August 20, 2019
The internet is not a natural habitat.
That is a central message of Internet Cultures: Histories, Networks, Practices, a course taught in the spring of 2018 by Marta Figlerowicz, assistant professor of comparative literature and English, and Marijeta Bozovic, assistant professor of Slavic languages & literatures.
“When students interact with the internet,” says Figlerowicz, “they tend to be adept at figuring out how to use it, but also seem to approach it as if it were a fixed entity — a sort of natural habitat that grew up all by itself — and as an inherently democratic space.”
Using history, network studies, computer science, and a sampling of cultural studies, the course explored questions ranging from “How did ideologies of the Cold War shape the development of the internet?” to “How misleading and how expedient are the metaphors we use (desktop, pages) for working in virtual spaces?”
The aim, Figlerowicz says, is to help students see the internet in particular and digital and computing technologies in general as entities that grew out of combinations of innovations and environments. The notion of global communication is derived from the much older technologies of the telegraph and telephone. Ideas about super computers are embedded in WW II and efforts to crack the Enigma code. “And the vision of personal computing originated not with libertarian techies,” she says, “but in California with ‘back to nature hippies’ who wanted to have control of their tech tools — just as they wanted to grow their own vegetables.”
Figlerowicz and Bozovic want their students — who come from a variety of disciplines — to understand that the internet is human-made with certain contingent conditions. “When students look back into past,” Figlerowicz says, “they tend to think teleologically. They think that the early computers naturally led to personal computers, and that personal computers naturally led to the internet, and that certain technologies or products won out because they were ‘the best.’ But once you bring in the history or science, you realize how many other possible paths existed.”
While the focus was not on developing competence in blended reality technologies, students were required to spend time during the last third of the course either experimenting with virtual reality or participating in computer software coding sessions. Blended reality tools were examined in the context of understanding internet history, and developing critical thinking skills about the digital worlds that surrounds us and mediate our experiences.
Interacting directly with those tools, says Figlerowicz, gave students insights into the tools’ workings, capacities, limitations, and possibilities — and frequently challenged their assumptions. “It’s easier to get students to think of older technologies (even print!) as ‘technologies’ as opposed to ‘givens’ if you also introduce them to technologies that feel genuinely new but might be buggy and confusing, like virtual reality. Even though VR is seemingly cutting edge, we are still trying to figure out what its uses can be.”
References and Related Reading:
- New initiative at Yale seeks to answer the question: What is the internet?, Bess Connolly Martel, Yale News, November 29, 2017, https://news.yale.edu/2017/11/29/new-initiative-yale-seeks-answer-question-what-internet
- Crafting the Modern Self, Rhea Hirshman, October 24, 2017, Blended Reality Project Blog, https://blendedreality.yale.edu/news/crafting-modern-self