Online syllabus: http://www.cs.cornell.edu/people/sengers/Teaching/INFO4240/index.php
Instructors: Prof. Phoebe Sengers; teaching team led by Vera Khovanskaya, Leo Kang, and Palashi Vaghela
Time: Tu, Th 1:25-2:40
Location: Ives Hall 305
The social impact of technologies is typically thought about fairly late, if ever, in the design process. Indeed, it can be difficult at design time to predict what effects technologies will have. Nevertheless, design decisions can inadvertently "lock in" particular values early on. In this course, we will draw on science & technology studies, technology design, and the arts to analyze the values embodied in technology design and to design technologies to promote positive social impact. What social and cultural values do technology designs consciously or unconsciously promote? To what degree can social impact be "built into" a technology? How can we take social and cultural values into account in design?
Technical background is not needed for this course, but may be drawn on if you have it.
In the modern world, technologies are an intimate part of everyone's daily lives. The act of designing technologies does not simply create functionality; it also offers possibilities for and constraints on action, ways of looking at the world, and modes through which we can relate to one another. Designs thus, intentionally or not, embody values—ones we as a community of users sometimes accept, sometimes reject, sometimes build on, and sometimes alter.
This course will equip students to find their own answers to two key questions:
- What values do specific technology designs embody, and how and to what extent do they do so?
We will look at current and historical case studies of design interventions to identify ways in which technologies can, intentionally or unintentionally, promote specific values and to analyze how those values play out in practice in the complex worlds of everyday life.
- How and to what extent is it possible to design technologies to reflect specific values?
We will examine and practice a variety of design methods intended to incorporate values in design, and analyze their benefits and drawbacks.
These questions cross between two domains which are not often brought into conversation in undergraduate education: technology design and the social, cultural, and political analysis of technologies. In these course, we will develop a facility to think, speak, and act across these domains using techniques from critically-informed technology design and analysis. These techniques draw on and blend ideas from human-computer interaction, engineering, product design, science & technology studies, and the arts. This course is open to all students from engineering, the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts and design who are interested in reflecting on and improving the role of technology in society. No technical background is required or expected.
This course is oriented to an advanced undergraduate and master's student audience. An ability to read critically and willingness to take intellectual risks are essential in this course.
Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:
- Articulate how and to what extent values are built into designed artifacts in early stages of the design process
- Identify relevant values issues that arise in a particular technology design
- Use the design workbook method to explore social implications of design and to ideate new design possibilities
- Appropriately deploy a variety of design strategies that aim to address values issues
- Weigh the possibilities and limits of different strategies for considering values in design, and identify values commitments inherent in these design strategies themselves
- Create technology designs which reflect varying value commitments in response to a design brief
- Recognize and comment on issues in values and design in everyday life
- Construct a compelling argument that builds on documented evidence and the arguments of others
For further information
You can download the full syllabus with all information from this website in print-friendly format.
What does it mean to build a technology that has a good impact on society? Can "values" even be built into technology? If not, does this mean designers have no responsibilty? If so, what values do technologies already have? How do they impose these values? How can we start designing with values in mind?
An introduction to the class. We'll review course mechanics, get a sense of the wide variety of approaches that have been used to design for a good social impact, and consider some of the possible social issues that come up in design.
How have values been thought about as part of design? We'll look at key perspectives from technology and product design.
We'll adapt Gaver's design workbook technique as a method to explore cultural and social issues in and through the early stages of design.
We'll continue honing our skills at speculative design as a way to explore conceptual issues related to design.
What does it mean to say that a technology design has a certain social 'impact'? How can we understand the consequences of design?
We'll look at a detailed example of designers aiming for social impact with their design. In part, they achieved these aims; in others, they were wildly off. We'll use this case to think through the complexities of how to approach social impact through design.
One way in which we might create a positive impact is by using technology to persuade people to think or act differently, by providing new forms of information or by suggesting different ways to see what is happening around them.
Designing software and hardware to persuade people to alter their ways of thinking or their behavior, and thereby contribute to solving social problems.
How do artifacts more generally 'persuade'? By what mechanisms do they encourage us to do some things and not others?
How can - and should - we use information visualization to make a point?
A nice example of political visualization is the Data Viz Challenge, a contest to generate visualizations of where your tax dollars go.
