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IS 103: History of Information


Send your assignment to the course TA, Alana Pechon, at with the header "103 Assignment" and the due date. It should arrive before the beginning of class on the day it is due.

Assignments 9 & 10 combined: Week 15.2 (due 12/5)

A. First, put yourself in the mind of a high school sophomore asked to resolve one of the following questions:

  • Are electronic voting machines trustworthy?
  • Are GMOs safe for general use?
  • Did UFOs land in Nevada?
  • Will replacing gasoline with ethanol prevent global warming?
  • Are the economic effect of immigration negative?
  • Did Roosevelt have advanced knowledge of Pearl Harbor?
  • Was the US government involved in the 9/11 attacks?
  • Would it be good for California to apportion its electoral college votes in proportion to the popular vote in the primary?

In this frame of mind, go out on to the web looking for an easy answer.

B. Now, put yourself in the mind of a Berkeley student about to ace the course "The History of Information". Assess the sophomores' performance. How might they have been misled? Consider what are the tricks people use on the web to make outlandish positions and conspiracy theories appear to innocent searchers as part of the sphere of "legitimate controversy". How do interested parties manage to make their position look like it is an acceptable or popular position? How easy is it to identify these attempts to game search? What do you have to know about search and the web to get around these tricks?

Before class on Wednesday, December 5, send Alana a brief account indicating what question you chose, how your sophomore might have been misled in answering it, and how you would answer the questions in B. Include pointers to a couple of websites used to make your case. Be prepared to present your answers to the class. (Try to get your answers in by 1 pm on Wednesday so we can pull up the sites you refer to.)

You may work alone or in teams of up to 5, but choose only one topic from A. (If you work in a team, make sure one of the team sends the list of participants to Alana or you will be assumed to be working alone.) This exercise counts as assignments 9 & 10.

Assignment 8: Week 13.1 (due 11/19)

Stevenson draws on Donald Gunn's idea that all advertising can be divided into twelve groups--and gives examples. McKendrick outlines the eighteenth-century marketing strategy used with great success by Josiah Wedgwood. See how many of Gunn's types of advertising you can identify in Wedgwood's marketing. Send in a list with the type (according to Gunn) connected to a brief explanatory phrase or sentence from or pointing to McKendrick's article. Are there any examples in McKendrick to suggest that Gunn's types are not completely inclusive?

Assignment 7: Week 10.1 (due 10/29)

Warner's article concludes (p. 491) that "secrecy is the essence not just of espionage but of intelligence itself". By contrast, Mercado's begins, "too many policymakers and intelligence officers mistake secrecy for intelligence". From your reading of Chapter 13 of The Art of War, indicate which claim you think Sun Tzu would support? Justify your answer with evidence from the three texts.

Assignment 6: Week 8.2 (due 10/17)

Mindich discusses the ante-bellum debate over slavery in terms of Daniel Hallin's three spheres of public discourse: the Sphere of Consensus, the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, and the Sphere of Deviance. (These are represented in the diagram in the book as three distinctly shaded concentric circles but they seem to have been blurred together in the photocopy in the reader.) Over time, he notes, issues can move from one sphere to another: "The support of women's suffrage, for example, moved over time from Deviance to Legitimate Controversy to its present position: deeply embedded in the Sphere of Consensus." (p.48) Pick a contemporary issue whose position in the three spheres is contested or uncertain: that is, an issue that some people insist belongs to one sphere and others insist belongs to another sphere. How does this issue contrast or compare with the status of slavery in the ante-bellum period?

Assignment 5: Week 7.2 (due 10/10)

Thompson talks about the spread of the clock, the pocket watch, and timekeeping; Edwards about the spread of account books and double-entry bookkeeping. Alfred Crosby, in his book The Measure of Reality, says of one of these developments that it has "done more to shape the perceptions of more bright minds than any single innovation in philosophy or science."

Which of the two developments under discussion--double-entry bookkeeping or timekeeping--do you think this claim is better applied to. Give some evidence from the readings to support your claim.

Assignment 4: Week 5.2 (due 9/26)

Background: The Royal Society was founded in England in 1660. It still exists today and claims to be the oldest scientific society. Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), the author of the principal work you have to read, was a student of one of the founders. He joined the Society in 1663 and was asked to write the Society's history. In this book, then, we have a contemporary, insider's account of the founding of a very influential society, one that people argue was at the center of the "scientific revolution." The text is a challenge, but manageable with patience. Take it slowly--it's not very long. Mark up passages that don't make sense to discuss in class, but keep on reading. As you go on, what is at first confusing may become clear (or irrelevant).

Question: In the section you are to read (beginning "I come now to the Second Period of my Narration" on p. 60), Sprat lays out a little of the underlying philosophy of the society, beginning with their "resolutions" and their "purpose"--this is the "Model" (or method) of investigation which he thinks is better than any other that has come before (which he has spent a good deal of the earlier pages criticizing). As he explains this model, does Prat seem to you to be talking about science as we think of it today? Provide some evidence from the text to support your view.

Assignment 3: Week 4.2 (due 9/19)

Consider the comment that, to make her case that print caused a revolution, Eisenstein "trashed scribal culture". From the readings, and from our discussions of bicycles and writing, do you get an impression that Eisenstein underestimates scribal culture in order to emphasize the effect of printing technology? In your answer, point to some aspect of Trithemius's or Eisenstein's argument that supports your case.

Some background on the Eisenstein piece. This is chapter 3 of the book. The first chapter is called "An unacknowledged revolution" and argues that people have underestimated the effect of print on western society. The second, called "Defining the initial shift", looks at the rapid diffusion of first printing presses and then books throughout Europe between 1450 and 1500, and, following from the first chapter, argues that, up until Eisenstein's research, an "evolutionary model of change [had been] applied to a situation that seems to call for a revolutionary one" [p. 13]. Chapter 3 then sets out the "new" culture that arose in the wake of the printing press.

Assignment 2: Week 3.2 (due 9/12)

In his 1987 study of the cognitive effects of word-processing systems, Electric Language, Michael Heim wrote:

The accelerated automation of word-processing makes possible a new immediacy in the creation of public, typified text. Immediacy in the sense of there being no medium quod, no instrumental impediment to thinking in external symbols, but only a medium quo, or purely transparent element. As I write, I can put things directly into writing, My stream of consciousness can be paralled by the running flow of the electric element. Words dance on the screen. Sentences flow smoothly into place, make way for one another, while paragraphs ripple down the screen. Words become highlighted, vanish at the push of a button, then reappear instantly at will. Verbal life is fast-paced, easier, with something of the exhilaration of video games....
Because this playful way of putting things is immediate, enjoyable, and less constrained by materials, it encourages on-screen thinking, that is, thinking in a typified, public element.... Digital writing is nearly frictionless. It invites the formulation of thought directly in the electric element....

Reading this passage, would you say that Heim's view of the effects of writing technology comes closer to that of Goody and Watt or of Scribner and Cole? Why? Write a paragraph briefly defending and explaining your view.

Assignment 1: Week 2.2 (due 9/5)

The papers by Heilbroner and Bijker take opposite sides of the argument about technological determinism. Decide which one wins the argument. Say, within a paragraph, what in the paper clinched the argument for you. Be prepared to defend your decision in class. If you cannot decide who wins, say why and again be prepared to defend your judgement. (Note that you are responsible only for pages 7-13 of the Heilbroner; the second chapter is optional.)

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