Tuesday, 4 September 2007

MS-352 Virtual Life weeks 1-2

For my students (and for anyone else interested) I’m posting my reading list for my 3rd year Media Studies module, MS-352, Virtual Life: New Media and Cyberculture. With other modules in the department now covering new media this module is intended to introduce and explore issues around the relationship of humanity and technology and possible future developments in this area. The first two weeks set out the philosophical and historical background that later weeks use, build-on and interrogate.

Course Readings

For broad introductory texts to the subject look at:

Spiller, N. (ed.) (2002) Cyber_Reader, London: Phaidon Press.

Bell, D. et al. (eds.) (2004) Cyberculture: The Key Concepts, London: Routledge.

Bell, D. (2001) An Introduction to Cybercultures, London: Routledge.

There’s no single book that covers the material we look at but two books are worth buying as their content comes up throughout the module:

Perkowitz, S. (2004) Digital People. From Bionic Humans to Androids, Washington: Joseph Henry Press

Davis, E. (1998) Techgnosis, London: Serpent’s Tail

1. Philosophical Background I:
The Mind, The Body and Reality in Western Thought

If the module has one theme, it’s the relationship of humanity and technology and the future of that relationship (OK, that’s two themes …). Very simply, throughout the module we consider claims that new media technologies are transforming human relations, experience and the self, that they’re redefining what it means to be human and overturning the traditional distinctions that we have organised our world around. In order to understand that we first need to know how we have organised our world – how, in the western tradition we have made sense of the human, of reality, of human experience, the self and social relations. Hence the first week opens with a little philosophy. In this lecture I’ll introduce basic philosophical concepts, taking you through the two great positions that run through western culture - ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’, and the two modes of knowledge (‘epistemologies’) that dominate western thought – ‘rationalism’ and ‘empiricism’. It might seem odd beginning this module with philosophy, and it’s almost certainly something different to what you’ve done before on the degree, but as you’ll see, some simple ideas can set the scene for the rest of the debates we cover – on virtual worlds and experiences, online communities, friendships and the self, the status and future of technology, and our own use and incorporation of it … Many scientific and technological developments today are new, but the ideas, the motives, the issues and the positions aren’t. They have a history and the first two weeks begin to tell you it.


OK, you need a basic overview of philosophy. To cut it down I’d recommend following up on certain ideas – idealism/materialism, rationalism/empiricism and certain thinkers – Plato, Gnosticism, Descartes, Bacon, Locke, and Hume. That’s enough to be going on with here. There’s loads of introductory books on philosophy. Pick ones that you can cope with. Here’s a few:

Plant, K. and Collinson, D. (earlier editions just Collinson) (2006) Fifty Major Philosophers, London: Routledge.

Warburton, N. (2006) Philosophy. The Classics, London: Routledge.
(2004) Philosophy. The Basics, London: Routledge.
(2004) Philosophy. The Basic Readings, London: Routledge.

Stumpf, S. E. (2002) Socrates to Sartre and Beyond. A History of Philosophy, New York: McGraw Hill.

Flew, A. (1989) An Introduction to Western Philosophy, London: Thams and Hudson.

Hamlyn, D. W. (1990) A History of Western Philosophy, London: Penguin.

Shand, J. (2002) Philosophy and Philosophers, London: Acumen Pubs. Ltd.

Tarnas, R. (1996) The Passion of the Western Mind, London: Pimlico.

As regards original texts by the philosophers, you should look at:

Plato (-) The Republic – Part 7: ‘The Simile of the Cave’

On Gnosticism, look up http://www.gnosis.org/ and the link to the library of original texts.

