Black Mirror has given us a view of the digital future that is bleak. Like all speculative fiction, this television series intensifies certain negative dimensions of our contemporary culture as a kind of warning of our future dystopia should be carry on as we have. This assignment asks you to think in more utopian ways about digital technology. How might we rethink digitality—the condition of being digital—in ways that would avoid the worst consequences of our high tech future previewed by Black Mirror? Can you envision a future world where digital technology is used to solve problems and bring people together, rather than cause distractions and push people apart? The problem with dystopian thinking is that it forestalls the imaginative thinking needed to envision a future that isn’t just a hellscape—this assignment asks you to envision a world where digital technologies assist in producing justice, sustainability, and meaning in human lives.
Whereas the Policy Brief Assignment asks you to be realistic about policy options that might address some of the problems of digitality, the Rethinking Digitality Assignment asks you to be imaginative and creative and not worry about feasibility. You can use any method to help us envision digitality differently—from speculative fiction to more traditional analytical methods. You are advised to focus on one technology, or several related technologies. For example, you might focus on the idea of automation: rather than focusing on the evils of automation (putting people out of jobs, the autonomous robots of Metalhead), your paper could try to envision a society in which automation helps produce more leisure time for everyone. What would such a society look like? Alternatively, instead of the attention-scattering properties of social media featured in Smithereens, can you imagine a social networking site that focuses attention on meaningful relationships instead? What would that look like? How does that networking infrastructure look differently from current sites like Instagram and Twitter?
Projects can be delivered in any medium. Papers are acceptable, as are audio and video projects. Length should be commensurate with the point value of the assignment; in most cases, a paper should be between 1500-2000 words and a video/audio project should be between 4-5 minutes, though specific projects may be shorter or longer.
Suggestions for Success
- Part of the inspiration for this assignment is the development of “solarpunk” as a speculative fiction genre (as opposed to the more dystopian “cyberpunk” genre). Solarpunk stories are typically more positive, showing how ecological crisis might bring people together to work on common problems and how digital technologies could help us live in the coming centuries of climate catastrophe. There are lots of free solarpunk resources on the web—it might help to inspire you a bit!
- Consider re-reading Dr. Ruha Benjamin, “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods,” which we read the first week of class. Benjamin integrates more analytical writing with speculative fiction in a way that might serve as a good template for your project. You might consider, “Incubate a Better World in the Minds and Hearts of Students,” by Dr. Benjamin, in which she underlines how imaginative exercises like this can change the world. View it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xmrJJESCt8.
- Details make imagined futures come alive, which is why speculative fiction is so powerful a resource. One doesn’t have to write fiction for this assignment, of course, but the more details that one can include in their revisioning of digitality, the more effective it is likely to be.
- Resist the urge to think about technology in a vacuum. Technology, culture, and individuals always interact. Don’t just think about the technical dimensions of the future—think about the kind of culture that might accompany it.
- Feel free to think beyond normal project formats. Perhaps you’re a budding graphic designer with an idea of how to build social media networks in a way that reduces their role in polarization. You could sketch the interface and discuss design choices in a short paper or in callout bubbles in the graphic. Think about medium of presentation in tandem with the substance of your idea.