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IM930 Futures Past


20/30 CATS - (10/15 ECTS)

Computer networks, devices, and infrastructures structure and facilitate much of our social, political and cultural life.

This module focuses on the turbulent politics of the ‘long 1960s’ with the aim of introducing students to how radicals and rebels during those years saw small-scale distributed network technologies as tools to reforge the public sphere, and to initiate a move away from the perceived authoritarian patterns operating within mass media societies. Students will be introduced to the interdisciplinary debates between sociologists, anthropologists, cybernetic theorists and computational scientists that fuelled post-war investigations into mass communications technologies. With this foundation, they will explore how these ideas translated into the techno-counterculture of Sixties America by examining the radical underground press, public access cable movement and the early computer hobbyist scenes. In this way, students will become familiarized with how interdisciplinary knowledge informed bedrock conceptions of digital culture, and will think historically about how once provisional and speculative knowledge has become part of our commonsense rendering of the present.

Module Convenor

Dr Keir Wotherspoon

Indicative Syllabus

Week 2: Prototyping the Future?: Histories and Genealogies

In Week One, students will be introduced to how historians think about the past. Substantive discussion will be given over to introducing students to the methodologies that ground this module: 1) historical analysis and 2) genealogical analysis. First, students address the methods that historians share in common in forming knowledge, and second, to delineate the theories and methods most commonly credited to a genealogical approach. Students will be introduced to how the historical and genealogical method will equip them with the skills to engage critically with the material they encounter and conduct their own research.

Week 3: Surface Web, Deep Web

This week reflects on the connections between the information age and the archive. Students will historicizes understandings of “openness” by asking students to reflect critically on what “open” means, and how it has been interpreted in contemporary debates, applications and platforms. This section introduces students to the Cold War origins of ARPANET and asks them to assess the historiography of the organisational origins of the internet, and the relationship between the Cold War and the counterculture. It challenges students to think about designations of the surface web and deep web in relation to the lineages of Cold War and countercultural thought.

Week 4: From “Mass Society” to Participatory Culture

Students will critically examine broadcast and distributed network paradigms as democratic frameworks and discuss the cultural and social assumptions underlying these models. This week introduces students to debates surrounding transformations of the public sphere by exploring the changing technologies that have made up the communications environment since the 1920s. The session introduces students to the dark vision of a mass society following the Second World War. By examining primary texts by key antagonists in the post-WWII debate about media democracy, “mass society,” self-governance and the application of cybernetics to the social matrix, students will develop an intellectual genealogy for the ideas that shaped the thinking of Sixties rebels.

Week 5: Altered States and Subjectivities

What are the links between technology and the self? Building on a key distinction in week three, this week’s session will look at changing technologies of self-governance by contrasting the notion of a “mass produced individualism” during the broadcast era, and the shifting meanings of networked individualism during the Sixties and beyond. Students will explore the meaning of these shifting ideas of individualism through key historical texts from the underground press, and its relation to ‘freedom,’ travel, drug use, design and art. Using key secondary historical and sociological texts they will build a conceptual framework for understanding how subjectivity and technology have intersected in key digital settings over times.

Week 6: Mass Media and Mass Movements

This week problematises the networked politics of the counterculture explored in the previous weeks by contrasting these experiments with the mass mediated politics of the New Left. Students will gain an appreciation of how networked media politics often subverted the collectivist efforts of the New Left, and discuss the implications of viewer disaggregation on the mass protest model by examining public access cable television and the digitised archives of Radical Software.

Week 7: Making Silicon Valley Work: The Gift Economy and Network Entrepreneurialism

This week begins an investigation into key themes that defined the counterculture’s influence on Silicon Valley, examining the key debate over the so-called “gift economy” of networks and the importance of entrepreneurialism to Silicon Valley. Students will explore texts, considering the gift economy from several historical moments in countercultural media experimentation, and reflect on how this ideal continues to shape contemporary aspects of the online economy, and frequently mask systemic dynamics of power and control.

Week 8: From Watergate to Wikileaks?: Genealogies of Hacker Culture and Network Surveillance

The 1970s was rocked by leaks that unseated the President of the United States. Information had the power to unseat the powerful, and openness revealed conspiracies of power. In 2018, an uncomplicated belief in internet openness has been tested by Russian hacking scandals, troll farms, Twitter bot armies. What kinds of genealogies will historians write about the Sixties influence on our current age: will it be the triumph of internet openness or the rise of conspiracy mindedness and propaganda? Students will examine how the counterculture’s enthusiasm for network openness was challenged in the 1970s by a series of scandals and criticisms of government computing programmes.

