ENGL 391 (Section 005, Schedule #35717)
Virginia Commonwealth University
T Th 11am-12:15pm :: 835 West Grace Street 1004A
Prof. David Golumbia
Office: 324D Hibbs Hall
Fall 2017 Office Hours: Thurs 12:30-3:30pm
Politics of the Digital
Write a paper of at least 1500 words on ONE of the following prompts, or on another topic related to the course. Word count (available in all word processors), rather than page length, is the The topic can be analytical or reports on material related to but not covered in the course, but should consult via email with me (dgolumbia-at-vcu.edu) while developing your topic. You are encouraged to fulfill these requirements through alternate projects (video, audio, games, etc.) that are determined in advance by consulting the instructor.
IMPORTANT: This paper takes the place of the final exam for the course, and is due when the final exam would ordinarily be offered, by 10:50am on Thursday, December 14. Due to this, no late papers can be accepted.
- Choose one or two examples of movies, TV shows or written fiction that depict artificial intelligence as a humanoid robot or something similar. What gaps or tricks are used to portray AI as if it were the same kind of thing as human consciousness? What does the media object presume about the nature of artificial consciousness? How do the tricks used to bypass the hard questions of what "artificial consciousness" means work with the plot and social concerns of the piece of media? what would it be like if the piece of media used "real AI" (such as machine learning algorithms) to depict AI? note that there is one series of novels (Daniel Suarez's Daemon and Freedom™, that attempt to do this, and one or both might make for excellent books for this prompt).
- Following up on some of the readings we did in the "reputation and data brokerage" week, research the kinds of information bought and sold by one or more data brokers (the most famous is Axciom, but there are many others). Then think back to some of the issues we talked about in the early weeks of the term, about fundamental issues of "democracy" and "freedom." You may choose to do some reading into some of the fundamental issues or figures in democratic theory. In an ideal democracy, or a democracy that followed the ideals of one or more core democratic theorists, how much information about each citizen should in fact be available? To whom should this information be made available, and under what circumstances? What relationships are there between democracy and the widespread availability of complete, highly personal information about each person? Does it make a difference if people willingly give their information to these providers? Does it make a difference the extent to which people understand how that data might be used, as opposed just to the fact that they have given their data to the providers?
- Research the way other countries or polities (the most obvious example is the EU) have addressed questions of data privacy. Compare and contrast those approaches to those of the US. Which do you think make more sense? Which is more compatible with a free society?
- Discuss some of the controversy around "fake news" in the 2016 Presidential election, the UK "Brexit" election, or in current media. Is the concept of "fake news" one that can be specified clearly enough to be useful? What kinds of methods have been proposed to address these problems? Do you think they will work? Use concrete examples.
- Explore some of the press around Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), or Bitcoin's continued rise (as of this moment it has recently gone over $11,000 US). Look into discussions of whether Bitcoin is a "bubble" in the classic financial sense (that is, whether it is or is not like the Dutch Tulip "bubble," the South Sea "bubble," the dot.com "bubble," and so on). Research in particular the way market participants have talked about "bubbles" during past bubbles, and how Bitcoin proponents talk about bubbles today. What are the social effects and consequences of rapidly inflating and not-altogether-legal financial assets?
- Research one or more proposals to use blockchain technology for political reasons (voting, national identity cards, property identification, and so on). What assumptions do the proponents make about the nature of society and democracy? What do they say overtly about systems of government? How do their proposals address what they claim are the central social problems we face today? Do you agree that these are the real problems we face?
- The novel I Hate the Internet talks a great deal about the politics of race and gender, but the relationship of these issues to its concerns about the internet and digital devices is not always made explicit. Write an interpretive essay about the novel that explores how and why these themes work together despite not always being overtly connected in the book.
Submission of Assignments
Please submit your assignment in the "Paper 3" selection under Assignments in Blackboard.
General Paper Instructions
The essay should be 5 to 6 pages in length, but please use your word processor to count the number of words; word count and not page length is the official metric for the assignment. An English paper should include quotations from the work you are analyzing, and short quotations DO count toward the total word count for the essay. Long quotations (of 50 or more words) should not generally be counted toward the 1500 word total for the assignment.
This can be a research paper, but does not have to be.
Regardless, any text, media, or other external source, including your primary text, should be properly cited in your paper, using any acceptable bibliographic citation format. One very simple format is to use a list of Works Cited at the end of the paper, and indicate by author, work and page number in parentheses the exact quotations within the paper itself.
For convenience, here are some citations using this format, using readings for another course. For works other than movies, articles, or books, just do your best: the point is to indicate where you got material that is not written by you; I am less concerned with the exact form your citation takes than I am with the attempt to provide a citation. This includes Wikipedia entries, one of which is included below.
Within the paper, you would cite things this way:
One critic says that "surveillance is always at work, whether we know it or not" (Andrejevic, "The Work of Watching One Another," p. 34).
A Wikipedia entry might be cited like this:
Morrison "went to Howard University graduating in 1953 with a B.A. in English; she went on to earn a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955" ("Toni Morrison," Wikipedia).
Mark Andrejevic, "The Work of Watching One Another: Lateral Surveillance, Risk, and Governance." Surveillance & Society 2:4 (2004). 479-497.
Julia Angwin, "It's Complicated: Facebook's History of Tracking You." ProPublica (Jun 17, 2014). http://www.propublica.org/article/its-complicated-facebooks-history-of-tracking-you.
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, "The Californian Ideology." Mute 3 (Autumn 1995).
Adam Curtis, dir. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Three Parts. United Kingdom: BBC, 2011.
"Toni Morrison." Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toni_Morrison. Accessed Feb 2, 2016.
Other standard forms of citation (such as footnotes) are also acceptable, but failing to properly indicate sources technically constitutes plagiarism.
Speaking of plagiarism, all work for this assignment and the rest of this course is expected to be your own, and should not include elements from other sources (such as online commentaries on the works you write about), unless you also put them in quotation marks and clearly indicate your sources as described above.
Last updated November 30, 2017.