Syllabus: Information Landscapes & Data Cultures

Journalism 676, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Prof. Molly Wright Steenson

What It’s About

What does information have to do with landscape, and what does media have to do with architecture? These days, everything. Information bleeds into the environment around us, multiplied by screens of every shape and size, replicated and reverberated by our personal social networks and amplified by digital connections. Where in the digital world, we tend not to blink when we hear the words “information architecture,” what exactly does it mean when technologies of information shape our physical environments?

This class is about forging and exploring the connections between the digital and the physical worlds. This seminar looks critically at the dynamics that shape spaces of information and cultures of data. We will examine media through an architectural lens and at information spaces through a critical media lens. We will also have some fun along the way, as you explore your creative side through writings and projects in the class.

We’re going to be doing our thinking both online and off about information landscapes and data cultures, building a body of work together in the process. Inspired by David Carr’s “Press Play” course at Boston University, I’m publishing the syllabus on and you’ll be publishing your weekly responses as a part of this collection here. You will also read and comment on the work of your fellow students.

Structure & Activities

Grade Breakdown: 100 Points Total

  • Weekly 500-word essay to be posted on Medium before class: 20% (2 points per week, 10 total: drop your lowest two scores. No late posts accepted.)
  • Discussion leadership (twice, 7.5 points each): 15%
  • Group media project: 25%, due 11/19
  • Participation (5% in-class discussion; 5% responding to your classmates’ Medium posts): total: 10%.

The weekly brief essay & Medium: 20 points

We’ll be using Medium for publishing our weekly essays. They are due Monday before class. I will give you a prompt for your next essay by Friday (and usually in class on Wednesday).

Here are a few links (via David Carr, again) that will help you get started on writing with Medium.

  • How to start writing on Medium. It’s the very basic information that should get you started
  • On writing in Medium. This article shows some formatting tricks: bold, italic, different ways to incorporate images or embed video or tweets, and so on. You’ll also notice that you have access to stats when you use Medium, which might be interesting to you if you would like to tweet, Facebook or otherwise share your writings.
  • On reading in Medium. You’ve probably noticed little speech bubbles with plus signs in them. These are ways to comment on stories at the paragraph level, and you don’t need to make them public as an author unless you choose. (This is something I like a lot about Medium.)
  • Using images in Medium. Medium is particularly good with ways to incorporate images. This little article shows how to do full bleeds, overlays, grids of images.
  • Stock images that don’t suck. I love this: places to find royalty free images for free. It’s a little easier than going through Flickr, looking for Creative Commons images that allow for the licensing.
  • Oh yeah, that reminds me. If you are grabbing images off the Internet, you need to cite your images. Really, they need to be license free or Creative Commons. Otherwise, it’s theft and plagiarism.

Paper: 30 points

  • Abstract and bibliography posted: 5%, due 11/10
  • Final paper: 20%, due 12/12
  • Final paper presentation (Ignite/Pecha Kucha style): 5%, final session on 12/18

You will write a 10–12 page critical paper in which you write about an information landscape of your choosing. As you will see in this class, this leaves you with many choices. You might choose to write about something in the physical world, a political or social event, a digital landscape such as a map, data visualization or video game. You might opt to follow a more creative route, in which you develop your own design fiction In any case, you will employ the theoretical approaches we have used in this class. You may wish to look ahead in the semester to readings and activities that might inform your project, as many of the subjects that we will be covering are contemporary and exciting.

On November 10, you are required to hand in a 250-word abstract that describes your project, an annotated list of 5 external sources that you plan to use, and the theoretical lenses that you choose to employ. You will then have a required meeting with Prof. Steenson to discuss your abstract and bibliography, and you may need to make edits and resubmit it before your paper topic is approved. We will briefly share them in class on November 10.

During the exam period on December 18, we will celebrate you and your research. You will each give a 5–7 minute presentation of your topic. We will do this in Pecha Kucha style, a 5-minute presentation where the slides advance every 20 seconds. This takes practice! It’s fun, fast-paced — and over quickly. (If you’re unfamiliar, here’s an example — your professor is Internet famous for an Ignite talk she gave in 2008: ).

