Inventing Reality:

Technology and the Construction of Meaning


Lectures, Seminars, and Whole Class Activities

Each week students will:

Instruction in the lab will be scheduled each week between the lecture and seminar classes

Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: Theme: Humans Define Themselves Through Their Relationships with Technologies.

Week 3: Theme: Humans Define Themselves Through Their Relationship with Technologies.

Week 4: Theme: Humans Define Themselves Through Their Relationship with Technologies.

Week 5: Theme: Humans Define Themselves Through Their Relationship with Technologies.

Information Management: encoding, storage, exchange, and transmission of information in biological and social systems, language, ritual, the oral tradition, the invention of writing, the printing press, and the computer. Each technology reorganizes and incorporates existing elements; older technologies continue to be used; changes in organization are followed by explosive growth in the information available.
Assignment: Research Paper
      Write an 8 - 15 page research paper describing one of:
      1. the changes in the forms and appearances of books that resulted from the use of the printing press
      2. The changes in the contents of books that resulted from the use of the printing press
      3. the changes in the ideas about knowledge that resulted from the use of the printing press
      Discuss parallel changes that you observe or predict as a result of using computer technology.
      Cite sources and include bibliography.
      Include a data base (label format) which shows how you recorded bibliographic information and quotes or ideas.
      Due at the end of week 9
Lab: Data Base
Students will learn to use a data base, working with the example of and address book
Assignment: Make a data base to catalog a collection or library in your area of interest. Include at least ten items, sort them alphabetically and numerically, and print them in table and label format.

Seminar: Data Bases: Servants or Masters?


Students will discuss the useful aspects of data bases and the issue of privacy with respect to the possible uses and abuses of data bases by governments, employers, and individuals. The instructor will contribute a description of Bentham's Panopticon as a physical model and metaphor for the possible use of computers for social control.

Week 6: Theme: As technologies change, so do our thoughts and perceptions.

Lecture: Defining Important Knowledge

Technology influences what we pay attention to--and what we ignore. (Contrast the hunter and the computer user.) With the written word, we emphasize visual information. Our methods of information storage lead to an emphasis on what that technology can store. This has led to the decontextualization of knowledge and a bias toward information that can be made explicit vs. information implicit in situations and assumptions. The computer is adding impetus to this trend.
Assignment: Write a two or three page description of a place where you enjoy being.
Lab: The Spreadsheet
Students will learn how to use the spread sheet by creating an electronic checkbook.
Assignment: Students will write a spreadsheet for a collection in their area of interest, giving the following information: item number, date of acquisition, number of items in the set, original cost, and cost of repair, if needed. Start with a credit balance. The spreadsheet will show the declining balance, total number of items, total value of collection, and total cost of repairs.
Seminar: Impoverished Realities


Week 7 Theme: As technologies change, so do our thoughts and perceptions.

Week 8 Theme: As technologies change, so do our thoughts and perceptions.

Week 9: Theme: As technologies change, so do our thoughts and perceptions.


Lecture: The mind mirror: the computer as an "other"

The effects of computers on persons: "hold" and attention; the tendency to personify computers. Discuss Turkle's ideas about the different responses of children, young programmers, hackers, and the artificial intelligence community. Computer predictability: programming the computer to simulate spontaneity.
Assignment: Write two paragraphs. In the first paragraph, address the theme: "My computer is my best friend." In the second, address: "I could never be friends with a computer." Support each proposition as strongly as you can.


Lab: Computer Generated Poetry

    Use the poem generator to create computer generated poems. Print out six poems. Write a one page critique of the poems, focusing on the ways in which the computer poetry is similar to and different from poems written by people.

Seminar: Share the Assignment papers.

What kind of a relationship could you have with a computer? How would that relationship affect how you view yourself?

Week 10: Theme: As technologies change, so do our thoughts and perceptions.

Lecture: Are Computers Intelligent?

Ideas about human intelligence. The Turing Test. Artificial intelligence, expert systems, industrial robots, robotic toys, robotic sensors. Existing robots and robots that learn. Depictions of robots in film and literature.

Assignment: How would you define life? Could a robot be alive? Does modern medical practice have a definition you agree with: Does the potential for artificial intelligence change how we think about life? Write a two page definition of life.


Lab: Machine Intelligence

    Half the class will use programs demonstrating artificial intelligence: e.g., Animals (LOGO), Eliza, Tic-Tac-Toe. The other half of the class will use the Radio Shack Sensor Robot 20 (a simple, reusable electronics construction kit that will activate sensors when circuits are completed.) The students will exchange Assignments at the end of the first hour.

    Assignment: Play Sargon (a chess game) or an adventure game. Write an account of the experience, evaluating the computer as a player or an opponent.


Seminar: What is "life"?

    Share the papers on the definition of life. Conference to sharpen the definitions and discuss questions and controversial points. Is it "murder" to turn off and intelligent machine?

Week 11: Theme: Technologies affect the form and content of communication and creativity.


    Lecture: Inventing Tomorrow

      The initial users of new technologies tend to attempt to use them to do familiar tasks. Only when the new technologies become more familiar and more fully understood are new uses invented and old forms modified. Examples will include the evolution of the automobile (and its supporting innovations) and a short review of change in book forms caused by the invention of printing. Overheads will be used to illustrate contemporary uses of desktop publishing, including changes in letter forms and page formats. The lecture will conclude with a short creativity workshop: students will assort themselves in groups of five and

      1. draw themselves as seen by an eye drawn on the sidewalk and

      2. find a use for some object provided by the instructor and write an advertisement for it. Share the advertisement before leaving class

      Assignment: Design a short booklet (ten pages or more ) in your area of interest. The book may be for adults or children, and may be instructional in content, a fantasy, poetry, autobiography, etc. The book will use different fonts in a rational way, and will include illustrations. It will be bound before being handed in at the end of Week 14. (Further help and instruction will be given. A rough draft with sketches will be available for share in by next week's seminar (week 12).

