Peoples and Things: An Introduction to Technology Studies Syllabus

Today is my birthday, and I spent it having a lot of fun (truly) jotting down a syllabus that has existed in my head for nearly two years. I call the class "Peoples and Things: An Introduction to Technology Studies." In many ways, I created this course out of frustration: many disciplines and academic fields that I have been tracking since graduate school—including anthropology, economics, history, political science, psychology, sociology, management and organizational studies, and Science and Technology Studies (STS)—have made great strides in the study of technology over the last fifty years. And, yet, there is no existing synthesis of this work. Primers and textbooks that I really like, including Sergio Sismondo's An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, have little or nothing to say about technology but, instead, focus mostly on science. Moreover, these fields and disciplines largely ignore each other. (But that is the pleasure and joy of such boundaries, is it not?) Finally, in at least one vision of STS, it was meant to be an interdisciplinary meeting place for researchers focused on S&T, but that vision has largely ended in failure. STS scholars generally ignore economics, let alone psychology or quantitative political science, and researchers from these other fields are largely absent from STS gatherings. Much STS work on technology focuses on how this or that thing was "constructed" (really? still?); much of it centers on "emerging technologies" and the future; and, for all of these reasons, a great deal of it is superficial. Sad.

At some point, I realized that, if I wanted a synthesis of Technology Studies, I would have to build it myself. Thus, the plan for this course was hatched. My hope is that one day this work will be encapsulated in a book. Indeed, I believed that Peoples and Things would be my second book until another project called The Maintainers took over my life. So, for now, it is just a class with the hopes that the notes I take and lectures I write will one day lead to something grander.

The course features 13 substantive weeks (with one week for midterm exams). The planned book has more chapters than there are weeks in the course, so for now I will swap out subjects each time I teach the class. Two important topics that I have left out this time around are a) the relationship between technology and war and b) the environment and "envirotech." Perceptive readers will realize that I am building outward from the history of technology, which is a necessary function of my training. My hope is that, eventually, each week in the course will take into account what a set list of disciplines and fields have said about that topic. There are still things about the class that make me unhappy. Like, it is too dominated by dudes, especially white dudes. In my defense, I would say that it is not nearly as white-guy-centric as other intro to STS syllabi I've examined online, but it is still something I hope to change in the future.

If anyone has thoughts or alternate readings, I would love to hear about them.

Here's a PDF of the syllabus, which includes "The Zombie Scale of Classroom Participation," but for ease of use, I have copied the schedule with descriptions and weekly readings below.

Course schedule

Week 1—Technology: What’s to Explain? Why Explain It?: Technology is important, right? Well, maybe. Yet, the word “technology” was not widely used until the 1930s, and the study of technology is relatively young. In this first week, we will explore definitions of technology and the history of technology studies, with special focus on what we hope to explain about technology in the first place. In the first lecture, I will lay out what this course is and how it will work. In the second lecture, I will outline how individual academic disciplines started thinking about technology. Thinkers covered will include the proto-archaeologist Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, the economists Karl Marx and Joseph Schumpeter, the psychologist Hugo Munsterberg, the sociologist William Ogburn, and the historians Lewis Mumford and Siegfried Giedion.

Eric Schatzberg. "Technik comes to America: Changing meanings of technology before 1930." Technology and Culture 47, no. 3 (2006): 486-512.

Nightingale, Paul, What is Technology? Six Definitions and Two Pathologies (October 10, 2014). SWPS 2014-19. Available at SSRN: or


Week 2—Affordances and Social Networks: In this course, I will argue that we can get a lot of mileage out of focusing on just two basic ideas, affordances and social networks. In the first lecture, I will outline the psychologist James J. Gibson’s notion of “affordances,” which are possible courses of action that creatures perceive in their ecological environments. Among other things, the beauty of the affordance idea is that it will allow us to dodge the problem of defining technology that we encountered in the first week. The notion also opens up a slew empirical approaches, from asking people questions to observing their behavior. In the second lecture, I will connect this idea to the world of social networks. I will argue that people’s relationships to affordances are highly dependent on which social networks they belong to. To explore this idea, we will examine research on how animals learn to use tools, including how Israeli roof rats learn how to open pinecones and how chimpanzees take up “termite fishing.”

