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Future Media

(Tachyon; US: Jul 2011)

Some might look at Future Media, edited by Rick Wilber, as simply another anthology, a collection of nonfiction essays and science fiction works. Short stories, excerpted sections of novels, performance pieces, essays, and book chapters, one dating back to 1932 and one published as recently as 2011, all linked by a single theme: mass media and technology. But it’s really a lot more.


Individually each work is (or was) groundbreaking, insightful, entertaining. Put these works together, and somehow, they become even better and more meaningful.


This book makes connections—connections between past and present, fiction and nonfiction, what is real and what is not (or at least, not yet). It’s about predictions—those that have come to pass and those that still might. And as the nonfiction makes clear, much classic science fiction isn’t as far from reality as we might like it to be.


Ultimately, this book links the past and present and perhaps gives us some hints to the future—that is if current writings about mass media are going to be as eerily accurate as some their classic counterparts.


Of course, as Paul Levinson notes in the introduction, predictions are curious things: “Predictions of the future—ranging from scholarly to science fiction—have been hazardous”. After all, our world should look like Blade Runner by 2019, and let’s not even get started on time travel. Nor does mass media scholarship always point us in the right direction. Still, the selections in Future Media suggest that science fiction (and mass media scholarship) is right just as often as it is wrong, and that the fantastical worlds of science fiction past aren’t always that far off from the new media whirlwind present.


For mass media enthusiasts or science fiction devotees, many of the works included in Future Media probably occupy spots on bookshelves (or an e-reader). “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and an excerpt from Fahrenheit 451 are nestled together with “The Medium is the Message” and “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”.  Some selections may be less familiar—“Fantasy for Six Electrodes and on Adrenaline Drip” or “The Future of the World Wide Web” (originally a testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives), for example. However, even if all the selections are old friends, something about seeing them out of their milieu, about seeing them almost partnered with a story or an essay from another time, place, or genre, changes and often adds to the original meaning.


Consider “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which includes the thought “I can’t read War and Peace anymore…I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” This idea is continued in “New Brains for Old”, which claims “If books that are ‘too long’ are passé, then we must resign some of our cherished classics to the dustbin of history. The one volume Lord of the Ring runs 1,216 pages…”


A lot of us have probably heard these ideas before, but one flip of the page takes us from nonfiction “New Brains for Old” to an excerpt from the fictitious Fahrenheit 451: “Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.”


Take the Fahrenheit 451 passage out of context, and it sounds like it could come straight out of either “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” or “New Brains for Old”.


Reading on, in the introduction to the 20th–anniversary edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Andrew Postman (author of the introduction and son of Neil Postman who wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985) notes that many of today’s students dislike reading Amusing Ourselves to Death. They think:  “Yeah, what he said in 1985 had come startlingly true, we had amused ourselves to death… so why read it?” On the other hand, Robert Sheckley’s short story “The Prize of Peril”, written in 1958, suggests that, in the future, the only way we will be amused is if someone’s life is on the line.


Connections abound—both between the fiction and non-fiction but also between fiction pieces written in different times. The short story “Baby, You Were Great”, published in 1967, brings an interactive vibe to the Feelies from Brave New World, also excerpted in Future Media.


All are terrific stories and essays, and all contribute to the success of the book. Wilber cites several goals for this text; one is to entertain. And it certainly does this. But in his introduction, words and terms like “profound”, “inventive social commentary”, “perceptive questions”, and “deep conjecture” keep popping up. The book lives up to these ideas, as well.


Wilber recommends his book particularly for undergraduates interested in media studies. I recommend it for anyone who has a smartphone, watches television, or uses the Internet.

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