Section 1 – Theorizing the Future

1.1 Where is my jetpack?

Sound familiar? This was supposed to be the time of ubiquitous flight and mars travel, cured cancers and realistic virtual reality. Sure, there were major changes, the cost of communication services dropped dramatically, computer parts became impossibly cheap, and the barriers that once imposed scarcity onto communication have come crashing down. But the future looks a lot more like the past than not. Predictions are hard, especially when they are about the future.

What we understand as the past, to be studied as history, as largely collected through traces that are unreliable. What do we actually know about what voters thought in the 1928 election? For that matter, what do we know about voters in the 2016 election? Contemporary communication technologies allow ubiquitous access to information and widely distributed contact with individuals. New models are trumpeted as offering access to additional information and possibility, ecommerce technologies that would promise to know consumers better than they know themselves. At the same time, these technologies seem incapable of actually resolving the problem of public opinion formation and collective action. The underlying problem of the public sphere is not one of technology, but one of passion. So, you don’t have a jetpack and the forces of hate seem to be gaining strength.

Consider the rise of the everything store, once known as the Sears catalog, now[1] There is nothing particularly remarkable about the idea that people would like access to a wide array of goods, delivered to their homes, at reasonable prices. Jobbers delivered an assortment of goods with non-fixed prices, department stores developed additional inventory and fixed prices (a great improvement over constant negotiation).[2] Grocery stores and discounters appeared not as a paradigm shift, but as a continuation of the same trend. At times, firms might opt for smaller assortments, but this is merely the play of strategy as the desires of the population are neatly mapped by business operations. The future of retail is also the past.

What continued for all of this time is the desire of the public to be warm, housed, and fed. It is not remarkable that the desires of the public are continuous over time. Deep structures like hunger continue. What varies is the vast array of symbolic expressions of these needs, which come through fashions, cuisines, and other cultural codes. Which is not to say that codes do not become an end in themselves, the rich intertextual life of the public is just as real as the physical life. Manuel Delanda recognized this when he juxtaposed two distinct gradients for the legitimation of a state: symbolic and material.[3] A system that provides sustenance with no meaning or intersubjective investment is objectionable, just as a system that has a vast symbolic life with little effect would be an utter failure. Failed symbolic legitimacy can overwhelm physical plenty.

This textbook is not an account of the reasons why jetpack development has been so slow. For the most part these would be effectively explained by elementary physics and engineering. In an article on the topic of jetpacks in The Guardian, Cardiff University Lecturer and science columnist Dean Burnett laid out the key issues with jetpack technology: gravity is a substantial force and most flying machines use properties like aerodynamic lift (wings) to generate enough lift, managing the size and deployment of the engine itself.[4] After all, it is not enough to build an engine that might lift a human successfully, but you need to attach it to a human being. The Evergreen Aviation museum, a world leader in obscure craft which includes the Spruce Goose, features a number of single user escape helicopters. James Bond, eat your heart out. Attaching a thruster to a human body is tricky and we haven’t even gotten into special issues in buckle development. Burnett’s argument did not hinge on the difficulty in building the machine, but in the fact that it is not desirable. Jetpacks are far more dangerous than bicycles, people would make terrible choices with them, and they would produce vast emissions of greenhouse gasses. You don’t want a jetpack – notice that word: want.

This is the inflection point for our studies of the future. In communication, the question is rarely if something is possible, but if it is probable or desirable. The title is New Media Futures, our subject matter: what are the possible and probable future technologies for the creation of meaning.


1.2 Disciplinary Context

This book was written for use in a broad New Media program based in the Communication Studies tradition. There are a number of disciplinary threads that tie our traditions into their current administrative alignments. The rhetorical wing of communication traces their origins to a walkout from a writing conference. Mass communication research on the other hand would emphasize the role of social research and media studies from the outset of communication.[5] Others would choose moments that resonate with their particular moment of transdisciplinary contact, from art history to sociology. Communication is not an unusual academic field in this sense.

All academic fields depend on a largely arbitrary disciplinary moment, a point where some critical ontological or epistemological choice was made that determines the answers to many subsequent questions. What does that mean? Economists often begin from a disciplinary fable about the rationalization of barter. Sociologists may reduce interactions to the result of a social force. Artists explore the moment of genius where creative energy seemingly appears from nowhere. Psychologists find the core of all behavior in the cognitive structure of the individual with a lurking basis in the brain.

The tighter the story, the more likely your discipline is to have prestige. It is not that these stories are entirely wrong, but that they always necessarily tell part of the story.

Communication is a great field because it is organized around a number of weak stories. At the same time, this is a curse when dealing with organization of the university system. Is communication a point to organize around or a virus that is withering the marrow of disciplinary rigor?

The critical moments for the study of communication would be decisions about people and context (meaning networks and objects), proximal and distant.

