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BSc Biology with Science & Society / Course details

Year of entry: 2021

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Course unit details:
Information Visions: Past, Present and Future

Unit code UCIL20782
Credit rating 20
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? Yes


The lockdowns and physical distancing policies imposed around the world following the Covid-19 outbreak focused attention sharply on humankind's relationship with information and communication technology. For many people, online gatherings became the only gatherings, and streaming media the main source of entertainment. Universities and businesses which would once have simply closed down instead shifted to "online delivery" as best they could.

This strange world seemed very new but the technologies it was built on were well-established, and the ideas that lay behind them were often very old indeed. The "picture telephone" was as much a feature of early science fiction as time travel and alien invasions; robot servants and "electronic brains" that could take on traditional human tasks were widely discussed before 1950. To some authors, these ideas were hopeful, suggesting a future of mass leisure and a rich social culture; to others, they spelt a nightmare of dehumanisation and mechanised enslavement.

In this unit, we explore visions of remote communication, online life, and information-based society, from serious practical proposals to wild speculations and fantasies and also how they shaped reality, as scientists and policymakers tried to achieve or avoid the various imagined outcomes, with varying degrees of success. We will ask: who are the winners and losers in a data-driven world of mass electronic communication? Why do some visions succeed in some countries or cultures, but not others? And how can we use the lessons of the past to prepare for an uncertain online future?

The unit is accessible to students who have no background in information or communication technology, but is also designed to help students who have experience in these fields understand how they interact with the wider world.



UCIL units are designed to be accessible to undergraduate students from all disciplines.

UCIL units are credit-bearing and it is not possible to audit UCIL units or take them for additional/extra credits. You must enrol following the standard procedure for your School when adding units outside of your home School.

If you are not sure if you are able to enrol on UCIL units you should contact your School Undergraduate office. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a UCIL unit.

You can also contact the UCIL office if you have any questions.

This unit is also available with a different course unit code. To take a UCIL unit you must choose the unit with a UCIL prefix.



This unit studies how information and communication technologies have developed, and have sometimes been questioned or challenged, to provide analytical tools for engaging with technological change now and in the future. It focuses particularly on the influence of predictions, ideals and fantasies, from engineering prototypes to science-fiction dreams and nightmares, looking at how these shape not only public hopes and fears but also the reality of the technologies and the systems surrounding them. It explores why some innovations succeed and others fail in particular situations, and introduces the wider theme of the relationship between technology and human culture in general.

Learning outcomes


On successful completion of the unit, you will be able to:

  • Outline the key developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) over time
  • Interpret speculative visions both in fiction and in proposals for real-world technological innovation, showing how these visions respond to the concerns of their time
  • Explain the success or failure of particular ICTs in different times and places in relation to social, cultural and economic factors
  • Apply the lessons of past ICT projects and visions in understanding and dealing with the innovations and challenges of our own time

In addition, for 20 credits:

  • Identify a topic for a research project and produce a critical essay or alternative submission (short documentary, online resource, etc) based on primary and secondary source material


Lectures and seminars typically cover the following themes:

  • Paper and cogs: information worlds before electronics
  • "It can't be done": dreams, nightmares and realities of the "picture telephone"
  • Robots in fiction and fact
  • "Building a brain": Alan Turing and machines that learn
  • Hopes, hype and hazards in artificial intelligence
  • The University of the Air: can technology democratise education?
  • The revolution that wasn't: why the first home computers didn't take home users online (except in France)
  • The Hacker Ethic: subverting authority and building open systems
  • "A civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace"? Techno-utopianism and the early public Internet
  • Power and identity in the smartphone age
  • Alone together? What technology can and can't do in a time of physical isolation

Teaching and learning methods

10 Credits

12 x Combined Lecture/Seminar

20 Credits

12 x Combined Lecture/Seminar

 3 x Individual project supervision meetings



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?...)
Oral communication
Discussion skills: 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. Half the classroom time in most weeks is devoted to seminar discussion based on a reading or research task. All students will be involved in oral discussion.
The lecture content is designed to provide a gateway to engaging with a wide range of literature, and all assessed work requires some independent source research.
Written communication
All students write a 1500-word essay in standard humanities form, and receive individual written feedback. Essay skills training is provided.

Assessment methods



10 Credits

  1. 1000 word discussion article (50%)
  2. 1500 word coursework essay (50%)

20 Credits

  1. 1000 word discussion article (25%)
  2. 1500 word coursework essay (25%)
  3. 3000 word project based on independent study: an essay, or an alternative-format submission of equivalent scale, such as a short documentary or online resource (50%)


Feedback methods

Detailed feedback on coursework essays and projects is provided via Turnitin. Comments on exam scripts may be viewed on request.


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 174

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
James Sumner Unit coordinator

Additional notes

This unit is delivered by the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM).

For more information, see


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