SOC 317

Whitehead Seminar:
Interrogating the Internet: Critical Perspectives on a New Medium

Thomas Cushman
Wellesley College
334 Pendleton Hall


This course offers a critical sociological examination of the Internet as a mass medium of communication. We will draw on contemporary social and cultural theories to provide a framework for the analysis of the form and content of the Internet. The principal aim of the course is to provide students with the tools necessary to evaluate and assess the quality and veracity of information on the Internet. In addition, it will address a range of important sociological questions about this new medium: What is the relation of the Internet to other forms of mass communication? What is the impact of the Internet on cognition and ways of seeing? What is the nature of social relationships on the Internet? How is the Internet used and misused in the social production of knowledge? How does the rapid expansion of information on the Internet affect the possibility of making universal truth claims? How is the Internet used as a medium of propaganda and persuasion? Students will work in the social science media lab to develop multimedia projects which critically examine case studies of Internet content.


Course Materials

Andrew Herman and Thomas Swiss The Worldwide Web and Contemporary Critical Theory
David Porter, ed. Internet Culture
Laura Gurak, Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace: The Online Protests over Lotus and the Clipper Chip
Philip Jenkins, Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography On-Line – Examining the Boundary between Criminal Activity and Censorship on the Internet (this book is not yet published and will me made available to you in manuscript form).


Course Requirements

This is a highly interactive seminar in which students will offer presentations, critiques, and discussions of specific internet sites on a weekly basis. These presentations will be added to a portfolio which will be turned in at the end of the semester. The success of our seminar depends on your creativity in bringing your own research and thinking to our collective meetings. The final portfolio should be in the form of a web-page: thus, a central prerequisite for this class is to learn the basics of constructing a web-page. Support for this activity will be provided by Wellesley College Information Services. Because the class is highly interactive and dependent on student work, attendance is very important. The entire grade for the class will be based on attendance, participation, and the final portfolio.


February 1: Introduction and Orientation

February 8: The Media and the Rhetoric of Evolutionary Progress

Read: Jodi Berland, "Cultural Technologies and the ‘Evolution’ of Cultural Technologies" in Swiss and Herman.

February 15: What is the Internet?

Read: Vincent Mosco, "Webs of Myth and Power" in Swiss and Herman

February 22: Reading, Authorship, and the Internet

Read: Nancy Kaplan, "Reading When all the World’s a Web" in Swiss and Herman

March 1: The Internet as Sewer

Read: Philip Jenkins, Beyond Tolerance, in entirety

Nota Bene: Professor Jenkins will be a guest speaker in our seminar on March 1. His research on criminal activity on the Internet is pathbreaking and highly relevant.

March 8: The Internet as Sewer, II

March 15: Privacy and the Internet

Read: Laura Gurak, Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace, in entirety

Spring Break , March 16-26.

March 29: The Internet and the Enchantment of the World

Read: Edward Tiryakian, " The Dialectics of Modernity" ®
Andrew Herman and John Sloop: "Red Alert: Rhetorics of the World-Wide Web and ‘Friction Free Capitalism, in Herman and Swiss.

Sean Cubitt, "Shit Happens, Numerology, Destiny and Control on the Web."

April 5 : Conspiracies in Cyberspace

Read: Jodi Dean, "Webs of Conspiracy," in Herman and Swiss

April 12 : Propaganda Wars and the Internet

April 19: Hate Sites on the Internet

April 26: Social Movements and the Internet: The Case of the Chiapas Uprising

May 3: The Internet and the Public Sphere - Final Considerations