BCM325 Future Cultures: Why Science Fiction?

BCM325 Future Cultures is a third-year subject in the major of Digital and Social Media, which is one of five majors in the Bachelor of Communication and Media. Previously the subject was called ‘Cyberculture’ and had a very techno-social focus, with an emphasis on regulation and policy. My revisions for the subject have responded to the attention that digital, social and emergent media already receives in earlier subjects in the major and even subjects in the core subjects of degree, after all these are ‘the’ media that graduates will be working, in, with and around. Future Cultures has been refocussed around the primary goal of challenging students to think about the future across three time scales: the short-term, the medium-term and the long-term. The subject has a student blog, which students contribute to here.

As the major is going to be offered across multiple campuses including Wollongong, Hong Kong, South West Sydney and Dubai over the next few years, I have transitioned to a blended learning approach, which provides the lecture material in a series of online videos. My approach to the three-hour face-to-face seminar time mixes a little of the old and a little of the new. One of my favourite experiences as an undergraduate was the screenings of movies that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to or had the opportunity to view. Student’s today have more access to this type of content but don’t often choose to watch it. Similarly, classroom discussion in traditional tutorial mode is often hampered by an increased level of student anxiety, and less available time to prepare and do the background readings and research that would help them to speak from an informed position. Our students, however, are encouraged to use Twitter during their first-year lectures, deploying the hashtags #BCM112 and #BCM110 to develop their sense of a cohort and engage with the content, using memes, gifs and the obligatory shitposting.

Enter live Tweeting. One of my favourite experiences at academic conferences is the ‘backchannel’ conversations and coverage that comes from the rapid live tweeting of speakers and presentations. Similarly, some of the most interesting Twitter threads emerge from the live tweeting of events and especially from fans participating in the coverage of their favourite shows. Live tweeting is not an easy skill to develop, it requires advanced practices in note taking, listening and the ability to distil information rapidly, and in such a way that it contributes to the understanding of those not physically present. Even if students don’t go on to continue using Twitter, and many don’t, it is a valuable process that supports student learning, and confidence in engaging in real-time analysis, research and critical conversation that will be useful to their future careers in the media and communication industries.

This brings me to science fiction. Over the course of the session, students engage in the live tweeting of science fiction movies from the previous one hundred years. Beginning with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, moving through Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, both Blade Runners, the original animated Ghost in the Shell, and ending with Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime. The point is to consider the way the future has been represented in the past and to contemplate the tension between the representation of the future and its reality. Students must tweet during the screening, using the #BCM325 hashtag and are assessed on their ability to engage with each other and outsiders, who often comment on the live tweeting stream, and make sense of the films for a public audience.

In the above video, I explain why we are using Science Fiction to think about the future in more detail, drawing very briefly on the work of two SF scholars, Istvan Cicsery-Ronay and Darko Suvin.