COMP 1401: Computing at the Movies

Misconceptions about the nature, abilities, and limitations of computing devices, as well as the computing profession and those within it, are widespread – fostered in large part by (mis)representations of computing in print and audiovisual media. Such misconceptions can have far-reaching consequences given the increasing prominence of computing in personal, commercial, and political life. The main objective of this course is to critically examine these misconceptions through viewing, discussing, and writing about representations of computing in various movies and documentaries produced over the last 60 years. A secondary, but nonetheless still important objective, will be to stimulate interest in computing in the context of a non-technical and easily accessible introduction to computing and the computing profession.

Prerequisites: None

Availability: ⚠ This course is not planned to be offered in the near future.

Course Objectives

This course will both examine and counter common misconceptions about computing and the computing profession. This will be done by contrasting depictions of various aspects of computing in various movies and documentaries produced over the last 60 years with the reality of these aspects as given in selected readings and course lecture notes.

Representative Workload
  • Course Participation 10%
  • Critical Film Commentaries (2) 30%
  • In-class Exams (2) 30%
  • Term Paper 30%
Representative Course Outline

This course will be taught once a week in a three-hour lecture slot. Several days before each lecture, introductory notes on the area of computer science treated in the film will be provided on the course website; the expectation is that this content will be read before the lecture. In each lecture, there will be a brief (15-25 minute) introduction by the instructor before the screening of that week's film. The screening will be followed by further notes from the instructor and class discussion.

Over the course of the term, the students will submit 2 four-page (double-spaced) papers on two different films presented in the course lectures (one from the films in weeks 1-5, the other from the films in weeks 7-11) in which a critical assessment is given of both the (in)accuracy of the portrayal of computing in that film as well as how the film affects the public's perception of computing. Each student will also submit an 8-10 page (double-spaced) term paper assessing, comparing, and contrasting three of the films shown in the course plus one other film selected in consultation with the instructor.

The films will follow a roughly chronological course from 1955 to the present, with each film touching on one or more of the following three broad themes: Computing in the Popular Imagination (CI), Computing and Society (CS), and the Computing Profession (CP).
A sample set of films and associated readings is as follows:

  • Week 1: Introduction: Computing and Hollywood v1.0
    • Presented Viewing: Westworld (1973) (CI1)
  • Week 2: Inside the Dream Machine
    • Presented Viewing: Tron (1982) (CI2)
  • Week 3: Computing and the Workplace
    • Presented Viewing: Desk Set (1957) (CS1)
  • Week 4: Computing and the Military
    • Presented Viewing: Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969) (CI3)
  • Week 5: Computing and Medicine
    • Presented Viewing: The Terminal Man (1974) (CS2)
  • Week 6: The Personal Computer Revolution
    • Presented Viewing: Pirates of Silicon Valley (TV) (1999) (CP1)
  • Week 7: The Hacker Mystique
    • Presented Viewing: Hackers (1995) (CP2)
  • Week 8: Computing and Privacy
    • Presented Viewing: The Net (1995) (CS3)
  • Week 9: The Business of Computing I
    • Presented Viewing: The Social Network (2010) (CP3)
  • Week 10: The Wired World
    • Presented Viewing: Men, Women and Children (2014) (CS4)
  • Week 11: Artificial Intelligence
    • Presented Viewing: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001 (CI4)
  • Week 12: The Business of Computing II
    • Presented Viewing: Revolution OS (2001) (CP4)

Page last updated May 24th 2021