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.
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 peoples lives and social relations, show how you can use your knowledge to explain whats 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 Solnits Diary, Teachouts chapter on the Dean campaign, Schlls 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 Kafkas letter to Milena or Oldenburgs 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? Its an essay, so theres 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).
Heres an example of an outline of an essay (not a complete essay, but an outline of one), using the example of Prof. Streeters grandfathers letter home from college in 1895:
In one or two paragraphs, tell the story of what it might have felt like to be Prof. Streeters grandfather writing a letter home from college in 1895, while the ink for your steel tipped dipping pen gradually froze from the cold. Perhaps you would be missing your family but also excited about the new experiences you were having.
In the next several paragraphs, explain the technological connections that were and werent available to a college student in those days: written letters, railroads, and maybe horses, but no cars, radio, TV, telephones and certainly no internet. And whatever warmth you could get in winter was from coal or wood stoves and fireplaces; central heating was rare and expensive, so in winter, you were bundled up 24 hours a day. Being forty miles from home meant letters would take a few days to arrive, and so replies to letters would not come any sooner than five or six days later. On a daily basis, this meant you read printed books and newspapers, wrote letters, but all of the rest of your communication about what was going on in the world was face-to-face, and the rhythms of your life were very different.
Social and economic structures
How was society structured In 1895? Most North Americans lived and worked on farms, and most received at best an elementary school education but that was all just beginning to change. If you were a college student at that time that meant you had ambitions and the privilege to be part of a small but growing elite; you were almost certainly white and male. You were probably more familiar with life on the farm where people rose at dawn and did physical labor all day, telling time by the place of the sun in the sky. But you might have wanted to discover a new, emerging world of big cities where people of many different types came together, read daily newspapers, and explored strange new worlds like science or fine art. You might have wanted to be modern, but felt most people around you were not. Also, in 1895 women did not have the right to vote and were prohibited from pursuing most careers, like being a doctor or a lawyer; if there were any women in your college, they would have felt enormous pressure to get married as a matter of economic survival. And there would be few if any Jewish, African American, Native American students, and not many Catholics, at your college: Jim Crow was in its early stages in the U.S., and many Americans took overt racism for granted. As a young man, you might have wondered about those injustices, but you were not being taught to think about them.
In your conclusion, do your best to summarize how the feelings and structures you have just discussed interconnect. As a young white protestant American who was from a modest background but privileged enough to get to college, the world was limited but still pretty interesting to my grandfather. Reading and writing were relatively easily available, and while life was physically much more challenging than it is today, the world was opening up for him. At the same time, he might have missed many things in his world that would only come to his attention later in life, like social and economic inequalities.