William W. Gaver "Technology affordances." In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pp. 79-84. ACM, 1991.

William H.  Warren "Perceiving affordances: visual guidance of stair climbing." Journal of experimental psychology: Human perception and performance 10, no. 5 (1984): 683-703

Bennet G. Galef, Jr., “Social Learning by Rodents” in Rodent Societies: An Ecological & Evolutionary Perspective, eds. Paul W. Sherman and Jerry Wolff, 207-215.

Charles Kadushin, Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, Findings, pg.’s 3-26.


Week 3—Hierarchy and Segregation: Technologies and other material realities are tightly inter-coupled with all kinds of social inequalities. In lecture 1, I will examine an argument that goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Friedrich Engels, which holds that social inequality arose from one of the most important technological “revolutions” in human history, namely the birth of agriculture. We will learn that—no surprises—contemporary thinkers say, “Hey, it’s more complicated than that.” But they also still believe that inequalities and social hierarchies have a lot to do with how wealth and power are distributed. We will trace this history forward to contemporary anxieties about economic inequality. Inequality is often expressed through segregation, and Lecture 2 will examine segregation both in what kind of work we do and where we live. The habits, skills, and relationships to affordances that end up in our bodies and minds depend in large part on who we are and where our networks fall in social hierarchies. Topics will include the “gender division of labor,” the history of racialized work extending back to slavery, and the long, long, long history of segregated housing.

Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, excerpts

Yu Tao and Sandra L. Hanson, “Engineering the Future: African Americans in Doctoral Engineering Programs”

Ruth Cowan, More Work for Mother, Introduction

Carl H. Nightingale, Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities, Chapter 1, “Seventy Centuries of City-Splitting”


Week 4—Diffusion, Adoption, Consumption, Use: Authors of books on technology often begin with the topic of invention because, they reason, invention marks the beginning of technologies. But that approach is kind of crazy because, in fact, all of our lives begin in media res, or in the middle of things. We are born into a world full of objects that we then learn to use. This week will build on the thoughts from Weeks 2 & 3 to explore, in lecture 1, the study of use and, in lecture 2, the diffusion and adoption of things, which at both the organizational and individual levels has loads and loads to do with social networks.

Edgerton, David. "From innovation to use: Ten Eclectic Theses on the Historiography of Technology." History and Technology, an International Journal 16, no. 2 (1999): 111-136.

Charles Kadushin, Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, Findings, pg.’s 135-139.

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, a two-page excerpt.

Mark Thomas Kennedy and Peer Christian Fiss. "Institutionalization, framing, and diffusion: The logic of TQM adoption and implementation decisions among US hospitals." Academy of Management Journal 52, no. 5 (2009): 897-918.


Week 5—Invention: Depending on how we define the term “invention,” it is either quite common or quite rare. In this class, we will think of invention as the introduction of new affordances. Lecture 1 will consider the biological and psychological underpinnings of problem-solving and creativity. We will begin by considering how ethologists have studied animal behavior around problem-solving and will spend a lot of time talking about crows, octopi, and non-human primates before turning to human primates and their penchant for self-aggrandizement. Lecture 2 will examine how institutions and other social factors have given rise to a culture and cult of invention since, say, 1700.

Carlson, W. Bernard, and Michael E. Gorman. "A cognitive framework to understand technological creativity: Bell, Edison, and the telephone." Inventive minds: Creativity in technology (1992): 48-79.

Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850 (2009), Ch. 5, “Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.”


