"Technology's eternal human face: hearing ourselves think in the post-dotcom world" is designed to be an upper-division undergraduate/graduate seminar. Students will read fiction as well as non-fiction to learn about the cultural and personal consequences of technology. In the last few years, the term "technology" has become short-hand for "computers and networks" --- but technology of course existed before the Netscape IPO, and indeed, before John Von Neumann first came up with a plausible model for how computing machines might work. With the demise of dotcom silliness now several years in the past, it will be particularly useful to consider the societal effects of technology, drawing examples from both those predicated on Moore's Law and those which have nothing to do with it.


   I've annotated the reading list, as some of the titles are rather obscure. I want to show a range of possibilities, because I cannot predict what other course-offerings UC-Irvine (or any other schoo)l might have, and picking and choosing among far more books than could be read in a semester would make it possible to avoid duplicating the efforts of, say, classes in society and technology. I would also want to tailor the class to some extent to the individuality of the students: exposing students to what they have never run into before would be balanced against the interests students bring with them to the seminar. But I would be perverse, for example, and not let Open Source zealots/admirers of Larry Lessig -read- him for the class -- they would be obliged to work with technology issues that were not computational...


   My approach is editorial/aesthetic/writerly: I have an MFA, not a PhD in the history of science. I see my role as that of asking good questions, and of getting students to consider technology in ways they've not before, rather than performing a coredump. I particularly  want students to encounter fiction as a source of understandings about the intersection of technology with people's lives: I suspect most students have not considered literature a valid resource for such (except, perhaps, through science fiction).


  Sample assignments, and a short biographical bit about me, are shown at the bottom of the list.  




1) Requiem for a Wren/Nevil Shute         

The haunting story of a young British woman whose mastery of anti-aircraft weaponry in World War II gives her life meaning --- and then tears it apart.


2) The Greenlander/Mark Adlard

Set in early 19th-century England, juxtaposes the fading of one technology (whale-oil and Greenland whale-hunting) with the coming of new ones (railroads and coal-production).


3) Stand on Zanzibar/John Brunner

Written in the late 1960s, prefigures all dystopian cyberpunk science-fiction to come, and describes a technology-crazed, celebrity-obsessed, overpopulated world.


4) The Ghost Patrol/Pat Barker

The Booker Prize-winning third volume of a World War I trilogy weaves together at the personal level the technologies of munitions-production, early modern psychiatry, and trench warfare.


5) City of Light/Lauren Belfer

Set in Buffalo, explores the creation of industrial-capacity electricity, including the environmental impact and human toll. The story also presages Love Canal.


6) USA/John Dos Passos

Cinerama-like sweep through the early 20th century. Worth comparing and contrasting with the early 21st century.


7) Rose/Martin Cruz Smith

Mining in 19th-century England, women's rights, labor issues, all with lots of trademark Martin Cruz Smith plot.


8) River Song/Craig Lesley

About many things: the mechanics of forest-fire fighting, a strong sense of place, a touch of magical realism. The devastation to the salmon-runs, and thus, native life-ways, caused by the great dams of is evoked with Lesley's usual quiet understated power.


9) Earth Abides/George Stewart

The classic speculative novel of the late 1940s about what happens when technology goes away and Nature returns.

10) The Dandelion Murders/Rebecca Rothenberg

A mystery where agribusiness --- and pesticides --- are actors in the narrative. Technology in some of its grubbier incarnations.


11) King's Royal/John Quigley

New technology, branding, speculation, and marketing didn't originate with dotcomlandia. Who knew the rise of the blended whiskey industry in late 19th-century Glasgow would map so nicely onto the goings-on in late 20th-century high-tech?





1) Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies/Jared Diamond

The definitive work on how climate, geography, luck of the draw, and cooties led to technological winners and losers. Best debunking of racism ever.


2) The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity/Alan Cooper

Commonsense documentation of why modern software is so crummy.


3) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences/Edward Tenner

Smart, funny, magisterial analysis of the collateral damage/side-effects of all kinds of technologies.


4) Blue Sky Dreams: A Memoir of America's Fall From Grace/David Beers

Telling story of the human costs of the original Silicon Valley culture, Cold War defense-aerospace. 


5) Bad Attitude: The Best Of Processed World/Chris Carlsson, editor

Processed World was an anarcho-situationist zine which began in San Francisco in the early 1980s, mostly but not solely focussed on data-processing and work-life issues.


6) Close to the Machine/Technophilia and its Discontents/Ellen Ullman

A nuanced memoir of an eloquent, emotionally honest, former programmer.


7) Soul of a New Machine/Tracy Kidder

The model for all possible future computer-industry hagiographies.


8) Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace/Lawrence Lessig

Effectively debunks the idea that technology is neutral, or that subjective human values don't get engineered into software.


9) The Path between the Seas/The Creation of the Panama Canal/David McCullough

History as good as any novel --- the technology story here is as much about innovation in public health as in civil engineering.


10) Imperial San Francisco/Urban Power, Earthly Ruin/Gray Brechin

Turns out that the wealth which made San Francisco was based on new communications technologies (the telegraph) in cahoots with Wall Street money, in combo with wondrous technologies for strip-mining the Sierra Nevadas. The notion of the 'contado', that is, the resource-base great cities draw from to create their magnificence, is a powerful one. The Dalmation coast stripped of its timber to support the Venetian fleet, anyone?