Group scenario project: 25 points, due November 19

We will begin to discuss scenarios and design fiction in week 9 (week of October 27). At that point, you will embark on a scenario project in a group of 3–5 students. You will produce your own scenario that takes on one of the phenomena that we are discussing in this class or that is related to this class, bringing it to life. You might choose to use design fiction or critical design techniques, in which case your project might have an uncanny or satirical bent to it. You might choose an activist stance. Or you might just choose to play it straight. There are a number of possibilities: a video, a podcast, a set of glitch art pieces, physical objects, a live performance, maps, animation, a data visualization, a set of screenscapes, a website for a fictitious company or government organization… be creative.

Discussion leadership: 15 points

Twice during the semester, you and another student will be discussion leaders. Your discussion will take place on a Wednesday, unless otherwise noted. You will be synthesizing the readings for the week, coming up with provocative questions for our discussion, and adding your own media artifacts (one each) to the conversation.

You will need to:

  • Read the articles in advance, meet with your co-discussion leader to come up with your approach. Good questions ask “how” and “why,” and not “What do you guys think of ______?” In order to get to those questions, you might want to start by brainstorming a number of questions with your other discussion leader in order to combine them or boil them down into strong questions.
  • Meet with Professor Steenson (ideally, Monday after class or on Tuesday)
  • On the class blog by midnight the day before class (typically a Tuesday), post the questions and your artifacts.
  • Your artifact might include: a relevant link, article, video, podcast or other digital media. Some examples: an article on a well-written blog, an interview on a Soundcloud podcast, a Youtube video, even a meme and animated GIFs from a Tumblr blog,
  • After opening remarks from Prof. Steenson, the discussion leaders will lead the discussion. They will ask their questions of the class, clarifying and prompting the students when needed, calling fairly on students by name, if at all possible.
  • Summarize the discussion: in 30 seconds to 1 minute each, each discussion leader highlights the main points and thanks the class for participation.

Being a good discussion participant:

  • Your perspective is unique. Do raise your hand and participate, even if you’re shy.
  • Debate. You don’t have to agree. Your politics may be different: please share your point of view. You might play devil’s advocate.
  • Be to the point. Make a quick note about your key points. This keeps from rambling.
  • If you’re someone who talks more readily, give others a chance to jump in, too.
  • Respond to your fellow students by name.


Have the readings done for Monday each week, and post your reading response to the weekly prompt on Medium no later than Monday at 11 am. On Mondays, I will give a short lecture and lead a class discussion. We will also be watching or doing different things in class as a larger or smaller groups. On Wednesday, discussion leaders will lead the class.

Readings are in the class Box folder (for UW-Madison login only), unless otherwise linked here.

Week 1: 9/3 Introduction

Objective: Setting expectations for the course, its subject matter and scope, and the work we’ll be doing

Essay prompt: Introduce yourself and get acquainted with the course. Go through this syllabus, paying close attention to the schedule, readings list, assignments and discussion work. Please include three questions you have about the class topics, the syllabus, the assignments, the readings — whatever it might be. In addition, include one thing you’re excited about (topic, assignment, whatever) and one thing that you’re not excited about.

Week 2: 9/8 Media & Message

  • Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” Understanding Media; The Extensions of Man. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 7–24. (
  • Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), “Introduction: Media as Historical Subjects,” 2–22. (

Objective: Understanding 2 different ways to theorize what media and new media are, and apply this notion to an older media object

Week 3: 9/15 Information

  • James Gleick, The Information (New York: Pantheon, 2011), “Prologue” (3–13), “Information Theory” (204–233). (
  • JCR Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics HFE-1, no. 1 (1960): 4–11. (
  • [Norbert Wiener. Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. (Cambridge, MA: Technology Press, 1948), brief excerpt. (] — not necessary to read this. We’ll discuss in class.