      Assignment for this week: How could desktop publishing change the ways in which information is produced and distributed: What new skills will be required to exploit these possibilities?

    Lab: Desktop Publishing:

      Students will be introduced to a simple desktop publishing program. They will use different fonts and some sort of graphics to produce a one page news sheet.

      Assignment: Create a one page ad for the product your group worked on in lecture.

    Seminar: Every man his own printer.

    Students will share their papers and discuss the social implications of desktop publishing.

Week 12: Theme: Technologies affect the form and content of communication and creativity.


    Lecture: Becoming an Author with Desktop Publishing

      The writing process: components of the process writing model: prewriting, composing, conferencing, editing, publication: the importance of conferencing: rough drafts and layouts.
      Designing the page: using fonts: laying out pages for balance: coordinating graphics and text to enhance meaning.
      Bookbinding: designing covers: some different ways of binding hand-made books--scrolls, accordion books, stapled books, book with unusual shapes, pop-up books, plastic laminated books, and regular book-binding with signatures of pages and stiff covers.

      Assignment: Rough out your illustrated book (rough pencil sketches are find) with text and graphics and bring it to seminar.

    Lab: Graphics software:

      Using SuperPaint and drawing freely. Using repeat commands to create borders and groups of identical figures.

      Assignment: Produce a page for your book, using both graphics and text.

    Seminar: Conferencing

      The instructor will review the elements of the technique of conferencing. Emphasis will be placed on the supportive role of the listener. Criteria for listeners will be listed. Students will divide themselves into groups of three--one reader, one listener, and one observer. The roles will rotate through the group, giving each student a chance to participate in each role. Students will practice using conferencing skills with the rough drafts of their manuscripts, having the opportunity to work in three separate groups. The class will come together again to debrief on the conferencing process.

Week 13: Theme: Technologies affect the form and content of communication and creativity.


    Lecture: For Your Eyes Only: Technologies that Engage Our Sight.

      Visual literacy: symbols and meaning (more than simply seeing) has its own conventions. Examples: Show slides of stained glass windows at Chartres and identify the stories and symbolism: show modern day advertisements and discuss the symbolism. Discuss Postman's interpretation of TV ads as parables.

      Discuss the graphics capability of the computer. Show a tape segment on computer generated graphics.

      The computer can make mathematics visible: demonstrate with a graphing program, LOGO programs (branching, trees, etc) computer generated spirals, fractals. Relationships of mathematics to art and the natural world are being made more explicit: Conclude with a video-tape on fractals.

      Assignment: Discuss the strengths and limitations of the computer as a vehicle for information.


    Lab: The Video Camera

      Demonstrate VCR Companion, a program which shows how to interface the computer with a VCR in order to record the computer output on video tape. Show students how to lay out a story board for a video commercial. Discuss the format of video commercials: problem, advice, solution, Joy! Divide students into groups of four and give them a product to advertise: e.g., the strips torn off the sides of sheets of computer paper. Students will plan an ad for their product in their groups, and then each group will be introduced to the video camera (which will be set up on a tripod). Each group will then "shoot" their commercial with the video camera. The students will make use of VCR Companion. Students who finish early may work on their book Assignment. The lab will conclude with a showing of all the ads created.

      Assignment: continue working on illustrated book.

    Seminar: Share Turkle's concept of "Hard Masters" and "Soft Masters".

      Relate this concept to current right-brain/left brain theories. Where do the students see themselves: What implications do these ideas have for persons concerned with the care of children?

Week 14: Theme: Technologies affect the form and content of communication and creativity.

    Lecture: Telecommunications and the Work Place

      Dissemination of information via electronic bulletin boards: How it works
      Applications: banking, news, information retrieval, travel, planning, banking
      Work: working at home--isolating workers? Increasing the importance of writing skills, decreasing importance of personal appearance and interpersonal skills
      Electronic Bulletin Boards: if unregulated, possible rapid information dissemination
      Video tape: show demonstration of interaction with electronic bulletin board.

      Assignment: continue working on illustrated book.

    Lab: applications for different fields

      The instructor will demonstrate software for writing music
      TimeLiner for sequencing historical events
      Telecommunications: Students will use Netscape to explore the Internet.

      Assignment: Complete illustrated booklet and turn in at seminar.

    Seminar: Being an Author

      Students will share their booklets with the class and discuss the process of writing and producing them.

Week 15: Theme: Technologies affect the form and content of communication and creativity.

    Lecture: The Life of the Mind in an Age of Visual Literacy

      Are there any "computer books"? Interaction with books, "talking books", "video magazines" and "animated books" as movies (e.g.,; Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows). What is the role of print and language in these "books"? Discuss the decreasing use of print as an information source and some possible social effects: e.g., Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, Scriber's finding that Piaget's formal operations stage has never been found in pre-literate societies, the emotional impact of seeing as opposed to the more reflective process of reading, and the decontextualized, edited experiences that we get from visual media.

    Lab: Movie: Fahrenheit 451

    Seminar: Discuss the movie

      Did the movie predict a possible scenario for the majority of our citizens? What is the role of alphabetic literacy in our thought processes? How is this different from visual literacy?



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© Elizabeth Anne Viau, 1996. This material may be used freely for instructional purposes but not sold for a price beyond the cost of reproduction. Please e-mail me at if you use this material. I'd be interested to know how it works for you!