Peter Sachs Collopy

Technology and Society

This is a syllabus for Technology and Society (STSC/HSOC 003), a course offered in fall 2014 at the University of Pennsylvania. Technology plays an increasing role in our understandings of ourselves, our communities, and our societies, in how we think about politics and war, science and religion, work and play. Humans have made and used technologies, though, for thousands if not millions of years. In this course, we will use this history as a resource to understand how technologies affect social relations, and conversely how the culture of a society shapes the technologies it produces. Do different technologies produce or result from different economic systems like feudalism, capitalism, and communism? Can specific technologies promote democratic or authoritarian politics? Do they suggest or enforce different patterns of race, class, or gender relations? Among the technologies we'll consider will be large objects like cathedrals, bridges, and airplanes; small ones like guns, clocks, and birth control pills; and networks like the electrical grid, the highway system, and the internet.

The course will meet on Tuesday evenings, 6:00 to 9:00, from September 2 to December 9 in Williams Hall room 219. It will be a discussion-based seminar, though I will punctuate it with occasional presentations. I will be available for office hours before class on Tuesdays from 5:00 to 6:00 in Claudia Cohen Hall room 332, and encourage you to come by and talk.


As a seminar, this course is primarily based on learning by discussing the required readings (listed below), so it’s essential that you read and think about them before each class meeting. Your engaged and insightful participation in discussions will account for 25% of your grade for the course.

The other assignments consist of three short papers, of approximately five pages each. I’ll provide more detailed prompts, but in short the first paper should present an argument about whether and how a particular technology “has politics,” the second should describe and analyze your observation of people using technology, and the third should present a brief history of a technology of your choice. You will have an opportunity to submit a draft, get my feedback, and revise your paper before I grade it. Each paper will account for 25% of your grade for the course.


The following four books, which we’ll be reading cover-to-cover or nearly so, are available for sale at the Penn Book Center and for borrowing at Van Pelt Library’s Rosengarten Reserve Room. Medieval Technology and Social Change is also available online, and other readings will be available through links below.