Extra Credit: How to Discuss the Internet

A resource for teaching and discussing the internet, including a reading list, podcast, and discussion questions.

Since the internet went public on August 6, 1991, it has infiltrated nearly every domain of human life. The network of servers that now links about 3.4 billion people across the globe has profoundly affected the way that people live, work, form communities, and create culture. While it is a truism to say that the web has brought people together, internet access is neither universal nor uniform, and familiar forms of oppression and exclusion have taken on new contours in cyberspace.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, those who have the privilege of internet access seem to be doing more working, socializing, browsing, consuming, and procrastinating online than ever. In that sense, this historical juncture brings to the fore key tensions that have always existed at the internet’s core: it is at once democratic and exclusionary, marvelous and terrifying, full of promise and rife with dangers.

Our new podcast, Public Books 101, has probed this tension from many angles. Our host, Annie Galvin, and our 10 guests have considered such questions as: Where did the internet come from? Whose interests was it built to serve? What is it doing to individuals, societies, and cultures? And what can we learn from Silicon Valley’s history as we envision more equitable technologies for the future?

In our podcast series Public Books 101: The Internet, we brought together 10 of the field’s top scholars and writers to discuss the internet from many angles. We envision the following package—which includes podcast episodes, discussion questions, and related readings—as a teaching resource that could be useful in courses that cover the internet, social media, and/or digital technologies. The package could also serve as a resource for scholars who are working in fields adjacent to the internet, or for anyone who is curious about what the internet might be doing to humans on psychological, social, spiritual, and political levels.

As our guest Lauren Michele Jackson says in episode 4:

If you work on, write about, or think about the contemporary [era] in any way, you have to contend with the internet. Even if you don’t write about the internet, you have to contend with its existence and it as a means of storytelling, of language formation, of narrativizing the way that people are making sense of the world around them.

The following reading list, like our podcast series, is divided into five parts. Each part contains the podcast episode as well as work written by our guests, books and articles that our guests have recommended, and relevant Public Books articles. To accompany each podcast episode, we have included discussion questions that build on our guests’ ideas. If the podcast were assigned in a course, these questions could be used alongside the audio to prompt written reflection or classroom discussion.


Part 1:

Origins of the Internet

Where did the internet come from? Who gets left out of dominant stories about its origins? And what can history teach us about how to make the internet better?

 

Books

Articles and Interviews

Podcast Episode

Charlton McIlwain and Fred Turner discuss the lesser-known origins of the internet: on hippie communes and in early African American cyberculture.

 

Learn more about Charlton, Fred, and the episode hereListen to the episode:

You can also listen and subscribe to Public Books 101 on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts. View a transcript of the episode here.

 

Discussion Questions

The following could be assigned with the episode as writing-reflection questions or used as class-discussion prompts:

 

  1. What is your earliest memory of logging on to the internet? How does using the internet now compare to using it back then?
  2. How would you define the internet? If someone time-traveled from an earlier century into the present day, how would you explain to them what the internet is? 
  3. What stories had you heard about where the internet came from (i.e., who invented it, when, and why)?
  4. What surprised you most about the lesser-known histories of the internet that Charlton and Fred explained (i.e., on hippie communes and among “the Vanguard”)? What did that detail clarify about how the internet operates in the present day? 
  5. At the end of the episode, Charlton and Fred share aspects of current internet use that give them hope. What do you see as the internet’s more inspiring or positive aspects, and what problem seems like the most important one to solve?

 

Part 2:

Individuals Online

What exactly are we doing when we’re spending time online? Who profits from our presence there? And how has being on the internet changed the experience of being human?

 

Books

Articles and Interviews

Podcast Episode

Amanda Hess and Jenny Odell discuss the mental and psychological experience of spending time online, how the attention economy monetizes that time, and how we might use the internet to find spiritual sustenance rather than dread.

 

Learn more about Amanda, Jenny, and the episode here. Listen to the episode:

You can also listen and subscribe to Public Books 101 on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts. View a transcript of the episode here.

