Digital Technology, Society, and Democracy

3 units, Autumn Quarter 2019-2020, Stanford University

Meeting Time: Tuesdays 7:30-9:50 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: Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays 10:30 - 11:55 AM

Interactive website: Digital Technology, Society, and Democracy Course Blog
Canvas site: F19-SYMSYS-201-01

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This version: December 5, 2019 [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 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 we discuss them both online and in class. 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 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 Wolf's book in Week 2, Benjamin's book in Week 3, Vaidhyanathan's book over Weeks 4 and 5, Malone's book over Weeks 6 and 7, and Russell's book over Weeks 8 and 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. Discussions of the three focal books over Weeks 2 through 9 will primarily be based on randomly choosing students to read and defend their comments, with discussions led by student presenters 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 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 to take about 5 hours on average, and writing a comment to take an additional hour. Readings will vary a bit in difficulty, and 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 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 24) -- Overview and Introductions

Week 2 (October 1) - Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

Week 3 (October 8) -- Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code

Week 4 (October 15) -- Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy Introduction and chapters 1 through 4

Week 5 (October 22) - Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy chapters 5 through 7 and Conclusion

Week 6 (October 29) --
Superminds: The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together Preface, Introduction, and chapters 1 through 11 Week 7 (November 5) -- Superminds: The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together chapters 12 through 21

Week 8 (November 12) -- Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control Preface and chapters 1-5

Week 9 (November 19) -- Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control chapters 6 through 10 [featuring an in-class discussion with the author]

Week 10 (December 3) -- Student Presentations I

Finals Week (Monday, December 9, 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 (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 2017. 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 asterisks (*) were finalists for inclusion in the common reading list. 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