About the Class

Fall 2019 | LANT 2600 | CRN 7197  | Monday + Wednesday 4-5:40pm | 6 East 16th Street #912

Shannon Mattern | matterns@newschool.edu | office hours by appointment (write me!)

Or Zubalsky | zubao648@newschool.edu | office hours by appointment

Silicon Valley loves its “tools.” Tech critic Moira Weigel notes the frequency with which tech chiefs use the term, and she proposes that its popularity is largely attributable to its politics — or the lack thereof; tool talk, she says, encodes “a rejection of politics in favor of tinkering.” But humans have been using tools, to various political ends, for thousands of years. In this hybrid undergraduate seminar/studio we examine a range of tools, the work they allow us to do, they ways they script particular modes of labor and enact particular power relationships, and what they make possible in the world. After building up a critical vocabulary (of tools, gizmos, and gadgets), we’ll tackle a number of case studies — from anvils, erasers, and sewing needles to algorithms and surveillance technologies. In our Monday sessions we’ll study the week’s case through critical and historical studies from anthropology, archaeology, media studies, science and technology studies, and related fields; and in our Wednesday sessions we’ll explore that tool’s creative applications, either by studying the work of artists and creative practitioners, or by engaging in hands-on labs. Each student will develop a research-based “critical manual” for a tool of their choice.


  • We’ll think expansively, historically, and speculatively about what constitutes tools and technology
  • We’ll consider how tools embody particular ideologies, and how they shape human (and non-human) identity, agency, interpersonal relationships, labor, thought, and creative expression
  • We’ll identify tools that can serve us in our own lives — in our academic work, our creative pursuits, our social relationships, and so forth 
  • We’ll learn how to assess the various affordances and limitations, strengths and weaknesses, of different tools, and the politics and values they embody
  • We’ll test the limits of our tools and “creatively misuse” them to determine how they might serve purposes for which they weren’t intended 
  • We’ll develop skills of critical reading; material analysis; détournement (productive disfigurement, creative misuse); cross-media and technical communication; and basic computational thinking


Students will be able to…

  • use computation as a tool to enhance their liberal arts education — to better analyze, communicate, create and learn
  • engage in project-based and collaborative learning that utilizes computational/algorithmic thinking
  • gain a broader understanding of the historical and social factors leading to the increasing presence of computational systems in our lives
  • work through the social and political implications of/embedded within computational technologies and develop an accompanying ethical framework 
  • appreciate the challenges of equity and access posed by increased reliance on computational technologies as well as their potential to reinforce existing inequalities in society 
  • think critically about the ways they and others interact with computation including understanding its limits from philosophical, logical, mathematical and public policy perspectives
  • understand the intrinsic relationship between the physical world, analog environments and digital experiences


I am grateful to Casey Boyle, Becca Rose Glowacki, Lauren F. Klein, Jentery Sayers, Nathaniel Rivers, Daniela Rosner, and Mark Sample, whose own courses and teaching material have proven instrumental and inspirational as I developed this class.

Many folks on Twitter contributed to our list of manuals and guides, which you’ll find listed both in the assigned readings above and below, in the Supplemental Resources section: @agnesfcameron, @AimiHamraie, @alici_uki, @alienated, @aphid23, @ArchitectureFO, @ckohtala, @dancohen, @danielliddle, @dantaeyoung, @darylmeador, @dkdkpl, @dropsmops, @footnotesrising, @fstflofscholars, @HillaryPredko, @Ilincalurascu, @iltimasdoha, @incognitosum, @Jill_hubley, @jgieseking, @jr_carpenter, @JSNHL, @kellywooten, @magdor, @mahmoudkvz, @mbabwahsingh, @mwichary, @natesleeter, @nervousdata, @nha3383, @NSousanis, @nushelle, @ProfOTweets, @savasavasava, @Sierra_OffLine, @schettinodesign, @sedyst, @TopLeftBrick, @yvonnezlam, and @Zoe_Sadokierski. And still more generous folks helped to identify creative uses of slide decks, some of which you’ll find above, in the assigned readings, and more of which you’ll find below, in the Supplemental Resources: @alanlundgard, @arispool, @asugarhigh, @bbenzon, @bcoonley, @bibliomolly, @caitmckinney, @CIRCA_UMBC, @colindickey, @davidbenque, @despens, @DevinSmithWork, @dietoff, @gabrielledean, @HillaryPredko, @HystericallyR, @ideasintopictur, @JonahSack, @k_pendergrast, @looseuterus, @marika_louise, @mean_neen, @melanie_hoff, @michael_connor, @michham, @mildlydiverting, @mtechman, @nicolasnova, @Nikos_voyiatzis, @ohnobackspace, @RedThunderAudio, @riptornlover, @rodrigotellom, @rorys, @_saraedean, @SolveigDaugaard, @tergiversor, @_Undt, @Zoe_Sadokierski. Thanks to everyone!