Rene Descartes (1641) The Mediations

Francis Bacon (1620) Novum Organum

John Locke (1690) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

David Hume (1739-40) A Treatise of Human Nature / (1748) An Enquiry Concerning
Human Understanding

2. Philosophical Background II:
The Mechanical and the Organic in Western Thought

The second week continues the philosophical introduction. It looks at the rise of the scientific world view and the development of the ‘mechanical’ world view, an extreme form of materialism that saw all matter and life as functioning as a machine. From this perspective humanity itself was a machine. Opposing this was a range of belief systems that took a more organic view of life and even interpreted technology from an organic perspective. This lecture will explain the history of the two positions and trace their influence through to the contemporary era, placing them in the context of the historical development of new media forms . It will look at the fate of the concepts of organic and mechanical today and what this means for the ongoing relationship of humanity to its own technology.


The single best text is out of print, but it is available through second hand outlets (amazon/abebooks.co.uk):

Channell, D. (1991) The Vital Machine. A Study of Technology and Organic Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

I’ll photocopy some sections and the lecture will explain the book in detail. The ideas can also be followed across many other philosophy books. Look up mechanical philosophy and information about the work of Descartes, Hobbes, La Mettrie, and Newton. The full text of La Mettrie’s Man a Machine is available online at: http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/LaMettrie/Machine/

There are quite a few books on or covering automata. One of the most readable is Gaby Wood’s Living Dolls (London: Faber and Faber, 2003).

Additional Reading

The module doesn’t go into much more detail about the history of electric and electronic media, computing and networked computing (the internet), but if you want background information on this for your essays, the following is recommended:

On the rise of electricity and electric media look at:

Bodanis, D. (2005) Electric Universe. How Electricity Switched on the World, London: Abacus.

Fara, P. (2002) An Entertainment For Angels, Cambridge: Icon Books.

Mahon, B. (2004) The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, London: John Wiley and Sons.

Rhyss Morus, I. (2004) Michael Faraday and the Electrical Century, Cambridge; Icon Books.

Gitelman, L. and Pingree, G. B. (2003) New Media 1740-1915, London: MIT Press.

Marvin, C (1988) When Old Technologies Were New, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sconce, J. (2000) Haunted Media, London: Duke University Press.

Shelley, M. (1985) Frankenstein, London: Penguin Books.

Standage, T. (1998) The Victorian Internet, London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson.

Carey, J. (1988) ‘Technology as Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph’, in Communications as Culture, London: Routledge; also in Hassan, R., and Thomas, J. (eds.) (2006) The New Media Theory Reader, Berks: Open University Press, pp. 225-43.

Early, J. E. (1996) ‘Technology, Modernity, and “the Little Man”: Crippen’s Capture by Wireless’ in Victorian Studies, Spring, Vol, 39, No. 3, pp. 309-37.

Warner, M. (2006) Phantasmagoria, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ch17.

On the history of computing look at:

Agar, J. (2001) Turing and the Universal Machine, Cambridge: Icon Books.

Barrett, N. (2006) The Binary Revolution, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Campbell-Kelly, M. and Aspray, W. (2004) Computer: A History of the Information Machine, London: Basic Books.

Ceruzzi, P. (2003) A History of Modern Computing, New York: MIT Press.

Davis, M. (2000) The Universal Computer: The Road From Leibniz to Turing, London: W. W. Norton and Co.

Essinger, J. (2004) Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frauenfelder, M. (2005) The Computer. An Illustrated History, London: Seven Oaks.

Freiberger, P., and Swain, M. (1984) Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, Berkeley: McGraw Hill.

Goldstine, H. H. (1972) The Computer. From Pascal to von Neumann, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hally, M. (2005) Electronic Brains. Stories From the Dawn of the Computer Age, London: Granta Books.

Kafner, K. and Lyon, M. (1996) Where Wizards Stay Up Late. The Origins of the Internet, New York: Touchstone.

Levinson, P. (1997) The Soft Edge, London: Routledge.

Naughton, J. (2000) A Brief History of the Future. The Origins of the Internet, London: Orion Books Ltd.

Swade, D. (2000) The Cogwheel Brain, London: Little, Brown and Company.

Winston, B. (1998) Media, Technology and Society. A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet, London: Routledge.

There are too many web-sites to mention (but all of them can be found if you plagiarise them …), but the following provide good introductions to the history of computers:


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