People Context
Proximal Interpersonal and small group Biological and Technological determinism
Distant Rhetoric and public culture Infrastructures

This is not to say that scholars may not connect multiple areas of research, but that most research tends to fall into these slots. The truth is likely between all: it is not that the infrastructure is enough to cause the movement, but that the movement surely would not have formed without it. Academics select an angle because it provides explanatory leverage, that when placed in conversation with other perspectives, can provide rich understanding of the world.

Beyond communication, this book is situated with regards to Futures studies. This is only one of many possible names for this academic trajectory, along with foresight and many others. In his 1932 call for aid, “Wanted – Professors of Foresight!” H.G. Wells called for the development of a field of foresight, this new field would deal with unanticipated consequences that accompanied the development of new technology. The question for Wells: why are publics so reckless when confronting technologies that vastly increase the speed or range of processes? What additional skills could be brought to bear to more effectively engage with these problems:

There are no Professors of Foresight as yet, but I am by way of being an amateur. Let me draw a plain conclusion from tonight’s audition. Either we must make peace throughout the world, make one worldstate, one world-pax, with one money, one police, one speech and one brotherhood, however hard that task may seem, or we must prepare to live with the voice of the stranger in our ears, with the eyes of the stranger in our homes, with the knife of the stranger always at our throats, in fear and in danger of death, enemy-neighbours with the rest of our species. Distance was protection, was safety, though it meant also ignorance and indifference and a narrow, unstimulated life. For good or evil, distance has been done away with. This problem of communications rushes upon us today – it rushes upon us like Jehu the son of Nimshi. It drives furiously. And it evokes the same question: is it peace?

Because if it is not to be peace foreseen and planned and established, then it will be disaster and death. Will there be no Foresight until those bombs begin to rain upon us?[6]

This is a conservative idea, Wells calls for a futurism that could imagine a peace that could be created with existing technology. Distance is gone, the question becomes how to deal with closeness in the name of peace. The default condition lacked contact, now that contact has been established, how do we deal with it?

In this same time period, the Futurist movement in Italy took the opposite approach: instead of preserving or creating piece, conflict was desirable. For the futurist, nostalgia is the problem, an oppressive force that prevents the technologies of acceleration from transforming society in new profound ways. Consider this excerpt from a futurist work by Martinetti:

This is how we deny the obsessing splendor of the dead centuries and collaborate with victorious Mechanics, the force that grips the earth in its network of speed.

We are collaborating with mechanics in destroying the old poetry of distance and wild solitudes, the exquisite nostalgia of departure, and in its place we urge the tragic lyricism of ubiquity and omnipresent speed.

Our Futurist sensibility, in fact, is no longer moved by the dark mystery of an unexplored valley, of a mountain pass that we, in spite of ourselves, picture as crossed by the elegant (and almost Parisian) ribbon of a white road, where an automobile gleaming with progress and full of cultured voices abruptly pulls up, sputtering; a boulevard corner camped in the middle of solitude.

Every pine woods madly in love with the moon has a Futurist road that crosses it from end to end. The simple, doleful reign of endlessly soliloquizing vegetation is over.

With us begins the reign of the man whose roots are cut, the multiplied man who merges himself with iron, is fed by electricity, and no longer understands anything except the sensual delight of danger and quotidian heroism.[7]

The sensibility here should remind you of the ideology of contemporary technology conglomerates. It isn’t that technology makes things better, but that technology transforms all of life, and those ways that came before are not simply obsolete but regressive. We should consider this not to celebrate futurism, but to see how this set of ideas about speed and destruction recur. Schumpeter did not invent creative destruction – it was baked into the aesthetics of this movement.[8] Martinetti pushes us toward an anti-romantic view of the world. At the same time the masculine ideal of this movement is exclusionary, the celebration of rootlessness costs the stability of the tree. When Mark Zuckerberg promoted the slogan “move fast and break things,” it was intended to exemplify the challenge to the status quo.[9] This was a new kind of organization that wouldn’t follow rules. Now, a decade later, we can see that rules of political communication and media ethics were hard won and necessary. Zuckerberg wasn’t new, the Futurists understood the appeal of destruction and the power of novelty.

In 1967, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published “Toward the year 2000: Work in Progress.”[10] Unlike the romantic appeal for peace of Wells or the anti-romantic zeal of Martinetti, Daniel Bell’s position comes closest to ours in this book (and likely your course):

Time, said St. Augustine, is a three-fold present: the present as we experience it, the past as a present memory, and the future as a present expectation. By that criterion, the world of the year 2000 has already arrived, for the decisions we make now, in the way we design our environment and thus sketch the lines of constraints, the future is committed. Just as the gridiron pattern of city streets in the nineteenth century shaped the linear growth of cities in the twentieth, so the new networks of highways, the location of new towns, the reordering of graduate-school curricula, the decision to create or not create a computer utility as a single system, and the like will frame the tectonics of the twenty-first century. The future is not an overarching leap into the distance; it begins in the present.[11]

