Dr. Dean Taciuch
George Mason University

Spring 2016

Honors 353: 007 & 009
Technology in Contemporary Society

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. We have contributed to the initiation of a science which, as I have said, embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it over to the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the choice of suppressing these new technical developments. They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and the most venal of our engineers.

The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation. As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.

Norbert Wiener, Introduction to Cybernetics (39)

Course Description

The course will begin with the concept of Cybernetics, popularized by Norbert Wiener's Human Use of Human Beings, a book he wrote (in 1950) specifically to explain cybernetics to the interested non-expert. Cybernetics, as Wiener and the first generation of computer engineers defined it, is the science of control and communication in machines, animals, and human beings. Cybernetics gave us the concepts of "cyberspace" and the "cybernetic organism"—the cyborg. The cybernetic concept of the transhuman (or posthuman) raises questions about what it means to be human. We will explore these concepts by studying later technological advances in computer science, biology, sociology, philosophy, and the arts.


Norbert Wiener. The Human Use of Human Beings. ($15.00)
Martine Rothblatt. Virtually Human. ($17.00)
Prices as of January 2016. If you are charged more at the bookstore, let me know.
Both texts are available as e-books as well, but the Wiener e-book is of poor quality.

Vernor Vinge, "Technological Singularity"
Ray Kurzweil, The Ray Kurzweil Reader
TED Talk: Kevin Kelly on How Technology Evolves
Nick Bostrom, "A History of Transhumanist Thought"
Bill Joy "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us"
Francis Fukuyama, "Transhumanism"

Course Site:

We will use Blackboard for online discussions and essay submissions.


The assignments in this course consist of three essays, weekly reading responses, and a final exam. The first essay will be an analysis of some complex system in light of Norbert Wiener's concept of cybernetics. The system may be biological, social, mechanical, digital, or any combination of these. The second essay will be on the concepts introduced in the Kurzweil and Rothblatt texts (mind uploading, mindclones). The third essay will be research topic on a specific technology or a specific issue related to technology.

The weekly responses will be posted to Blackboard. The weekly responses will be on a specific question which I will post, and they will be due before class most weeks (if there is an essay due that week, there will no weekly response). You may add to your posts after class, of course. I will also ask you to comment on the posts of other students. To earn full credit for the responses, you must post 10 weekly responses, and comment on at least five of your fellow students' posts.

The final exam will be a cumulative in-class short essay exam. I will post study terms a week or so before the exam. Bluebooks are not required, but they are convenient.

Essay 1 Feb. 19 20%
Essay 2 April 1 20%
Essay 3 May 2 25%
Weekly reading responses most weeks before class 15%
Final Exam May 9 (007), May 10 (009) 20%


Course Policies

Grading: Grades on the essays will be based primarily on the quality of the writing. I value clear, focused writing with plenty of examples. Grades on the research essay will be based on the quality of the research as well: I expect you to use the GMU Library databases as well as the Internet.

Late Assignments: Late papers will lose 5% per day unless you make prior arrangements with me.

Revision Policy: The essays may be revised for a higher grade, but they must be substantially revised. You cannot lose a grade by revising, but a higher grade is not guaranteed. I have found that "B" papers (or higher) are often more difficult to revise, since serious revision requires thoroughly changing the essay's structure, and "B" papers usually have a fairly good structure. "C" papers (or lower) often respond more dramatically to revision, since the major changes they require are often more straightforward. I recommend revising "C" papers or lower only. If you plan to revise a "B" paper, please see me beforehand so we can discuss a revision strategy.

All revisions must be turned in b
y April 24

Plagiarism: Plagiarism means using the exact words, opinions, or factual information from another source without giving that source credit. Writers give credit through the use of accepted documentation styles, such as parenthetical citation, footnotes, or end notes; a simple listing of books, articles, and websites is not sufficient.

Writers must include a Works Cited or References list at the end of their essay, providing full bibliographic information for every source cited in their essay, including the course textbooks.

Instructors at George Mason University are bound to uphold the George Mason Honor Code, which requires us to report any suspected instances of plagiarism to the Honor Committee. All judgments about plagiarism are made after careful review by the Honor Committee, which may issue penalties ranging from grade-deductions to course failure to expulsion from GMU.

Important Dates

Martin Luther King Day (no classes) Mon Jan 18
First day of classes; last day to submit Domicile Reclassification Application; Payment Due Date; full semester waitlists removed Tues Jan 19
Summer 2015 Graduation Intent Available via Patriot Web Mon Jan 25
Last day to add classes—all individualized section forms due
Last day to drop with no tuition penalty
Tues Jan 26
Last day to drop with a 33% tuition penalty Tues Feb 2
Final Drop Deadline (67% tuition penalty) Fri Feb 19
Last day to file your Spring 2015 Graduation Intent Fri Feb 19
Immunization Record Deadline Tues Mar 1
Midterm progress reporting period (100-200 level classes)—grades available via Patriot Web Mon Feb 15 – Fri Mar 18
Selective Withdrawal Period (undergraduate students only) Mon Feb 22 – Fri Mar 25
Spring Break Mon Mar 7 – Sun Mar 13
Incomplete work from Fall 2015 due to Instructor Fri Mar 25
Incomplete grade changes from Fall 2015 due to Registrar Fri Apr 1
Dissertation/Thesis Deadline Fri Apr 29
Last day of classes Mon May 2
Reading Days
Reading days provide students with additional study time for final examinations. Faculty may schedule optional study sessions, but regular classes or exams may not be held.
Tue May 3
Exam Period (beginning at 7:30 a.m.) Wed May 4 – Wed May 11
Commencement and Degree Conferral Date May 13



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