Week 6—Organizations: Modern technologies go hand-in-hand with bureaucratic organizations, which both produce technologies and use them. Lecture 1 explores a theory first put forward by the business historian Alfred Chandler, who argued that the modern, M-form corporation arose around certain large and capital-intensive technologies. This thesis has not fared well with subsequent thinkers, who have asserted, for instance, that corporations had just as much to do with extending social control or, alternately, that the M-form was just an intellectual fad that had little to do with economic or technological reality. At the same time, Chandler’s explanation works pretty well in some cases, which have to do with stable demand structures. Lecture 2 offers brief exegeses on two topics: first, I’ll look at the role that communications and organizational technologies play in bureaucracies, including a history that takes us from the filing cabinet to the kinds of complex logistics systems used at Wal-Mart and Amazon. Second, I will hammer home the point that technologies play a role in all “organizations,” including social movements, and not just big ones, like companies. This includes the use of communications technologies in social uprisings, such as the use of printing presses in the American Revolution and social media in the so-called Twitter Revolutions. I will describe how activists used mimeograph machines, personal automobiles, and buildings called “churches” to undertake the Montgomery bus boycott. 

Alfred Chandler, The Visible Hand, Introduction

Stalk, George, Philip Evans, and Lawrence E. Shulman. "Competing on capabilities: the new rules of corporate strategy." Harvard business review 70, no. 2 (1991): 57-69.

Week 7—Midterm Week

Week 8—Systems, Infrastructure, Maintenance: A lot of early thinking focused on individual instances of technology, or what are sometimes called “artifacts.” Later theorists argued that this approach isn’t helpful for thinking about all of the interconnected technologies around us, or what we call “systems.” In the first lecture, I will outline theories about systems and infrastructure, and I will look examples, like electrical power systems and the complex networks of satellites and computers that we use to study global climate change. The second lecture will focus on recent work on maintenance and repair.

Hughes, Thomas P. "The evolution of large technological systems." The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology (1987): 51-82.

Lara Houston, “Unsettled Repair Tools: The ‘Death’ of the J.A.F. Box”

Russell and Vinsel, “Hail the Maintainers”


Week 9—Industries, Professions, Standards: The fates and life-cycles of technologies are deeply interwoven with the rise and fall of social structures that we call industries. In the first lecture, I will trace developments in various strands of thought, including economic history and Neo-Schumpeterian economics. These thinkers argue that industries usually go through certain dependable life-cycles, the shape of which we will explore. Lecture 2 will examine professional groups, especially engineering societies, and standardization organizations. We will use the historian Ann Johnson’s notion of “knowledge communities” to think through how engineering knowledge grows (and doesn’t grow) and how these groups manage to standardize nearly every conceivable thing around us, except for what they can’t.

Steven Klepper, Experimental Capitalism: The Nanoeconomics of American High-Tech Industries (2016), Ch. 2, “Once Upon a Time”

Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War (2016), Preface and Introduction, “The Ascent and Descent of Growth.”  


Week 10—Politics, Policy, Regulation: Many contemporary academics will tell you, “Hey, man, everything is political!” and they will argue that “everything” includes everything we have covered in this class so far. Such potential quibbling is, of course, simply a matter of definition. In this week, we will cover capital-P, or formal, politics, including things like voting, political parties, and the workings of the various branches and levels of government. Government, it turns out, has always had an enormous influence on the development and use of technologies (libertarians be damned).

David M. Hart, Forged Consensus: Science, Technology, and Economic Policy in the United States, 1921–1953, Ch. 1, “The Malleability of American Liberalism and the Making of Public Policy”

Vinsel, Lee Jared. "Designing to the test: performance standards and technological change in the US automobile after 1966." Technology and culture 56, no. 4 (2015): 868-894 . . . . . or alternately, Vinsel, “Focus: A Theory of Regulation and Technological Change,” if I have gotten around to it yet.


Week 11—Accidents, Disasters, and Terrorism, Oh My: Accidents, large-scale technological (and “natural”) disasters, and terrorism seem to be part and parcel of living in modern societies with enormous, interconnected, interdependent systems. A literature, which goes back at least to the 1980s, argues that such events show us a great about technology and human life with it. Yet, at least one of our authors will argue that, if disasters have anything to “teach,” we do not “learn.” Lecture 1 will focus on disasters and accidents, with special attention paid to so-called “natural disasters” and car crashes. Lecture 2 will examine terrorism, including a brief history of the car bomb. (Self-driving cars will make great bomb delivery devices, won’t they?)

