metropolis_lenaTechnology Across the Curriculum (TAC), my OSU home, has the charge to explore how changes in technology may affect the pursuit of knowledge by students and instructors.

This effort is called “futurecasting” and is based on forms of analysis that I’ve taught in my ALS199 course “FutureTech”; what I offer here owes much to what I have learned from the remarkable students of that course (hi you guys)!

Futurecasting is not merely guessing or a form of science fiction, though I think it fair to say that science fiction is not merely guessing either.

Science fiction is a literary genre that uses speculation about possible derivations of science and technology to comment on the human condition.

Quality science fiction does more than merely imagine some fantastic new technology, it connects the imagined technology to our present condition through extrapolations from existing science.metropolis_poster

Writer Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of literary speculation is; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I take this to mean that magic in literature is sheer imagination and needs no explanation, while the speculative technologies of science fiction require some plausible relation to known reality.

The technologies in science fiction films vary between the speculative and magical.

We may distinguish these in retrospect depending on how closely actual changes in culture maps to past representations of the future.

Judge for yourself as I briefly survey the history of science fiction film from its onset through the 1960s.

Le Voyage Dans la Lun [A Trip to the Moon] (1902): French artist Georges Méliès apollo_moon_landingstarted the science fiction film genre with his fanciful adaptation of a novel by Jules Verne.

Melies’ technology is almost wholly inaccurate although he did introduce space travel and a moon landing to the public imagination at a time when the existence of motion pictures alone was a mind-bending technology.

Robert Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926 and 43 years later a rocket did send people to walk on the moon, which much of the world watched live on television.

Metropolis (1927): The first great science fiction film is by Fritz Lang whose vision of occult robotics and mechanized society driven by vast social inequality anticipates the digital divide that faces us today.

The Jetsons (1962): I grant that this goofy cartoon series was not intended as serious social commentary, but watch a few episodes and you will see remarkably approximate representations of video chat, tablet news readers, jetsons_pill_camflying cars, dog walking treadmills, robot chefs, a medical pillcam, and the smart watch; all of which are with us now in some functional form (as demonstrated by the links in this post).

The Jetsons was a spinoff of the popular cartoon series, The Flintstones (1960), which depicted a fantasy stone age world in which modern machine technology was accomplished by uses of imaginary animals; for instance a can opener operated by a living bird with a long beak.

Both The Flintstones and The Jetsons provide a mid-twentieth century view of society by substituting everyday processes with imaginary methods – in one case magical and in the other science fiction.

I point this out because for some people the fact that we are talking about cartoons and movies designed for entertainment rules out any serious meaning to be derived.

I disagree with that exclusion because all reality has some meaning and often the significances that are hard for us to recognize occur in the form of the seemingly trivial; in history the jester has often been the sole agent who may reveal undesired truths to the powerful.

If one approaches the task of understanding from a position of already knowing what is and is not meaningful, then the effort will be short and simple, but not more truthful.

Alphaville (1965): Technocratic totalitarianism is a modern anxiety that continues to inspire depiction in film and most follow the lead of the film by Jean Luc Goddard which presents a society dominated by an artificial intelligence that outlaws emotion and the irrational.

Star Trek (1966): The relatively obscure TV series which became a phenomenon star_trek_transporteris a gold mine of speculative technology which anticipated applied science such as the cloaking device, the medical tricorder, the communicator and the replicator.

Most remarkable aspect of the original Star Trek was its premise that the human species would survive to thrive in the 23rd century.

In the 1960’s most of us assumed that the human species was on track to annihilate itself through nuclear war or some other apocalyptic technology.

Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry showed us a human future that had not committed species suicide, transcended racism, sexism and nationalism, succeeded in peaceful collaboration with alien species (except for Klingons and Tholians), progressed with an economy without money but based on human excellence and operated by consensus with a moral principle of universal respect.

The original Star Trek may look comical by current production values, but it presented a unique conception of hope in humanity at a time when the human prospect appeared dim to many and the stories of the series are better than much of what is sold as science fiction today.

fahrenheit-451-largeFahrenheit 451 (1966): François Truffaut adapted Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future where books are banned “firemen” are a kind of SWAT team who find and burn the hidden libraries of resisting bibliophiles (451F being the burning point of paper – sort of).

The film ably depicts a world without reading, even the film titles and credits are spoken, and human relationships are mediated via ubiquitous room-sized flat-screens.

If we stripped all text from YouTube it would look a lot like the world of this film and given the contemporary push for video over text in education, the issues raised in this story about the future of cognition remain relevant.

The film music is by Bernard Hermann who asked Truffaut why he had not chosen a “modern” composer and was answered; “They’ll give me music of the twentieth century but you’ll give me music of the twenty first!”

Planet of the Apes (1968): The idea of non-human apes supplanting humans is a popular culture phenomenon that started with a film based on the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle.palent_of_the_apes

The film script was written by Rod Serling, creator of the Twilight Zone (which itself is a wealth of futurecasting), and at center is a reversal of evolutionary science in which chimpanzees and gorillas progress to the dominant species while homo sapiens devolves to non-sentient brutes.

The concept continues to flourish via remakes, sequels, tv series, and more because the story confronts viewers with the problem of: what does it mean to be human?

This month a federal judge rules that two chimpanzees caged in NY have the legal right of habeas corpus (the right to legally challenge one’s imprisonment), which is remarkable in a decade where some human beings have been officially denied that same right.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): A milestone for science fiction film as art was Stanley Kubrick’s enigmatic masterpiece which futurecast a rich environment of emerging technologies including the space shuttle, the space station, artificial intelligence, artificial gravity, video conferencing, digital photography, smartpens, zero gravity meals and zero gravity toilets.

Consider that the film fairly accurately shows a moon landing and walk which in fact occurred a year later when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface in 1969.

2001 remains a great science fiction film because it raises vital questions about interrelations of humanity, history, technology and the scope of human understanding.2001_monolith

2001 contains magic as well, as defined by Clarke’s Law, so that separating the technically plausible from the merely imaginable remains a present challenge for interpretation.

Science fiction does not predict the future, it describes possible futures and explores the implications of them.

How the possible near futures of technology may impact learning is the area of concern in Technology Across the Curriculum at OSU and you are welcome to write to us and visit for exploration of these matters – tac@oregonstate.edu.

Next week this column will overview SciFi films of the 1970s to present and you are invited to make additions, comment and corrections below!

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