Objective: Define information and feedback and the basic ideas of how they function; be able to explain why they were important for setting up ideas of systems and interactivity

Your essay prompt: Present an example of the flow of information. You can (and should!) be creative. What happens when we characterize things in this manner? What is the significance of it?

1967 was a time when computers seemed like they might start to have an effect on everyday life (even if the reality was a ways off). The clip below from the 1967 TV show The Prisoner shows both the paranoia & fascination of information and surveillance on the world around us. Maybe information would be good, but this show isn’t so optimistic.

The main character is an important man, a modern man in a modern world with a very fast car, ostensibly one who is fleeing after leaving a powerful, shadowy organization. Shortly before he passes out, the shapes of tall, modern buildings drift into view. When he wakes up, he’s in a strange, Italianate village (actually, it’s Portmeirion, Wales), he’s under surveillance, and he can’t escape. Even though his name is now Number 6, he rails against it. “I am not a number! I am a free man!” he yells.

I keep finding myself returning to this clip. I’ve watched it hundreds of times, probably, because it encapsulates that just barely out-of-reach sci-fi feeling, that uncanniness, that eerieness. And in light of the leaks about the NSA, sometimes I wonder whether we’re all that far from the paranoia here.

Week 4: 9/22 Files & Formats

A transdigital piece by Love Lagerkvist in Umeå, Sweden. More here.

Objective: Understanding the connection of form and format; by playing with files and engaging in databending, understanding how formats work and how they can be broken.

This week’s prompt: you’ll be trying your hand at databending and glitch art. We are going to be playing with this in class on Monday, so bring your computer if you have one (there are 6 computers in our classroom that you can use too), and we’ll try our hand at doing some of our own datamoshing. Please post them by Wednesday, with a shorter (~250 words) essay about what you did and what you achieved.

Update (9/22): We’re going to do some activities in class, but I’d like you to play with these two glitch generators: (this one asks you to use your camera and microphone: please say yes) : Image Processing with Custom Filters, by Ken Abernethy & Tom Allen, Furman University and Exploring the Digital Domain.

Week 5: 9/29 Intelligence & Algorithms
Via xkcd: Be able to explain the Turing Test; discuss the ethics of AI.

Your mission: based on the readings/video this week, I’d like you to write about how you know when something — a device, a space, a machine — is intelligent. We’re reading a piece by Alan Turing this week that was written in 1950 — a full 35 years before personal computers were in people’s homes. In it, he proposes the Turing Test, in which a machine can fool its questioner into thinking it’s a human. The Turing Test still remains elusive today, and although there are some claims that various forms of artificial intelligence pass it, it’s a tough nut to crack.

So: how do you know? In order to answer this question, you will need to answer for yourself what intelligence is, and how you would prove it. As always, you should draw from your own interests and backgrounds. You may be creative (stories, dialogues, images…).

We talked about the history of time sharing and watched a few minutes of this. Mostly, it’s useful to consider what computing really was in the 1960s: an enormous room, no portability, and the hugest ideas of what might be possible.

And this is where we left things: Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on whether Data is sentient. This is via Alper Sarikaya’s posting for this week. It was really compelling.

One more thing: an article in the Economist about Watson and other advanced artificial intelligence, put to use for things like combinations of food. We chatted about some of these ideas in our discussion. “Computer says “try this:”

Week 6: 10/6 Power & Ethics

Objective: Understand different mechanisms of power dynamics: digital protocol, strategy vs. tactics. Consider the ethical implications in the digital world today, with Facebook & OK Cupid research practices as case studies.

Your mission: Bring to life for us an example of tactics versus strategy, in de Certeau’s definition. Basically: strategy has power over place. A sophisticated army uses strategy. Or a big corporation. Or a university. Tactics happen in opposition. They find the cracks and crevices. They don’t occupy a single space: they have to be sneakier, they might pull the wool over someone’s eyes. In the passage that starts at the very bottom of p. 35. De Certeau writes,

“I call a strategy the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country sur­rounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be managed.”