Week 9: Feminism and Counterpublics: From Second Wave to #YesAllWomen

When radicals began experimenting with online community message boards in the early 1970s, they found that many of the problems that radical feminist had identified in the columns of the underground press’s personal pages were replicated here: sexual harassment, misogyny, and abuse of women posters. The terms of the sexual revolution were written into these gendered expectations and the kickback from radical feminists. What were the shortcomings of this new participatory culture for women and what political responses did they pursue? This week explores the tensions between “sexual liberation,” public space and the counterculture’s own counter-publics in the 1970s and will explore the ways in which feminist scholars and activists have debated and adapted the use of peer-to-peer technologies into the struggle for political change in the age of #YesAllWomen and #MeToo.

Week 10: Citizen Participation and Genealogies of Radical Media

In this session, students will be asked to reflect on the connections between the contemporary media environment and the proliferation of participation (from game culture, to activism, citizen journalism, maker culture etc…) and the radicalism of the Sixties through a reimagining of democratic politics. How much of the contemporary emphasis on citizen participation can be traced to this period? To what extent have new media practices successfully imbedded the radical democratic vision of networked culture into a truly participatory ethic? What historical factors have left the democratic idealism unfulfilled?


For 20 CATS: 20% 1000 primary source document assignment; 80% 3000 word essay.
For 30 CATS: 20% 1000 primary source document assignment presented; 80% 5000 word essay.

Illustrative Bibliography

Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron. “The Californian Ideology.” In The Internet Revolution: From Dot-com Capitalism to Cybernetic Revolution, edited by Richard Barbrook, 12 - 27. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2015.

Boyle, Deidre. “Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited.” Art Journal (Fall 1985): 228-232.

Edwards, Paul N. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

Ensmenger, Nathan. “‘Beards, Sandals, and Other Signs of Rugged Individualism’: Masculine Culture within the Computing Professions.” Osiris 30 no. 1 (2015): 38-65.

Farber, David. “Self-Invention in the Realm of Production: Craft, Beauty, and Community in the American Counterculture 1964–1978.” Pacific Historical Review 85, no. 3 (2016): 408– 442.

Foucault, Michel, “The Order of Discourse.” In Uniting the Text: A Post Structuralist Reader, edited by Robert Young. London: Routledge, and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Goodman, David. Radio’s Civic Ambition: American Broadcasting and Democracy in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Heims, Steve. Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group 1946 – 1953.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Kirk, Andrew G. “Appropriating Technology: The Whole Earth Catalog and Counterculture Environmental Politics.” Environmental History 6, no. 3 (July 2001): 374-394.

Kittler, Friedrich, Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Stephen Levy. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2010.

Light, Jennifer. From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and the Urban Problem in Cold War America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 163-194.

McCarthy, Anna. The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Streeter, Thomas. The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Learning Outcomes

The module aims to encourage students to:

  • come to understand the historical forces and figures driving midcentury practice and experiments with new digital method and theory
  • develop critical understanding of historiographical practices and specific debates about the techno-counterculture
  • develop knowledge of post-War communications and cybernetic theory
  • examine vernacular media approaches and prototypical case studies that radicals used to express networked paradigms
  • acquire skills to use digital archives and critically apply genealogies of digital platforms culture to these sources
  • acquire a sophisticated understanding of the translations across old and new media that have informed contemporary platform and network cultures come to see how the counterculture has informed Silicon Valley’s idealism and self-conception

Important Information

Please be advised that you may be expected to have access to a laptop for some of these courses due to software requirements; the Centre is unable to provide a laptop for external students.

Gaining the permission of a member of CIM teaching staff to take a module does not guarantee a place on that module. Nor does gaining the permission of a member of staff from your home department or filling in the eVision Module Registration (eMR) system with the desired module. You must contact the Centre Administrator (cim at warwick dot ac dot uk) to request a module place.

Please be advised that some modules may have restricted numbers. Places are not allocated on a first-come first-served basis, but instead all external students requesting a CIM module as optional, who submit their request by the relevant deadline are given equal consideration.

We are normally unable to allow students (registered or auditing) to join the module after the third week of it commencing. If you have any queries please contact the Centre Administrator.