A Critique of a Socio-Technical System. Write an essay of about critiques or analyzes a sociotechnical system or apparatus. Use ideas and research from the course materials to inform your analysis.
Write an essay of about critiques or analyzes a sociotechnical system or apparatus. Use ideas and research from the course materials to inform your analysis. This assignment gives you an opportunity to apply what you have learned this semester. Now that you are something of an expert in how technologies relate to people’s lives and social relations, show how you can use your knowledge to explain what’s going on.
You might write about, for example, using Amazon Alexa, Ring video doorbells, playing Nintendo with friends, scrolling through Influencer feeds on Instagram, or perhaps something more from the past, such as what it might have been like for your grandparents writing hand-written letters with each other long ago. Remember to focus on a specific use in context: “smart phones” are much too broad; “watching Netflix on a smart phone” would be more appropriate.
Do not abstract the technology out of human social life. Also, stick to topics where you know, or can find out about, the experience, what it felt like: if the feelings you discuss are not your own, make sure you have some way of learning about the feelings or experiences (for example, in the case of hand-written letters, from your grandparents).
This should be a critique in the full sense of the word. Unlike Essay 2, you do not need to gauge your chosen apparatus in terms of a single value, like democracy. You do not have to simply declare the technology good or bad. You should evaluate it more broadly, perhaps make several more subtle claims about it.
For example, Douglas’ chapter on radio amateurs does not declare them good or bad; instead, she makes a layered argument, showing how in context various social processes from social class to rebellious youth to gender stereotypes played out. You may conclude similarly that your apparatus expresses a range of issues for our society, some good, some bad.
One of the themes of the course has been the relations between, on the one hand, social and technical structures and, on the other, experiences or feelings that come with using communication technologies. So you should write about what it feels like to use or engage the socio-technical system you choose to analyze.
But you should also make a serious effort to connect those feelings to structures, to social, economic, and cultural systems, drawing on course materials to make the connections. Several of the readings may give you some ideas about ways of connecting “feelings” or experience to structures: Susan Douglas’ chapter about early radio amateurs, for example, or Solnit’s Diary, Teachout’s chapter on the Dean campaign, Schüll’s article on video poker, or others. It may help you to reread those pieces before starting on your essay. Remember the following: A critique is not the same as a criticism.
A sociotechnical apparatus or system involves a particular use of a technology in a particular context. Write about both the feeling of using a technology and the structures in which it is embedded. Use and cite course materials (readings and lectures) to do your analysis. Research outside course materials is not expected.
You do not need to do research outside the course readings, though it is OK to use a few outside sources if they help you in understanding your particular use of a technology.
You should make sure you make thorough use of course materials. Before you begin writing, think about what concepts, especially about structures and feelings, help you make sense of the technology you are critiquing.
Some course readings focus mostly on structure, such as Chomsky and Herman, and others mostly on experience, such as Kafka’s letter to Milena or Oldenburg’s “Third Place.” And some offer theoretical frameworks for making sense of the interconnections: Williams’ chapters on broadcasting or on structures of feeling, or Xiaowei Wang on the “blockchain chicken farm.”
Most contemporary technologies in various ways use machine learning and/or algorithms that structure use; be sure to look at the lectures and course materials for the last two weeks of the course. Most of you will probably find it useful to use several different concepts, and several different readings, to inform your critique. How should you structure your essay?
It’s an essay, so there’s no one way to do it. But one common way to connect experiences or feelings to structures in a written essay is this: open your essay by evocatively describing what it feels like to use something, and then, in subsequent paragraphs, explain the structures that form the context of those feelings, perhaps broken down into subsections on technological, social, economic, and other relevant structures (e.g., linguistic or cultural).