Digital Technology, Society, and Democracy

3 units, Autumn Quarter 2021-2022, Stanford University

Meeting Time: Tuesdays 7:15-9:45 PM
Location: 460-126

Instructor: Todd Davies
Instructor's Office: 460-040C
Email: davies at stanford dot edu
Phone: x3-4091; Fax: x3-5666
Office Hours: Tuesdays (in-office, masks required) and Wednesdays (via Zoom - requires Stanford login) 10:30 AM - 12 NOON

Interactive website: Digital Technology, Society, and Democracy Course Blog
Canvas site: F21-SYMSYS-201-01


This version: December 3, 2021 [check this site for updates]

Prerequisites: Completion of a course in psychology, communication, human-computer interaction, or a related discipline, or consent of the instructor. Note: The course materials and blog will be publicly available, but class sessions are open only to students enrolled in the course.

Course Overview and Required Textbooks:
This advanced small seminar explores the impact of digital technology, or what are known as information and communication technologies (ICT), on social and political life, as well as the possibilities in store for our future. The course is taught as a reading seminar: We read books and articles, and we discuss them both online and in class. After spending Week 2 on the instructor's perspective on some of the course topics, and for the bulk of the course, we will all read three recent and important books on digital technology, society, and democracy. Over Week 10 and Finals Week, each student will lead a discussion about one of several other books concerning digital technology, society, and democracy.

The theme of the assigned readings this quarter is Stanford perspectives on digital technology and Silicon Valley. All of the assigned readings were written, co-written, edited, or co-edited by Stanford researchers. The reading for Week 2 will consist of two papers authored or co-authored by the course instructor. In Weeks 3 through 9, the course will be organized around the following books, which will be shelved under the last name of the first author in the textbooks department at the Stanford Bookstore:
At the end of the quarter (Week 10 and Finals Week), students will do presentations about other works they have read related to the themes of the course, and we will have a brief summation at the end.

The written component of the course will take place online, with weekly 250-300 word comments on the assigned readings, which must be posted on the course blog by 7pm (just before class time) on the day of each class after Week 1. Discussions of the three focal books over Weeks 3 through 9 will primarily be based on randomly choosing students to read and defend their comments, with discussions led by student presenters/discussion leaders in Week 10 and Finals Week. A schedule of class sessions is given below.


Each student is required to (a) attend and participate regularly, (b) do the assigned reading and post at least one carefully written comment (300 words maximum) on the course blog per week, by 7 pm on the day of class, and (c) select and present a book (or possibly a set of articles) in class, provide sample reading for the class at least one week ahead of their presentation, and leave time for questions and brief discussion (or article set) during the final sessions of the course. In lieu of a final exam, we will be using a designated exam period during Finals Week for student presentations.

Each week's reading should take about 5 hours on average, and writing a comment should take an additional hour. Readings will vary a bit in difficulty, and weekly reading times will differ across the books somewhat. Students' reading speeds vary, and you should gauge how much time it is taking you early on in order to set aside enough time in your schedule to do the reading and post your comment by 6pm on class days.

Accommodations for special circumstances, such as extensions on deadlines, make-up work, and absences, must be requested by an appropriate office at Stanford.

Disability. Students who may need an academic accommodation based on the impact of a disability must initiate the request with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE).  Professional staff will evaluate the request with required documentation, recommend reasonable accommodations, and prepare an Accommodation Letter for faculty dated in the current quarter in which the request is being made. Students should contact the OAE as soon as possible since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations.  The OAE is located at 563 Salvatierra Walk (phone: 723-1066, URL:

Life events. Life events that interfere with your ability to participate in the class or to complete work, such as an illness episode, a death in the family, or other special circumstance, should be brought to the attention of the Academic Advising office through an Academic Advising Director or other advisor, or to your Resident Director. Personnel in these offices can notify faculty if you are absent from Stanford due to a life event, or have another special circumstance of which your instructors should be aware.

Covid-19 policies and guidance. In compliance with Santa Clara County policies effective August 2021, Stanford University is mandating the use of masks indoors for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. This means that whenever we spend time together indoors - in class, sections, labs, and office hours - we are each required to wear a mask. If we see someone not wearing a mask indoors, this is not necessarily a violation of the requirement. Some of us have health conditions precluding our ability to wear masks. Students in this situation should work with the Office of Accessible Education immediately, to receive an accommodation for a mask exemption. In addition, some of us might feel more comfortable wearing masks even when not required, such as when we are outdoors. Some of us might feel more comfortable social distancing even when not required, for example, during small-group work in class or section and while masked. All of our preferences are reasonable, and it is important that we treat each others’ preferences with respect and care. In the first couple of weeks of class, we will formulate community commitments for how we will interact with one another. One of the issues we will explicitly discuss is honoring our respective preferences for COVID-19 health and safety beyond the bare requirements, so that we each feel comfortable and prepared to learn in class. You can find the most current policies on campus masking requirements on the COVID-19 Health Alerts site, and you can consult the Campus Safety COVID Checklist for guidance.

Schedule (tentative):

Week 1 (September 21) -- Overview and Introductions

Week 2 (September 28) - Instructor's perspective, drawing on the following two papers:

Week 3 (October 5) -- System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot Preface, Introduction, and chapters 1 through 3

Week 4 (October 12) -- System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot chapters 4 through 6

Week 5 (October 19) - System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot chapters 7 and 8

Week 6 (October 26) -- Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America Week 7 (November 2) -- NO CLASS SESSION DUE TO ELECTION HOLIDAY - READING ASSIGNMENT ONLY: Digital Technology and Democratic Theory Introduction and chapters 1 through 3

Week 8 (November 9) -- Digital Technology and Democratic Theory chapters 4 through 7

Week 9 (November 16) -- Digital Technology and Democratic Theory chapters 8 through 1

Week 10 (November 30) -- Student Presentations I

Finals Week (Tuesday, December 7, 7-10PM) -- Student Presentations II


The course grade will be based on the following breakdown:

I will post feedback and comment scores to you each week on the course's Canvas site (login required for access to individual data), on a scale from 0 to 5. In computing your final score for online comments, I will drop your lowest score. I will send feedback and scores for your presentation when grades are submitted at the end of the quarter.

For more information on grading criteria, see the
comment guidelines which will be posted during the first week.

Suggested Books for Student-Led Presentations at the end of the Quarter:

NOTE: The following lists are not exhaustive. They represent an extensive sample of work in relevant areas, with emphasis on books published since the most recent incarnation of this course in Autumn 2019. If you want to present a book that is not listed here, contact the instructor. Publishing dates in the list below may be based on either the first edition or a later edition. Books preceded by double asterisks (**) were finalists for inclusion in the common reading list, and those preceded by a single asterisk (*) were on the initial shortlist. Many books without asterisks may also be outstanding choices. This list generally excludes "how-to" books aimed at individuals or businesses, unless they are written from an academic perspective and/or have a focus on society beyond the "self-help" aspect. Excluded books could still be appropriate choices, however: contact the instructor if you have questions.

See also previous versions of this course, as well as its predecessor (Symbsys 209) and the UK version (OSPOXFRD 62 and 63):
for earlier suggestions.

Articles of Interest:

Links to Programs of Interest:
Center for Internet and Society - Events
Global Digital Policy Incubator, a Program of the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law
Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI)