Humanities 1, section 6

The Social Life of (Technical) Objects
Fall 2006

course schedule

Johannes Vermeer The Geographer


Professor Marianne de Laet

1259 Parsons


Office hours: Tuesday/Thursday 1:15-2:45, or by appointment
Virtual office hours 6:30-8:30 PM on days before theses, papers and revisions are due

Tutor: Ms. Teresa Boyer
Office: Jacobs 101B
Office hours: to be announced
Virtual office hours TBA

Course description

In this course we read and write about technology as a social phenomenon; we will look at the social life of things. Has your laptop taken your printer on a date lately?  Did your cell phone throw a wild party and leave your house in disorder? Unlikely. The social life of technical objects does not involve dating or partying. However, it does involve complex interactions, systems, and social relationships. This class offers an anthropological introduction to these interactions between society and technology: it examines how society is reflected in the technology it creates and how technology, in turn, shapes society. We will be using a range of  materials: case studies (including the bicycle and the atomic bomb); literature (Copenhagen, perhaps Brave New World); documentary films; and feature movies. Our discussions and explorations will be a step towards your understanding, as future scientists and engineers, of the connections between your work and the world around you.

Course goals

By the end of this course you will have gained practice with academic reading and writing. The course is meant to help you find your way in this new mode of writing, and to guide you in developing the kind of critical thinking that supports such writing. Moreover, you will have experimented with an “anthropological” way of looking at the (technical) objects we make and the ways in which they form our world, and you will understand how such objects are social as well as technical in nature. In the course of the semester you will be required to write two essays and one research paper, and to submit revisions oftwo of these papers -- the third paper you will revise on your won. A first draft of each paper will be peer reviewed in class. It is imperative that you bring a full first draft of your paper to each peer review date (see below). Failure to do so will cost you! At the end of the semester you will hand in a writing portfolio which comprises your three (revised) papers. This portfolio will be graded by an "outside reader" -- a member of the humanities 1 staff who is not familiar with the course topic. Your challenge in this course is learning to write in an academic area of specialization (in our case, the social life of technical objects) in an informed manner, and for a wider, non-specialized audience. 




Michael Frayn Copenhagen
Jeff Hughes The Manhattan Project
Andrea Lunsford The St. Martin's Handbook 5th Edition
George Orwell




September 18 

Paper 1, first draft

Bring to class for peer review*

September 20

Final version first paper due


October 9  

Paper 2, first draft

Peer review

October 11

Final version 2nd paper due


October 16-17


October 18, 19, 20


October 20

Revision 1 due

November 13  

Paper 3 (research paper), first draft

Peer review

November 15

Final version 3rd paper due


November 20, 21, 22



November 23-26



November 28

Revision 2 due

November 29

Portfolio Plan due


November 31

Portfolio Introduction, first draft

Peer review

December  4

Portfolio introduction due

Portfolio revision week

December 4-8

Research presentations

Peer graded

December 8

Portfolio due



* for all peer review sessions, be on time and bring your paper to class!




This class is writing intensive and highly interactive. This means that you are expected to do all reading and writing assignments; you should always be prepared to discuss the materials. We encourage you to bring your experiences and knowledge to the class discussion; you know and you think more about the social life of technology than you know. This, however, doe not give you a license to blab. One goal here is to develop critical thinking, which includes an ability to make contributions and interventions tat are pertinent to the matter at hand. Interaction also means that we are flexible about reading and writing assignments; there is a basic schedule that we try to follow and complete by the end of the semester but we make adjustments in accordance with class discussions. You will typically be asked to read before each class So, keep informed about what you are required to read or prepare for each class period. If you miss an assignment ask your classmates or instructors or check the Sakai site.

Attendance is mandatory (you can miss up to two classes without notice), and late assignments will not be accepted. However, if you have good reason for being late or absent, and you notify us in advance, we will try to accommodate you. We take it as a given that all class work is in accordance with the honor code. We can be reached by phone, email, and in person during office hours. If you want to speak to us outside of office hours, please make an appointment if at all possible. Outside office hours you are welcome to stop by Prof. De Laet’s office unannounced but there is a risk that you will be asked to come back at a more convenient moment. If you send email please do not expect an instant  response; it may take a day or two before we can get back to you and on weekends we are off duty. We encourage you to take an active role in the class proceedings. This means not only that we expect you to participate in shaping class “content” –  class discussion and exercises – we also hope that you will take responsibility for “process.” We welcome and value your thoughts and comments on how we run the class.



Graded Work

3 Papers (15 p each)

This course is writing intensive. You write 3 papers during the semester, one of which has a research component; the other two are response papers to readings, exercises, and class discussions.

Revisions (10p each)

In the course of the semester you revisit, re-envision, and revise two of these papers. Base your revisions on comments from peers and instructors, as well as on your own developing thoughts. We don’t want you to write entirely new papers; the grade is for the quality and extent of your revision. Learning from critique and interaction is an important aspect of academic writing and so we are interested to see how you incorporate comments and developing thoughts.

Portfolio (20 p)

The portfolio includes all three (revised) papers you wrote during the semester. The papers should be accompanied by an introduction that ties them together. The portfolio will be evaluated by an outside reader; typically this is another member of the hum 1 staff. In order to pass the class a passing portfolio is required.
Extra Credit (1p per assignment/exercise)
Writing assignments and library exercise



A formal oral presentation of the portfolio will be delivered to the entire class. (5  p)


Class participation

Attendance and class participation are required. (10 p)