And then at the bottom of p. 36 and onto 37, he writes:

“By contrast with a strategy… a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition neces­ sary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other.”

You can read onward from there and see the ways that tactics can be used in opposition to strategies. Might a tactic be what a computer hacker does, or Anonymous, or what Occupy Wall Street does? Is it a dance flash mob in the middle of State Street at bar time? Glitch art versus mainstream art practices? As always, it’s great to bring in images, videos, or examples.

Week 7: 10/13 Gadgets & Objects

This week, we’re reading 3 different pieces about objects and gadgets (and infrastructures).

Supersecretary of the coming age, writes Vannevar Bush in 1945. This device would record voice, take dictation, and talk back to its author. (It hadn’t really been invented yet.) From Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” 1945.

Vannevar Bush’s piece “As We May Think” was originally published in 1945. In it, he proposes the Memex, a desk-based information storage device that stored microfilms of documents and images.

The user of the Memex would be able to annotate these documents, then create trails of information. These trails are like the contemporary idea today of hypertext: the open-ended linking that we employ today on the Internet. (Ted Nelson coined the term hypertext in 1963). Knowledge would grow through the multiplication of trails of trails upon each other.

What’s a good old American know-ho? The gizmo. Reyner Banham writes in “The Great Gizmo” in 1965: “A characteristic class of US products — perhaps the most characteristic — is a small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires.” American ingenuity is marked by the portable gadget and the gizmo.

Finally, how do we move around these objects? That’s the role of logistics, the history of which Jesse LeCavalier writes about in “The Restlessness of Objects.” We’re used to bar codes, but what about the ways that logistics manage not only objects and space but people? I’ll show more in class, but here’s a strange taste (provided to me by Jesse LeCavalier).

One more thing: Mat Honan at Wired wrote a very amusing piece called “The Nightmare on Connected Home Street.”

Your mission this week: is open-ended. Respond to one of the readings about objects, gadgets and logistics in a creative manner. There’s enough to go on here for you to create your own jumping-off point. But also —

Another possibility: On Wednesday, I proposed an alternative assignment: watching Douglas Rushkoff’s Frontline documentary Generation Like, and then looking at how Google and Facebook’s develop their profile of you and how they advertise to you. This isn’t something that I’ve fit into this syllabus but would be happy to have you discuss it and write about it. It’s an alternate approach to how gadgets and objects come into our lives. In any case, the documentary is worth watching (though not required for this class).

Objective: Engage critically with the idea that objects become interactive (both historically and today); assess the effects of networks upon objects and what happens when they can respond.

Week 8: 10/20 Infrastructure & Materiality

  • Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, “Contextualizing Ubiquitous Computing.” In Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011). (
  • Andrew Blum, “Prologue” & “The Map,” Tubes (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), 1–34. (

Your mission this week: Mark Weiser wrote that “the most profound technologies are the ones that disappear” (quoted by Paul Dourish & Genevieve Bell in their chapter). Andrew Blum writes about the infrastructures that fuel our digital communications. Both pieces focus on the technologies we can’t see.

But we can see their interfaces. An interface is “a surface lying between two portions of matter or space, and forming their common boundary,” and “a means or place of interaction between two systems.” An interface is the term we use for our points of interaction with a computer, but an interface could also be a door handle, a car key.

This week, in your essay, you will write about an interface and how it reveals the infrastructure with which it interacts. As always, you may be creative, and you may use video or photos.

Guest speaker: Antonio Furgiule, Research Fellow, School of Architecture & Urban Planning, UW Milwaukee. Antonio researches the architecture of the cloud and of data centers.

Objective: Define infrastructure and describe where we see it emerge, though it may not be visible. Define and explain ubiquitous computing.

