Sidoli, Nathan Camillo
Spring, 2011
Office hours: Thursday, 4th and 5th

SILS, 11, 1416
[email protected]


I will put announcements about the class in this space. Please check here periodically as the term progresses.

May 16: Note that I have rearranged the schedule of weeks 4-6.

Seminar on Matter and Information: Science Studies
What is Technology?

Course Description

Science studies covers a broad range of topics in the history, philosophy and sociology of the sciences wherever and whenever they have been practiced. Because of this scope, there is great diversity in the styles of scholarship practiced and the views about science put forward by scholars in the field. For these reasons, this seminar will be based around a particular theme each term.

The theme for the 2011 Spring Term will be “What is technology?” In this course, we will address the question of the nature and status of modern technology. We will be particularly interested in how technology is changing society and the relationship between technology and politics.

We will begin by reading some important philosophical approaches to discussing technology by Heidegger and Borgmann, followed by some of the founding papers in the social construction of technology and actor-network theory, two of the most important contemporary theories of technology studies. We will then look at a couple of historical examples of the development of technology and industry in Japan and the United States. We will conclude the class by exploring the relationship between modern techno-science and democracy by reading Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy by Callon, Lascoumes and Barth.

Students taking this class will be introduced to modern theories of technology studies and develop new ways of thinking about the relationship between technology and society. Students are expected to do all of the readings, write a short analysis of each reading followed by two discussion questions, participate actively in classroom discussions and write a final paper.

Required Texts

A number of papers will be handed out in class or available for download from this site.

  • Callon, Lascoumes, and Barth, 2009. Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA).
  • Grading:

    Participation 30%
    Discussion questions 30%
    Final paper 40%

    General Format

    The class meets once a week for a seminar discussion. Attendance and participation in class are mandatory and graded. Each week, we will discuss a chapter or two from the text, and other topics of interest. Students are expected to do all the readings, participate actively in the discussions and to submit a final paper.

    Final Paper

    Writing project, 3,000-5,000 words. Topic due: Jul 9. Final project due: Jul 30.

    The writing project will be done in two phases: (1) a topic proposal and bibliography, and (2) a final paper. You should come up with your own idea for a final project that is based on the work we are studying. The best kind of project will be on a subject in which you are personally interested.

    Once you have selected a topic, you should write up a short description of your project (100-300 words), which should be followed by a bibliography (at least ten items). You should hand in a copy of your topic and bibliography two weeks before the final project is due.

    Please also read the general guidelines for written assignments.

    Discussion Topics, Readings and Assignments

    As you read through the readings, you should ask yourself the following questions:

      1. What is the overall point that the author is trying to make?
      2. What is the author’s argument? What evidence does the author use? What are the strong points of the argument, the weak points?
      3. Is the argument convincing? Why, or why not?
      4. Why would the author make this kind of argument? What is the broader context in which this is interesting?
    Week 1: May 11

    General Introduction

  • No reading.
  • Week 2: May 18

    Heidegger on technology

  • Reading: Heidegger, The question concerning techonolgy.
  • Suggested reading: Mahon O’Brien, Commentary on Heidegger’s “The question concerning technology.”
  • Week 3: May 25

    Borgmann on technology

  • Reading: Borgmann, Technology and the character of contemporary life (chaps. 2-11).
  • Suggested reading: Dreyus and Spinosa, Highway bridges and feasts: Heidegger and Borgmann on how to affirm technology.
  • Week 4: Jun 1

    Systems of technology

  • Reading: Thomas Hughes, The evolution of large technical systems and Technology as systems, controls, and information (Human-Built World, chap. 4).
  • Week 5: Jun 8

    Technological determinism

  • Reading: Robert Heilbroner, Do machines make history? and Technological determinism revisited.
  • Suggested website: David Chandler, Technological or media determinism.
  • Week 6: Jun 15

    The social construction of technology

  • Reading: Pinch and Bijker, The social construction of facts and artifacts; Langdon Winner, Upon opening the black box and finding it empty.
  • Week 7: Jun 22

    Actor-network theory

  • Reading: Latour, Give me a lab and I will raise the world, and Callon, Society in the making: The study of technology as a tool for social analysis.
  • Suggested reading: Latour, On Actor Network Theory: A few clarifications.
  • Week 8: Jun 29

    The rise of Japanese technocracy (1890-1940)

  • Reading: Hiromi Mizuno, Toward techocracy and Technocracy for a scientific Japan (from Science for the Empire).
  • Week 9: Jul 6

    Technological entrepreneurs (IT and biotech)

  • Reading: Steven Shapin, The Scientific entrepreneur and Visions of the future (from The Scientific Life).
  • Week 10: Jul 13

    Technology and democracy, I

  • Reading: Acting in an uncertain world, prol., chaps. 1 and 2.
  • Week 11: Jun 20

    Technology and democracy, II

  • Reading: Acting in an uncertain world, chaps. 3 and 4.
  • Week 12: Jul 27

    Technology and democracy, III

  • Reading: Acting in an uncertain world, chaps. 5 and 6.
  • Week 13: Aug 3

    Technology and democracy, IV

  • Reading: Acting in an uncertain world, chap. 7 and epilogue.