Cyborgs and Cybernetics Syllabus

In the fall 2018 semester, I am teaching a semester-long class on Cyborgs and Cybernetics at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Due to popular demand, I’m sharing the reading list.

The course is taught as a 3000-level, writing intensive seminar. It meets twice a week for about 2 hours per session. Class sessions are discussion based, with short readings and videos often presented during class to supplement the readings and provoke conversation.

Please feel free to treat it as a reference and as inspiration for developing your own courses. I do ask that you let me know if you use it in this way via email.

Course description

Feminist science studies scholar Donna Haraway writes: “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are all cyborgs.” But what does it mean to say that we are all cyborgs? This class will explore the history and theory of cyborgs and cyborgs in the many domains in which they have been influential to offer some answers to that question.

The class will begin with a dive into the history of cybernetics, a engineering and philosophical paradigm emerged as a way to solve critical engineering challenges during World War II. Cybernetics went on to have an outsized impact in the sciences, engineering, and the social sciences with the acceleration of the space race and the professionalization of scholarly life, influencing fields as varied as information science, management, bionics, anthropology, and biology. Cybernetics has had an equally lively afterlife in popular culture, where cyborgs have proliferated and anchored a variety of dystopian, utopian, and liberatory thinking. Throughout the later parts of the class, we will explore how cyborgs and cybernetics have been taken up as cultural resources by practitioners, artists, philosophers, and writers as aids for understanding, critiquing, and changing modern society.

This is a writing intensive class. In addition to mastering content concerning cyborgs and cybernetics, students will be expected to carry out an independent research project on a topic of their choosing about cyborgs and/or cybernetics. Assignments and in-class activities will support students in conceptualizing, researching, writing, and revising this project, culminating in a final in-class presentation and final paper.

Course readings and materials

Week 1: Where are the Cyborgs in Cybernetics?

Week 2: The Human Use of Human Beings

Week 3: Cybernetics’ Beginnings

  • Norbert Wiener – The Human Use of Human Beings
  • Claude Shannon – Introduction, from The Mathematical Theory of Communication
  • Warren Weaver – Some Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication
  • W. Ross Ashby – Introduction, from An Introduction to Cybernetics
  • IN CLASS: Charles and Ray Eames – A Communications Primer []

Week 4: Thinking (with) Machines

Week 5: The Cybernetic Society

  • Gregory Bateson – Steps Toward an Ecology of Mind
  • Marilyn Strathern – Writing Anthropology, from Partial Connections
  • Margaret Mead/Heinz von Foerster – Cybernetics of Cybernetics

Week 6: Robocop

  • Philip K. Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Week 7: Gender Trouble

  • Philip K. Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • Charles Hables Gray – MAN PLUS: Enhanced Cyborgs and the Construction of the Future Masculine
  • Aaron Bady – You’ll Never See the Northern Lights[]
  • IN CLASS: Blade Runner (selections)
  • IN CLASS: Blade Runner 2046 (selections)

Week 8: Cyborg Feminism (includes guest artists’ lecture)

  • Donna Haraway – A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century 
  • Chela Sandoval – New Sciences: Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of the Oppressed

Week 9: Afrofuturism

  • Rayvon Fouché – The Wretched of the Gulf: Racism, Technological Dramas, and Black Politics of Technology
  • Octavia Butler – Blood Child 
  • Robin James – “Robo-Diva R&B”: Aesthetics, Politics, and Black Female Robots in Contemporary Popular Music 
  • IN CLASS: Black Panther (selections)
  • IN CLASS: Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer (Emotion Picture) []
  • IN CLASS: Beyonce – Formation []
  • IN CLASS: Childish Gambino – This Is America []

Week 10: The Information Society

Week 11: Cripborgs

Week 12: Tryborgs

Week 13: New Romance

  • William Gibson – Neuromancer

Week 14: Lift Off

Week 15: New Worlds

Final Presentations

Photo credit: Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer, 2018, from