Computer Utopias

RISD GRAPH-3192-01, Spring 2015
by Chris Novello (cnovello at risd)


A studio workgroup for urgent concerns in computers & representation.

Three decades ago, the Macintosh dropped a sci-fi bomb on pop culture. It advertised a utopic vision of human-computer creativity to mass audiences. By remixing military-industrial-academic fragments, a product company sold the dream of new humanism. This decade, the planet is bursting with smartphones; billions of people will carry globally-networked pocket computers, each outfitted with sensors that datify the material world. We now have quantities, rates, and kinds of data unlike anything humankind has ever seen. Individual biological minds can't reason at network scale, so we're teaching fields of computers to do it instead. If the data center is today's mainframe, is there a Macintosh hiding in the next decade? If your phone's camera is the next mouse, what will it click on? As machine learning reinvents humanism, what are 21st century creative tools? What do network literacy and 21st century citizenship look like? Is the programmer/user dichotomy destroyable? How much of this is just a design problem? We'll explore these topics with studio work and seminar-style discussion. Studio work will include creation of mockups, videos, webmedia, interaction design, and beyond. Prototypes and design fictions are welcome. Programming experience is not explicitly required. Sincere eagerness to rigorously engage and reorient computer culture is a must.

Week 1: Catapult into the Next Decade
Week 2: A Camera is no Longer a Camera
Week 3: Computerthinking (Abridged History)
Week 4: Programming Without Code
Week 6: Athletic & Ephemeral Photothinking
Week 7: Silicon Valley Capitalism 2k15
Week 8: Give a ____ a Network
(Exponentials, Platforms, and Power)
Week 9: Messaging as the New Internet
Week 10: Magic Crayons & Speaking Systems
Week 11: Speculative Rhetoric & Rustbelt Future Visions
Week 12 & 13 Final Project Crits
Course Policies & Information

Meeting Time: Thursdays 01:10PM - 06:10PM

Structure, Info & Goals:
The goal of the course is to reimagine the personal computer. Students will create design fictions & prototype mockups that propose new kinds of software and hardware. Over the semester, these designs will address themes including:
  • the world altering importance and ubiquity of the smartphone as a computing platform.
  • the computer as a representational tradition — how programmatic media makes new forms of thinking possible, and ways we might create computer-native media without coding.
  • humanist design possibilities (and political-cultural consequences) of machine learning and statistics-driven computer intelligence, especially in relation to the camera as a data sensor.
  • the cultural, technological, and economic forces that stage global networks this decade, and what implications that has in terms of power, representation, and literacy for this century.
Each week has required readings & media materials (organized in sections above, listed in bullet points). Several additional links are listed as well. This is to provide comprehensive, supplemental address of the topics, and so that this syllabus may serve as an anthology for this line of thinking.

Students will work on projects that grow from these topics and our in-class discussions. The first quarter of the semester will weigh toward discussion & in-class exercises. By mid semester, we’ll spend roughly 25% of our in-class time on discussion — the remainder will go to critiquing student work.

Student work will take two forms: assignment journals and larger projects. Assignment journal will have weekly entires with: brainstorming sessions (exhaustive lists), topic-focussed studies, and illustrations. These will respond to questions and mini-exercises, each designed to stimulate thinking about weekly topics. The two larger projects will involve going deeper on explorations started in the journals and class discussion. The projects can take many forms — the goal is to illustrate (in whatever medium you're most capable) new developments that address the themes and concerns outlined above. Grading will be broken down in the following way:

Assignment Journal:
10x entries.
completed entry = 100%.
mostly-completed entry = 50%.
less than that = 0%

Course is 3.00 credits. Grades from A to F will be assigned at both the middle and end of the semesters. Only the end of semester grade is on record.
20% Discussion
40% Assignment Journal
20% Project 1
20% Project 2

phones & laptops closed during student presentations.
one excused absence. two unexcused absences = no credit