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Welcome to 'Digitizing America'


This class will explore the history of the United States from 1980 to the present through the lens of the rapidly changing information landscape that shaped this period. We will examine the origins of technological changes like the mainframe computer, and the transition to personal computers; the emergence of the internet and the development of the world wide web.  We will also consider the impact that technological change had on the economy, politics and social interaction. We will discuss the ways in which the speed and ease of access to information served as a catalyst for globalization. On the one hand the combination of cable and satellite technology brought news of distant places into every living room. On the other hand, the powerful ability to collect and sort data allowed individuals to express a range of preferences and increased the likelihood that they would be targeted by advertisers and politicians alike, based upon these preferences.  The ease with which information could be transmitted and the plummeting cost of doing so also facilitated experimentation with new identities and encouraged a range of new associations.  Feeling hungry but cheap?  Click here. You might be a frugal foodie waiting to come out of the closet.

The fluid nature of identity, encouraged by multiple means of experimenting with and accessing these cultural frames, confounded class, racial and gendered relations and the nature of citizenship and political engagement.  Of equal significance for understanding all of these changes were the ideas, political movements, developments abroad and unanticipated events such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 that shaped this period. We will explore the ways in which changes in the information landscape encouraged enhanced surveillance at home and influenced foreign policy abroad and ask how the proliferation of media outlets and filters for sorting these outlets have created echo chambers, even as media empires have consolidated.  We will also look at the ways in which Americans have come to work, play and consume in a digital age.

The narrative arc of the class is divided into three parts.  For the first couple of weeks, we will “boot up,” looking at the how scholars and the broader public have thought about the relationship between technology and society.  This section of the class embeds the technological developments we will discuss in their political, cultural, intellectual and social context. Part II of the course proceeds relatively chronologically, examining the major turning points in the history of information in the United States from 1945 through the present, and its intersection with key political, intellectual and social developments.  Because this is a history class, we begin during World War II – crucial for understanding the origins of computing and the national security framework that it emerged from.  Ditto for the social tumult of the Sixties and the contrasting views about the value of technology, its dangers, and possibilities.  Libertarian ideas appealed to many of the countercultural types who were at the intersection of digital innovations and their social applications.  So did the market and the language of the market, which soon become the dominant metaphor in America, gaining traction world-wide.  We will use the Y2K panic (which we now laugh about) and the 9/11 tragedy, which many still cry about, to reflect upon just how dependent upon digital information the world had become at the turn of the twenty-first century.  The third part of the course turns to some of the major facets of life in America from 2000 to the present.  In units that treat homeland security, identity, politics, work, consumption, play, and the relationship between the local and the global, we will trace the evolution of each of these components of life through the lens of digital developments.