Knowles, Scott Gabriel. "Learning from Disaster?: The History of Technology and the Future of Disaster Research." Technology and Culture 55, no. 4 (2014): 773-784.

Fortun, Kim. "Ethnography in late industrialism." Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3 (2012): 446-464.

Skim: Richard Little, “Managing the Risk of Cascading Failure in Complex Urban Infrastructures”

Skim: Moghadam, Assaf. "How al Qaeda innovates." Security studies 22, no. 3 (2013): 466-497.


Week 12—Culture: Culture is a famously complex concept, which includes social phenomena like beliefs, rituals, ideas, practices, and ways or forms of life. Just like the academics who will remind us “Everything is political!” any self-respecting student culture is going crash our party to inform us—quite condescendingly no doubt—that we have been talking about nothing-but-culture all semester long. True, true. But this week will focus on the so-called “cultural history of technology,” which has been one of the fastest growing and most intellectually exciting areas of technology history over the past two decades. In practice, cultural history has focused on examining how people think about technology, rather than on how technology changes or is used. In Lecture 1, I will outline the theoretical perspectives undergirding cultural history, and I will give examples of the many fascinating things people have been exploring using this family of approaches. I will also argue that cultural history has real limits, that we are already bumping into them, and that we need to place the tools of cultural history in the context of older methods—like building economic statistics and counting dead people—which scholars have found very, very, very boring for decades now. Lecture 2 will present a cultural historical case study of how policy-makers in the USA have thought about technology in the Post-WWII period, ranging from the “linear model” to the current scene of “innovation,” “STEM Education,” and whatnot.

Voskuhl, Adelheid. "Motions and Passions: Music-Playing Women Automata and the Culture of Affect in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany." (2007).

Patrick McCray, “California Dreamin’: Visioneering the Technological Future”


Week 13—Senses, Space, Time; Thinking, Things, and Thinking Things: In this week, we will consider how technologies connect with thinking and sensing, including our perceptions of space and time. In the first lecture, we will begin with Ernst Kapp’s arguents from the 19th century that technologies are “organ projections,” or extensions of the human body, especially of the body’s senses. We will furnish lots of examples, like microscopes and telescopes and what have you. We will learn that our ideas of time are deeply interwined with technologies of time-keeping.  Finally, we will examine long-standing arguments that technologies erase space and compress time. It turns out that such arguments are hard to substantiate and separate from an enemy of thought known as “nostalgia.” We will look at scholars who have attempted to study the issue empirically.  In the second lecture, we will look at how tools interconnect with and aid human thinking, including ideas that our tools are part of an “extended mind.” This will lead us into a consideration of tools, like jeton coins and abacuses, which eventually feeds into the entire history of computing.

Frumer, Yulia. "Translating Time: Habits of Western-Style Timekeeping in Late Edo Japan." Technology and Culture 55, no. 4 (2014): 785-820.

Wajcman, Judy. "Life in the fast lane? Towards a sociology of technology and time." The British journal of sociology 59, no. 1 (2008): 59-77.


Week 14—Media: Why has the study of media traditionally been the scene of terribly weak thinking? That question is hard to answer, but the observation remains true nonetheless. In the first lecture, I will beat up on two German guys named Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. I will argue that most of their confusions stem from having no understanding of how media industries actually operate (as well as no defensible psychological theory of how humans work). We will then discover that, hey, we are in luck because other thinkers have been doing wonderful research on media industries for decades. I will focus especially on the writings of Joseph Turow, who has given us great studies of the rise of target marketing and how target marketing eventually morphed into the online micro-targeting of today. In the second lecture, we will take aim at Marshall McLuhan’s motto, “The Medium is the Message.” First, we will ask, “WTH?” We will find that McLuhan was always wrong. We will explore the history of people doing actual empirical research on media use, and we will discover that human beings nearly always choose media that reinforces their pre-existing worldviews.

Paul Felix Lazarsfeld, Reading TBD with the help of Eric Hounshell.

Explore the homepage of Eszter Hargittai’s Web Use Project and read one article posted there:

Charles Kadushin, Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, Findings, pg.’s 139-148