Keywords in Digital Technology & Culture

What is a “friend” in a time of social media? What’s the significance of updating (and maybe then upping) one’s “status” online? What happens when our actions are governed not only by legal codes but also by the “code” of computer software? What does it tell us when data, and not just water droplets, start raining down from the “cloud?” Why did “platform” cease referring only to a wooden plank for standing on, and come to mean a complex technological ecosystem? Does it matter that you no longer just search for things online, but that you “Google” them? When did things that aren’t diseases begin going “viral?” Did you know that “computers” were once people (often women) whose job was to perform mathematical calculations?

The growth of digital technology has helped to provoke significant shifts in the English language, in some cases even according particular terms the status of what Raymond Williams, a scholar in the field of cultural studies, called “keywords.” These aren’t just important words. Rather, they’re terms that embody a society’s changing patterns of thought, conduct, expression, and organization. “Language,” wrote Williams, does not “simply reflect the processes of society and history…Important social and historical processes occur within language, in ways which indicate how integral the problems of meanings and of relationships really are” (Keywords, 1983, p. 22).

This class takes a keywords approach to studying digital technology and culture—past, present, and future. The overarching goals for this class are to enrich your understanding of the terms in question, and to inspire you to think critically about the power relations bound up with language and its shifts (e.g., relations of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and more). Along the way you’ll become a sharper listener to language, while also learning how to research the social life of words.