Bell sees change as occurring in systems. The contributors to the project span the social sciences with a range of prescient insights about the power of computer systems to transform decision making and emerging technologies. This model of future study depends on systems theory and a clinical detachment from what a future would be like. The account in this book differs in that we are not concerned with abstract visions, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s thoughts on the near future of non-educational transfers in cooperative versus wedding cake federalism, but in the creation of things and experiences.[12]

This is not an exhaustive list of works on the future, there are many more that could easily fall within the purview of a course on the History of the Future and that in a course on the future of futures would be relevant. It is entirely possible that your instructor will include a great many more futurists for your consideration during lecture or in other readings. What I want to pull out of these three works in particular are three themes:

  • Wells sees the risk of collapsed distances and accelerating systems. He calls to the fore assumptions about the conditions that stabilize systems that could be eroding. Future thinking can lead to peace.
  • Martinetti sees the future as a chance for a new aesthetic, a chance to throw off the restrains of the old order. Future thinking can lead to more productive conflict.
  • Bell sees the future as a logistical reality. Future thinking emphasizes the conditions of possibility of the present and probabilistic models of what is to come.


1.3 Key Concepts

In this section, I will be describing a number of key concepts in the study of future media. These theoretical interventions will be helpful as they allow you to effectively sort a large number of ideas and see the development of arguments over time. At first this might appear to be jargon — overly technical and specific. Experts use specialized vocabulary for the sake of efficiency. There is no reason why we should say a paragraph when a well-established word would do. By reaching agreement about key discourses and ideas, further ideas can be developed more quickly and with greater depth. Spending time considering the theoretical structure is important in this sense as it allows us to have a discussion about key concepts and classes of ideas without laboriously naming every concept. Intentionally obfuscating ideas is a problem, but we should also be reticent of the idea that all non-technical ideas should be reduced to sound bites or simple binary oppositions. These concepts need to be interesting enough to get at the debates of this time, but not confusing.


1.3.1 Continuity and Rupture

One of the most important tropes in this culture involves the term “modern.” What it is to be modern is to be current and enlightened, modern is new and smart. That which came before is backward. Bruno Latour developed this idea in his book We Have Never Been Modern, where the assumption that the rift between prior practices and new practices is called starkly into question.[13] By pushing off the old to the pre-modern false novelty provides an illusion of knowledge, a distinction without a difference. This discourse appears in many forms.

James Carey and John Quick described the idea of the electrical overturning of social structure as the “electrical sublime.”[14] The utopian hope that electrification would transform social relations has been an ongoing theme. Carey and Quick describe the Innis-McLuhan exchange, where Canadian theorist Harold Innis argued that electrification would only continue existing power relations, and McLuhan took the position that electrification would enable new modes of life that would restore our everyday space.[15] Innis was not opposed to technology, you likely hear the oppositional voice on a nearly daily basis. The point is that ubiquitous technology is neither the key to utopia or the gateway to despair. Questions of value and structure exist independently of the technical details of society. The ubiquity of electricity transformed society, but not in the mythic dimension of producing an entirely new human.

Vincent Mosco made a similar case in his critique of the digital sublime: the ostensibly new digital world had entirely different rules and marked a transformation in the ways that things are done.[16] It is not the single online video that transforms televisuality, but the Netflix platform delivered through multiple devices. Cultural theorizing that relied on observations of first adopters would miss the actual interactions of the multitudes of users who had not yet arrived online. Instead of online interaction leading to a destabilization of identity, the identifiers of the users were amplified and the editorial function of prior bottlenecks decreased.

The meta-analysis of prediction offers further warnings. Philip Tetlock argues in his classic, Expert Political Judgement, that predictions by experts can be scored for relative accuracy.[17] The general outcome of the study suggests that well-designed formal models do an excellent job predicting the future.[18] People with open minds and the liberal arts sensibility, my way of describing “foxes,” do reasonably well. The more deeply entrenched in a particular world-view, the worst the predictive accuracy, with undergraduates coming in last. Perhaps this is why we have curriculum committees and professional advisors. The best predictions would seem to come from people who have a fox-like cognitive style, with reduced hindsight bias, a higher propensity for integrative thinking and cautious probability judgements, with few attempts to invoke belief defense mechanisms.[19] Tetlock’s advice was in my mind throughout the planning and execution of this textbook:

We often learn we have gone too far in one direction only after it is too late to pull back. Executing this balancing act requires cognitive skills of a high order: the capacity to monitor our own though processes for telltale signs of excessive closed or open-mindedness and to strike a reflective equilibrium to cultivate the art of self-overhearing, to learn how to eavesdrop on the mental conversations we have with ourselves as we struggle to strike the right balance between preserving our existing worldview and rethinking our core assumptions. This is no easy art of master. If we listen to ourselves carefully, we will often not like what we hear.[20]

You should also keep this in mind through your life, especially the part about not changing your world-view too quickly. This is not a call to change your mind quickly, but to really think about how you think.

For the most part there is a great deal of continuity – people and their desires remain fairly similar over time. There are also moments of rupture. Theorizing these moments is far more interesting, often taking far more energy and attention that theorizing the continuation of the present. It is critical to balance our theorizing of that which changes and does not change.

