Communication and Technology
Communication Studies 454
Christie Logan, Ph.D.
Department of Communication Studies
College of Arts, Media, and Communication
California State University, Northridge

Communication Studies 454

Communication and Technology

Spring 2002

Christie Logan, Professor

"An age in rapid transition is one which exists on the frontier between two cultures and between conflicting technologies. Every moment of its consciousness is an act of translation of each of these cultures into the other. Today we live on the frontier between five centuries of mechanism and the new electronics, between the homogenous and the simultaneous. It is painful but fruitful."

 --Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

Some say this is an exciting time.  But it is the excitement of a teenager playing chicken, car barreling down the highway, hands held far from the steering wheel.  There are choices we could make, but we pretend that there is nothing we can do.  We choose to pretend; we shut our eyes.  We build this nature, then are constrained by this nature we have built. 

It is the age of the ostrich.  We are excited by what we cannot know.  We are proud to leave things to the invisible hand.  We make the hand invisible by looking the other way.

--Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999)

Course Introduction:

Over the past twenty to thirty years, there has been an explosion in research on the "information age" from a variety of scholarly perspectives. This course is designed to prepare students to understand and participate in this scholarly process of examining the relationships between communication and technology.

Lessig insists that cyberspace (like any social world) is “built, not found.”   Likewise, Steven Johnson asserts that cyberspace is “symbolic from the bottom up.”  As communication scholars we understand the social construction of reality - that our institutions, norms and practices spring from and contribute to the social system in which we live.  We know that the decisions we make are formed through the lens of ideology - what we believe to be true, what we take for granted, and what we envision for our future.  These will be our premises as we examine the impact of new technologies on human communication.

Marshall McLuhan's suggestion that culture and technology are inextricably intertwined has significant implications for the current fascination with the "information age."  Politicians, corporate media spokespersons, and scholars alike have joined in the chorus pronouncing the information age the final revolution in human social, political, and economic institutions.  These days, we are bombarded with the discourse of "cyberspace," "virtual reality," the "information superhighway," "electronic communities," etc., but the media offer little in the way of a frame of reference from which to evaluate the various claims being made about these developments in communication technology.

In spite of all the "hype," or perhaps because of it, a field of truly critical scholarly perspectives on technological change has emerged in communication studies research. This course will introduce students to this scholarship, attempting to make sense of the technological revolution from a critical perspective that is both historically informed and technologically astute.

We will engage some of the following questions, among others:

  • What and where is "cyberspace"? 
  • What are the implications of  "cyberspace" on human culture? 
  • In what ways do the interfaces we use change the social construction of reality?  In what ways do they maintain or affirm prevailing constructions?
  • What issues in communication law and policy are raised by the Internet? 
  • What is the political economy of  "cyberspace"? 
  • Who controls the "invisible hand" as the Internet expands?
  • What implications does the Internet have for issues of cultural and intellectual diversity? 
  • What are the political and social ramifications of the Internet? 
  • Will the Internet radically transform human social and political institutions? 
  • Does the military history of the Internet have any lasting impact on the structure and function of cyberspace? 
  • What is "virtual reality"?
  • In whose interest is it to declare the "information age" the newest revolution in consciousness? 
  • In what ways does the emergence of  "cyberculture" problematize theories of race, gender, and sexuality? 
  • What are the dynamics of identity construction and self-presentation on the Internet?
  • How does the notion of  "virtual reality" transform our ideas of time, space, and matter? 
  • What are the implications of the information revolution for concerns of individual privacy and freedom? 
  • Who benefits most from the new information technology? And whose ox is gored? 
  • What are the likely future impacts of computer technology on human communication?
This course has three components: theory, practice, and scholarship.

1. Theory

The theoretical component of this course will involve a set of reading and discussion assignments and lectures. Reading assignments will expose students to a variety of theoretical approaches to the issues associated with technology and communication.  This course starts with the assumption that communication is a social phenomenon.  Thus, special emphasis will be devoted to the social and cultural implications of technology.  In lectures and class sessions I will attempt to situate the readings historically and isolate key issues that arise for discussion.  Class and newsgroup discussions will explore these issues and questions in greater depth.  Student participation in these discussions is a significant part of your overall grade.