 

Discussion Questions

The following could be assigned with the episode as writing-reflection questions or used as class-discussion prompts:

 

  1. What does being on the internet now feel like to you? This could be a description, a word, a metaphor—anything that captures how it feels like to be online for you. Is that a pleasant feeling? An unpleasant one? A mix?
  2. If you use social media, do you feel pressure to present yourself a certain way online? If you don’t use social media, do you observe others experiencing that pressure? What do you think people gain from “branding” themselves online? What do you think people sacrifice in order to create an online personal “brand”?
  3. After listening to the episode, try to define the “attention economy” in your own terms. What did you learn from Amanda and Jenny about the attention economy on the internet? Who profits from the attention economy? Do you think that everyday internet users are being taken advantage of in the attention economy? 
  4. What do you observe about how people engage in politics online? Do you find those ways of talking about politics online to be productive? How do you observe political discussions on the internet translating into the real world—or does that happen less that it should?
  5. At the end of the episode, Amanda and Jenny discuss ways of using the internet that feel more spiritually or psychologically nourishing than “doom-scrolling” and other unpleasant behaviors. What ideas did you take from their discussion? What’s one way you could change your use of the internet that might feel a little healthier?

 

Part 3:

Societies Online

What kind of social space are we inhabiting when we’re online? How do practices like data collection, data brokering, and surveillance underwrite the “free” services we enjoy? And who gets hit hardest by the privacy violations that are becoming increasingly commonplace?

 

Books

Articles and Interviews

Podcast Episode

This topic is split into two podcast episodes. In them, Alice Marwick and Siva Vaidhyanathan take a critical look at both the affordances and dangers of large internet platforms like Facebook, Google, and Reddit, and how privacy violations impact individuals differently based on gender, race, and socioeconomic status.

 

Learn more about Alice, Siva, and the episodes hereListen to the episodes:

 

Part 1 (with Siva Vaidhyanathan):

Part 2 (with Alice E. Marwick):

You can also listen and subscribe to Public Books 101 on Apple (Part 1 and Part 2), Spotify (Part 1 and Part 2), Stitcher (Part 1 and Part 2), or Pocket Casts. View a transcript of the episode here.

 

Discussion Questions

The following could be assigned with the episode as writing-reflection questions or used as class-discussion prompts:

 

  1. Before listening to these episodes, had you given much thought to your own privacy online, or where your data goes? Were you disturbed by the possibility that your data might be ending up in a lot of different people’s / corporations’ / even governments’ hands?
  2. What did you learn from Siva about how Facebook makes money off of its users? What do you think is the biggest downside or danger of that? What do you think about Siva’s idea (that he shares at the end) about regulating political ads on Facebook—do you think that would help improve the situation? What other ideas could we try in an ideal world?
  3. What did you learn from Alice about online privacy? How did your thinking about privacy shift after hearing that privacy is “gendered” and that privacy violations impact poorer Americans and communities of color more severely?
  4. Alice and Siva explain how the “free” services we enjoy online (Facebook, Instagram, Google, other apps) are not really free: in other words, we pay for them by handing data over and allowing companies to use and sell that data. Do you think this is a fair price for users to pay for these “free” internet services? Based on the episodes, what do you think is the most concerning consequence of data mining and data brokering?
  5. How have you seen misinformation crop up online? How do you think that the spread of misinformation affects larger issues in politics, public health, and society? What’s an example of a situation where online misinformation could have really damaging effects?

 

Part 4:

Cultures Online

What new cultural forms are developing in the vast world of the internet? How can observers and scholars keep up with the accelerated pace of human creativity online? And how do racial aesthetics, money, and power play out in internet cultures?

 

Books

Articles and Interviews

Podcast Episode

Lauren Michele Jackson and Richard Jean So explore the significance of internet-native forms like memes, viral videos, and fan-fiction websites as cultural artifacts, thinking critically about the assumption that the internet is making culture more democratic given that age-old practices like cultural appropriation continue to thrive online.

