Software Engineering (3 Years) [BSc]

The Information Age

Unit code: UCIL20282
Credit Rating: 10
Unit level: Level 2
Teaching period(s): Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit?: Y




This course uses historical case studies to show how and why digital information-processing occupies a crucial role in present-day human life. Combining strands from technical, social, cultural and economic history, it will describe the development of mass-produced computer technology and mass public access to information systems, and their consequences for society. It will also show the role of hopes, fears and other visions in informing public ideas, using examples ranging from employment forecasting to science-fiction dreams.

This course can be taken for 10 credits (code UCIL 20282) or 20 credits (UCIL 20782).



Explore the consequences of a computerised, automated, data-driven world: who gains, who loses, and what we can do about it

Understand the histories of technological developments from the mechanical calculating machines of the nineteenth century to the global networked systems of today

Examine the roles of information technologies in popular culture: as secret weapons that win wars, infernal machines that destroy jobs, vehicles for journeys of personal discovery, badges of industrial success, and unreliable everyday irritants

We will also look at images of computer users – from Victorian capitalists and Second World War boffins to 1970s techno-radicals, 1980s whizzkids, hackers, crackers, phreaks, geeks, techno-libertarians and millennial wage-slaves – and at what they say about the computer’s role in wider society

The wide-ranging analysis brings together the ideas of historians of technology, anthropologists, sociologists, gender theorists and media and communication specialists with views from inside the information technology community

The course is accessible to students who have no background in computing, but is also designed to help computer specialists understand the history and influence of their field.


It can be taken for both 10 credits (code UCIL 20282) or 20 credits (UCIL 20782).



Teaching and learning methods

10- and 20-credit versions:

12 x 2-hour combined lecture/seminar session

76 hours independent study and writing


Learning outcomes

By the end of this unit, it is expected that all students will

·       have a good working knowledge of major developments in the history of information technology, particularly from the Second World War onwards

·       have developed skills in critical reasoning and analysis, understanding the different motivations of historical characters in the history of information technology, and the differences in the ways they interpret and describe events

·       be able to appreciate, and display the ability to analyse and discuss, the different factors — social, technical, sometimes accidental — which shape the history of computing, and the definition of the computer and its users


Employability skills

  • Analytical skillsAll work on this course involves the critical examination of source materials (who wrote this, when and why? What was the intended audience? Did it have the intended effect?...)
  • Oral communicationDiscussion skills: Throughout the course, students are expected to give their own interpretations of the ideas and narratives presented, through in-class discussion and in their written work. Half the classroom time in most weeks is devoted to seminar discussion based on a reading or research task. All students will be involved in oral discussion.
  • ResearchThe lecture content is designed to provide a gateway to engaging with a wide range of literature, and all assessed work requires some independent source research.
  • Written communicationAll students write a 1500-word essay in standard humanities form, and receive individual written feedback. Essay skills training is provided.

Assessment Further Information

10-credit version: 1500-word coursework essay (50%), 2-hour exam (50%).



Content may change slightly as the coverage responds to fast-changing developments in social media and other information culture topics. Classes are likely to cover the following themes:

  • Information then: nineteenth-century industry and arithmetic engines
  • Information now: identity, privacy and power in the smartphone age
  • The changing computer: trends and complications in the development of information  technology
  • Software, infrastructure and algorithmic culture
  • An information icon: Alan Turing and the power of legends
  • Machines that think: hopes, dreams, failures and nightmares
  • Computers for the people! Home micros and techno-evangelists
  • Hacker histories
  • Geek mythology: skills and identities, women and men
  • Internet connections

Recommended reading

  • Campbell-Kelly, M., et al. (2013) Computer: A History of the Information Machine (third edition). Westview
  • Ceruzzi, P. (2003) A History of Modern Computing, 2nd edition. MIT Press
  • Levy, S. (2001) Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Penguin
  • Swedin, E (2005) Computers: the Life Story of a Technology. Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Abbate, J (2012) Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing. MIT Press

Feedback methods

Detailed feedback on coursework essays and projects is provided via Turnitin. Comments on exam scripts may be viewed on request.


Study hours

  • Assessment written exam - 2 hours
  • Lectures - 12 hours
  • Seminars - 12 hours
  • Independent study hours - 74 hours

Teaching staff

James Sumner - Unit coordinator

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