ICT, Society, and Democracy

3 units, Autumn Quarter 2017-2018, Stanford University

Meeting Time: Tuesdays 7:30-9:50 PM
Location: 460-126 (Margaret Jacks Hall, Greenberg Seminar Room)

Instructor: Todd Davies
Instructor's Office: 460-040C (Margaret Jacks Hall, lower level)
Email: davies at stanford dot edu
Phone: x3-4091; Fax: x3-5666
Office Hours: Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays 10:30 - 11:55 AM


Interactive website: ICT, Society, and Democracy Course Blog

Canvas site: F17-SYMSYS-201-01

The heartfelt tune it plays is CC
              licensed, and you can get it from my seed on
     whenever that project gets going.
(Important note: I chose this xkcd cartoon because it crystalizes, in a few frames, events, phenomena, and ideas of the past 15 years that bear on the course content, and can serve as a springboard for discussion. The use of the epithet about autism in the cartoon is meant, I think, to portray the overly dismissive attitude of one of the characters. I hope it is not read as condoning epithets based on autism, which are hurtful and inappropriate.)


This version: December 1, 2017 [check this site for updates]

: 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 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 we discuss them both online and in class. For the bulk of the course, we will all read three recent and important books on ICT, society, and democracy. Over Week 10 and Finals Week, each student will lead a discussion about one of several other books concerning ICT, society, and democracy.

The course will be organized around the following books (which will be shelved under this course in the textbooks department at the Stanford Bookstore):
After an overview and introductions in Week 1, the whole class will read Wu's book over Weeks 2 through 4, O'Neil's book over Weeks 5 and 6, and Tegmark's book over Weeks 7 through 9.  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 6pm on the day of each class after Week 1, so that everyone has time to read each comment before class starts. I will lead the discussions of the three focal books over Weeks 2 through 9, turning it over to student presenters/discussion leaders in Week 10 and Finals Week. A schedule is given below.


Each student is required to (a) attend and participate regularly, (b) do the assigned reading and post at least one reaction comment (300 words maximum) on the course blog per week, by 6 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.

I expect doing each week's reading and writing a comment on it to take about 5 hours on average, and reading fellow students' comments to take an additional hour. Readings will vary a bit in difficulty, so I expect weekly reading times to 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 5pm 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 Undergraduate Advising and Research office through an Academic Advising Director or other advisor, or to the Residence Deans. 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.


Week 1 (September 26) -- Overview and Introductions

Week 2 (October 3) - The Attention Merchants Introduction and chapters 1 through 9

Week 3 (October 10) -- The Attention Merchants chapters 10 through 19

Week 4 (October 17) -- The Attention Merchants chapters 20 through 29 and Epilogue

Week 5 (October 24) - Weapons of Math Destruction Introduction and chapters 1 through 6

Week 6 (October 31) -- Weapons of Math Destruction chapters 7 through 10, Conclusion, and Afterward
Week 7 (November 7) -- Life 3.0 Prelude and chapters 1 through 3

Week 8 (November 14) -- Life 3.0 chapters 4 through 6

Week 9 (November 28) -- Life 3.0 chapters 7 through 8 and Epilogue

Week 10 (December 5) -- Student Presentations I

Finals Week (December 12*, 7-10PM) -- Student Presentations II

* NOTE: Tuesday evening, December 12, is a scheduled Final Exam time for group, special, and make-up exams. The allocated Final Exam period for classes with starting times after 5:30pm on any day is Thursday, December 14, 7-10pm. If the class votes to do so, I can move the last set of Student Presentations to the regularly scheduled exam period of Thursday, December 14, 7-10pm, or, alternatively, to Monday, December 11, 7-10pm, instead of Tuesday evening the 12th.


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.

Suggested Books for Student-Led Presentations at the end of the Quarter (organized by topic):

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 2015. 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 in boldface represent works or authors with which/whom the instructor has some familiarity and can recommend on that basis. 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 and its predecessor (Symbsys 209):
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