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IM902 Approaches to the Digital

20/30 CATS - (10/15 ECTS)

Computer networks, devices and infrastructure today undergird nearly all forms of societal, political and cultural life.

Police and hospitals, schools and transport, traffic lights and government bodies, elections, museums and artists rely of software systems for their everyday performance. Whether used for tracking, organising, evaluating, creating, designing or communicating, digital technology irreversibly transforms the fabric of everyday life, defining the horizon of the future. This module offers a solid introduction into the core concepts introduced through a overview of how different disciplines approach the digital methodologically and epistemologically. We will examine a number of concepts in this way, including, but not limited to: technicity, mediation, code, network, digital and free labor, media archaeology and cultural techniques, participatory design, hacking and net criticism. The module is open to students from all disciplines; no specific prior knowledge is required.

Module Convenor

Dr Michael Dieter

Indicative Syllabus

Week Two – Media Theory

This seminar introduces students to key concepts in media theory through a focus on the canonical debate between Marshall McLuhan and Raymond Williams during the 1960s and 1970s. Arising from in the context of literary studies, cultural theory and philosophy, this debate provides a context to explore important questions on causal relations between technology and society related to aesthetics, epistemology and labour. In this way, the topic for this week offers a foundation for a set of themes that recur throughout the module as a whole, such as the historicity of media systems, the socio-political aspects of technological infrastructures and status of knowledge in relation to software operations.

Week Three – Software Studies

This week provides an overview of software studies as an emerging field of theoretical inquiry, methodological innovation and creative practice. Arising from the intersection of media theory, art and computer science, the week introduces a number of key concepts, events, institutions, projects and texts that have shaped this domain. It also focuses on a specific critical exchange between Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Alexander R. Galloway that deals with the ideological status of contemporary software, recalling in part the complexities of the McLuhan/Williams debate, but within the context of the technical specificities of programmable media.

Week Four – Digital Methods

This week introduces students to digital methods as an approach that deals empirically with software epistemologies and the data-driven production of knowledge. The lecture will introduce this as a topic in the context of current concerns for the field of sociology, especially as these emerge from how digital devices alter conventional qualitative and quantitative methods. Issues around the operationalization of media theory and the increasingly privatised accumulation of social data will also be discussed.

Week Five – Media Archaeology

This week introduces some key concepts and figures in German media studies, specifically in relation to the notion of media archaeology. The lecture and seminar will cover a range of disciplinary influences associated with the concept, from work in film studies to media art practice, concentrating in particular on the historical and philosophical writing of Friedrich Kittler and more recent contributions to the field from Bernhard Siegert and the Weimar School of cultural techniques.

Week Six – Social Studies of Media Technologies

This week will cover a broad range of theoretical and methodological approaches at the intersection of science and technology studies, and media communications. While offering an introductory map of this terrain, specialized approaches like actor-network-theory will be discussed along with the relevance of recurring critical questions that first arise in the philosophy of technology and media theory. Examples of recent research that unifies these two domains in unique ways will also be introduced and discussed.

Week Seven - Political Economy of Information

This week reflects on the political economy of information and provides an introduction to Marxist frameworks for the analysis of digital culture. A range of concepts will be discussed, including dialectics, commodification, class and the commons, along with debates over free labour and the materialist dynamics of commercial web platforms. The week also includes a reflection on commercial dataveillance and the complexities of informational valorisation.

Week Eight - Design Research

This week explores design research, theory and practice with an emphasis on collaborative and participatory projects. The lecture and seminar explores relations between science, art, activism and design, concentrating in particular on the problem of method. In the process, it reflects on case studies that contain speculative and aesthetic engagements with environmental activism and atmospheric sensing.

Week Nine - Anthropology of Digital Culture

This week introduces anthropological approaches to digital culture, concentrating in particular on ethnography as a methodological framework and practice. While providing a historical account of this disciplinary apparatus, the lecture will discuss the different forms and potential challenges of performing ethnographic research. In doing so, a unique focus will be placed on anthropological investigations of the techno-politics and vernacular cultures of hacking.

Week Ten - Net Criticism

This lecture concludes the module with a reflection on the role of critique in relation to network culture. While historicizing notions of critical reflection and oppositional thought, it covers diverse experimental modes by which media criticism can be articulated; along with futures for negation in an era governed predominantly through affirmation.

Illustrative Bibliography:

Bunz, Mercedes. ‘As You Like It: Critique in the Era of Affirmative Discourse.’ Unlike Us: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2013. 137-145.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge.” Grey Room 18 (2004): 26-51.

Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy. London: Verso, 2014.

DiSalvo, Carl. “Design and the Construction of Publics”, Design Issues 25.1 (2009): 48-63.

Helmond, Anne and Carolin Gerlitz. “The Like Economy: Social Buttons and the Data Intensive Web.” New Media & Society (2013): 1-18.

Kelty, Christopher. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Kittler, Friedrich. “Theoretical Presuppositions.” Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999. Trans. Anthony Enns. London: Polity, 2010. 29-46.

Latour, Bruno. “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (With Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk).” Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society. Eds. Fiona Hackne, Jonathn Glynne and Viv Minto. Falmouth: Universal Publishers, 2009. 2-10.

Lovink, Geert. Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Mitchell, W. J. T.; and Mark B. N Hansen. Eds. Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Gillespie, Tarleton; Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot. Eds. Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.

Parikka, Jussi. What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity, 2013.

Pasquinelli, Matteo. “Google’s PageRank Algorithm: A Diagram of the Cognitive Capitalism and the Rentier of the Common Intellect.” Deep Search: The Politics of Search Beyond Google, Felix Stalder and Konrad Becker (eds) Innsbruck: Studienverlag, 2009, pp. 152-162.

Rogers, Richard. Digital Methods. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.

Scholz, Trebor. “Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy.” Medium, 2014.

Siegert, Bernhard. “Cultural Techniques: Or the End of the Intellectual Postwar Era in German Media Theory.” Theory, Culture and Society 30.6 (2013): 48-65.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text 63.18-2 (2000): 33-58.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Monfort Eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

Learning Outcomes

The module aims to encourage students to:

  • Gain a theoretical and practical understanding of systematic challenges brought in relation to digital infrastructures across disciplines;
  • Acquire an advanced and interdisciplinary grounded conceptual vocabulary and a creative methodological approach towards the multiform phenomena of the digital era and their interpretations;
  • Innovatively and independently evaluate digital phenomena and apply conceptual and methodological frameworks that yield original and sound interpretative analyses;
  • Develop and demonstrate independent interpretative analysis through experimental practice, discussion, and forms of academic writing.

Important Information:

Please be advised that you may be expected to have access to a laptop for some of these courses due to software requirements; the Centre is unable to provide a laptop for external students.

Gaining the permission of a member of CIM teaching staff to take a module does not guarantee a place on that module. Nor does gaining the permission of a member of staff from your home department or filling in the eVision Module Registration (eMR) system with the desired module. You must contact the Centre Administrator ( to request a module place.

Please be advised that some modules may have restricted numbers. Places are not allocated on a first-come first-served basis, but instead all external students requesting a CIM module as optional, who submit their request by the relevant deadline are given equal consideration.

We are normally unable to allow students (registered or auditing) to join the module after the third week of it commencing. If you have any queries please contact the Centre Administrator.