11) Cadillac Desert/The American West and Its Disappearing Water/Marc Reisner

If it weren't for the deployment of technology diverting water up-hill and thousands of miles away, there wouldn't be any commercial ranching or farming west of Kansas; any commercial ranching or farming in California's Central Valley, an agricultural region more productive than most -countries-. Los Angeles and Phoenix would matter about as much as say, Green Bay.


12) Form Follows Fiasco/Why Modern Architecture Hasn't Worked/Peter Blake

Just why is it most architects would rather work in rehabbed old buildings than the international-style modernist structures they design for their clients?


13) Mother Country/Marilynne Robinson

Eloquent polemic by the author of the novel "Housekeeping" on the plutonium re-processing at Sellafield, with its attendant radioactive poisoning of the Irish Sea. Yank feelings of cultural inferiority to the Brits are brought in, as are the enduring inequities of the British class-system.

14) Plague/Wendy Okrent

Using the latest medical anthropology, DNA analysis, and investigations into the historical record and Soviet germ-warfare experimentation, Okrent brings technology into the story of history's Grimmest Reaper in lots of ways. For example, the rise of mass-manufactured soap in the 18th-century may have been the hidden reason Europe never really suffered a mass pandemic of the Black Death in modern times: better cleanliness meant greater freedom from human fleas, the vector for the most contagious form of the illness.


15) Conquest of Bread/Richard Walker

Written by a UC-Berkeley geography professor, this story of the unique dominance of California agribusiness shows how as always, things are different in California. That is, California farming from its beginnings was based on entrepreneurship and technology and food-processing, not on traditional artisan folkways. The world, for better and worse, has never been the same.


Movies (more might be added to this list)


"Secrets of Silicon Valley" - downsides, with regard to ecology and working conditions of high-tech


"Atomic Cafe" - amusing, horrifying documentary about the Cold War's love-hate relationship with nuclear technology


A Pare Lorenz WPA propaganda documentary on the building of one of the great damns (such as Hoover or Grand Coulee) - useful for discussions of the pros and cons of dams...


Sample assignments:

In all cases, I want students to perform independent research and draw from their own experience, in addition to doing assigned readings.


1) Ullman is very effective at describing the pseudo-intimacy of the online world, and the seductions of losing yourself in technology. Explore either of these two themes.

2) Brechin's idea of the contado can be applied to any major city. Write about the contado of 1) Pittsburgh; 2) Phoenix; or 3) a city of student's own choosing (please okay choice with me first).


3) Both Blue Sky Dreams and Requiem for a Wren center on how people's lives can fall apart when technologies are taken away. Using the examples contained in these two books as points of departure, expand on the signficance of technology-loss in the life of an individual.


4) According to Reisner, electricity generated through the great dams of the West made it possible to smelt the ore and build the ships and planes which won World War II for the Allies. Lesley's book shows at a much more micro, local level the destruction wrought by these same dams. Tenner's book points to the unpredicted effects of technology. Write about the dual nature of a technology.


5) It's often been remarked that science fiction is a means of using tomorrow to write about today. The world that Earth Abides depicts is very similar to that imagined in Y2K worst-case scenarios; yet the book is very much a cultural artifact of its times. When the book was written, there had been no back-to-the-earth movement of the 60s, no developed infrastructure in living off the grid, no survivalist lore --- all of which is reflected in its characters' dependencies on industrial leftovers such as canned food. Explore how cultural forces of each era shaped the imagined disaster-landscapes of Earth Abides and Y2K. Talk to me if you want to work with other imaginary disaster-universes.


6) Kidder uses the device of heroizing his subjects and making their character and achievements slightly larger than life: glamorizing technology and technologists is a rhetorical device that arises in part from the difficulty of giving technology the warmth of a human-interest story. A two-part assignment for those with distinct journalistic interests: 1) Document the persistance of this rhetorical technique in contemporary technology reporting; 2) write a 1,000-word technology story intended for a mainstream audience that doesn't rely on it.


Short-form CV for Paulina Borsook

Paulina Borsook was on the masthead of Wired magazine during the magazine's early glory days. Her novella, "Love over The Wires", (1993) was the first fiction Wired published and was the first literary treatment of email adultery. She has written widely on technology and culture: "Nitestalker" (1996), written for the pioneering humor website, www.suck.com, was the first literary treatment of webstalking your ex. Her journalism, essays, and humor pieces have been appeared publications such as Salon.com, Mother Jones, and The New York Times; her book, Cyberselfish/a critical romp through the terribly libertarian world of high-tech (2000), was well and widely reviewed all over the world (see www.cyberselfish.com).


Borsook has been a regular commentator for NPR and has spoken at numerous universities (Brown, UCLA, Harvard Law School, Stanford --- just to name a few), conferences (Computers, Freedom, and Privacy; Technorealism) and arts organizations (National Film Board of Canada, Artists Televivion Access). She's been a judge for the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer awards and for the Webbys.


The website www.paulinaborsook.com archives her work going back into the 1980s. She has an AB from UC-Berkeley in psycholinguistics with a minor in philosophy, and an MFA from Columbia University, where her first published short story Virtual Romance, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.