Week 9: 10/27 Scenarios & Fictions
Form groups for scenario project

What if we use science fiction narratives to bring help us imagine the future? What if we use the language of slick graphic and product design to create narratives of possible futures? When we’re talking about “critical design,” “design fiction,” and “speculative design, that’s what we’re talking about. In the Paola Antonelli piece below, she writes, “Critical Design focuses on studying the impact and possible consequences of new technologies and policies, and of worldwide social and environmental trends, as well as on outlining new goals and areas of interest for designers.” The term was coined by Anthony Dunne, a professor at the Royal College of Art in London. With his partner Fiona Raby, Dunne & Raby produce uncanny, uncomfortable design projects that show outcomes of possible futures.

Bruce Sterling, a Texan sci-fi writer now living in Italy, writes, “Design fictions can range from very simple descriptions of postulated objects and services, to elaborate hoaxes, which may include multiple media channels, government and corporate sponsorship, and political street theater. The point of a design fiction is to seize public attention, to affect the future thinking of the viewers, and to provoke the viral spread of the message. What will really happen next? What is said to be happening next?”

Critical design is part of a broader set of scenario-based approaches to the future. Scenarios are potent because they use stories and images to help us to envision the good and bad about the future, about our choices today. Note that critical design is not without its critics — most of the futures are deracialized and white and they frequently don’t address global contexts. But we’re going to engage them in this class as a way of thinking about the future and making our own interventions into what that future might look like.

Objective: Learn about design fiction and critical design (aspects of the same broader thing). Develop a point of view on critical design; understand the basic attributes of scenarios and begin to put them together.

Your mission: You’re going to write a brief scene of design fiction, and in so doing, you will be thinking through some of our reading, writing and discussion about objects, gadgets, and infrastructures.

It is 2024 — 10 years from now — and you are telling your best friend (or mom, wife, husband, partner, girlfriend, boyfriend) about a new communication object. What that object is is up to you, and what it does is up to you. In writing about it, you may find it more interesting to imagine that its new version just came out, or that it just broke, or that there’s a big scandal about it. You could also/instead write a future-tense newspaper article or press release from 2024 about the communication device. This is what Jason Tester, a futurist, calls “artifacts from the future” and “archeology of the future.” In fact, you can see a project he’s doing about imagining LGBTQ futures as a part of the My2024 project.

10 years isn’t too long, when you think about it. Think back to your technological landscape. If you are currently around 21, you were probably about to start using Myspace. You probably didn’t have a cell phone. Remember that 10 years ago, design schools were imagining gadgets like the iPhone but they didn’t exist yet. On the other hand, in the 7 years that we’ve carried smartphones, so many things have changed: the way we walk through cities, navigate, remember things, settle arguments…

As always, have fun with it.

Apropos of nothing, there’s this simulation. It’s like a Badgers Saturday gone terribly, terribly awry. Rather hypnotic to watch. (This version is even more amusing.) Via boingboing.

Week 10: 11/3 Land

Objective: Understand the definition of the vernacular landscape; define your own vernacular landscape example; understand and define examples of globalization spaces

El Ejido, Spain, the biggest grower of fruits & vegetables in Europe — these are greenhouses. Via LTCE on Flickr:

The Keller Easterling piece is about high-tech agriculture in Spain and the labor and power issues that result. She’s an architecture professor at Yale who looks at issues like this one. Where J.B. Jackson is writing about the political landscape defined by power relations, Easterling dives into those relationships and theories, and how they’re brought to life on the land. (Easterling has had a bigger impact on my thinking than almost anyone in the last 10 years, which is probably apparent when you read her piece.)

I’m very interested in the different ideas of landscape that J.B. Jackson writes about, in particular the idea of the “vernacular landscape” — ones not defined by political boundaries but by personal relationships and informality. Let’s talk about these ideas. What kinds of vernacular landscapes can you think of? And a question that I’ve been wanting to ask for years: what is a digital vernacular landscape? And are there ways that our devices and technologies, mobile & smart phones, gaming devices make vernacular landscapes in the spaces that we navigate? Or is that not possible?

Spotted on “Sauna built by the Beaver Brook School, clad with pine boards, coated with pine tar, roofed with steel. Photo by Noah Kalina.”