At the same time, Nassim Taleb has argued that the approach to theorizing from continuity is backward. The optimal theory for the future in this view would depend on the analysis of structures from the perspective of “black swan” events and more complex dynamics that come with non-linear systems.[21] Antifragility is a critical contribution by Taleb for our theoretical approach – instead of assuming that systems evolve toward some harmonious order, he proposes a rigorous accounting of structures, forces, or ideas that thrive on disorder.[22]

Changes are real and theorizing the big ones is important. In the context of a future oriented media studies be careful not to confuse the possibility of rupture with the likely continuation of the status quo.  At the same time, beware of the convenient continuation of the status quo – it can change.


1.3.2 Convergence and Emergence

Among the most interesting and important features of any theory are those that explain the relationships between micro and macro factors. Process development often hinges on factors that are difficult to observe, exist between levels of explanation, or are paradoxically hidden by the very constructs that would make them meaningful in the first place.

When we describe emergence, it is not that some media are “emerging” but that some ideas appear as constellations that then are recognized only once they are in effect in the world. Emergence and convergence are not opposites. It is important to note that this book is written from the perspective that emergence is not unobservable or unknown, but along the lines proposed by Mario Bunge where emergence is a combination that produces novelty:

In other words, we explain the emergence, behavior, and dismantling of systems in terms not only of their composition and environment, but also of their total (internal and external) structure. Nor is this enough: we should also know something about the system’s mechanism or modus operandi: that is what process makes it behave – or cease to behave – the way it does.[23]

A certain structural functional logic can guide our analysis of emergence in media systems. Our emergent combinations are not the mystical combination of parts which make more than their sum, but are embedded in complex assemblages that are already designed to incorporate the possibility of desire. These models also have assumptions and rhetorical frames, generally the social designs that are supposed are biological or mechanical. Despite this oversight, there are important lessons to draw from systems theory, one that is particularly pithy and for Bunge useful: don’t skip levels. A theoretical explanation needs to account for the micro, mezzo, and macro, even if just in a cursory way.

Convergence on the other hand implies that two things are merged together. This can be more or less intentional. Sociology and anthropology converge at the cultural dimension of meaning and the model of structures. These modes of convergence do not produce novelty, instead they are ways of arriving at particular structural functions or changes through combination. Convergence tends then to describe the ways that we discuss financial structures that allow a large conglomerate to function or the sort of devices that will provide us with an infinite supply of reruns.

Scalable, planned interventions collide with the everyday knowledge of the field. Michael deCerteau famously framed this as the distinction between the strategic and the tactical.[24] James C. Scott used an analog of this insight in his critique of high modern social planning. Plans fail because the way that planners see for scale makes it almost impossible to comprehend the situation in the same way that people on the ground do. When we think about successful convergence, as expressed as a transmedia property, the result is the opposite of novelty. Exposition of an already existent novel story system is the most effective way to generate a return.

This is not to say that convergence cannot produce novel results, but that if the overt design of a system is to produce more of the same it seems unlikely that the conditions for novelty will be truly present.

A picture I took on Kings in Corvallis
Figure 1.1: A picture I took on Kings in Corvallis.

What do you notice in this picture? A poorly placed sidewalk. The users of this environment have a clear preference to walk directly ahead, down the sidewalk that was once placed in this location. Now the sidewalk has been moved slightly people continue to walk where they want.

Desire lines exist in many places, you likely know of locations where the sidewalks were laid out as a grid where people would clearly prefer curves or angles. Robert Moor, reviewing the problem of desire lines, noted that the policy of Central Park in New York City had been to pave the desire lines: to use them as a guide to where sidewalks should go.[25] If they had followed this approach the park would have been filled with sidewalks. Purely emergent sidewalk design also fails. The question for designers: how can we balance the factors, honoring the desire of the users of a space without destroying the experience of it?


1.3.3 The Conditions of Possibility

A. The Simple Conditions

There is an important distinction to begin with between necessary and sufficient. Consider the development of a fire, it is necessary for fuel, a source of oxygen, and heat to be present for a fire to ignite. Remove any one of these three necessary elements and there are no longer are sufficient conditions for fire. Warmth and air are a summer day.

Developed by Immanuel Kant in book The Critique of Pure Reason, the conditions of possibility argument provide important resources for media research as it avoids the search for pure forms.[26] Instead of a metaphysical position that treats human sensory experience as secondary, Kant produced a system that allows sensation to be the primary focus of philosophy. Within the world of experience, Kant considers some experiences to be special, those that lift us up out of our normal perception – Slavoj Zizek proposes that these experiences are double, they are both sublime and disappointing as they remind us that we exist in a world of perception. Excavation of the conditions of possibility for the media present is an essential task for future studies. The following are two examples of this sort of analysis:

First, in his 2005 classic, Convergence Culture, Professor Henry Jenkins argues that new participatory cultures will be enabled by the convergence of media technologies.[27] When students encounter the book they are often quizzical: they live in a nearly completely converged world, the idea of medium specificity or a rigid break between the internet and the television is alien. Convergence is a fact of their lives, it did not have the positive and progressive implications described in the book.