Using game design to communicate political points of view..
Reflecting on the politics and experience of persuasion
How do you decide what the problem is you are trying to solve? How can we expand our imaginations about how technologies - or non-technologies - can make change?
So far we've considered social issues mostly at the level of the interface and application, but sometimes social issues arise in the details of the code. Programmers may have difficulty knowing or addressing those issues, since they aren't generally trained in values. How could or should engineering practices be altered in order to embody different values?
Using open-source methods to expand the range of values embodied in contemporary engineering practice: why and how to.
Designing technologies to fulfill activist agendas.
How do political issues become embodied in the details of how computer programs work? How could they become embodied in new ways?
How do IT developers in Silicon Valley frame how they are making a difference? What kind of a difference are they making?
What alternative framings of technology innovation exist if we stop assuming Silicon Valley is its center?
Until now, engineers and designers have mostly been in the driver's seat. Here we expand beyond experts in technology - how can individuals and communities be involved in design decisions that affect them? Can we use this to improve the design of technology and its impact?
Developing methods and philosophies for designing technology directly with non-technically-trained participants.
Everyone needs a break sometimes. Take one today.
Art practices intended to engage communities and develop their abilities to comment on issues that matter to them
What happens to participatory design when it is deployed in complex social worlds that sometimes resist its central message.
Sometimes - perhaps much of the time -the primary impact of a technology is not what it does, but how it shapes our imaginations of what is possible or should happen.
In this class, we'll talk with Jehiel Oliver, the founder of social impact start-up Hello Tractor. His company is developing a cloud-based system to allow small farmers in Nigeria to affordably rent access to tractors. Jehiel will tell us about his experiences in working towards social impact in the tech startup world.
Critical design as a strategy for reflecting on the social implications of technology and the design process itself.
Refining design techniques to express and question values and futures in design
Imagining alternative technological worlds and histories which start from experiences of the African diaspora.
The rebooted Black Panther series from Marvel comics has a strong Afrofuturist element. See Marvel's Black Panther isn't just another black superhero.
All homework assignments will be submitted through the on-line Course Management System. If you log in and do not see our course listed, please contact Leo at lk423 @ cornell.edu or as a private message to the course instructors on piazza and request to be added to CMS.
Over the course of the semester, you will document your thoughts and ideas in response to the readings in the form of design responses. These are both informal documents. A design response identifies a specific idea from the reading that caught your attention, and exploring its implications through a rough design sketch, annotated with thoughts about how the design relates to, extends, challenges, or otherwise explores the idea you chose to respond to. Every Sunday starting Sept 17, you will submit responses to your choice of 2 of the upcoming week's readings; on weeks where there is only one class, you only need to submit one response. You should expect each design response to take about 20-30 minutes to execute.
In the first unit of the course, we will build up to full design responses through predesign responses, in which you identify and respond to an idea of your choice from the text in simple written form. You will also hand in predesign responses rather than full design responses on weeks when you have a miniproject due.
Your participation in class is not directly graded, but it is essential to your success in the course. This is not a lecture course; the class format is interactive and activities-based. In class we will analyze, build on, and debate about the course readings; practice design skills; work on homeworks; and engage in other activities to aid your facility in the course material. If you miss class, you are strongly recommended to review not only the class slides (which are often minimalist) but also notes from one of your co-students.
Over the course of the semester, we will have
at least 5 unscheduled, brief pop quizzes in class. The purpose of these quizzes is to reward (a) attendance, (b) doing the readings ahead of time, and (c) paying attention in lecture. If you come to class having read through the readings and don't zone out, you can expect to do very well on these. Your lowest grade on the quizzes is dropped.
Over the course of the semester, you will have 5 design mini-projects which will help you develop facility in the design methods we are learning about in the course. For example, you may develop a design activity, try it out in class on your classmates, and then document the results.
The final exam will be a written exam involving a critically engaged design analysis and exploration on an assigned topic in current events. The exam, minus the topic, will be released in November so that you can prepare for it.
- 10%: Predesign responses
- 25%: Design responses
- 42%: Design mini-projects
- 10%: Quizzes
- 13%: Final exam
Grading is not just a matter of numbers, but also of judgment. The instructor reserves the right to adjust grades by up to half a letter grade based on knowledge of your performance not summed up in this tidy formula.
