This autumn I’m teaching a graduate course on Digital Media Aesthetics, and I’m going to make it about emergence, memes and viral art and narrative. I got the idea reading William Gibson’s latest novel, Pattern Recognition, which for the first half circles around viral marketing, distribution and thinking. Reading I found myself scribbling done notes for a course that would start with a reading of the novel and continue through theory, popular science and exploration of art, games and stories that use the network in these ways. The second half of Gibson’s novel wraps up the story far more cleanly and singularly than I’d hoped, leaving the viral stuff out, so I’m not entirely sure whether to use it or not. Maybe.

Here’s my current draft of the curriculum for the course – what do you think? What would you add?

Books: Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, Johnson’s Emergence.
Print compendium: Benjamin “The Artwork in the Age of Reproduction”, McGonigal “This is Not a Game”, Weinberger “Togetherness” (from Small Pieces), Dawkins: “Memes: The New Replicators” (from The Selfish Gene, Baudrillard (something on simulation?), maybe Foucault: “Panopticism”.
Online articles: Walker: “Epostpoesi og epostfortellinger“, The Cluetrain Manifesto.
Primary Works: Etchells: Surrender Control, Montfort & Rettberg: Implementation, listserv interventions by N.N., Mez etc, Bonsai Kittens, Nigerian spam and responses, blogs, immersive gaming (, the Howard Dean campaign, community flash games, flash mobs, David Still.

I think students will write conventional essays but also design (and implement?) a viral work or campaign of some kind, probably in groups.

15 thoughts on “teaching infectious art

  1. diane

    Hi Jill,

    Without some kind of historical context, it’s easy to slip into reifying this thing called “emergence” without really knowing what is specifically, historically new and interesting about it, and what picks up old themes.

    So FWIW I’d assign Foucault’s chapter on 18th century economics in Les mots et les choses, along with a primary text like The Wealth of Nations. One of Foucault’s points is that in the 18th century, value “emerged” out of the speed of circulation of money rather than being deposited in abstractions like labor and capital. As always Foucault gives historians lots to argue with but his identification of speed of circulation (of money in the 18th c., which maps interesting, I think, to the circulation of images in Benjamin and the circulation of “memes” today) with the production of value is important for emergence.

  2. Jill

    Oh oh oh! Wonderful Diane, thank you!

    I’m going to have fun learning about this.

  3. Matt K.

    If you want another novel to throw into the mix I’d recommend Ellen Ullman’s The Bug–about language, code, and artificial life, among much else.

  4. mjones

    This sounds like a great course. I hope you will keep us posted.

  5. Mark Bernstein

    I’m not convinced SMART MOBS deserves such a prominent place here; Pattern Recognition, I think, says more about the phenomona, and says it better.

    I’m with Diane: more on emergence would matter. Foucault is good. If these were undergrads, I’d prescribe _The Selfish Gene_ and some Stephen J. Gould, together, for background. For grad students, this may be asking too little. How about Wolfram, _A New Kind Of Science_.

    As for _The Bug_, I stand by my TEKKA review ( ):

    “But when it comes to her characters, Ullman is brutal. The narrator, a failed PhD linguist who, we are told, will grow to become a wealthy, world-travelling QA consultant, is drawn with a modicum of sympathy. One minor character, the sexy German night sysadmin, is described with imagination and some flair — but, since she has nothing much to do, she hardly helps. The developers are all physically unattractive, uncommunicative, and irresponsible. The programmers aren’t very nice to the testers: naturally, they cannot end well.”

    “Ethan’s faults and limitations are pasted on; the story would unfold in much the same way if you replaced Ethan with Sam Spade. Ullman’s hero quite possibly has Asperger’s Syndrome. His colleagues and managers don’t know this — it’s the 80s and Asperger’s didn’t make it into the DSM until 1994. But the better angels of their nature should have known better, even then, and Ullman surely should know better now. Writing with sympathy about mental affliction is commendable, but punishing characters because they suffer from torments which you have contrived to inflict upon them seems merely mean.”

  6. Matt K.

    Re: The Bug: It’s a flawed novel, no question (re-reading it I’m struck by just how unpalatable all the characters really are) but I do think it has insights to offer into the actual nature of programming and code (and in the context of Jill’s course, emergence), and that these topics material might be more approachable in fictional guise than through the raw theory alone.

  7. Matt K.

    PS: The suggestion of Asperger’s is fascinating.

  8. Jill

    I do very much like the idea of approaching ideas through fiction as well as theory, yes – I’ve ordered The Bug, and I’ll see whether it fits. Thanks for the suggestion.

    An online resource to add: An ABC of Tactical Media by David Garcia and Geert Lovink – I got this from Jonah Peretti, who emailed me the syllabus of a course he taught at NYU last year on Contagious Media, a very closely related concept to my infectious art. Perhaps contagious is a better word for it.