What readers miss in the account of convergence culture is that the underlying drive would be that of a robust culture encountering lower barriers for interaction online. It was not the convergence of the devices that would have transformed social life, but the changing culture. Accounting for the forces within the convergence story is the reason why we assign this book to this day.

Second, it would be folly to say that all of the implications of convergence culture would have been possible if the culture had simply tried harder. Digital Non-Linear Editing software transformed the workflows of the contemporary media producer. Rapid, ubiquitous time-axis manipulation of video is remarkable and definitely necessary for the development of our current media culture. DNLE did not cause social change alone – it was merely a critical part.

In more concrete terms, the conditions of possibility for a thing are all the things that must be true for it to exist. A house with wooden studs requires a timber industry to produce materials, the entire chain of material operations necessary to make the house are required, but are not necessarily apparent in the consideration of the style of the windows. The conditions of possibility are often invisible and taken for granted.

Distinguishing between necessary and sufficient in this case assumes causation. Although metaphysical speculation is interesting and occasionally useful, for our purposes we can assume that there are causes and effects in this world. Causation is special, and mere correlation is blocked from taking on the power of a cause.


B. Episteme

This analysis of the procession of ostensibly invisible forms is apparent in discourse as well. In his remarkable book, The Order of Things, Michael Foucault describes an episteme, which investigates the discursive conditions of possibility for the present.[28] The layering of ideas and the progress of those ideas can also be excavated for analysis, this task is called genealogy. Foucauldian analysis asks the reader to consider the history of an idea and to take seriously the idea that one system of ideas can inflect another.

A powerful effect of this shift is the “death of the author.”[29] Roland Barthes criticized the romantic genius and the way that the idea of the author allows a search for a “secret, an ultimate meaning, to the text.”[30] This insight has been found in other communication fields as well, Ed Black in the critique of neoaristoelianism: we should judge speeches on the basis of their effect in circulation, not in the intention of the speaker.[31] The horizon of meaning must exceed individual intent.

Michael Foucault goes further to attack the institution of authorship and the privilege of the subject in producing text. This post-structural provocation is powerful, as many of the technologies considered in this book, and in communication research today, involve autopoesis – texts produced by automation. Think of the authorship of a Facebook feed – the means by which the feed you view was produced is the selective production filtered by relevance and recency of content created by a number of other people. The website/app load you experience is untouched by human hands: there was no author as such. This does not mean that the assumptions that were used to produce the program building are somehow non-human. At this point we tend to infuse the creators of systems like this with the romantic genius quality of the author. Characters like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates replace Shakespeare.

Staging the larger debate about the role of structure and human agency is critical. Some scholars emphasize the profoundly human dimension of communication, framing research through the stories of people. This anthropological strand of communication research is important and stands in juxtaposition to the sociological strands that would focus on the mathematics of diffusion, or the critical/cultural which would decenter the story of the actor and the network for a genealogy of the discourses which made sense of both the network and the actors. The disciplinary matrix of Communication will be explored at length in another section of this book.

How we understand human agency is a profoundly important episteme.


C. Modal Logic

Necessity requires that something be not possibly false. Contingency would allow a conjecture that would be possibly true and false. Those claims which are truly necessary would be limited in the sense that that they would not include the conjectural information. Necessity is boring. Analytic results in general are powerful as they are restricted to simple qualities. The associated theory of positivism depends on the elimination of ambiguous or multiple signs. This presents an important limit on the use of analytic propositions for the study of communication.

If a connection to formal logic is desirable for you as a learner (or instructor) the theory proposed in this introduction would require a rigorous modal logic. Keep in mind, that we are not looking at single qualifiers, but hundreds of nested and reflexive logical structures. At some point, it will be necessary to suspend the expansion of the formation, this choice points toward the concern with infinite regression.


D. Modes of Proof

Mode of Reason Description
Deduction Working down from principles
Induction Working up from examples
Reduction to the absurd Working until the results are obviously wrong
Abduction Working with the probability that a claim is true

It is important to consider the kind of proof you are employing. For the most part, you use reduction and abduction in everyday life. Deduction and induction are useful for mathematical processes but are difficult to find in the real world. Much of contemporary argumentation theory offers ways of theorizing the various logical leaps that are made with abductive reason (more on this later).


1.3.4 Time and Temporality

When are we? I ask this question often of students, there are many satisfying answers. Some answers conceive of time as an objective thing. As the agents of the Federation Bureau of Temporal Investigations explain to a befuddled Captain Sisko, “time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.”[32] There is a powerful truth here: time as we perceive it is real (Time is a condition of possibility – it surely exists, and to consider what it is would be fully speculative) and some events are path dependent. You cannot have microcomputers without transistors. This is the time of chronos: when we are and how events process. At the same time, without the performative dimension of the initial public offering, the moment of the microcomputer revolution would be unmarked.

