Social Analysis of Information Systems

Many would argue that we live in an Information Society, but what does that mean? What role foes information play in the economy, in political life, in our social lives, in entertainment? What kind of role does “the impact of the digital” play in questions of vital significance to society – questions of social justice, of economic wellbeing, or of political representation? How about in the minutiae of day to day living? How do social media, mobile Internet, and the culture of constant connectivity affect daily living for us all?

In this class, we will examine these questions by working through a series of topics of contemporary interest -- big data, online privacy, social media, network neutrality, and others -- to understand how they reflect broader social patterns and debates. Using a range of tools and empirical cases drawn from the social informatics literature, we will ask, what's the relationship between information technology and social life?

Class Meetings

Tu Th, 11:00am-12:20pm, HH 178 (note change of venue)

Attendance at lectures is mandatory. You must be registered for one or other discussion section, but we will use this for meetings with specific teams each week so you will only need to attend when requested.


Instructor: Paul Dourish (jpd at you see eye dot ee dee you)
Teaching Assistant: Katherine Lo (kmlo at you see eye dot ee dee you)
Reader: Moury Bidgoli (mbidgoli at you see eye dot ee dee you)

Note that all office hours are by appointment. (This usually works better, since regular office hours often clash with students' schedules.) Whenever the door to my office (DBH 5086) is open -- which is most of the time -- you're welcome to drop in, but emailing me in advance to schedule time is best if you want to make sure that I'm available. Email (or in class) is normally the best way to reach any of us.

Digital Devices in the Classroom

Digital devices can be a boon in the classroom but also a significant distraction. Studies show that people who take notes with pen and paper do better than those who take notes with laptops (e.g. here); other studies show that multitasking impairs performance on tasks that require concentration like listening to new ideas and participating in discussions (e.g. here). (Really, you should check out those studies.) The biggest problem is that technology doesn’t just distract the person who’s using it; it also distracts the people in their immediate vicinity. However, years of experience have taught me that banning phones, tablets, and laptops from the classroom really doesn’t work either.

So, my solution for digital devices in lectures has four parts. First, since people will inevitably be using them, we’re going to try to harness that by incorporating the use of technology during lectures, using it to conduct instant polls, five-minute papers, and micro-research-projects. Second, we’ll have periodic “no technology” days, so that we can all see how that works for us. Third, different groups over the course of the quarter will have responsibility for writing up notes on the in-class discussions and adding them to an online archive, so that we’ll have some online resources that we can all use. Fourth, I’m asking you to take all possible pains not to disrupt the classroom experience for your peers through your use of technology. If you’re using a digital device in class, take whatever steps you must to help yourself help your neighbors. Turn off wifi; take notes on an app in full-screen mode; log out of Facebook and Twitter.


Different teams are assigned as scribes for each lecture session. That team is responsible for taking notes and writing up the content of the discussion. Notes are due by email to Paul three days after the class meeting, and will be posted online as a shared resource for all. These should be an integrative, team effort, reflecting the different things that you each take from the discussion; don't just pick one person to do it (or one person each for each 10 minutes...)

Final Assessment

The final and primary assessment for this class will be a team exercise, in which you will produce a brief (5-8 minute) video on a topic related to the social aspects of information technology. We'll discuss this more in class. I'm open as to the format: it might be a work of fiction, a set of interviews, or a documentary report, amongst other options. We will discuss topics and formats mid-way through the quarter.

Although the final video will be due at the end of the class, I will want a brief (couple of sentence) description of your plans by the end of week 5, and storyboards/treatment outline by the end of week 7.

If you are thinking of incorporating snippets, music, or other pieces of copyrighted media, please be aware of the rules governing fair use. See this set of guidelines.

For your reference, the grading rubric is here.


Your overall grade for the class will be made up of 70% for the final video and 30% for participation during the quarter.

Class Policies

Respect: This class involves significant discussion of topics on which you and your classmates may have different opinions. Please be respectful of each other at all times.

Attendance: I expect everyone to attend lectures, and to arrive promptly. If you must be absent, please let us know 24 hours in advance. Please minimize disruption to your classmates by turning up a few minutes before we begin and not leaving until the lecture is over. Coming and going on your own schedule disrupts others.

Academic Honesty: Please familiarize yourself with the latest UCI academic honesty policy: The consequences of academic dishonesty are not worth the risks.

Students with Disabilities: Any student who feels he or she may need an accommodation based on the impact of a disability should contact me privately to discuss his or her specific needs. Also contact the Disability Services Center at (949) 824-7494 as soon as possible to better ensure that such accommodations are implemented in a timely fashion.


Since I'm experimenting a little with the right way to teach this class with a large enrollment, the latest parts of the schedule will be filled in as we go along and we see how things develop. The further away something is on the schedule, the more tentative it is...

Some of the readings are stored on UCI's webfiles service. To gain access, you will first need an activated UCINet ID, and then to register for a Webfiles account.

10/2 Overview and starting points
10/7 Theory 1: Technology as culture Miller and Slater from "The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach." (Team 1 notes here.) The video I played in class is here.
10/9 Theory 2: Foundations Pinch and Bijker from "The Social Construction of Technological Systems." (Team 2 notes here.)
10/14 Debates 1: Connectivity and the Wired Self (device-free day) Attached to Technology; Growing up Digital (Team 6 slides here; Team 3 notes here)
10/16 Debates 2: Digital democracy Duff on Information Poverty; Srinivasan (TED talk) (Team 4 notes here)
10/21 Debates 3: Public and private digital goods Barred from Facebook; Schiller, from "Information and the Crisis Economy". (Team 5 notes here; team 11 slides here)
10/23 Debates 4: Network neutrality Netflix/Comcast deal; Net Neutrality Protest (Team 7 notes here; Teams 16 and 17 debating)
10/28 Debates 5: Algorithms and Big Data (device-free day) Gillespie from "Media Technologies"; Can An Algorithm Be Racist? (Team 8 notes here; team 14 slides here)
10/30 Debates 6: Privacy and Surveillance Health care analytics; EU right to be forgotten; iPhone vs NSA; Anonabox. (Team 9 notes here; team 15 on terms of service)
11/4 Review: Conceptualizing debates (Team 10 notes here) Google Doc Link
11/6 Values in Design 1 Winner; Knobel and Bowker; Odom et al. (Team 11 notes here)
11/11 No class Veterans' Day
11/13 Values in Design 3: Analysis and Design Brunton and Nissenbaum (Team 12 notes here; analysis from teams 4, 5, and 7)
11/18 Reflective Design 1: Principles Sengers et al. on Reflective Design; Sengers et al. on culturally-embedded computing (Team 13 notes here)
11/20 Reflective Design 2 (Team 14 scribing; design exercises from teams 1, 2 (slides here), and 3 (slides here)).
11/25 Reflective Design 3 Readings (Team 15 scribing)
11/27 Thanksgiving
12/2 Conclusions (Team 16 notes here)
12/4 No class
12/8 Videos due by midnight
12/9 Video Showcase 1
12/11 Video Showcase 2