2. Practice

A significant portion of your work in this course will involve the use of computer communication resources. It is assumed that students are familiar with and have access to the Internet.  Very little class time will be spent on basic internet training, so if you come to class without at least a passing familiarity with the internet, please be prepared to become familiar with the technology on your own time.  The skills you need (basic electronic mail, news, chat, and world wide web access) are easy to learn quickly, and the computers and software to access these services are available to students on campus. 
Please Note: It is the student's responsibility to master the mysteries of email, newsgroups and posting to the web before assignments are due; the assignment must be successfully posted to receive credit. Therefore, students are strongly encouraged to consult the tips for posting online assignments and the internet style guide before assignments are due.  For best results, please compose your essay offline and save it to disk before attempting to post it online. Also, use the "for practice only" section of the newsgroup to test before posting the assignment.
The university offers students free accounts on the CSUN UNIX shell, which you will be able to use for email and for access to the internet.  You have paid for these resources already in your tuition, so take advantage of what is offered.  This service is most reliable when you work on campus from one of CSUN's computer labs. Please be aware that these free CSUN accounts are not always reliable when dialing up from home.  I recommend that you have two means of access to the internet - your campus account and a commercial Internet Service Provider (ISP).  Thus, if one server is busy you can do your work using the other.

You can sign up with a commercial ISP for about $15/month and enjoy reliable internet access even during CSUN computer "blackouts". CSUN maintains a list of recommended ISPs at the Learning Resource Center; you can visit that list at Computer accounts with large commercial online service providers such as AOL are strongly discouraged. While some students have relied on such services in previous semesters and somehow still managed to pass the course, nearly all of them would agree in hindsight that problems with AOL (or Earthlink or WebTV) greatly diminished their ability to participate competently in the course.

You must register on WebCT in order to access our course newsgroup and chat rooms.   Instructions are available online.  Remember your login and password, since these will be required to enter news and chat.  The Learning Resource Center is running a number of workshops that will help acquaint newcomers with the wonders of cyberspace; you are strongly encouraged to attend these workshops in order to get up to speed.  If you have your own computer and modem, these services will be available to you off campus as well, so much of your participation in this portion of the course can take place from the privacy of your own home. 

The internet resources for the course include a newsgroup and chat rooms on our WebCT site, electronic mail, and a series of pages on the World Wide Web.  Some of the reading assignments will come from links on the course schedule as well. Students will participate in research and discussion through these media, and will be evaluated on the quality of this participation. This component of the course will essentially involve the construction of a "virtual classroom" alongside our physical classroom.

3. Scholarship

The final component of the course, scholarship, will be an ongoing aspect of both of the above components. This process will begin with your Topic Report and culminate in a your Final Research Project.  See the assignments page for specifics on these and other assignments.  Your research should address some topic of significance to communication in the information age, and ideally the topic will fit within the student's own areas of scholarly interest.  I have posted some suggestions for topics; these are not exhaustive but meant to get you thinking.

Required Texts and Resources:

Steven Johnson, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way we Create and Communicate.  NY: Basic Books, 1997.

Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.  NY: Basic Books, 1999.

 Additional required and recommended readings are available as links in the course schedule.

Attendance and Participation

Regular attendance and participation in class discussion is expected.  The student alone is responsible for attending classes and finding out what was missed when s/he is unable to attend. I will not respond to phone calls, emails, or other messages whose content is some variant of "I can't make it to class today; are we doing anything important?" - or - "Will you tell me what I missed?"  You should make your own decisions about your own life priorities, but do not expect the course to wait for you.

Additionally, it is up to you to come to class prepared to participate as a citizen -- to listen attentively to others, to engage critically and creatively the perspectives of others, and to contribute meaningfully to discussions of the course materials. This means having all of the reading done when it is due, turning in assignments on time, and actively listening to and participating with your classmates and your instructor. 

Finally, some of our class sessions will take place online, and the instructor is well aware that the technological means for connecting to the online world are slightly less stable than the Los Angeles freeways. There may be technological difficulties that prevent us from meeting in our virtual world. The professor will attempt to prepare contingency plans to cover most cyber-disasters, but students will not be penalized for the failure of computer systems beyond their control. That said, however, "I couldn't connect" is not a valid reason for missing online classes when all other students have connected. If you have frequent difficulties connecting to the Internet from home aside from CSUN computer facility outages, it is highly recommended that you plan to be at computers on campus for these meetings. 

Academic Honesty

Academic honesty is expected and required. Academic dishonesty defrauds all those who depend on the integrity of University courses and is a serious offense covered by Section 41301, Title 5 of the California Administrative Code. This section of the Code is published in the University Catalog, Schedule of Classes, and the Student Handbook - and is mirrored here.

Cheating and plagiarism will not be tolerated. If you are caught cheating or plagiarizing in any form, you will receive a failing grade for the course and will be reported to the university for appropriate action.   I take this very seriously, and will prosecute to the fullest extent allowed.   If you are uncertain what constitutes cheating, please consult the link above.

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Last Update:  January 28, 2002
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