nl en

"All that is solid melts into code”: How big data is changing the world.


Admission requirements

This course is available for students of Humanities Lab.
If you have received your propaedeutic diploma, or completed your first year, within one academic year, your academic results are good and you are a very motivated student, you may apply for a place in the Humanities Lab.


Digital information technologies profoundly affect life in the 21st century. One particularly striking development is the use of smart algorithms to analyze the expanding data trails each of us is generating as we interact with digital environments. Providers of digital services (commercial parties as well as governments and others) routinely harvest this ‘behavioral surplus’ for a wide range of purposes: to better serve their clients, to enhance the client experience, to identify potential needs or dangers, to predict market developments, to nudge clients towards desirable behavior, or simply to collect data that can be sold to third parties.
The course discusses some important ways in which smart algorithms (‘machine learning’) and big data seem to compromise the received view of rational agency. The course is organized around four groups of themes, for each of which there will be two meetings (lecture + student presentations):

  • knowledge: epistemology, epistemic transparancy and opacity, explanation, justification;

  • agency: personal identity and autonomy, free will, commitment, responsibility;

  • privacy: legal aspects (including GDPR), individual vs. group privacy;

  • liberal democracy: political theory, representation, justification, intentionality.

Course objectives

  1. Student deepen their understanding of key aspects of our self-understanding as human beings, including in particular knowledge, agency, identity, free will, commitment, responsibility, privacy and intentionality.
  2. Students acquire knowledge of basic aspects of machine learning and artificial intelligence.
  3. Students learn how to critically assess the impact of Big data on core aspects of society.
  4. Students acquire and practice skills in critical analysis, argumentation, team work, and presentation.


This course is offered online in MS Teams, with meetings on Thursdays and Fridays, 5-7 PM. Attendance at the lectures is recommended but not compulsory; lectures will be recorded. Attendance at presentations is compulsory.

  1. Introduction: Thu Nov. 4
  2. Knowledge: Lecture Thu Nov. 11, Presentations Thu Nov. 18
  3. Agency: Lecture Fri Nov. 19, Presentations Thu Nov. 25
  4. Privacy: Lecture Fri Nov. 26, Presentations Thu Dec. 2
  5. Democracy: Lecture Fri Dec. 3, Presentations Thu Dec. 9
  6. Closing: Thu Dec. 16
    The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

Seminar (online in MS Teams)

Assessment method

The final grade is the weighted average of the following components:

  • Participation: 10%

  • Oral presentation: 30%

  • Final project: 50%

  • Reflection report: 10%


Attendance at the lectures is recommended but not compulsory; lectures will be recorded. Attendance at presentations is compulsory.


A resit is offered only for the final project and the reflection report.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Required reading

Recommended reading

  • Zuboff, S. (2019), The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. London: Profile Books.

  • Harari, Y.N. (2016), Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker.

  • Weinberger, D. (2012), Too Big to Know. New York: Basic Books.


Students of Humanities Lab will be registered in uSis by the administration of the Humanities Lab. Students register for the Humanities Lab modules through an online form, more information will be provided by Umail.
General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte en Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga


This course is part of the Humanities Lab programme, visit the website for more information.
Visit the Honours Academy website for more information about the Honours College.