Kairos positions time as a point, this is the moment of now.[33] The means by which the moment is produced are central to communication theory as a whole. Time as a moment is inherently synthetic. Chronos continues to proceed even if we ignore it. Time telescopes as you get older, facts that you once knew that seemed fresh and important can become painfully dated. Consider the way that people talk about electricity generation. In the early nineties, it was a meaningful thing to say that the “technology isn’t ready yet.” If this is baked into your conception of the current moment you have missed decades of innovation. Underlying truisms about how electricity moves. Gone are the days of Enron engineered blackouts, which made sense as California would be an energy importer.[34] California now has been known to send solar energy out to avoid over-supply.[35] Publics often remain in moments long after the clock has moved on.


Time Zones from US Central Intelligence Agency, 2012
Figure 1.2: US Central Intelligence Agency, 2012

24/7, 365. A cliché intended to express that someone is continuously engaged or about an idea. The problem: there are more than twenty-four hours demarcated at any given moment on earth. Assuming that it is 1500 pacific daylight time on a Thursday, it is 1200 Friday on Teraina Island, and 1000 Thursday on Baker Island.[36] These times are GMT -12 and +14 respectively.

The standardization of time is a political process featuring precise engineering, not a scientific truism.


1.3.5 Probability

For the most part, students encountering this book will have been educated in a fairly standard model of frequentist probability. The basic dynamic presented is that of a random generator, usually presented as a fair coin, which then produces a string of results that are totally independent. Does a string of wins or losses mean anything in this context? No.

Instead of theorizing the probable in terms of a random device, increasingly the public is presented with dynamic scores that consider the probability of an event, given information, anterior and posterior to a new event that provides information. In an election, there is a likely winner and a likely loser. Adding new information like scandals or policy proposals can change the current probability of a win or loss.

The model for understanding the event of the upcoming election depends on an understanding of the relative durability of our assumptions. Adding new information, like a new poll, to the model would not change how we think of the race from a default position of 50/50, instead based on chronological time and the impending kairotic event, a score could be derived.

Simple probability of course remains, but is not particularly helpful in resolving the implications of multiple factors on a single relationship. If you are expecting probability to be handled in this book as the consideration of a pair of discrete outcomes, you will be lost. More on the mathematics and the Bayesian shift in Section four.


1.3.6 Speculative

A common adjunct term used in the discussion of the future is speculative. Dunne and Raby, in their book Speculative Everything, pose that speculative methods for design are intended to provide a grounded opportunity for the evaluation of potential worlds. Existing within the clear boundaries of the possible, speculation is intended to break the linkage between the probable and the plausible, allowing the consideration of the preferable.[37] Fantasy (and metaphysical speculation) are not particularly useful for speculative research.

Dunne and Raby take direction from Ricard Barbrook’s (known for his development of the Californian Ideology) position on future imagination, which begins with a consideration of the way that the image of the future has often been forgotten.[38] A limitless future had been promised repeatedly, none of the promises of current boosters are particularly unique.[39] In rhetorical studies, this appears in the use of the phrase “future anterior,” invoked as a device where a utopian future potential is leveraged against the present. This is in an important sense the inverse of “tarrying with the negative” where the scales of evaluation are shifted by the application of a nebulous negative value. Although Barbrook does not use this phrase in his writing, the critique comes through clearly in his descriptions of Bell Labs and the wildly optimistic presentations of participatory culture. The utopian promise of technology is always just around the corner, whether that is Walter Cronkite promising a world without hunger or swarms of robots making labor obsolete.

Among the central problems in the existing regime of design thought is the sort of vision employed by these organizations. Design has become a quick gloss for looking to aestheticize their products or plans. Those organizations have a high-modern sensibility which is intrinsically strategic – this idea already appears in the discussion of desire and communication. What speculative storytelling often does is emphasize the everyday dimension, the sort of experience that high modern imagination loses.

Speculative design is intended as a political program that can unmoor the tools of design as an academic pursuit from the rough docks of problem solving methods. Instead of a design theory that finds answers to questions posed by powerful institutions, speculation allows designers to find their own questions and to design for society, rather than a particular client. Problem solving is only one of a number of epistemic possibilities, speculation as much as it enables argumentation and debate, is an academic technology that can produce new knowledge in fruitful ways. It is not a new insight that design and argument are deeply linked, what is fascinating are the manifold of discourses presented to justify the lack of creativity in the design process itself.

Where the perspective by communication researchers differs from designers is that we generally are very interested in the ways that discourses would need to change to arrive at a possible future. It would be reasonable to conclude that communication is slightly more conservative in disciplinary outlook then design or architecture. It would also be reasonable to see this as a reflection of larger disciplinary coordinates, as communication is not locked into a problem-solving epistemology.

