INFOSYS 24: Social Aspects of Information Technology
Thursdays 3:30-4:30, 205 South Hall, CCN: 42702

updated 12/2/02

Instructor:  Prof. Nancy Van House
510-642-0855; 307A South Hall
office hours  Tu 3:45-4:30 and by appointment

Information technology has significant effects on people's social relations, and our personal and work lives. It operates within a social context that influences both its possible uses and its potential impact on how we live and work. Each week we will read and discuss a piece from the popular press (often the weekly "Circuits" section of The New York Times, reporting a new technology, a new use of an existing technology, or current concerns about IT and its uses. We will consider how the technology interacts with the larger social environment and the implications both for IT and for our lives.

• Regular attendance (no more than 2 unexcused absences), reading, and participation in class discussions
• One short (3-5 page) paper at midterm
• One longer (8-10 page) paper at end of semester

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Note: NY Times articles are generally available free over NYT website ( for only seven days.

Sept. 5 -- two articles on cell phones from NY Times (NYT registration required to access; must be accessed by Sept. 4)

When the Cellphone Is the Home Phone
"It's a behavioral shift from the last hundred years in which we called a geographical place and got a person," said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecommunications analyst in Atlanta. "We're now moving to a model of calling a person — regardless of geography. The consequences of such a change could be profound."
After the Bad Breakup, a Cellular Truce


Sept 12 - BLOGS

  1. Read about Blogs.
  2. Read some actual Blogs. Follow some of the links in the articles; go to and follow the links to some recently changed Blogs. Or go to LiveJournal.Com. At the top of the page where it says "Search", put in some possible user names (try your own name, your dog's name, whatever you think someone might use). Eventually you'll hit on someone who used it AND has posted material to his/her site. However you pick a blog, read through the site, follow it during the week, and think about this person.
  3. Write a 1-page description for Sept 12: who is this person (or group) and what do they use the Blog for? What did you learn from their Blog?

Sept 19 - Sept. 11 Archives

Look at the following sites:

Sept. 11 Digital Archive

The Sonic Memorial Project

NY Times Portraits of Grief (registration required)

Write one page, and come to class prepared to discuss: what difference does it make that we can experience this even so directly, even a year later? What do you think it would be like looking at these sites 5 years from now? 10? If you were creating a Sept. 11 digital archive, what would YOU include?


Sept 26 - Evaluating Web Pages

1. Read the UCB Library Web evaluation tutorial -
2. Search a topic you are interested in - maybe something you are doing a paper on for another class.
3. Pick 2 websites:
a. One that you think is a GOOD site - credible, authoritative, a source you can rely on.
b. One that you think is NOT a good site - none of the above.
4. Evaluate both using the UCB Library Web Page Evaluation checklist.
5. Come to class ready to show the rest of us the pages you looked at.
6. FOR FUN: find a really AWFUL site to show the rest of us.


Oct. 3 - No Class.

Oct 10 - New Gadgets

Read the NY Times article "Hollywood's Gadget Factory" (requires registration). Pick a gadget OR a web application that you have seen in a movie, on TV, in comics, or read about in a book that is EITHER (a) a new gadget or (b) a fictional one. (Or make one up.) Come to class ready to convince us that your gadget is REAL. Each person will do a brief presentation. We'll have a web connection, so you can show us images if possible. You will try to convince us that your gadget is real, and we'll vote on whether it is or not. (The goal is for you to fool the class. Real but incredible gadgets are a plus.)

You'll lead us in a discussion of your application or gadget:

Oct. 17 - Technology and the Images We Project, the Lives We Lead

Read the NY Times Article "Wired, But Drawing the Line." For the next week, notice yourself and the people around you, and the technology that people own and use; where and how you and they use it; what your own reaction is to people and their technology; and what image you think people are trying to project.

Finally, write a 1-page reflection on the comment by one of the people interviewed: “We very much define who we are by the things we surround ourselves with.” How do you (deliberately or inadvertently) define yourself by the things you surround yourself with, especially but not solely the technology that you own and/or use?

Oct 24 - Surveillance Cameras

Read the articles on surveillance cameras, and look at the Web for some of the hidden video cameras available to consumers and businesses -- for example, at

During the week, notice your surroundings and keep a log of all the surveillance cameras you notice. (There are more than you think; for example, look at and then see if you can locate those cameras. Check out your local ATM, too.)

Write a one-page reflection on the possible effects, good and bad, of having so many cameras around. Consider the effects on you, both of being photographed and of knowing that others, such as criminals, are being watched; the crime prevention effects; the possible misuses of these cameras; and whatever else you think is important.


Sniper Eludes Police Despite Video, NY Times 10/17/02

As Security Cameras Sprout, Someone's Always Watching NY Times 9/29/02

Surveillance Society : Don't look now, but you may find you're being watched SF Chronicle 9/9/2002

About i-See (for their discussion of how closed-circuit TV is misused)


Oct. 31 - Chat groups: useful information, harmless fun, or something else?

Many people have touted the democratizing potential of the web, making it possible for ordinary people to share information, express opinions, and talk back to the people who control the major media.

Write a one page reflection on the value and the problems of such chat groups. The Finnish government shut down the group the bomb maker participated in; should they have? David Pogue is making all his feedback available; should he? Television without Pity gives viewers a chance to comment on TV shows. Is this useful?

Nov. 7 - No Class, Prof. Van House out of town

Nov. 14 - Election Technology

After the 2000 hanging chad fiasco, many places are introducing newm, computerized voting machines for the Nov 5 election. The press and the electorate are anxiously monitoring the results. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is deploying a team of 18 reporters to monitor Georgia's statewide introduction of new voting machines.

The problems identitifed so far - and anticipate for election day - seem to be of several kinds.

For today's class, review at least 3 articles about voter machine performance. Possible sources include:

Bring copies of your articles to class.

Write 1-2 pages about what the election officials learned from what went right and what went wrong -- not just about the technology, but how it was introduced, training, public relations, whatever. What went wrong? (What went right?) What do they need to do differently?


Nov. 21 - Internet Filtering Technology in Public Libraries


Supreme Court to hear Internet filtering case from


Justices to Review Internet Pornography Filters from the NY Times.

Look at the web sites of organizations on both sides of this issue.

Those against it include the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association.

Those in favor include the manufacturer of iPrism, St. Bernard Software and other groups.

Review at least 2 sites on each side. Write a 1-page summary of the arguments on each side. Then write an additional paragraph with YOUR opinion.


Dec. 5 - Last Class

Please write about 2 pages on the following, and come to class prepared to discuss.

We have looked at a variety of kinds of technology this semester, with an emphasis on information technology. We have looked at how different kinds of technologies are used.

One of the people interviewed in the Oct 17 readings on "Technology and the Images We Project, the Lives We Lead" said: “We very much define who we are by the things we surround ourselves with.” As a society, we define ourselves, not only by the things we surround ourselves with, but by how we sell them, regulate them, and, most of all, USE them. Based on our readings and dicussions, in what ways are you *optimistic* about where we seem to be going, how we seem to be defining ourselves? In what ways are you *pessimistic*? What should we collectively be wary of, if we are to define ourselves rather than allow ourselves to BE
defined by technology?

Finally, what other conclusions, lessons, or implications might you draw from our course readings and discussions?