Sophomore Seminars

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 materiala kind of natural resource or fossil fuelto 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 shapesand is shaped byculture, nationality, gender, ethnicity, economy, and environment.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Thomas Mullaney

"I am professor of Modern Chinese History at Stanford University, and I work on subjects related to the history of technology, modern and contemporary China, East Asia, political history, state-society relations, media studies, race and ethnicity, transnational and comparative world history, and the history of science.

"My first book, Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (University of California Press, 2010), is a history of Chinese ethnopolitics, identity, governmentality, and the social sciences. It charts the history of China’s 1954 Ethnic Classification project (minzu shibie): a joint social scientific-Communist state expedition wherein a group of linguists, ethnologists, and Party cadres traveled to the most ethnically diverse province in the People’s Republic of China to determine which minority communities would and would not be officially recognized by the state.

"My most recent book, The Chinese Typewriter: A History (MIT Press, 2017), charts out the history of China’s 19th- and 20th-century development of a non-alphabetic, character-based information infrastructure encompassing telegraphy, typewriting, word processing, computing, and more.

"In my spare time, I write music, curate museum exhibitions, watch films, and spend as much time as possible with my wife, my son, and our bird, Puccini."