Course overview

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Internet and Society: Technologies and Politics of Control

The Internet has taken on an ever-widening role not only in the production and sharing of information, but also in the political, social, and economic processes of everyday life around the world. The Net has been heralded by many as nothing less than a means of fundamentally transforming our world into one that is more just, more democratic, and more affluent, while redrawing the boundaries of political and economic power. However, the frontierism of the early Internet provoked regulatory responses, followed by various attempts to develop collective control via emergent structure. This course asks: what now is the balance between these forces, and what, if anything, should be done?

With pirates, hacktivists, booms, busts and 419s, the language of the Internet suggests a cross between a bygone era and a new frontier. Much of the evolution of the Internet has been organic and user-driven, beginning with its creation and continuing today as new contributors begin to engage this new space with limited government intrusion and few traditional mechanisms for enforcing social norms.

Course Themes

  • The Individual and the State
  • Internet Economics
  • The Cultural Commons
  • The Role of Law
  • Control and Code
  • Digital Civil Society
  • Technology and Development

As author William Gibson observed, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed, and it is not necessarily coincidental. Indeed, for some people, the Internet has changed everything, yet others remain untouched – or even harmed. Beyond reflecting existing gaps and choices, the rise of the Net has also led to counter-revolutions aimed at reining in the perceived excesses of cyberspace. The prospect of eroding profits, political power and social influence stemming from Internet-enabled competition and freedom has likewise spurred moves, sometimes subtle and others not, to protect existing economic, technological, social, political and legal structures.

In this class, we will explore the collision of cyberspace with traditional political, social and economic spaces and focus on the role of technology, law and policy in shaping these interactions. Many of these battles are still brewing or remain unresolved; we will draw on the brief history of the Internet and emergent trends to identify the most likely future directions of – and levers for – change.

The focus of this class is preparing participants to take a national and international perspective on public policy issues regarding the Internet and related technologies. The approach is multidisciplinary, drawing primarily upon law, political science, economics, technology, and social theory. Discussion and debate will play an important role in the class; students are expected to actively participate in the dialogue, whether in person or remotely. During the semester, students will work individually or in groups on assignments contributing to a final research project that draws upon the concepts and theories of the class and applies them to current issues in cyberspace.