HL90 EC: A Cultural History of the Internet

Get your shopping lists ready! We asked our lecturers about their fall HL90s. Briana Smith tells us all about the internet, the Smashing Pumpkins, and more.

What inspired you to teach this class?

The idea for this class came out of my new research project on German cybercultures and the history of the German hacker organization the Chaos Computer Club. After reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture about digital utopianism in the US, I was stoked to explore the cultural history of Germany’s computer worlds. I also wanted to better understand how Germans responded to the cybercultures emerging from the US in the 1970s. I decided to craft a course around the history of the internet in the United States, with the Fred Turner book as our guide, while also extending the course into the twenty-first century. I do also want to note that planning for this class was well underway before the pandemic hit, but I am quite excited about the pedagogical possibilities introduced by teaching a class about the internet on the internet!

What’s something you’re especially excited to share with students?

24 Hours in Cyberspace is a book (with CD-ROM!) published in 1997 documenting a website and online event from February 8, 1996, described as the “largest collaborative internet event ever.” The concept for the project involved “the world’s leading photojournalists” (including Second Lady Tipper Gore) taking photographs of people around the world using the internet or people whose lives were changed by their encounters with the internet. The photos were to be taken on February 8, 1996 and uploaded to the website (cyberspace24.com) in real time. The event captures the excitement of the moment so well: when cyberspace promised to transcend geographical distance and allow people to collaborate and connect across the world. The fact that this website was immediately turned into a book is also fascinating to me. It indicates how this was also a liminal moment, when enthusiasm for cyberspace coexisted with the impulse to create a physical copy of a website to sell as a coffee table book. 

Will you be doing any cool projects in class?

Modeled on the “History of the Present” approach, students will design a research project around a contemporary question or problem related to the internet that intrigues them. The goal is then to develop an argument on that contemporary topic drawing on historical research, including the use of primary sources. The final project will not look like your usual college research paper, instead it will take the form of an op-ed style essay and/or blog post that is sharp and persuasive, but built on thorough historical research and contextualization. This assignment also invites students to refine their ability to write in clear and concise, yet also compelling, prose, which is an incredibly valuable skill in a variety of writing contexts. 

Students will also have the option to make a video in lieu of the final written work. This version of the assignment will invite students to present their research via images and video, and consider how the visual element can enhance their argument. I have received a grant from the Elson Family Arts Initiative Fund to purchase a class subscription to the online video editing software WeVideo, and will be offering additional tech support for those interested in making videos.

What do you want students to take away from your class?

I did not use the internet until I was twelve years old. Thus, I have plenty of memories of life without the internet. I am anticipating students who take this class will have a variety of stories about their lives with or without the internet. I am really excited to hear these stories. During the first few weeks of class, we will devote time to sharing our personal histories with the internet and its changing role in our lives in order to consider how these individual experiences have shaped the ways we inhabit cyberspace and the place of technology in our everyday lives. 

This class will also offer more practical tools for students interested in the intersection of technology and the humanities. Through this course, students will be exposed to methodologies for studying and historically contextualizing digital cultures and online phenomena, while tackling more theoretical questions about the virtual vs. the actual world, the posthuman, and the politics of virtual space. Students will also leave this class with a better sense for the actual people who made the internet, the communities who made it their own, and how tech companies learned how to commodify our online lives. 

We’ve got to ask! What were your first experiences online?

My introduction to the World Wide Web involved a search engine called WebCrawler, whose logo featured a friendly spider riding a surfboard and holding a magnifying glass. My first goal online was to find lyrics to Smashing Pumpkins songs and later to create my own Geocities website devoted to sharing my love for the Smashing Pumpkins. Later, I frequented a chat room (screen name: Tristessa! Yes, that is the title of a Smashing Pumpkins song) where I found other “alternative” music fans to chat with. As a teenager in a town of 2,000 in northern Minnesota, this was a very exciting development. 

To learn more, you can check out the syllabus on Canvas, stop by shopping week (Thursday, 3-5:45), or email Bri at to set up an appointment!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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