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Cyberspace: History, Culture, and Future Spring 2015

Contact Information, Office Hours
Dr. Joe Essid, Writing Center Director, Department of English
E-mail: jessid@richmond.edu and joe.essid@gmail.com
Class Meets: M/W 12-1:15 @ Ryland 212

My Office Hours:  With prior notice, via Skype, Facetime, or Google Video most days and evenings (until about 9pm). Contact me for my ID and we'll need 24 hours notice.  In person, M/W 3-4pm, Weinstein 408.

Writing Consultant:  Emma Holt (emma.holt@richmond.edu) has studied with me and will read first drafts of your work and provide commentary. She will save you from the worst "A breakers and D makers." You'd best take her and her work seriously. 

About the Course
This FYS crosses disciplines because it won't fit into any major on campus. But I've been working on this topic, in bits and pieces, in teaching and research, almost as long as personal computers have existed.  I've tried to pick a range of readings and films from literature, sociology, economics, even a theory of warfare that address this subject.

Starting in the late 1980s, I began to wonder how the clunky IBM PCs and early Macintoshes, then only a few years old and mostly used as stand-alone devices, might change us when we networked them. Every massively adopted technology had before: imagine how cities and suburbia would look without automobiles.   The Internet clearly is what Tim Wu calls a "disruptive technology": it destroys whole industries while making new ones.

This change seemed so compelling to me that I started reading and writing about technological enthusiasm in American life, from the Civil War to the 1980s. At that time, early "Cyberpunk" writers such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling were writing about a radically changed 21st century world, once all of the little boxes used for word processing and spreadsheets got networked. The Internet already existed, but it was the province of the Defense Department, intelligence agencies, and major universities. When I came to campus in 1991, I sat in one some of the first e-mail classes, using an interface that would be laughable even on a telephone today. There was no "online culture" beyond a few dial-in bulletin-board systems with features we now associate with social networking: status updates, forum discussions, online "logs" of informal writing, casual (text only!) games.

It would, in retrospect, all change so fast. I encountered a rule of thumb for technologies that transform daily life: from occasional use to ubiquity, 30 years. We've reached that point for PCs (every smart phone is a personal computer), but not quite yet for the Internet.  In my research about online communities and virtual worlds, I stumbled upon some questions, and posed a few of my own, that seem important to answer. Even asking them of the right people might help alter the course of the future. Of course, I should have bought stock in Netscape in 1994, too, and sold it 4 years later.  So it goes.

My Course Goals
  • Explore several defining questions shown below and any that arise from your reading and research
  • Build your critical-thinking skills through close reading, old-fashioned note-taking, presentations, and analytical writing
  • Make you re-read for nuance and research. The course includes a long research paper on a topic in one of the major areas we are studying or an area of your own interest: the rise and fall of telecom empires, the future of the Internet, Cyber-terror, hackivism, intellectual property, or privacy.
Defining Questions & Some of Our Readings & Films That Address Them
  • Is monopoly (Wu's "Cycle") inevitable for broadband access, controlled by the likes of Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon? Or will access to online work and play reside with dozens of new providers using decentralized technologies we don't yet have in hand? 
  • What does it take to rise in the world of information technology? (Fincher, Burke, Wu)
  • How do governments and corporations reign in the autonomy of users? Spy on us? (Wu, Barlow, Olson, Knappenberger)
  • How will we fight wars in the future? What will be the ethics of letting machines fight for us? (Clarke)
  • Are hackers and administrators anti-social geeks, monsters, or heroes? (Olson, Clarke, Knappenberger)
  • How does the culture of casual users differ from the geeks who are closer to the machine? (Gibson & Sterling, Clarke, Olson)

Required Texts (at UR Bookstore) & Materials
  • Clarke, Cyberwar
  • Gibson & Sterling, The Difference Engine (be sure you have the 20th anniversary edition)
  • Graff & Birkenstein, They Say/I Say (be sure you have the 3rd edition)
  • Olson, We Are Anonymous
  • Wu, The Master Switch
  • Other readings are linked from schedule page. 
Film screenings TBA
  • Burke, dir. Pirates of Silicon Valley
  • Fincher, dir. The Social Network
  • Knappenberger, dir. We are Legion: The Story of the Hackivists

About Me

I'm a Richmonder by birth and a lifelong geek, free-lance writer, car nut, organic farmer / tractor-tinkerer, model-builder, and non-computer gamer (board games and role-playing games). I lived in Spain after college and have traveled a good deal overseas, especially in the U.K.  In terms of my tastes in futurism, it's either dark stuff like Cyberpunk and post-apocalypse or, on the brighter side, Star Trek (original series) not Star Wars, please, save for Lucas' original films I & II. I'm decent with graphics, basic Web design and HTML coding, and hacking farm equipment and older computer hardware.

I listen to a lot of music, often loud and mostly on CDs or vinyl; I also rip tunes from these tactile media and make playlists, though I find ripped music on tiny devices sounds tinny. I'm fond of first-gen Metal, Glam Rock, old-time music, some Americana, traditional country, and electronica by artists like Brian Eno and Aphex Twin. I don't have time for most TV or pop culture of the present era. I am easily bored but if interested in something, I will recall every detail for years. I cannot code my way out of nested loop but just rebuilt a carburetor. Social media is for saying respectful things to family, marketing my writing, and stupid things to my friends. I am not very professional online. 

The best student evaluation I ever got read (about a lit course on Invented Worlds) "this class is crazy, but Doctor Essid is just the man for the job." I will ask a lot of you. I despise affected mediocrity and laziness. If you work hard and need my help, I will be a good mentor.