Computer Diaries, final wrap-up