AMS 5: Technology in American Lives, Winter 2017

Course Overview:

This course presents technology in several perspectives. Above all, the course asks students to go beyond grasping technologies as finished “things” in the world, emerging fully formed—as if by magic— delivered to a doorstep. Instead, we explore the ways in which technology is socially constructed, contested, and continually transformed. Furthermore, we will study the ways in which technology shapes—and is shaped—by culture. Students are expected to produce original writing on these processes. Technology in American Lives (TIAL) draws from interdisciplinary readings that will have several characteristics. More specifically, TIAL is informed by several bodies of scholarly work— including (but not limited to) critical race, cultural, and ethnic studies; feminist, women, gender, and sexuality studies; architectural and landscape history; and, militarization and infrastructure studies. The texts we will read and interpret together are situated in specific geographic, temporal (historical and contemporary), and material contexts. As an intro-level class, TIAL puts the messy world of technologies into an order that we can follow, tracing an arc from the earth to waste over the length of the quarter. Furthermore, we will traverse through many different spatial scales to better understand where technologies come from and how they are developed, drawing from feminist, Marxian, and environmentalist critiques of production. Students that wish to take this course should be aware that we do look critically at technologies, but it is not a rejection of technology; instead, it’s a course devised to begin to introduce students to an imagination of different socio-technical possibilities. TIAL AMS 5 2017 Syllabus

Prep for Technology in American Lives

I am starting to prep a new course (new to me, but existing in the American Studies slate) on Technology in American Lives. I’ll teach this class in the Winter quarter, starting in January 2017.

I’ll post a reading list for the summer. The readings will serve a number of functions. They’ll help me prepare lectures and give me the context I need to teach the class, plus set up expectations and questions for discussion section, while giving the students some starting points if they want to pursue further research beyond the class reader. They will probably lead to other finds that will have to be added to the prep list, and ultimately serving as the bank from which to select the final course packet. The course is an intro level undergraduate lecture, so the final readings will be selected with this criteria in mind.

The cover of Schüll's book on the technology of addiction, Vegas mechanical gambling.
The cover of Schüll’s book on the technology of addiction, Vegas mechanical gambling.

Technology in American Lives has been taught in myriad ways before and my version won’t be any better or worse than those. My own swing at it will doubtless reflect my personal background in the fields of architecture, geography (especially on critical militarization studies), arts, and media. I’m certain it will have many blind spots too.

Broadly, I want the class to expose the students –obviously– to the idea that technology is not a fixed ‘thing;’ that it is socially constructed and contested – and changing. And furthermore, I hope the class also inspires them to understand and question the role of the nation-state in simultaneously researching, producing, and ‘liberalizing’ (privatizing) technologies. UC Davis will also be an ideal place to see this in practice, especially in the world of food and ag research. I’m hoping that every week I can draw on a few local examples to help illustrate the issues raised in class.

At the same time, saying that something is “socially constructed” can be deceptive — the social labor embedded in making a technology, as Marx long ago observed, has to contend with the limits and possibilities of nature in the world; possibilities are not endless — e.g. flight has to deal with gravity, etc. etc. Furthermore, perhaps my main take away for the class is that just because something is socially constructed within given parameters in space, time, nature, and economics doesn’t mean that it is finalized. The given social appearance of a technology is not a zero sum game. Americans have created technologies under many rubrics of racial ideologies, gender determinisms, and accumulative goals, to name a few, and these rubrics have been and can be resisted. (Besides, the title of the class can be misleading; we may read a lot of authors who are not “Americans” but have important concepts and contributions on thinking about—and with—technologies and Americans).

Perhaps more challenging is the question of ‘What is an American life?’ This question opens up an inquiry into how a technology traverses the world through trade, media, and infrastructure. In fact, technologies traverse with and within human and animal pathways and bodies; an American “life” can thus be understood—biologically, philosophically, legally—in many ways. The course will ask the students to question their perceptions of borders, populations, and what is a body or a life, ultimately. And in the end, hopefully we can have a conversation about that pesky, little issue of power and how it is wielded (like, over which lives?). The idea here is that technologies can (probably) only operate through bodies. The effects of radiation, for example, were known because they were tested on thousands of bodies (such as Pedro Albizu Campos’, the Puerto Rican radical nationalist, imprisoned by U.S. occupying forces) – and weapons are not merely for an imaginative ‘threat,’ no matter the ideologies in their production; they exist in and through their use upon other bodies—and affect entire ‘lives.’

For the time being, my prep will be messy as I jump through a lot of “technologies,” their histories, and useful concepts to make sense of the social life of technology. I felt that a certain logic to the course could be obtained from tracing a technological arc from the earth to waste, traversing through many different spaces, including the atmospheric, the microbial, and the extraterrestrial.

I’ve decided to structure the first pass in the following draft format (this is not a final format for the course at this point):

INTRO – What is technology; what is an “American life”? Is American life a technology itself?

ELEMENTS – substances, pharma, air, heat, atoms and atomic tech

WORDS – printing, military communications, transmissions, radio, etc

IMAGES – colors, paints, the media, reproduction, images, films, etc

BODIES – sex, reproduction, race, food, accumulations, queering tech, mobilities (and velocity)

SPACES – prisons, elevators, navigation and sailing (ropes, sails, knots!), surveys, and land measure, CAD, outerspace

FORMS – construction tech (balloon framing), lumber, buildings, gardening

SURFACES – fabrics, textiles, glass, claddings, plastics

NUMBERS – algos, data, control, surveillance, populations

WASTE – E-waste, toxics, water, demolition, discards and discarded tech.

I’m pretty sure that each of these categories will include, on the one hand, historical and ethnographic works paired with, on the other hand, conceptual/theoretical texts that help interpret, critique, and deepen the case studies. Of course, the categories can be a little confusing, since larger issues—race and racisms, for one—will span many of the categories. I’ll also try to provide some supplemental materials, like podcasts, documentaries, and fictional works. We’ll see how it plays out…

Several people have sent suggested readings; I have a bunch of my own. My thanks already to folks like Braulio Agnese, Martha Bridegam, Alexandra Lange, Jacqui Shine, Aaron Wilcher, John Stehlin, and Vera Khovanskaya (among more that I am perhaps forgetting – sorry!). Also, much gratitude to previous instructors and TA’s, particularly Toby Smith and Xan Chacko, for their feedback. I’ll be posting in the coming days a reading list and rough schedule I want to have. Anyone is welcome to follow along and sent questions/comments.

*N.B.: WordPress for UC Davis has comments set to off and there’s no way to change it (fine with me); I’ll duplicate this post on Medium and comments can be posted there, as well as via Twitter.