 

Learn more about Lauren, Richard, and the episode hereListen to the episode:

You can also listen and subscribe to Public Books 101 on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts. View a transcript of the episode here.

 

Discussion Questions

The following could be assigned with the episode as writing-reflection questions or used as class-discussion prompts:

 

  1. When you think about “internet culture,” what comes to mind? What are some of your favorite pieces of culture on the internet? How does the internet specifically—as opposed to an older medium like film, books, etc.—make that piece of culture possible?
  2. What do you think is unique about how culture gets created and circulated online? If you take a moment to reflect on your own internet use, how do you see yourself participating in internet culture (or creative practices online)?
  3. How would you define or explain cultural appropriation to someone who’s never heard the term? How did Lauren’s theory of cultural appropriation on the internet change your understanding of that concept? What’s an example of cultural appropriation that you have observed on the internet, and how do money and power factor into that gesture of appropriation?
  4. In the episode, Richard points out an interesting paradox about the internet: that there can be a degree of racial anonymity (because it’s easy to conceal or lie about one’s identity online), but there’s also an intense focus on conversations about race online. How do you see the internet enabling productive conversations about race online? What are some of the dangers of people being able to pass online as another race?
  5. At the end of the conversation, Lauren and Richard discuss how the internet might be able to foster empathy, in a similar way to how reading a novel can help one understand the experience of someone very different from oneself. What’s one specific way that you think the internet might be able to foster empathy across differences? How might people be able to take that empathy offline and create change in the world?

 

Part 5:

Silicon Valley and Beyond

How did Silicon Valley become such a historically and globally significant hub of technological innovation? What—and who—gets left out of the stories people tell about Silicon Valley? What are the limits of technology, and how can we create more equitable technologies for the future?

 

Books and Film

Articles and Interviews

For further reading on race and digital technologies, Meredith Broussard recommends the Critical Race and Digital Studies Syllabus.

 

For more articles on technology, race, and power, see the Public Books technology section, edited by Mona Sloane.

 

Podcast Episode

Meredith Broussard and Margaret O’Mara explore what is distinctly American about the history of Silicon Valley, what mainstream narratives about Silicon Valley often omit, and why it’s important for people to recognize that technology has—and should have—limits.

 

Learn more about Margaret, Meredith, and the episode hereListen to the episode:

You can also listen and subscribe to Public Books 101 on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts. View a transcript of the episode here.

 

Discussion Questions

The following could be assigned with the episode as writing-reflection questions or used as class-discussion prompts:

 

  1. Brainstorm: When you think about Silicon Valley, what comes to mind? What are we, as consumers of technologies that developed in Silicon Valley, trained to believe about it?
  2. How did Margaret’s explanation of the history of Silicon Valley—the place where so many popular devices are made—change your understanding of it? Why is it important to understand the parts of Silicon Valley’s history that often get left out? 
  3. How would you explain Meredith’s concept of “technochauvinism” in your own words? If you take a moment to reflect on the way that people use technology, what is an example of technochauvinism that comes to mind? Why do you think it’s important for us to try to reduce or correct technochauvinism?
  4. What’s an example of a technology that you think improves people’s lives in a significant or meaningful way? What’s an example of a technology that you believe is used in ways that endanger or harm people? In terms of the latter, do you think that that particular technology—or its use—could be changed for the better, or do you think it would be better if that technology did not exist at all?
  5. Throughout the episode, Margaret and Meredith discuss the ethical issues that many technologies—for example, the driverless car or facial-recognition software—introduce to the world. At the end, they share aspects of the tech world that give them hope. How do you think that the culture and/or education around high-tech engineering could change in order to improve the ethical impacts of the technologies themselves?
Featured image: Ethernet Cable LAN on Blue Surface (detail) (2017). Photograph by Markus Spiske / Unsplash