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

General outline for Technology in American Lives

Posting this here, quickly, for discussion and feedback… I have been developing the final reading list for Winter quarter, AMS 5, Technology in American Lives, in preparation of the final syllabus. I previously posted about the course here. This is a test. This is only a test. N.B. The readings are geared toward an intro level course.



10 – What is a technology? What are “American lives”?

12 – Mumford (1934; 2010), Technics and Civilization, Ch. II –OR– Langdon Winner (1980), “Do Artifacts Have Politics”


17 – Brechin (2006), “The Pyramid of Mining,” Imperial San Francisco

19 ­– Cronon (1992), Rails and Water, Nature’s Metropolis [&/OR excerpt from Voyles’ Wastelanding]


24 – Laura Briggs (2003), “Debating Reproduction: Birth Control, Eugenics, and Overpopulation in Puerto Rico, 1920-1940,” from: Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico

26 – Nayan Shah (2001), from: Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown –OR– Kim TallBear (2013), selection from: Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science [or journal article]


31 – Simone Browne (2012) “Everybody’s Got a Little Light Under the Sun: Black Luminosity and the Visual Culture of Surveillance” (article) –OR– excerpt from book, Dark Matters


2 – Susan Schulten (2012), “Slavery and the Origin of Statistical Cartography” (likely selection) from: Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America





14 – Michelle Murphy (2006), “Building Ladies into the Office Machine” (likely selection), from: Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers

16 – Natasha Dow Schüll (2012), excerpt from: Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

Optional reading from Shannon Mattern


21 – Janet Abbate (2000), (probably) “White Heat and Cold War: The Origins and Meanings of Packet Switching” from: Inventing the Internet 

Additional readings from: Kazys Varnelis, The Centripetal City; Ingrid Burrington in The Atlantic

23 – Jack Kloppenburg (1990; 2005), First the Seed the Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000 –OR– Alondra Nelson (2016), The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome


28 – Alexa Dietrich (2013), selection from: The Drug Company Next Door: Pollution, Jobs, and Community Health in Puerto Rico –&/OR– Pellow and Park (2002), The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy

Additional reading from Maya Weeks


2 – Shiloh Krupar (2013), selection from: Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste

Additional reading from Shannon Cram


7 – Langdon Winner (1980), “Do Artifacts Have Politics” –&/Or Leo Marx (2010), “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept”

9 – Wendy Faulkner (2001), “The Technology Question in Feminism: A View from Feminist Technology Studies”


14 – Antoine Picon (2000), “Anxious Landscapes: From Ruins to Rust”

Conclusions and evals.

16 – Exam Review


Seeing and killing with police robots

The ending of a spectacular—in many senses of the word—act of violence in Dallas, Tx. this past week came when the police, according to…the police, ended the standoff with the alleged sniper, Micah Johnson, by detonating some kind of device delivered to the suspect by a robot (or what’s called a “slamhound” in the fictional universe of William Gibson).

The “targeted killing” of a suspect on “U.S. soil,” as opposed to extraterritorial declared or undeclared war zones, where this operation also has clear precedents too, has captivated the attention of scholars and the public. Partly due to the nature of policing close up while ‘at a distance,’ to borrow from Laura Kurgan’s terminology, the event raises many issues about the rules of engagement and the constitutional rights of a suspect—issues that obviously the Dallas police completely skirted, and do not seem too willing to discuss in the aftermath.

The additional fact that the manufacturers of the robot that they sold to the police did not seem to have been designed for this particular use also raises all kinds of issues in regard to the entanglements between design and policing — something else I’ve been interested in exploring, before or after Dallas. Who are the designers in this particular technology, after all – is it the police itself? And, should designers even work for police? (Something I’ve addressed elsewhere). Interesting also how the robot moves between the operability of decoding suspicion (as in, removing a suspicious package), and of killing a suspect, and also with such simple ease between the two.

The use of a robot to not simply capture, but to kill a suspect, brings to mind all kinds of fears of automated assassination and potentially the dangers to “innocent bystanders” in such engagements. We should be cognizant, meanwhile that this was a killing performed extrajudicially, after Johnson had been identified as the suspect of having killed five officers, but this has not been well clarified as of yet, I would add, all while there is a well documented history of “friendly fire” incidents (including victims in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub, it appears).

But not to digress. How “targeted” is targeting, really? All of this performative concern over the roboticized future has itself been spectacular, and in ways that happen to render such concern quite hollow, by the way. Perhaps more concern has been shown over the hypothetical police power that is yet to come, and for future alterations to “our” rights, than for the dead at the hands of police or police-inspired killers (such as Omar Mateen in Orlando and George Zimmerman, also in an Orlando suburb, invoking stand-your-ground laws), as proven time and again, in recent and not-so-recent memory. Not to be forgotten, either, that the Johnson case in Dallas presents another troubling example of someone who kills after his time in a military institution (the Army, in this case).