And then we have Finn Arne Jørgenson’s short and lovely piece on cabin porn and why we like looking at it. Finn Arne is a professor of history of technology & the environment in Umeå, Sweden. He’s Norwegian and likes cabins.

And now your mission:

Write about a digital landscape. What’s a digital landscape? Define it in your piece — the texts from this week and previous weeks (interfaces? strategies/tactics? others) could be useful. Which landscape write about is up to you: you can write about a game interface (Minecraft? Mario?), a football field (the 1st & Ten graphics system). You could write about something that doesn’t look at all digital but is, because there are technologies you don’t see (gardens?). You could write about the kinds of landscapes that Easterling does in her piece. Those are just some jumping off points. As always, think creatively, and use images and video.

Week 11: 11/10 Scapes
Paper abstract due, 11/10 at start of class
Guest speaker: Prof. Rob Roth, Geography

Prof. Roth’s lecture slides:


Objective: Critically examine the effects of class, race and geography and the way that mapping and narratives can serve as critical devices; apply this thinking to the city of Madison.

The beautiful and iconic film Powers of Ten, by Ray & Charles Eames.

Week 12: 11/17 Corporate Landscapes & Media Spaces

UPDATE: It makes me very sad but we’re not going to get to this week’s readings. I keep them here for your interest and your future reference. The Harwood and Robles-Anderson pieces are especially outstanding.

  • Marc Augé, “From Places to Non-Places,” in Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (New York and London: Verso, 1995), 75–120. (
  • John Harwood, “The White Room: Eliot Noyes and the Logic of the Information Age Interior,” Grey Room 12 (2006): 5–31. (
  • Erica Robles-Anderson, “The Crystal Cathedral: Architecture for Mediated Congregation,” Public Culture 24:3 (2012): 577–99. (

Objective: Understand the effects of information on architecture; synthesize this notion yourself by analyzing a non-space

Week 13: 11/24 NSA and the Snowden Revelations
NO CLASS. Watch the documentary and we’ll reconvene next week.

Frontline documentary United States of Secrets; you are responsible for watching both parts.

Objective: Outline the key happenings with the NSA post-9/11, across party lines, and before Snowden’s leaks. Contrast with Snowden’s actions; contribute to personal perspective on whether the NSA or Snowden overstepped their bounds

Week 14: 12/1 Surveillance & Privacy
Professor Alan Rubel, SLIS/School of Law

  • Michel Foucault, “Panopticism,” In Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002), 223–239. (
  • Witty and pretty cool: Kieran Healy, Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere, (online)
  • Julia Angwin, “Hacked,” “State of Surveillance,” Dragnet Nation (New York: Times Books, 2014), 1–36. (
  • Rita Raley, “Dataveillance and Countervailance,” “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 121–45. (

Objective: Understand what personal data you might be sharing without your knowledge and recent basic happenings in the world of data surveillance; articulate your perspective on privacy vs. surveillance, apply our earlier discussion about power dynamics and control to the digital sphere

Your mission: choose one of the following. As always, video and images are welcome and make it more interesting for you, me, and your readers.

1. What is the single biggest question do the NSA revelations leave you asking? Ruminate upon it using the different approaches and topics we’ve taken on in this class, whether in readings, discussion, discussion resources, your own research, or beyond.


2. Foucault writes about the ways that we see how physical space reinforces power. This is another topic we’ve approached in many different ways in this class — in fact, we’ve touched on it every week. Choose an example and write about it.

Week 15: 12/8 Data Cultures and Data Anxieties
Paper due 12/10, start of class, 12/16 if you need more time and you’ve told me first

Objective: Recognize the dynamics that go into this thing that we call “big data;” understand how different contexts produce what data is when put to use

Week 16: 12/18 Paper presentations

  • Pecha Kucha/Ignite-style presentations and pizza. Here’s one approach: your professor’s Ignite talk on pneumatic tubes in 2009.