Rice University has asked me to act as a substitute instructor for the spring 2010 semester teaching a course entitled Society in the Information Age. The course examines the effects of technology on the ways in which we live, work and think about the world around us. This course has been taught for the better part of the decade at Rice and is one of the university’s most popular classes with students waiting years to be able to get into it. Rice’s decision to place a substitute in for the semester is a testament to the popularity of the course and their desire to provide the students with opportunities to expand their ways of thinking. That Rice selected me as the instructor for the course is an incredible show of their trust in my talents as an instructor and I am incredibly honored. This course presents an incredible opportunity to confront my own views of technology and explore with students this unique perspective including current topics like coworking, social networking and the new music business.

Take the course for a test drive:

As mentioned, Society in the Information Age examines the role of technology in our current society. The course will explore shifts in the realms of politics, religion, commerce, and personal relationships. We will also discuss our changing perceptions of property, privacy, authority, journalism, knowledge and identity.

In any honest examination of technology, positive and negative effects become apparent. It is rare that any new technology is met with ambivalence and this is because the introduction of any new technology results in winners and losers. This has always been the case even as far back  as the story in the semester begins, at the end of oral history and the beginning of the book. By starting at the beginning, we’ll focus on what was an incredibly disruptive technology to society and use that to enumerate the absolutes of any technological change. Moving forward, we’ll focus the same lens on the components of the personal computing era, the popular explosion of the internet and use these two movements to highlight the true meaning of Marshall McLuhan’s seminal statement “The Medium is the Message.”

At that point we’ll have brought ourselves up to the present, one in which our society is inextricably linked to technology. One in which technology shapes our actions and our thoughts. In the second section of the course we’ll explore these changing perspectives. In one class we’ll discuss the idea of property and ownership, the free licensing of works of music, prose or even science. Ownership will be addressed in the context of the music industry, with examples given in piracy and sampling, still prevalent even twenty years after the 2LiveCrew sampling lawsuit. Next we’ll address a relevant issue in a university setting: plagiarism. With hordes of information so freely at hand everywhere nowadays, and some of it our own personal data we’ll then explore privacy. Important questions will address the value of privacy, social networking, government information gathering, and the permanence of information on the internet. A loss of privacy must have an equal and opposite reaction and we’ll explore that reaction in the form of an increased value placed on authenticity. This authenticity will be discussed through one disingenuous (lonelygirl15) example and one honest movement (Cluetrain Manifesto) that’s tranforming how we do business and interact online. Oddly enough, in a later section we’ll see how this authenticity has resulted in the emergence of businesses with a “happiness” model built into their core missions.

The second half of the course will address ways in which our lives are now different as a result of technology. The first topic will be social networks, online and offline. We’ll discuss what your identity online means as a member of a community and how individuals are forming their own communities of practice formed around their own interests, guerilla knitting groups and hardware hackers and people who meet for things called barcamps that have nothing to do with drinking. We’ll talk about the music business and why there will probably never again be anyone as big as Michael Jackson but that’s ok because we’re all rock stars now. From pop stars we’ll move on to political stars, with Howard Dean as the first candidate to use the internet in his campaign and next the varied internet strategies employed by John McCain and Barack Obama. We’ll outline how Obama effectively used Long Tail for fundraising and organizing. Next we’ll look at how religion has fared in all of this, the varied views of technology from the world religions and new methods of worship.

If the previous sections seemed to shed a positive light on technology, the next section will address some of society’s concerns for technology’s negative connotations. Some critics are heralding our society as one that is being dumbed down, hopelessly dependent without understanding the basics of our technological slaves. By returning to the discussion of the wealth of freely available information we’ll examine how we learn and how we value information vs. hearsay. We’ll also briefly discuss AJ Keen’s book “Cult of the Amateur” where he decries the internet generation for it’s lack of respect for experts and open acceptance of faulty information. More concerns will be raised as we explore the life on the screen, including those who spend too much time separated from society using technology, violence in video games, cyberstalking and the media habits of the technologically addicted.

The final month of class will be spent addressing what’s coming next, in technology and our bodies interfacing with it. First we’ll have a discussion of the future of manufacturing and how you’ll be able to print anything you want just like on Star Trek. More Science Fiction topics will be addressed with discussion of cyborgs and artificial intelligence. We’ll play with some current examples of virtual and augmented reality and ask ourselves how this might further shift our perspectives and bend our lives. After talking about cyborgs, robots and artificial intelligence it’s only fitting that we close the semester discussing the resistance, what it looks like, and how you can join.

Society in the Information Age meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:00pm to 2:20pm in Duncan Hall 1064 on Rice University’s campus. Any non-Rice community members wishing to sit in on the class may contact me.

9 Comments

  1. Hesam

    I’m excited about this – will you be posting any of your course material online or maybe have a course website that is publicly accessible?

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 1:27 am | Permalink

  2. Sounds like a great course. I’d feel pretty honored to be chosen for the instructor, too. Especially if it’s such a sought after one, as you said in the beginning. I’d love to have you for a professor, I’m sure you’ve got to lead a pretty interesting class. Good luck this semester, hope this is a good one – for you and the students alike!

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 1:59 am | Permalink

  3. Sounds like you are the perfect match for this course.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 4:49 am | Permalink

  4. matthew

    Hesam,

    Another great thing about the course is that it’s largely discussion based. There are supplemental readings for each session which will help focus our talks but it’s really about talking through these points with the students. I’ll be posting my notes, the readings and any other thoughts that relate to the topics. I’d love it if you could provide any comments based on your research.

    Thanks, Hesam!

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink

  5. matthew

    Tiffany, it is a huge honor to be teaching it and I have big shoes to fill. Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’ll do my best to post the topics and discussion points that people might be interested in.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

  6. matthew

    Laurie,

    It’s like a dream course. Yes.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink

  7. It’s things like this that make me really sad that I’m locked into a day job. I would have really loved to audit the course! Sounds very, very cool. Congrats on the opportunity! It sounds right up your alley. You’re going to rock it!

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

  8. matthew

    Thanks Jeremy, once your composing and music picks up you’ll have all the freedom in the world to walk through life in your bathrobe, indiscriminantly leaving unfinished rum and cokes around the house for the cats to drink from.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

  9. I can only hope my friend… I can only hope… hahaha

    Posted January 14, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

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