Peter Sachs Collopy

Assignment on Observing Technology in Use

Studies of technology often focus on users and consumers as much as engineers or manufacturers. As we noted last week, The Railway Journey is largely about the varied experiences of riding on trains, not building or running them. More Work for Mother is about how changing technologies reshaped the experience of doing housework more than about invention or production. And Laboratory Life is an attempt to construct an account of what people in a lab, using “inscription devices,” actually do.

Your assignment is to observe people using a technology and write an essay that makes some argument about how it shapes their experience. If trains changed travelers’ experiences of the landscape from contemplative to panoramic, or the electric washing machine brought the work of doing laundry back into the home, how does your technology shape the experience of its users? You are welcome to observe friends, or people in a public space, or yourself. You may also observe the characters in a book or film, fiction or nonfiction.

Even though the focus of your essay should be on use, you may want to provide a bit of context about how the technology was invented, manufactured, or distributed. In particular, you might want to think about whether it was designed with its current uses in mind or repurposed later, and about whether its design has changed over time based on what users wanted from it. You might also want to compare how it’s used elsewhere. In any of these cases, you should refer to and cite others’ accounts, whether technical, journalistic, sociological, historical, etc., including those we’ve read for class.

Your essay should be five pages long, plus or minus a page. You should cite your sources, but you don’t have to use any particular citation style as long as you’re consistent throughout the paper. You’re welcome to use Wikipedia and other casual online sources as starting places to find more formal sources (journal articles, books, museum and academic websites, etc.), but please do not treat Wikipedia itself as an authority.

A draft is due on October 21, I’ll give it back to you with comments on October 28, and the final version of the paper is due on November 4. Please let me know if you have any questions about this assignment.