PSCI 331
The Politics of Algorithms Fall 2021
Division II
Cross-listed STS 349 / AMST 349
This is not the current course catalog

Class Details

Every day, you interact with or through computer algorithms. In ways often obscure to users, they structure communication or conduct in social media, education, healthcare, shopping, entertainment, dating, urban planning, policing, criminal sentencing, political campaigns, government regulation, and war. Moving from the emergence of cybernetics during World War II through such contemporary examples as facial recognition software, this seminar approaches algorithms as complex technological artifacts that have social histories and political effects. Asking how algorithms are political and what that tells us about politics today (particularly in the U.S.), we will consider how their design expresses forms of power and their deployment shapes ways of living. What behaviors do different algorithms solicit, reward, discourage, or stigmatize? What kinds of selfhood and relationships do they promote or thwart? How do various algorithms influence political partisanship and beliefs and intersect with existing hierarchies of race, class, gender, and sexuality? When inequities are built into a design, can that be addressed by rooting out “bias,” or do such efforts miss something more inherent in the kinds of artifacts algorithms are or what they can be in a capitalist economy? Might developments in artificial intelligence transform our sense of the human or even threaten the species? Many of the seminar’s themes, including democracy, power, inequality, judgment, deliberation, publicity, subjectivity, and agency, are central to political theory, but readings and course materials will also be drawn from such fields as media theory, surveillance studies, sociology, American studies, critical data science, film, and contemporary art. The course neither requires nor teaches any computer science skills.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 15
Expected: 15
Class#: 1696
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Class attendance and participation, regular short posts or exercises, and either three eight-page essays or one 8-page essay and one longer final paper.
Prerequisites: At least one course in political, cultural, or social theory or the critical study of science and technology, or permission of the instructor. Not open to first-year students.
Enrollment Preferences: Political Science and American Studies majors and STS concentrators; then qualified students from all other majors welcome, space permitting.
Distributions: Division II
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
STS 349 Division II AMST 349 Division II PSCI 331 Division II
Attributes: AMST Critical and Cultural Theory Electives
PSCI Political Theory Courses

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