We should consider some of the methods for speculation proposed by Dunne and Raby:[40]

  • Fictional worlds – literary and artistic contributions can challenge the stability of signs and promote new combinations
  • Utopia/Dystopia – work through the ideas to either of the two extreme conclusions: the juxtapositions are productive
  • Extrapolation – follow the dreams that lead to existing designs, let the dreams play out all the way to their conclusions
  • Idea Stories – writing concepts as narratives; they use the example of red plenty (a new technological planned Soviet economy); use the narrative and look for resonances
  • Thought Experiments – collide ideas in a non-narrative form, work with the abstraction of the formula
  • Reduction to the Absurd – take the idea to the point that it fails and literalize it
  • Counterfactuals – flip one of the actually flippable switches at a moment in history and suppose how that specific change would have affected the present
  • What-ifs – flip one of the switches for the conditions of the present and work forward

The most important point: this is already how people work and think in design, the real reality is bracketed behind a discourse of problem-solving and reality that is itself a discourse. Speculation is powerful because it allows us to retake the imaginative language of design without being loaded into a static concept of reality. Within these categories play with the dimensions of narrative (concrete)/non-narrative (abstract), present experience/past memory/future expectation.


1.3.7 Virtual

Virtual does not refer to a device, be that goggles or a suit, but to the prospect of a synthetic perception. Brian Massumi, Canadian Communication professor and specialist in sensation and communication research, has argued that the virtual only exists in the combination of position and moment, as an effect of an endless loop of sensation, “When its effects are multiple, the virtual fleetingly appears. Its fleeting is in the cracks between and the surfaces around the images.”[41] Contemporary affect theory in communication has linked the physical, textual, and relational, “Affects are virtual synthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing particular things that embody them.”[42] What does this mean? How you actually feel when you experience something matters. Your body and perspective are not barriers to understanding the world, they are the world. Andrew Murphie describes this as an enfolding, the multiple faces of what is ultimately a single surface.[43]

The virtual as a form of synthetic perception is deeply connected to the imagination. Once we establish a theory of virtuality that exceeds the sum of parts and perception, the analysis of the virtual comes to include physical and discursive considerations. Virtual worlds are then the worlds we inhabit as well as the imaginary worlds that we feel into possible existence. This book has an expansive orientation toward text, sensation, and technology because it is necessary.


1.3.8 Ideology

Ideology is a commonly used word, generally referring to a system of ideas that provide a coherence to thinking that exceeds the basic descriptive facts of the world. In this sense, everyone is ideological. If you were to remind someone that their world view was in a sense ideological they would likely be offended, there is a connotation in the term which supposes that an ideology is artificial. To consider what ideology is and why it is important, we should consider a few practical ideas.

How do we deal with people who have wrong perspectives? A straight-forward case here would be the consideration of individuals opposed to the vaccination of children. Vaccines are a safe and effective way to decrease the prevalence of infectious disease. The solution to non-vaccination would seem to be to challenge the ideology of the individuals, telling them that experts have determined that vaccination is safe. It must be that some bad piece of information is blocking their mind from arriving at the truth. Remove the bad block and they will think correctly. This doesn’t work. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler’s research has been exemplary in demonstrating boomerang effects where seemingly ideology solving messages actually backfire, increasing the underlying belief.[44] What the seemingly crude theory of ideology misses is the idea that expertise, a form of backing that would be taken very seriously in some ideological frames, is negative in the conspiratorial frame of the anti-vaccine movement. Rather than operating as a bad idea that somehow clouds the mind, conspiracy discourse has a much richer symbolic life.

Conspiracy theories are a popular topic for research as they are a wicked problem for moving society forward. Jodi Dean, a leading political theorist, went as far as to ground the conspiracy as one of the foundational units for political analysis today.[45] The underlying structure of conspiracy includes the dominant duped view, which is maintained by a nefarious actor who knows secret information, that secret information would lead to a complete overturning of the dominant discourse. A participant in a conspiracy theory is not passive, they are actively working to reveal to you, the revealer the degree to which you are duped by ideology. Elizabeth Anker has argued that the dominant affective position of American politics is melodrama, of which conspiracy is a key form.[46] Conspiracy theories are both satisfying and practical. Qanon conspiracy discourses allow supporters of the Trump administration to incorporate bad news into their framework by inverting the roles of other characters in the drama.

If one wears a Q shirt to a rally and demands the release of the OIG report, they likely are aware of the controversy that is the Qanon conspiracy theory and have considered it as such. This is where Dean, citing Zizek and Sloterdjik, have formulated ideology as “enlightened false consciousness.”[47] People know that there are inconsistencies in their beliefs but they choose to continue. Ideology is not something that happens to people like a nightmare where they should be woken up, instead ideology is something people do for themselves to make their worlds. Ideological critique has languished in recent years as the mere identification of an ideology means very little and the application of new information likely doesn’t lead to attitude change.

This is not to say that attitude change is impossible, we have decreased tobacco and increased condom use, but that the underlying relationships around belief are not linear or based on simple delusion. Joshua Kalla and David Brockman have found that persuasion related to social issues, such as gay marriage, is possible but most effective when not tied to an impending political measure.[48] People are willing to have interesting conversations, as long as they are not motivated as such.

