BSc Biomedical Sciences

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
The Information Age

Unit code HSTM20282
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? No


The Information Age uses historical case studies to show how and why digital information-processing occupies a crucial role in present-day human life. Combining strands from technical, social, cultural and economic history, it will describe the development of mass-produced computer technology and mass public access to information systems, and their consequences for society. It will also show the role of hopes, fears and other visions in informing public ideas, using examples ranging from employment forecasting to science-fiction dreams.

The course is equally suitable for computer science students and those who have never studied the field, but are interested in learning more about the background of one of the dominant technologies of our time. It can be taken for 10 credits (code HSTM20282) or 20 credits (HSTM20782).


How did information-processing equipment come to dominate, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, so many areas of human life? Who are the winners and losers in a computerised, automated, data-driven world? Is "information technology" applied computer science, or applied bureaucracy? This course tries to answer this question by tracing the histories of a range of technological developments, from the mechanical calculating machines of the nineteenth century to the global networked systems of today.

This course can be taken for 10 credits (code HSTM20282) or 20 credits (HSTM20782).

Learning outcomes

By the end of this unit, it is expected that all students will:

•       have a good working knowledge of major developments in the history of information technology, particularly from the Second World War onwards

•       have developed skills in critical reasoning and analysis, understanding the different motivations of historical characters in the history of information technology, and the differences in the ways they interpret and describe events

•       be able to appreciate, and display the ability to analyse and discuss, the different factors - social, technical, sometimes accidental - which shape the history of computing, and the definition of the computer and its users



Lectures and seminars are likely to cover the following themes:

  • Information then: nineteenth-century industry and arithmetic engines
  • Information now: identity, privacy and power in the smartphone age
  • The changing computer: trends and complications in the development of information technology
  • Catastrophic failures? Information, infrastructure and engineering
  • An information icon: Alan Turing and the power of legends
  • Machines that think: hopes, dreams, failures and nightmares
  • Computers for the people! Home micros and techno-evangelists
  • Hacker histories
  • Geek mythology: skills and identities, women and men
  • Internet connections

Employability skills

Analytical skills
All work on this course involves the critical examination of source materials (who wrote this, when and why? What was the intended audience? Did it have the intended effect?...)
Throughout the course, students are expected to give their own interpretations of the ideas and narratives presented, through in-class discussion and in their written work.
Oral communication
Half the classroom time each week is devoted to seminar discussion based on a reading or research task. All students will be involved in oral discussion.
Problem solving
All essay-writing is a form of problem-solving!
All assessed work is based on independent source research.
Written communication
All students write a 1500-word essay in standard humanities form, and receive individual written feedback.
This course has a particularly broad intake from across the University, and provides opportunities to interact with students trained in a wide range of disciplines.

Assessment methods

1500 word essay (50%) and a 2 hour exam (50%)

Feedback methods

Students may ask questions at any time during lectures and seminars. Teaching staff will answer specific queries by email and by appointment for individual meetings, and will provide contact details in the course handbook or at lectures. All submitted coursework will be returned with annotations and an assessment sheet explaining the mark awarded.

Recommended reading

•       Campbell-Kelly, M., et al. (2013) Computer: A History of the Information Machine (third edition). Westview

•       Ceruzzi, P. (2003) A History of Modern Computing, 2nd edition. MIT Press

•       Levy, S. (2001) Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Penguin

•       Swedin, E (2005) Computers: the Life Story of a Technology. Johns Hopkins University Press

•       Abbate, J (2012) Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing. MIT Press

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 12
Seminars 12
Independent study hours
Independent study 74

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
James Sumner Unit coordinator

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