    Jonah Peretti is behind a lot of contagious media projects I’ve heard of: The Rejection Line, and the Nike Sweat Shop emails. Some of these haven’t been presented particularly as “art”, which I find interesting. Jonah’s head of R&D at Eyebeam and is currently blogging at Eyebeam’s ReBlog, which filters and republishes links from blog feeds on art and technology. His course sounds great, and I’ll nab at least one of his assignments: for the first class he asked the students to “Collect examples of contagious media for class discussion. One group collects email forwards, one group collects web sites, one group collects street memes, and one group collects tactical media interventions.” See, that’d be simple to do. Students worked in groups to design a midterm project that consisted of designing and deploying a contagious media event, informed by readings on “humor, conceptual art, and tactical media”. The final project could be further work on this, a study into its spreading, or a case study of another example of contagious media.

    I’ll definitely have my students design a contagious media thing, but I’m not sure how big a portion of the course will be doing that. Hm…

    Drew Davidson also wrote about a course he’s currently teaching in which he uses Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.

    Mark, Wolfram’s book is entirely online with lots of paraphernalia. I’ll look into it.

  9. Collin


    A couple of quick possible adds —

    Susan Blackmore’s Meme Machine. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at it, but a chapter or two might flesh out Dawkins. Here’s an interview she did with RU Sirius that should give you some idea of what she does there.

    Greg Urban’s Metaculture. He cites the memetics stuff early on, but his is an anthropological approach to the question of how ideas move through culture. Not a lot online about the book. His homepage links to the UMinn page on it.

    And in the interest of fiction, I’ve taught and enjoyed Connie Willis’s Bellwether before. From , “Sandra Foster, the narrator of Bellwether, studies fads for HiTek, a private corporation; the corporation’s premise is that finding out what makes something a fad will help it predict future fads and capitalize on that knowledge.”

    Good luck with the course…

  10. Jill

    Thanks, Collin, I’ll look those up. I like your weblog for planning your spring 2005 course on Network(ed) Rhetoric, btw – if I were teaching a grad course that semester I think I’d join in, because I love the idea of teaching networkedly, collaboratively, distributedly like that.

    If anyone, or anyone any of you know of, is teaching a course that’s related to my contagious/infectious/emergent course idea this autumn, do let me know!

  11. Jason

    For novels, I wonder if Richard Power’s Plowing the Dark might fit well with your themes. The novel – narrated partly in the 3rd-person and partly in the 2nd-person – primarily focuses on a start-up company trying to develop a representative system in a CAVE-like environment. All of this is set against the backdrop of late 80s, early 90s global politics – from the hostage crisis (which plays into the 2nd person narration), to Tiananmen Square, to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    It’s an absolutely brilliant book.

  12. jo

    hi jill

    sounds like a wonderful unit. i canít go past the ëall your base are belong to us phenomenoní for infectious electronic art. it even made it into the google zeitgeist!

    all your base are belong to us:

    all your smurf are belong to smurf:

    all your iraq are belong to us:

    and many, many more…


  13. Jill

    You’re right Jo, that’s definitely a good one. I guess I’ll find a number of ones like that and also have the students track their own finds – I’ll be they’re partly on different circuits than mine. I don’t get many SMS or MMS jokes, for instance, being an ancient old-fashioned woman whose friends mostly use phones for one-to-one communication, but I would imagine people a few years younger than me would be getting different stuff to me.

  14. Guy Lelarge

    I think the theory of memes can offer a new view on autism and variants like prosopamnesia, describing them as “a soft problem” not ” drug problem. I’m glad to read papers by “aspergers” with opening for a change chiefly in education and cures of “abnormality”. Do we start a search for little Einsteins abandonned to drugs and “psys”?
    Maybe the correct view on the memes is that its will to replicate meet with the impossiblity to do it perfectly.
    A nice parallel with the ADN, always beside its aim by a little that provokes much…

  15. Robert

    hi jill,

    teaching a viral media arts class this fall and would love to share info with you, but can’t find your email address.

    if your interested, email me!

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts

Triple book talk: Watch James Dobson, Jussi Parikka and me discuss our 2023 books

Thanks to everyone who came to the triple book talk of three recent books on machine vision by James Dobson, Jussi Parikka and me, and thanks for excellent questions. Several people have emailed to asked if we recorded it, and yes we did! Here you go! James and Jussi’s books […]

Image on a black background of a human hand holding a graphic showing the word AI with a blue circuit board pattern inside surrounded by blurred blue and yellow dots and a concentric circular blue design.
AI and algorithmic culture Machine Vision

Four visual registers for imaginaries of machine vision

I’m thrilled to announce another publication from our European Research Council (ERC)-funded research project on Machine Vision: Gabriele de Setaand Anya Shchetvina‘s paper analysing how Chinese AI companies visually present machine vision technologies. They find that the Chinese machine vision imaginary is global, blue and competitive.  De Seta, Gabriele, and Anya Shchetvina. “Imagining Machine […]

Do people flock to talks about ChatGPT because they are scared?

Whenever I give talks about ChatGPT and LLMs, whether to ninth graders, businesses or journalists, I meet people who are hungry for information, who really want to understand this new technology. I’ve interpreted this as interest and a need to understand – but yesterday, Eirik Solheim said that every time […]