Course Syllabus

The Information Society

Fall 2017
3 Units

School of Information

Wednesday 9-12

107 South Hall



Paul Duguid

Adjunct Full Professor, School of Information

Office: 305b South Hall

Office Hours: Tuesday, 11-1 (by appointment)



Ashwin Mathew

Visiting Scholar, School of Information

Office hours by appointment



It has become conventional to see our era as a break from all that has preceded it, an era distinguished by its engagement with "new" technologies. Scholars have labeled the contemporary era as the "post-industrial," "postmodern," or "network" society, but probably the most widely used and enduring characterization distinguishes the present time as the "information" age or society. The course will explore this account of the age we live in, trying to understand what authors have held to be the essential and distinguishing features of such a society, how these compare with classic theories of society or with alternative accounts of the present age, and to what extent different conceptions of the "information age" are compatible. In pursuing this investigation, we shall bear in mind the admonition of the legal scholar James Boyle that while the idea of an "information age" may be "useful ... we need a critical social theory to understand it."1

In the process of trying to come to such an understanding, we hope to assemble a corpus of useful, critical readings. We will proceed by first tracing the history of ideas leading to cyber-libertarian accounts of society, moving from post-war cybernetics and systems thinking to modern notions of freedom through technology. This intellectual tradition tend to assume a social world composed of autonomous individuals exchanging "information" and society as the emergent, transient consequence. We will then follow a parallel history coming from the "left" yet often leading to remarkably similar conclusions about the relationship between power, technology, and society, proceeding through an examination of autonomism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism. Finally, we will conclude by offering critiques of these positions through an examination from a variety of perspectives, including labor, the nation state, space, and communication theories. Through discussion of these various intellectual projects, we hope to understand central assumptions underlying claims made for the "information society" and how they may be productively interrogated and reformulated.

1Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (New York: Basic Books, 1973); Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, vol. 1 of The Information Age: Economy, Society, Culture (1994-1998) (Oxford: Blackwells, 1996); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990); Jean-François Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985); Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964); James Boyle, Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).



Course Structure and Requirements

Students are expected to attend class, do required readings, and take part in discussions. All students will be asked to post their thoughts on the readings before the each class and each student will be expected to take responsibility for guiding the discussion in one class. Students will be required to submit a final paper exploring a subject to be agreed on with the instructors that relates to the works and discussions of the course. Papers should be 20 pages long, contain conventional academic citations that extend beyond the readings in the syllabus and be submitted by the last day of exam week (December 15th). As part of the course, we will give further guidance on appropriate topics for and approaches to the final paper.


Class submissions  20%

In-class participation  20%

Final paper  60%





August 23: Introduction

Please try to read the following brief essay before coming to the first class:

Frank Webster, "Introduction," pp. 1-9 in Theories of the Information Society. Third Edition (Oxford: Routledge, 2010).

August 30: Cyberlibertarianism - Cybernetics


Norbert Wiener, "Communication, Secrecy, and Social Policy" and "Role of the Intellectual and the Scientist" pp. 112-135 in The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1954).

Geoffrey Bateson, "Cybernetic Explanation" and "Redundancy and Coding" pp. 407-433 in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972).

Marshall McLuhan. "Introduction" and "The Medium is the Message" from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964). (bCourses)

September 6: Cyberlibertarianism - Control


James R. Beniger, "Introduction" & "Part 3: Towards an Information Society: From Control Crisis to Control Revolution" pp. 1-26 & 291-436 in The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

Daniel Bell, "Who will Rule: Politicians and Technocrats in the Post-Information Society" pp. 339-369 in The Coming of Post Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1973/1999).

September 13: Cyberlibertarianism - Freedom


Yochai Benkler, "A Moment of Opportunity and Change" pp. 1-28 in ​ The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

Kevin Kelly, "My Question", "Listen to the Technology", and "Playing the Infinite Game" pp. 1-20, 157-174, and 347-360 in What Technology Wants (New York: Viking, 2010).

