< Does Science Fiction Predict the Future of Journalism


Friday, August 13, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some say we're returning to the old style of journalism. Others say that the new media, with its unprecedented interactivity and audience feedback, has ushered in a kind of reporting that is altogether new. The fact is, after all the conferences and anxious Op-Eds, we really don't know where we're heading. Longtime journalist and professor Loren Ghiglione thinks that he may have found some answers in an unlikely place. Tasked with writing about the future of journalism, he decided to immerse himself in a genre he'd always disdained, science fiction, also known as speculative fiction. He found that when authors imagine with reckless abandon, their predictive powers often outshine the experts. Loren, welcome to the show.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: You begin your paper with a stirring defense of the genre of science fiction against its myriad critics. It seems hardly necessary to do that anymore, since so many scientists forthrightly declare that they were inspired as children by Star Trek. Have you been roughed up by academics?

LOREN GHIGLIONE: [LAUGHS] Perhaps you’re right.

[LAUGHTER] I mean, this started for me when I was guest curator for a Library of Congress [exhibit] on the History of the American Journalist. And the Library said the last chapter must be [LAUGHS] on the future. And I started reading futurists, and then I started reading [LAUGHING] science fiction writers. I decided that the science fiction writers probably were more worth reading than the futurists.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because, as you quote Ben Bova observing in your piece, “Futurists could not have predicted the transistor because there wasn't any science to underlie it back in the early days of the last century.”


BROOKE GLADSTONE: But speculative fiction writers, science fiction writers, did. They predicted miniaturization all over the place because they just assumed it was going to happen, eventually.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's talk about how speculative fiction has treated the news media. French writers distinguished themselves early, beginning with Emile Souvestre in 1846?

LOREN GHIGLIONE: Yes well, they extrapolated from the newspapers of the day to have a, a newspaper that would be one large spool of newsprint with type on it, running through a village and going up to the third floor apartment and down to the street, and people would read this moving roll of newspaper. But they also anticipated, more dramatically, news on television and interactivity.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: We should stipulate this is fully 100 years before television.

LOREN GHIGLIONE: Exactly, right. And the illustrations in the novel show people looking at a screen in their homes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Albert Robida wrote The Twentieth Century in 1887. What was his vision?

LOREN GHIGLIONE: He’s the one who had the all-electric home with telephonographics, news bulletins delivered automatically through telephones, and he had wall-sized telephonoscopes, which were televisions –

[BROOKE LAUGHS] - that were interactive so people could react to the news and communicate with other people who were seeing the news. And -

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What a bizarre idea!

[LOREN GHIGLIONE LAUGHS] [LAUGHS] Now, if we get to the American midcentury, we inevitably trip over Clark Kent. Does he have anything to say about the of the news business?

LOREN GHIGLIONE: For reporters, you know, the ability to see through buildings and see somebody is lying, that anticipates a lot of science fiction, which focus on the eye, a super-eye that can tell us much more than the human eye can tell us.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, of course, Superman comes by his superness naturally. In the 1979 film Death Watch, starring Harry Dean Stanton and Harvey Keitel, journalists are modified.

LOREN GHIGLIONE: Yes, Roddy the reporter, played by Harvey Keitel, has a miniature camera implanted in his head so that he can watch human death occur. And, at that point, death is no longer occurring, so this is a major news event.


HARVEY KEITEL AS RODDY: Whatever I see, mysterious, terrifying, I just watch it, and it’s on film, forever.


LOREN GHIGLIONE: And then there’s another similar kind of story where Maya Andreyeva, the News One telepresence camera in Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall -


LOREN GHIGLIONE: Right, she can transmit to viewers the holographic memory of interviews. And so, the event is vivid and complete, as if it’s happening right there.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But before implanted cameras and transplanted memories, there was the indelible Max Headroom, a computerized reporter in the days before computer technology was good enough to actually depict a computer reporter. So he was covered in foam and latex and he wore a fiberglass suit.


MATT FREWER AS MAX HEADROOM: M - M – Max Headroom here. [LAUGHING] Actually, I'm not here, because I live 20 minutes into the future. You want to join me here?



BROOKE GLADSTONE: I thought it was interesting when you raised the notion of machines with bylines. It’s kind of a repellant image, but also maybe a reassuring one? I mean, what could be more objective than a machine? Do you think that there’s something in us, as news consumers, that might welcome a dehumanized news disseminator?

LOREN GHIGLIONE: It may well be that people will say, oh, well, it’s a machine so it’s not a left-leaning liberal wimp -

[BROOKE LAUGHS] - that’s delivering [LAUGHS] the news. But whether the human being behind the machine is any more, quote, “objective” than real life reporters that we're familiar with, who knows?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about another image that science fiction writers came up with, with regard to news, and that is journalist-free dystopias -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - like, like those described by novelist William Gibson, who created the cyberpunk genre, starting with Neuromancer in 1984. That is a world where all your information comes by and through essentially hackers.

LOREN GHIGLIONE: Yes, and I think there are many people who would say today, well gee, we don't need journalists, we can just go on the Internet, and we are all journalists, so there’s not a special class of professional that’s necessary anymore. I don't believe it. The society depends on aggressive reporting. The world is extremely complicated and confusing, and so, to get at the truth or a version of the truth, requires real work.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any prediction that struck you as more likely than another?

LOREN GHIGLIONE: Oh, I don't know what’s more likely, but I am intrigued about moving beyond the handheld devices. I remember hearing somebody who’d invented the handheld device talking about implanting various devices in the human body that might take care of delivery of news and everything else. So who knows where all of this is headed?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you quote Einstein, “If at first an idea does not sound absurd, then there’s no hope for it.”

LOREN GHIGLIONE: Yes, I love that quote because I think it talks to this notion of the future is likely to be counterfactual and not built on what has just happened.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Loren Ghiglione teaches at the Medill School of Journalism.