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The History of Information: From Movable Type to Machine Learning
Information has a history. This proposition is a startling one for many Stanford undergraduates, who are predisposed to think of “information” as a timeless, elemental material—a kind of natural resource or fossil fuel—to be located, dug up, and pressed into the service of building capital and knowledge economies. To the extent that information can be said to possess a “history,” our current Silicon Valley-inflected culture tells us that any such history is strictly a technological one: a story of ever-more-powerful excavatory and distribution technologies, whereby human societies can now extract greater quantities of information than ever before. Beyond that question, however, “information” is something fundamentally constant.
This view of "information" is fundamentally flawed, as two decades of pioneering scholarship have laid bare. In a series of propulsive and provocative discussions and a compelling reading list, this course deep-dives into the history of information and IT, exploring moveable type, telegraphy, typewriting, personal computing, gaming, social media, algorithms, machine learning, bitcoin, digital humanities, and more. Students will leave the course with entirely new perspectives on information, including how IT shapes—and is shaped by—culture, nationality, gender, ethnicity, economy, and environment.