MDST411-1 (Schedule # 73592)
University of Virginia
Spring 2004
R 3:30-6:00 :: 332 Cabell Hall
Mr. David Golumbia
Office: 304B Bryan
Spring 2004 Office Hours :: MW 2:00-3:15 and by appt

Critical Theory and Digital Media

This course addresses key points of contact between contemporary digital media and cultural studies/critical theory. We will focus our study on a variety of central concepts, some of which we will use to try to organize our thinking about the digital in critical terms. Our core subject matter will be the web itself, with some attention to related phenomena including the computing environment taken broadly, PC operating systems, and computer games. Some of the concepts around which we will organize our analyses include the command line, code, the script, the tag, the shell or OS, and a network composed of nodes. Other cultural concepts we will explore in some depth with regard to digital media include race, gender, globalization, alternative media, language, art, and writing. We'll read digital theory by writers including Mark Poster, Jerome McGann, Charles Petzold, Alison Adam, Peter Lunenfeld, Lawrence Lessig, Hubert Dreyfus, Terry Harpold, Kavita Philip, Beth Kolko and Lisa Nakamura. Critical theorists we will read with regard to digital media in particular include Fredric Jameson, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Vandana Shiva. Students will complete a major final project in digital media or a critical paper, and each student will prepare a short presentation for class on semester reading. Requires some familiarity with either contemporary critical theory or digital media, such as MDST110 or equivalent.

Primary Materials



There are two major assignments for this course. For the major final assignment, in consultation with the instructor, students will develop a substantial paper (18-20pp.) or media project that addresses some aspect of the digital environment from a critical-theory perspective. These topics will be developed during the first part of the term to ensure timely completion of the final paper or project, which is due by the last day of class. Students will also develop a 5-minute summary of their final project which will be presented on one of the final two class meetings. No extensions will be granted.

During the semester, students will write a short (4-5pp) critical response to one of the books read for class. They will also prepare a brief presentation on one of the secondary topics for class discussion, as indicated in the syllabus below. This usually involves reading and preparing a 10-15 minute summary of a secondary reading on digital media or theory. These presentations will be assigned early in the term.


The course is conducted through entirely through presentation and discussion. As such, active participation fueled by thorough reading of primary materials is essential. Since the class meets one per week, absences above 2 per semester must be discussed in advance with the instructor.

The class session will be divided into two parts separated by a break. In the first part of the session, the instructor will frame a topic drawn from the week's primary reading. The class will then discuss this material for the rest of the first part. After the break we will hear and then discuss two briefer presentations on topics related to the primary or secondary reading. Each student will prepare one of these briefer presentations during the semester.


Grades are constituted 40% by the final paper/project; 15% by the brief critical response paper; 25% by the class presentation; and 20% by class participation.

Honor Code

All work for this class is subject to the University of Virginia's Honor Code.


Th Jan 15. Introduction


Th Jan 22. Reading: Petzold, Code

Part I. The Materiality of Programming Code
Part II, 1. The Nature of the URL
Part II, 2. The Shell and the OS

Th Jan 29. Reading: Lessig, Code

Part I. Law, Standard, Code
Part II, 1. Intellectual Property and TCP/IP
Part II, 2. Secondary reading: Lessig, The Future of Ideas

Th Feb 5. Reading: Crystal, Language and the Internet

Part I. Monolingualisms of the World Wide Web
Part II, 1. From ASCII to Unicode: From Cold Type to ATM
Part II, 2. The Tag, or, Metadata as a (Philosophical) Concept

Th Feb 12. Reading: McGann, Radiant Textuality

Part I. Textuality and the Internet
Part II. The IVANHOE Game

Th Feb 19. Reading: Lunenfeld, Snap to Grid

Part I. Screen, Page, Computer
Part II, 1. User (Interface) Design
Part II, 2. Film and Web (secondary reading: Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media)


Th Feb 26. Reading: Herman and Swiss, The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory

Part I. The Web and Capital (articles by McChesney, Mosco, Dean, Herman & Sloop; secondary reading: Golumbia, "Hypercapital" [on web])
Part II, 1. Web Culture (articles by Cubitt, Shields, Jones, Senft, Berland, Moulthrop)
Part II, 2. Mass Communities, File Sharing, Hacking, and Piracy: Cyber-Citizenry and IP Revisited (article by Tetzlaff)

Th Mar 4. Reading: Kolko, Nakamura and Rodman, Race in Cyberspace
                        Critical response paper due at beginning of class.

Part I. Race and Ethnicity Online (articles by Kolko, Nakamura & Rodman ["Introduction"], Nakamura, Gonzalez, McPherson, Sterne, Kolko)
Part II, 1. "Virtual Race" in Games and Film (The Sims, Everquest) (articles by Ow, Crane, Sudan)
Part II, 2. Mechanic Universalism (articles by Silver, Warschauer, Lockard)

Th Mar 11. No class. UVa Spring Break.

Th Mar 18. Reading: Ullman, Close to the Machine

Part I. The Programmer's Temper (secondary reading: Ullman, The Bug)
Part II, 1. Cyborgs Already (secondary reading: Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman)
Part II, 2. Gender and Games


Th Mar 25. Reading: Adam, Artificial Knowing

Part I. Language and Gender in Computer Science
Part II, 1. Gaming AI
Part II, 2. Deep Gender and Antigender (secondary reading: Donna Haraway, "The Cyborg Manifesto" [toolkit])

Th Apr 1. Reading: Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can't Do

Part I. Questions Concerning Computer Technology
Part II, 1. Commercial AI
Part II, 2. Mass Personalization

Th Apr 8. Reading: Poster, What's the Matter with the Internet (secondary reading: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Against Crisis-Driven Global Telecommunication" [on web])

Part I. Poststructuralism and Media Form
Part II, 1. Monoculturalism and the Internet (secondary reading: Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind [toolkit selections]; Felix Stalder, "Viruses on the Internet" [on web]; Terry Harpold and Kavita Philip, "Of Bugs and Rats" [on web])
Part II, 2. RFID and Mass Identification


Th Apr 15. Presentation of final student projects.

Th Apr 22. Presentation of final student projects.
                        Final paper/project due at beginning of class.

Last updated January 15, 2004 .