History of Information Technology

Fall 2000 Course # 21711  STSS  4966  MR 2:00 - 3:50 pm, Lally 104.

Professor Ron Eglash




This course will examine the social history of the information revolution, focusing on the post -WWII era. From virtual worlds of cyberspace to third world electronic sweatshops, information  technologies have dramatically transformed many aspects of

both personal identity and social community. We will explore the identity and cultural context of inventors and inventions, moving from early mass communications to the first mainframes, the birth of cybernetics, the personal computer, and the internet, as well as new simulation tools such as artificial intelligence and complexity theory. Social aspects will include intersections between traditional categories such as race, sex, and class with new issues of embodiedness, virtual reality, cyborgs, and global networks.


To contact instructor:

Office Hours: Wed 11-12 and 3:00-4pm and by appointment, 5114 Sage. Email: eglash@rpi.edu, phone: 276-2048. course webpage: www.rpi.edu/~eglash/eglash.dir/histinfo.htm



Evaluation will be based on the two exams (30% each), the research project (30%), and class participation (10%). You are required to bring the reading to class so that we can discuss the texts in detail.


The research project:

Groups of students will work on displays for the Information Technology Museum. Space has been reserved in the bottom floor of Sage. I encourage working in groups, but grades will be individual; based on a write-up describing your contribution (historical research, artifact construction, display photos, etc.).



Fang , Irving.  A History of Mass Communication : Six Information Revolutions.  Boston 

Focal Press, c1997. 

Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray. Computer. Basic Books 1996.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. Simon & Schuster 1995.


Reader-- marked by * in schedule.

Course Schedule:


Aug 28: introduction – What is information technology? Whose history? Examples of indigenous Native American IT.


Part I: historical overview of mass communications


Aug 31 The written word. Readings: Fang: introduction, ch 1-2.


Sept 4 no class (labor day)


Sept 7 The first mass media. Readings: Fang ch 3.


Sept 11 Entertainment media. Readings: Fang ch 4. Discussion: Museum projects brainstorm.


Sept 14 Electronic media. Readings: Fang ch 5. Written museum proposal due (electronic submission preferred).


Sept 18 The Information Highway. Readings: Fang ch 6; summary.


Part II: From binary codes to cybernetics: IT in modernity


Sept 21 The African origins of the binary code. Readings: *Ch 7, “Numerical systems” from Eglash,  African Fractals. Video clips of African divination.


Sept 25 Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. Readings: Campbell-Kelly ch 1,3.


Sept 28 Video: Conceiving Ada. [4S  conference]


Oct 2 Information in the birth of the industrial age. Readings: Campbell-Kelly ch 2,3.


Oct 5 John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: *Heims 1984 ch 1-2


Oct 9 No class (Midterm break)-meet tues instead

Oct 10 Tuesday *Heims 1984 ch 10-11


Oct 12 [ASA conference]: film -- John von Neumann and the bomb.


Oct 16 First exam.


Part III: Cybernetics in the birth of postmodernity: from computers to complexity


Oct 19 Von Neumann  and digital computing. Readings: Campbell-Kelly ch 4-6


Oct 23 Norbert Wiener and nets: Readings: *Campbell-Kelly ch 9, Heims 1993 ch 4.


Oct 26 The 1960s counter-culture. Readings: *Eglash, “Cybernetics and American Youth Subculture.” Video: The 60s.


Oct 30 African-American postmodernity and vernacular cybernetics. Readings: *Rose, T. Black Noise ch 3, *Dery, M. “Black to the future.”


Nov 2 Xerox parc and the personal computer. Readings: *Fumbling the future (excerpts). video: “Pirates of Silicon Valley” part 1.


Nov 6  Apple and Microsoft. Readings: Campbell-Kelly ch 10, Turkle ch 1-2. video: “Pirates of Silicon Valley” part 2.


Nov 9 Chaos theory and neuromimetics. Software demo. Readings: Turkle ch 3-4.


Nov 13 Complexity and self-organizing structures. Software demo. Video clip on Rodney Brooks. Readings: Turkle ch 5-6.


Part IV: Virtual worlds


Nov 16 Internet origins. Readings: Cambell-Kelly ch 12 [gone to AAA – film]


Nov 20 Identity online. Readings: Turkle ch 7-8


Nov 23 no class (Thanksgiving break).


Nov 27 Community online. Field trip to MUDs and MOOs.


Nov 30 Sex, Race, and Cyberspace. Readings: Turkle ch 9-10


Dec 4 Museum presentations – demo or die.


Dec 7 Final exam (not comprehensive).