My expectation is that you are generally aware of the need for academic integrity and self-motivated to achieve it. Issues with academic integrity that have come up in my courses in the past have been frequently due to students being unaware of the specific requirements of academic integrity at Cornell, rather than students trying to "game the system" for their own advantage. Some examples of situations I have encountered include:
- Not knowing how to properly cite or use non-academic on-line sources, informal sources such as another student's comments in class, or another person's ideas (as opposed to their words)
- Not being aware when doing literature reviews that close paraphrasing of someone else's text is considered a form of plagiarism, even when the original text is cited
- Coming from cultural or disciplinary contexts where it is considered more appropriate to use an expert's words to express an idea rather than one's own
- Not being aware that commonly available design ideas (e.g., that come up immediately with a Google search of terms related to the topic or that have been highlighted recently in the news) are not appropriate to submit as one's own work; they must be directly cited as others'.
The final exam carries a late penalty of 1 full letter grade (10 points out of 100) per 12 hours late, starting immediately after the final exam is due (i.e. a final exam which is one hour late will incur a full letter grade penalty).
Design responses (preparatory or regular) may be handed in up to 3 days after the assignment is due, and miniprojects may be handed in up to 5 days after the assignment is due. In either case, the assignment will incur a late penalty. The late penalty is 1/2 letter grade (5 points out of 100) per 24 hours late, starting immediately after the assignment is due (i.e. an assignment which is one hour late will incur a full 1/2 letter grade penalty).
Please note late homeworks may be delayed in grading, as they fall outside our regular course rhythm. Late final exams may result in a temporary grade of incomplete for the course.
Life happens. We believe you are the best judge of when you need an extension. Therefore, we allow you to choose when to give yourself an extension, as follows:
- You may hand in 1 of your design mini-projects up to 5 days late without penalty. We will apply this credit automatically to the first late mini-project.
- You may hand in up to 2 of your weekly responses up to 3 days late without penalty. We will apply this credit automatically to the first 2 late responses.
- You may skip 1 weekly response entirely without penalty.
Additional homework extensions can only be granted by the professor and are only granted under truly exceptional circumstances.It is wise to save your free late passes for illness and unexpected events such as interviews.
Regrade policy and grading explanations
Questions about why you got a grade may be answered by any TA. You may also ask any TA whether they think it would be a good idea to ask for a regrade. However, no one on the TA team is actually allowed to change a grade once released, even if it is obviously, egregiously wrong. This power is reserved for Prof. Sengers.
It is our aim in this class to grade fairly and clearly. If there has been a serious error in grading, we want to know about this and fix it. You can let us know about a potential issue by requesting your assignment to be regraded.
There are two kinds of regrade requests in this course:
- The first kind is a mechanical regrade. These are clear, indisputable problems such as: the TA added my points up wrong; the TA thought I only submitted one response but I had two in my file; the TA took off a late fee but I had gotten an extension; I got someone else's comments on my assignment. These regrade requests are handled by sending an email to Prof. Sengers at sengers @ cs.cornell.edu or by private note to Prof. Sengers on piazza. You can also approach Prof. Sengers in person in class or at her office hours.
- The second kind is a regrade that requires some judgement. These include issues such as: the TA may have misinterpreted the rubric; I got graded one way but my friend got graded another; I don't think the number of points I got for this is really fair, given what I did. These kind of regrade requests generally require some discussion, so that I can fully understand your point of view. You can submit this kind of regrade request in person by attending Prof. Sengers's office hours. If you cannot make the office hours, please contact her by email to make an appointment for a regrade request.
- Regrade requests must be submitted within 2 weeks of receiving your grade.
- Changes in grade that are based on differing interpretations will be registered if they are at least 4 points different from the originally assigned grade. Smaller changes are within normal intergrader variance, not a sign of a serious grading error.
You will be given an opportunity towards the end of the semester to redo one of your mini-projects (your choice). Your final grade for that assignment will be the average of the original and redone grade.
The course uses a course reader, which you can purchase at the Cornell Store.
The rest of the course readings are available on-line or will be handed out in class or via piazza. To access many of these readings through the links, you will need to be on the Cornell network, or logged in to the Cornell library through a proxy using your NetID. You can find out more about how to do this here.
Bibliography of course readings
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