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The Culture of Information
ENGL 25, Alan Liu
Example Paper Topics

This page is under construction and will be revised nearer to the assignment dates (Last revised 5/3/07 )


The following are examples of paper topics, but you should not feel confined to these topics. You can choose a topic of your own. The main goal is to think about an interesting problem that can be developed through close study of a particular work or works.

Sample Topics for the 4-page critical essay:

  1. Take a specific example of contemporary online communications (e.g., email, file sharing, blogs, wikis, MySpace, FaceBook, etc.) and analyze it using Lev Manovich’s principles of new media. In what ways does it express Manovich’s principles? What aspects might offer complications or expose tensions in Manovich’s argument? Pay careful attention to the claims Manovich makes for “new media” and how he explicates those claims.

  2. How does Thomas Pynchon use the concept of entropy in The Crying of Lot 49? What is the function of this concept in the novel? Look at specific moments in the novel that address the notion of entropy. How do these passages contribute to the novel as a whole? What aspects of Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s information theory might inform (or complicate) Pynchon’s use of the concept of entropy? Do you see any problems in Pynchon's use of entropy?

  3. Write an essay on the function of metaphors and/or puns in Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. Focus on specific examples and their role in the novel, but try also to conclude with an argument about how metaphors or puns fit--or do not fit--with the novel's overall vision or method.

  4. Do a “close reading” of a piece of digital literature, digital art, graphic design, or advanced website design that we’ve looked at in class. First develop a protocol for this kind of reading using Manovich, Landow, Tschichold, Ong or some other theorist we have read that might address the question of how to read “new media.” Then develop a reading--an interpretive thesis--that pays careful attention to some interesting detail(s) or part(s) of the piece of “new media” work you are considering.

  5. Analyze the history of the computer in terms of McLuhan’s or Ong’s arguments about media. Look at specific moments in the development of the mainframe, the personal computer or networking in the texts we’ve read in class and analyze these moments given an understanding of what McLuhan calls the “personal and social consequences” of media. What examples from the history of computing might speak to McLuhan’s or Ong’s points about media? How might computing differ from or complicate the examples of media given by McLuhan or Ong?

  6. Write an essay that uses some of the readings you have done for this class to compare specific features or practices of print media (e.g., the book, the newspaper) and digital media (e.g., a Web page, a database). Conclude your essay with a guess about what "reading" will be like 50 or so years in the future. (Be sure to base your reasoning on underlying theses and specific features or examples. That is, don't over-generalize about the "book" versus the "computer.")
          Variant topic: compare oral and digital media.

  7. How might the information theory elaborated by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver extend or complicate McLuhan’s argument that “the medium is the message”? To what extent might Shannon and Weaver’s understanding of the disparity between the “semantic aspects of communication” and “the engineering problem” inform or complicate McLuhan’s claim that the “content” of any medium is somehow different from its “message”? By way of closely analyzing the texts, develop a nuanced argument about the tensions and similarities between McLuhan’s media theory and Shannon and Weaver’s information theory. How might these two theories enter into dialogue productively to address the issue of digital communications?

Sample Topics for 8-page critical essay:

  • Write an essay in which you carefully think about one aspect of postindustrial "knowledge work" employment (as set forth in the readings we have done on business) that seems to you to be especially interesting or problematic, or that is founded on assumptions that clash with other historical, social, economic, political, or other values that are valuable to society. For example, how does the notion of "lifelong learning" accommodate the notion of a "liberal education" (or well-rounded education in both the sciences and humanities or arts), or should it?

  • Write an essay about one or more of the pieces of business writings we have read as pieces of writing. For example, how do the pieces by Joseph Schumpeter or Peter Senge work as a kind of "imaginative" writing. Or how do business writers use metaphor?

  • Write an essay that analyzes and evaluates cyberlibertarianism as a belief or practice. For example, compare John Perry Barlow's "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" to the Declaration of Independence.

  • Write an essay that develops a thesis about some aspect of William Gibson's Neuromancer.

  • Write an essay in which you compare or critique the vision of the future set forth in the business works we have read and in cyberpunk fiction or film.

  • Do a "close reading" of the work(s) of one or more of the digital artists we have looked at, and place that work in a larger context of meaning or evaluation.

  • Write an essay in which you critique, defend, or intelligently evaluate the position of the Critical Art Ensemble on the difference between the actions they recommend and "terrorism."

  • Write an essay that studies some aspect of the issue of gender or race in cyberspace.

  • Write an essay on Califia. Since this is a large work, you'll want to be sure to focus on some particular aspect of it that allows you both to work closely with something concrete and to develop larger implications. For example, write an essay about the relation between words, pictures, and music in Califia. Other topics: the paradigm of the quest or game, the concept of space, the nature of the navigation interface, the nature of history, the role of gender or race, the relation between Native-American culture and hypertext, the nature of memory, etc.