Manuel Castells, "The Space of Flows" pp. 407-459 in The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd ed (Blackwell, 2000).

September 20: Cyberlibertarianism - Wrap


Fred Turner, "The Triumph of the Network Mode" pp. 238-262 in ​From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006). (bCourses)

Katherine Hayles, "Contesting the Body of Information: The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics," "Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled: Norbert Wiener and Cybernetic Anxiety," "From Hyphen to Splice' Cybernetic Syntax in Limbo," and "The Second Wave of Cybernetics: From Reflexivity to Self-Organization" pp. 50-160 in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). (ACLS E-Book)

September 27: Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Autonomism


Jean-François Lyotard, Sections 1-10, pp. 3-40 in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984).

Jürgen Habermas, "The Transformation of the Public Sphere's Political Function" and "On the Concept of Public Opinion" sections VI & VII, pp. 181-257 in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989). (bCourses)


October 4: Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Autonomism


Jeanne Baudrillard, "Requiem for the Media" pp. 164-184 in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St Louis: Telos, 1981).

Michel de Certeau, "Walking in the City" Chapter 7, pp. 92-110 in The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988). (bCourses)

Henri Lefebvre, "Information Technology and Daily Life", in Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. III (Verso, 2014 [1981]). (bCourses)

October 11: Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Autonomism


Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, "The Decline and Fall of Empire" pp. 353-413 in Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History" The National Interest 1989 16: 3-18 (JSTOR)

October 18: Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Autonomism - Wrap


Nick Dyer-Witheford, "Postmodernists" pp. 362-406 in Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

October 25: Responses - State and Nation


James Scott, "Nature and Space" pp. 11-52 and "Cities, People and Language" pp. 53-84 in Seeing Like a State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). [ebrary]

Benedict Anderson. "Introduction," "The Origins of National Consciousness, " "Census, Map, Museum," pp. 1-7, 37-46, & 163-185 in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2006[1983]). [ACLS E-Book]

November 1: Responses - Labour


Gina Neff. "The Social Risks of the Dot-Com Era," "Being Venture Labor," and Conclusion: Lessons from a New Economy for a New Medium," chapters 1, 3 and 6 of Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovation Industries (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012). [ebrary]

Simon Head.  "Toward a New Industrial State," "Inside the Belly of the Beast," "Walmart and Amazon,"  and "Managing the Human Resource," Introduction and chapters 1,2, and 4 from Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (New York: Basic Books, 2014). [bCourses]

November 8: Responses - Space, Time, and Infrastructure


Tung-Hui Hu. "Introduction," "The Shape of the Network," and "Time Sharing and Virtualization," pp ix-xxix, 1-36, and 37-72 in A Prehistory of the Cloud (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015). [IEEE Explore]

Nicole Starosielski. "Gateway: From Cable Colony to Network Operations Center" chapter 3 in The Undersea Network (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015). [bCourses]

November 15: Responses - Communication


Robert McChesney. "How Can the Political Economy of Communication Help Us Understand the Internet?" "Journalism is Dead: Long Live Journalism," and "Revolution in the Digital Revolution" chapters 3, 6, and 7 in Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New York: New Press, 2013). [bCourses]

José van Dijck. "Engineering Sociality In a Culture of Connectivity" and "The Ecosystem of Connective Media: Lock In, Fence Off, Opt Out?" chapters 1 and 8 in The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). [bCourses]

Before discussing these authors we will discuss your final paper abstracts.  Please circulate these to the class via the "Final Paper Title + Abstract" Discussions page (where you will find guidance for what's expected) by November 13th.


November 22: Holiday


November 29: Wrap course

In-class presentation of final paper outlines. Students will discuss the outline of their final paper with the class.

Optional Reading:

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, "The Californian Ideology", 1995. [link]


Final papers due by December 15th

Course Summary:

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