The Demystification Project: Technology and Society

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Origins and Introduction

The core of this project was originally developed for a class on Technology and Society for the Peake Honors Program at the University of Virginia's College at Wise by Dr. Daniel A. Ray. What follows are the course description and objectives from that class.

Original Course Description

It's common amongst stodgy academics, born into an analog world and tossed headlong into todays digital one, to mark the distinct differences     
between themselves, and their whipper-snapper students by positing the notion of the digital native. The digital native has only ever known a  
world where integrated computer technology is not only normal and persistent, but ever more pervasive. Digital natives are at ease with the  
adoption of new technologies.

Yet, not all digital natives are made equal. There are digital slaves; for whom technology is a box into which they must fit, and digital rebels; 
for whom technology is a tool for the realization of their hopes and dreams. The later increasingly shapes the world that the former lives in, 
often making tradeoffs which go unrealized by the former.

This class proposes, in part, a closer reading of the current state of technology in the world with a critical eye toward these latent and tacit  
concessions by the many to the few. In short, the tradeoff for technology’s advances are not always as balanced as they seem.

In this class we’ll ask a central question, “Is this the best possible cyber-world?” We’ll take a multidisciplinary and multi-media look at 
questions like: How have we balanced privacy and security? How have we leveraged freedom for utility with our technology? How do virtual worlds
shape our physical one? How does technology affect how we experience the world, and how we share those experiences? How do we determine who owns  
our shared experience? Always we will ask, what was intended, what might have been, what might still be, and what’s the role of every
individual moving forward?

Original Course Objectives

Upon completion of this course students will:

* Have a greater understanding of the often tacit and unexamined (by society at large) trade-offs made by the designers of today’s technologies.
* Gain some low-level hands-on experience with using easily approachable but flexible and state-of-the-art technologies for the purposes of  
creative expression (working with Arduino, making Gifs, programming with Alice and/or Scratch, etc.)
* Obtain a better more rounded idea of what’s possible with modern technology in a practical and personal instead of an abstract sense.

In Memoriam

The original course made extensive use of our department's Moodle server to provide twice weekly groupings of multi-media links to audio and video (as well as the irregular reading assignment) to spark the thinking of the students in the class. These were highly motivated students from across campus; only about 20% of whom were pursuing degrees in computer-related degree programs like Software Engineering or Computer Science. The class was composed of students from Education, Administrative Justice, the sciences, the humanities. They represented a true cross-section of academics, yes; but also backgrounds and knowledge bases. Each student brought his or her own experiences and biases about computers and technology.

What emerged was a marvelous discussion, and a broad awakening about the secret world of decisions concerning technology being made around them and for them. The feedback from the course was nearly universally positive. One student wrote:

At first, like most in the class, I was hesistant because I didn't understand a lot of the technical technology terms. Words like "programming" scared me to death, and I just thought of the Internet as a place for trolls and cat videos. Now, I'm taking some online courses to teach me basic programming and tearing apart a friend's old Nintendo DS so I can learn about all of the pieces and parts that make it work. I also was unaware to what degree society was impacted by technology, and how vast the field of technology really is (and is exponetially growing!). ...this was my most favorite class at Wise and I wish I would have had the opprotunity to have taken this years ago. Now at graduation, it's a bit late to change my major but if I were in the position of some of our younger students, I'd make an interdiscplinary incorporating more CS/SE courses. But even as I move away from undergrad, I'm heavily inspired by all that we've done and the material I've seen to pursue learning more in this field. Was it life-changing to take this course? Potentially, yes :)

Another wrote:

I have a better understanding of how technology affects society as a whole, regardless of if we are paying attention to it or not. This class increased my knowledge and awareness of several issues relating to tech and society and I now have a stronger desire to keep up with what's going on with technology in the world, including patents, privacy, free speech, etc.

As much as the students seemed to like taking the course, I had, I think, an even better time teaching it. First, it was a joy to work with these students, but it was even more a joy to be able to talk about the real meaning and impact of computers outside the stodgy bottom-up approach of normal engineering courses, and to talk with the average person about the real implications of the trajectory of our society; a trajectory so normalized we could miss it, and many do.

So What's This Then?

The Moodle course for the original class still exists as an ossified whole; but I'd like for the work I and my students have put in there to break out and have new life; perhaps eventually even metamorphosis into a new form altogether. By way of this, I want to reach a wider audience and bring forward a wider discussion. This wiki page will be the first step toward realizing that goal. Here I intend to breath life back into the discussions we had in class by recreating the topics and the resources as well as providing brief overview of each based on notes taken during the class. You can take the whole course as originially intended, or you can merely skip to the parts you think are going to be interesting to you.

Most of all, I hope this will form the core of a useful resource for everyone who reads it.

Topics Pages : Skip to Here to Just Get Started

Introduction, Expectations, and Theory

Technology and Learning: Online Education

The Computer Today

What IS a Computer?

The Web

The Digital Native Conceit

Software and Freedom

Web Threat: Fear of the Other

Hardware and Freedom

Software and Our Polity

Critiquing Patent "Protections"

Critiquing "Intellectual Property"

Computers and Self-expression

Experiencing the World for the First Time, Again

Programming Demystified

Privacy and Security

Can You Augment Reality?

Who's At the Switch?

Insanity and Invention

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