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Politics of Code


  • Pierre Depaz
  • Jörg Blumtritt


While our relationships between ourselves, our environment, and other people are inherently political, computer technologies and technology companies consistently claim to remain “neutral”. This course will assume the opposite —software is political—, and focus on how software applications share commonalities with political systems, how they affect their users as political actors and how we can build alternatives or improvements to those systems. This course is aimed at deconstructing the design and implementation of software as a political medium, such as Facebook’s timeline algorithm, city officials’ use of computer simulations to orchestrate urban life, blockchain-backed proof of ownership and algorithmic criminal assessment. Along with an introduction to political theory and media studies, coupled with an exploration of the underlying political impacts of those systems, students will work on several hands-on projects to offer functioning alternatives to those systems. To that end, this course will include several workshops in JavaScript, Python and Unity.

Learning Outcomes

  • Be able to identify the particular agendas and biases present in the design and implementation of software systems.
  • Have gained an understanding of how digital applications can be used to reinforce existing political biases or deconstruct these biases.
  • Be able to design and develop a digital application which acknowledges its political agenda and engages with the user on an openly political level.
  • Identify how conscientious software development can contribute to social and political change through a conscious use of digital technologies.

Topic Outlines

  • Media Studies
  • Core Curriculum
  • Political Science
  • Art, Design and Technology


  • Computer Power and Human Reason, Joseph Weizenbaum, W. H. Freeman, 1976.
  • Code/Space: Software and the everyday life, R. Kitchen and M. Dodge, MIT Press, 2011
  • On Software, or the persistence of visual knowledge, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Gray Room, 2004.
  • A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow, EFF, 1996.
  • How Computer Systems Embody Values, H. Nissenbaum, Computer, 2001.
  • Machine Bias, J. Angwin, J. Larson, S. Mattu, L. Kirchner, ProPublica, 2016.
  • Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to Homemaker? Debiasing Word Embeddings, T. Bolukbasi, K.-W. Chang, et. al.,, 2016.
  • Keep Adding: On Kill Lists, Drone Warfare and the Politics of Databases, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Jutta Weber, 2015.
  • Protocol: Control After Decentralization, A. Galloway, MIT Press, 2010.
  • Discipline and Punish, M. Foucault, Random House, 1975.
  • Engineering the Public: Big Data, Surveillance and Computational Politics, Z. Tufekci,, 2014.
  • Electronic Civil Disobedience, CAE, Printed Matter, 1994.
  • The Networked Public Sphere and Civic Engagement in Post-2011 Egypt: A Local Perspective, Nagla Rizk, Lina Attalah, Nadine Weheba,, 2016
  • Restricting Digital Sites of Dissent, Arne Hintz, Critical Discourse Studies, 2016.
  • Places To Intervene In A System, D. Meadows, Sustainability Institute, 1999.
  • Public CulturalProduction Art(Software){, in CODE: The Language of Our Time, Christiane Paul, Ars Electronica, 2003.
  • What Facebook Knows, T. Simonite,, 2012
  • The Will-To-Synchronize, in Infinite Distractions, Dominc Pettman, Polity, 2016.
  • The Male Gazed, Kate Losse, Model View Culture, 2014.
  • A Cyborg Manifesto, D. Haraway, Routledge, 1990.
  • Missing Masses, B. Latour, Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, 1992.
  • AI's Language Problem, W. Knight, The Technology Review, 2016.
  • Uber’s Drivers: Information Asymmetries and Control in Dynamic Work, A. Rosenblat, Data & Society, 2015
  • The Ladies Vanish, S. Wen, The New Inquiry, 2014.
  • The Wealth of Networks, Y. Benkler,, 2006.
  • Intellectual Property, Lawrence Lessig,, 2008.
  • 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); GOTO 10, N. Montfort, P. Baudoin, J. Bell, I. Bogost, J. Douglass, M. C. Marino, M. Mateas, C. Reas, M. Sample, N. Vawter, MIT Press, 2013.
  • Speaking Code: Coding as Aesthetic and Political Expression, G. Cox, MIT Press, 2012.
  • Speech, Writing, Code: Three Worldviews, N. Katherine Hayles, University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge, I. Burrington, The Atlantic, 2015.
  • What Can A Technologist Do About Climate Change?, B.Victor,, 2015.
  • Against the Imperialism of Instrumental Reason, J. Weizenbaum, W. H. Freeman, 1976.

Grading Rubric

Projects and writing assignment should be submitted by email. The submission for projects will be in a .zip file containing either a standalone application and the write-up document or the write-up, with the IP address of the project and with the local files uploaded to that server. Writing assignments will be submitted by uploading it to one’s website and sending that URL in an email. Essays will be graded on (1) whether a clear understanding of the present and future challenges presented by computer technology in regard to that topic, and (2) if the response presents a clear, well-argued position (whether agreeing, disagreeing, or both) regarding that issue. - 20% Reading responses will be graded on (1) whether at least one of the issues presented in the readings has been acknowledged, (2) whether the response deliberately identifies the possible implications that these issues have and (3) whether the response presents an active position (agreement/disagreement) with those implications. - 10% Participation is the pendant of the weekly reading responses. During lectures, students are expected to participate (1) in class by asking questions, contributing to the discussion and providing feedback to other students’ projects. Students who do not feel comfortable enough to participate regularly in class discussions can contribute to the class by (2) proposing readings, articles or examples that are relevant to the weekly topic. - 10% Solo and Group projects will be graded on (1) functionality (is the application free of unintentional bugs? is it usable by someone else than the developers? in case of a networked project, does it support more than two or three connections at once?), (2) on how well the original political intent is represented in its design and its use (does it influence the behavior of users in a specific way? does it open new ways to think and act about the situation?) and (3) on how possible it would be to deploy the project in the real world (does it only work in the classroom or could it work anywhere in the world? what would be the necessary steps for that to happen?). - 15 + 15% Group Projects - 30% Final Project


  • Readings will include book chapters, research papers and articles from science and technology studies, media studies and software studies fields. These readings will introduce the students to political sciences, media studies and software studies as well as survey the latest research and explorations in those fields. Reading Responses are required to be posted the day before the lecture on the student’s website. Each response will be at least 500 words, and will focus on whether the student agreed or disagreed with the readings for that week, and why.
  • Each student is expected to write two essays relating to the class themes during the semester. The first essay will be around 1,500 words, the second essay will be around 3,000 words and should be posted on their website.
  • Group projects will be completed by teams of 2-3 students. Students will work in groups to complete two functioning prototypes, such as a simple simulation, a simple web communications platform or a simple bot, accompanied by a solo, 500-word essay explaining the political nature of their prototypes. These group projects can be based on class exercises during workshop sessions but must extend those in significant ways (adding new functionalities, deploying it publicly, integrating it with another system).
  • Solo project will have students produce their own software prototype based on their own political opinions. Students will present a first version of their prototype as their midterm exam and a final version as their final exam. This project will go through a longer ideation and development phase, focus on a particular political issue and address it in a deliberate, thoughtful way.


No other.

Course Resources

Class wiki

This is where the main content of the website lives.

Class schedule

Survival of the best fit

Example of student work


Full PDF from Fall 2017
Uploaded by Pierre Depaz on 2023-07-03