Seperately but not unrelated to the previous, I am especially troubled by the persistent discourse of how automated warfare supposedly brings us the safe, clean, and precise police robot that makes no targeting errors (false, anyway). But this popular discourse omits how such automated warfare –somehow– also happens to continue propagating such socially abhorred and feared figures like a trigger-happy veteran/killer in the vein of Micah Johnson. This is not to say that I know what moved Johnson to do what he did; only to point out a central tension in this problematic promotion of robotically-enhanced warfare.

Much more will need to be studied in the weeks, months, and years ahead. However, I wanted to touch on a question about how “unprecedented” this case was, given how oft the words “first” and “unprecedented” are being thrown around. Anyone familiar with the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia should not be so surprised by this supposed “first”. More recently, the outcome of a standoff with Chris Dorner, a Black officer, ended with a robot shooting smoke bombs that burned down the cabin Dorner was hiding in. So, since it was not unprecedented, in effect, how come ‘we’ (what we?) are caught by surprise, playing catch-up with the ethics and capabilities of the police? Perhaps this raises more questions about the culture around policing with a certain lack of critical memory, than about the policing itself.

In the immediate hours after the news about the already-heroic robot (sarcasm), I started to do a bit of digging. One of the first instances of shooting at a target from a robot I could find can be located in the pages of (where else?) Wikipedia, citing The Hunt for the Engineer: How Israeli Agents Tracked the Hamas Master Bomber by Samuel M. Katz. According to this page, Israeli police remotely shot a fuse to deactivate a car bomb (and instead set off a massive explosion) in 1992.

But perhaps the most interesting document I came across in my search was a research study conducted by the Navy Systems Center in San Diego and published in 2000, which surveyed law enforcement personnel on their perceived needs for robots: “Robotics for Law Enforcement: Beyond Explosive Ordnance Disposal” (pdf), by H. G. Nguyen and J. P. Bott. Maybe what most caught my eye about this report is how the respondents mostly did not perceive a need for robots that would shoot weapons (or deliver, say, an explosive). Or to be more clear, they did not imagine robotic weapons used very frequently, although that does not mean they wouldn’t want to have them around, just in case. By contrast, respondents wanted to use the robot more frequently to “see” (with cameras or infrared), as the graphs below show:


I’m curious about these two goals for the robot; one as a ‘seeing’ entity, and another as a killing machine. These separated endeavours, anticipated more than a decade-and-a-half ago, bring up many questions about the nature of identification and violence. As a relative of mine put it, they did not send a robot to capture or kill, for an example, white supremacist Dylann Roof, the suspect in the mass killing inside a Black North Carolina church. So, thinking about the writing of Simone Browne here, in the very same context of the Black Lives Matter protests that were going on in Dallas in the wake of more police killings this past couple of weeks, it’s impossible to separate who becomes targeted by automated or semi-automated killing machines, and who is taken alive, and how are the visual regimes of each sort of operation organized.

*Thanks to my collaborator, Bryan Finoki @subtopes, for several links referenced above.

My Summer Readings on Technology in American Lives

Building on a previous round of notes for Technology in American Lives… I wanted to think of this course as “tracing a technological arc from the earth to waste, traversing through many different spaces, including the atmospheric, the microbial, and the extraterrestrial.” I had (or, have?) a schematic plan of what each week could address. Best laid plans, though…?

As I started to compile a bibliography, I immediately started to run into problems. As I had sort of expected, although not sure to what extent, the neat and tidy arc was more like a maze.  So, for the time being, there is no order to anything yet. But it’ll come.

I’ll quickly be tossing out what won’t be useful to the class, while also paying attention to references for what emerge as important foundational research and conceptual ideas that an intro-level course might benefit from.

Although I had a lot of topics I wanted to cover, it looks like certain overarching themes might become more important. Something that immediately jumps out from the bibliography is that, in order to dig into critical lessons a little deeper, it might make sense to sacrifice some of the different and disparate strains in favor of certain clear genealogies (like nuclear science, urban technologies, and bioscience, perhaps).

Shorter chapters or articles are also good for a reading packet. Some books might be good for the reserve shelf as additional material for students.

A few caveats about the following list:

  • Most of the biblio, though not all, consists of book-length studies.
  • In case you want to try to read all this, I’m certainly not expecting to read every single book cover to cover. Some only have relevant sections or chapters, and I’m looking to see if these start to reveal other readings that could be more vital to the class.  I will post other updates later on, as I start to get better organized and shape the course.
  • I will usually go over the intro and conclusion to get a quick sense of what the main claims are, in order to assess how it can fit. I’m also looking to bookmark what might be necessary for lecture prep, even if it doesn’t make it into the required readings for whatever reason.
  • The list is (always) incomplete. There are still several areas I would like to include (sailing! knots! textiles and sails!), but haven’t stumbled upon the right readings. Suggestions are more than welcome!
  • The list is sort of heavy on historical monographs, not (yet) covering theoretical and critical texts that will be folded in later (e.g. Butler; Benjamin), as guided by the readings. It also gravitates, for many reasons both personal and historiographic, toward spatial, architectural, and military studies.
  • Sorry but I haven’t tidied up my Zotero database, so there might be some errors in the biblio export file and extraneous categories.
  • I’ll be updating as I go along.
  • Jump here to get it:

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.