R1A - 001 | CCN: 35334

The Craft of Writing

Imaginative Algorithms: Memory, Identity, Lyricality in Cybernetic Culture

Instructor: Ryan Ikeda & Yael Hacohen

4 Units

 In Technopoly, Neil Postman advances a perilous vision of American culture, whichhe argues, has surrendered to digital technology. He configures a relationship between humans and technology in terms of power, coercion, and utility, where, in his words, we become the “tools of our tools.” We may think that we simply use technology, but Postman suggests the opposite occurs: technology uses its user.

One might situate Postman’s view alongside the emergence of cybernetics as a field of inquiry in the late 1940s and, decades later, through Web 3.0 culture, where the study of the control and flow of information becomes synonymous with tracking, aggregating, and directing human behavior. For media theorist N. Katherine Hayles, the rise of digital/cybernetic culture seeks to separate mental activity from its body by reducing humans to streams of data. This disembodiment, she argues, redefines what it means to be human by exchanging Enlightenment metaphors of a self-determined, logically-determined Man motivated by rational self-interest for the reticulated metaphors associated with digital technology – a networked and hackable body of human data packets loosely gathered under the term “posthuman.”

Of course, Postman and Hayles’ positions may drift toward dystopic – perhaps even technophobic  -- visions of digital technology that do not account for the entire field of media studies. But their arguments do reveal how digital technology might possibly unsettle staid assumptions about what it means to be human in a digital milieu and, more specifically, how digital technology may reconfigure notions of memory, identity, and subjectivity. In addition to questions raised by Postman and Hayles, we will engage a particular line of inquiry that explores key boundaries -- between technology and humans, bots and bodies, algorithms and aesthetics -- through conceptual, lyric, and collaborative poetry. We will consider the following questions:

  • What distinguishes aesthetic creations (e.g., poetry) from technical innovations?
  • As digital avatars replace our corporeal selves, what are the stakes for art perceived as separate from bodies?
  • And, more broadly: Does an increasing integration of and reliance upon digital technology, which some scholars qualify as a dependence, reconfigure what it means to be human?

As a class, we will address these questions not by seeking definitions of poetry and technology (though these may emerge from our projects), but by considering how each emerges as distinct from the other. We will follow these lines of inquiry through our own writing in two ways: first, by exploring works by contemporary new media artists and postwar American poets whose poems engage early cybernetic culture and, secondly, by conversing with new media critics and scholars contemplating the philosophy of technology and aesthetics.


As this is an R1A course, our focus is the craft of critical writing. You will be asked to engage, critique, and/or extend the work of prominent scholars, artists, and activists featured in the syllabus through a series of critical writing assignments that address the aforementioned questions. Critical writing is a practice that requires revision (as re-visioning); we will encourage this process by inviting you to edit and enhance at least 3 essays over the course of the semester based upon your reflections, peer review, and instructor feedback.