Course information

Spring 2024, Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:30–11:45am
Aidekman Arts Center, room 009
Instructor: Andy Stuhl

Office hours Tuesdays 12:00–1:00pm and online by appointment


What is the nature of automation? From mechanical looms in the 19th century to generative AI tools in the 21st, labor-saving technology has always provoked warnings of accelerating exploitation—and, at the same time, visions of a future society freed from drudgery. In this course, we will call on central texts and concepts in Science, Technology, and Society to help us understand how automation has been proposed, implemented, and resisted in specific contexts. More than its nature, we will examine automation’s cultures: how have ambitions to automate different areas of human activity reflected and reinforced the different ways we want to live together?

Learning objectives

By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • Use STS concepts to assess claims about automation’s past and predicted effects on work and society
  • Describe the social and historical context under which automation became a public controversy in the postwar United States
  • Identify relations between technology and labor in your own work or leisure activities
  • Formulate your own informed opinions about future directions for automation/AI

Course structure and class structure

This course will organize material into three modules. In our first two weeks, we will discuss automation in general terms and begin to get a sense of its historical contours. The following six weeks will take us through a variety of particular contexts in which authors have studied automation’s implementation and effects. In the final six weeks, we will first zoom back out to see how STS frameworks can apply across contexts, then turn toward perspectives that have likewise collected resistant worker perspectives across different settings.

Most weeks have readings assigned for both class meetings, though a few Thursday sessions will instead be devoted to project preparation. We will spend the bulk of our class time discussing the readings together, guided by your reading responses. Some Tuesday meetings will feature more talking from me in a mini-lecture format.

Project: scripting and de-scripting automation in context

The course will culminate with a final project in which you apply concepts from our readings and discussions to a context of your choosing. In this two-stage assignment, you will first select a working context and then describe how automation might transform it—from the perspective of an automation planner and from the perspective of a worker strategizing against automation.

In part 1, we will work together in class to brainstorm and identify working contexts at an appropriate scale for the assignment. You will then produce a short written or audiovisual report that identifies: A) how work has historically been organized, observed, and compensated in this context; B) how automation, computers, or other control technologies have so far factored into this work; and C) a particular routine that is essential within this work.

In part 2, each student will write an essay in two subparts: first, drawing on Madeline Akrich’s concept of “scripts,” you will propose how a machine could replace part of the routine you identified in part 1.B. Second, drawing on Akrich’s method of “de-scription,” they will propose a set of tactics by which workers might adjust the routine and make that replacement ineffective.

Weekly reading responses

Your assignment for each day a reading is listed, to be posted to our Canvas page by 9pm the evening before our class meeting, is to:

  1. read the assigned reading(s),
  2. pick a single sentence from one reading that either
    1. confused you the most or
    2. excited you the most; then,
  3. type out the sentence and note the page number, and
  4. as briefly as possible, explain
    1. why, in your own words, understanding this sentence should help us understand what the author wanted to accomplish with this piece, and
    2. why it confused/excited you.

Some elaboration on the above:

  • A and B don’t always need to be different things—it could be the case that the most confusing and exciting parts of a text are the same part for you. But for clarity’s sake, I encourage you to indicate “confused” or “excited” unless you specifically feel both about the sentence in question. “Excited” could also mean “annoyed”—disagreement with authors is very welcome here, as long as you explain your thinking.
  • By “as briefly as possible,” I mean that writing one sentence each for parts i and ii is sufficient. If it takes more words to explain your thinking, feel free to use them. A successful response here is specific, not lengthy.
  • Our Canvas page will include examples of effective responses, and we will periodically check in about how the format can better serve our in-class discussions.


Readings and assignments by week

Week 1: Introductions

  • January 18: No reading

Week 2: Believers and skeptics

  • January 23: Chapter 4 in Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (New York: Verso Books, 2019).
  • January 25: Astra Taylor, “The Automation Charade,” Logic(s) Magazine, August 2018.

Week 3: At home

  • January 30: “Introduction” in Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1983).
  • February 1: Chapter 7 in Cowan.

Week 4: In the factory

  • February 6: Chapter 5 (pages 77–105) in David F Noble, Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1984).
  • February 8: Chapter 8 (pages 189–204) in Rachel Plotnick, Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2018).

Week 5: In the automotive plant

  • February 13: Chapter 1 (pages 15–38) in Jason Resnikoff, Labor’s End: How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2022).
  • February 15: Selections from David A. Hounshell, “Planning and ExecutingAutomation’ at Ford Motor Company, 1945-65: The Cleveland Engine Plant and Its Consequences,” in Fordism Transformed: The Development of Production Methods in the Automobile Industry, ed. Haruhito Shiomi and Kazuo Wada (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), 49–86.

Week 6: On the line

  • February 20: Venus Green, “Race and Technology: African American Women in the Bell System, 1945-1980,” Technology and Culture 36, no. 2 (1995): S101–44.
  • February 22: No class—Monday schedule

Week 7: In the studio

  • February 27: Fred Turner, “Romantic Automatism: Art, Technology, and Collaborative Labor in Cold War America,” Journal of Visual Culture 7, no. 1 (2008): 5–26.
  • February 29: Jonathan Sterne and Elena Razlogova, “Machine Learning in Context, or Learning from LANDR: Artificial Intelligence and the Platformization of Music Mastering,” Social Media + Society 5, no. 2 (April 2019): 1–18.

Week 8: On the road

  • March 5: Karen E. C. Levy, “The Contexts of Control: Information, Power, and Truck-Driving Work,” The Information Society 31, no. 2 (March 2015): 160–74.
  • March 7: No reading; project brainstorming in class

Week 9: Zooming back out

  • March 12: TBD
  • March 14: No class—individual project check-ins this week

Spring recess!

Week 10: Artifacts and power

  • March 26: Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109, no. 1 (1980): 121–36.
  • March 28: No reading; project troubleshooting in class

Week 11: Scripts and failure

  • April 2: Project part 1 due
  • April 4: Madeleine Akrich, “The De-Scription of Technical Objects,” in Shaping Technology / Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, ed. Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), 205–24.

Week 12: Pushing back

  • April 9: Chapter 2 in Keith Grint and Steve Woolgar, The Machine at Work: Technology, Work, and Organization (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1997).
  • April 11: Charles Denby, Workers Battle Automation (Chicago, IL: News & Letters, 1960).

Week 13: Situated strategy

  • April 16: Julia Ticona, “Suspending the Hustle: Diverging Strategies of Resistance,” in Left to Our Own Devices: Coping with Insecure Work in a Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2022).
  • April 18: Evan Calder Williams, “Manual Override,” The New Inquiry, March 2016.

Week 14: Automation, once and future (final class meeting)

  • April 23: Chapters 2–4 in James Boggs, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook (New York: Monthly Review, 1963).
  • April 25: No reading

May 2: Project part 2 due