It also becomes clear why marketplace of ideas models fail – ideas are often mislabeled, mishandled, and the buyers are often also sellers already coming to market with strict shopping lists. Changing attitudes depends on affective change, a virtual dimension, that is much more interesting for our consideration of potential futures.

person filling up soda cup at soft drink dispenser by Franchise Opportunities, 2017
Figure 1.3: person filling up soda cup at soft drink dispenser by Franchise Opportunities, 2017.

In the May 2012, New York Mayor Bloomberg proposed a ban on giant cups of soda. The reasoning: the consumption of sweetened beverages is a public health problem, if people were made to “double-fist” their nectar they might drink less. You could still buy a ton of soda, it would just be less convenient. The push back was intense: limiting people to 16 ounce cups was a major loss of freedom. Eventually, the regulation was struck down as exceeding the authority of the department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Behavior change is important, especially in the context of population health. If a substance is truly dangerous it is highly regulated. Tobacco and alcohol are good examples here. What do we do with times when the case for regulation isn’t so clear or when an overt ban would be heavy handed? Cass Sunstein (a law professor) and Richard Thaler (a behavioral economist) proposed a theory called libertarian paternalism where instead of overt strong prohibitions on conduct a series of small changes in design called nudges could be employed to subtly change behavior.[49] Changes in “choice architecture” could lead to different results by manipulating: defaults, expected error, action mapping, feedback mechanisms, layouts, and incentives.[50] If one were to simply change the context around the individual, they would make the “right” choice. What is striking here is the resonance between this position and the crude theory of ideology. There are many times when better designed systems can produce better results, but those situations will rarely align with practical politics or the leverage of the state.


1.3.9 Accelerationism

Just as the futurist aesthetic challenges the provincialism of slowness, vegetation, and romanticism, the accelerationists now challenge the axiological assumptions about slowness, stillness, embodiment, mindfulness (and many others) of contemporary theory. The accelerationist turn calls for the assessment of the choice to decelerate and the theoretical constructions associated with traditional humanistic critique. A key reference point in the literature on accelerationism is the Marxian claim that capitalism collapses because of its own internal contradictions, the dependence of accelerationism on this foundation is also contested.[51] Why would this point matter? If we have some predictable end point to social process, it would seem reasonable that if we could engineer that process to accelerate could be beneficial. The inevitable collapse narrative is convenient, but misses the key point made by Friedrich Pollock that as market systems strain under their own contradictions they tend to become authoritarian fusions that he calls “state capitalism.”[52] Depending on which core classes you have taken, you can see a lurking debate about the nature of social theory developing here.

Without the broader consideration of social theory, we could also see accelerationism as the choice to embrace contemporary technology. Once the choice is made to embrace technology, the study of the internal structure of capitalism as it is, abstraction, and acceleration, the range of possibilities for both research and politics dramatically increase. Williams and Strnick’s “#Accelerate – Manifesto for an accelerationist politics,” poses a different accelerationist future. The traditional points for the critique of the human sciences as romantic returns to what is increasingly a fantasy world. The future is taken by those who actively deploy the tools of modernity toward their own ends:

To do so, the Left must take advantage of every technological and scientific advance made possible by capitalist society. We declare that quantification is not an evil to be eliminated, but a tool to be used in the most effective manner possible.

The tools found in social network analysis, agent-based modeling, big data analytics, and non-equilibrium economic models, are necessary cognitive mediators for understanding complex systems like the modern economy. The accelerationist Left must become literate in these technical fields.[53]

The left in the context of this extended block quote can just as easily mean humanists or social scientists or artists. For many years, it was fashionable to critique computational means of thought production and then a necessary defense for meaningful theoretical structures. Today, these moves keep academic debates frozen in time. Among the most important ideas to move beyond is the critique of mastery, the idea that the claim to use technology in a quantitative project was something of a claim to fully represent the world and control that representation.[54] Researchers need to be good with technology. Future media students need to deploy a combination of theoretical, cultural, and technical methods, they don’t need a sophisticated list of excuses for why they don’t know how to do things.

More metaphysically, Nick Land, a key accelerationist theorist, argues that the accelerationist moment is a feedback loop.[55] By unleashing cybernetic power the accelerationist turn could potentially enable the singularity, which is the concept that a powerful enough computer could allow the uploading of all intelligence into a single artificial meta-structure.[56] The question of the desirability of assimilation into a collective is another question entirely. For advocates of singularity, the prospect of brain-computer interfacing is exciting as it transforms the condition of possibility of embodiment. For those opposed, it is embodiment itself that is the heart of the human condition. At the same time, only the artificial intelligence of capable of producing the singularity can truly be said to be sufficient to cause such an event. It is entirely possible that brain-computer interfacing will never reach this level – more on this in section three.

Accelerationism can provide three important insights:

  • If we assume that social processes are knowable and predictable, their engineered outcomes, if positive should be hastened. Fatalism is a choice made by humanists and social scientists, not a necessity.
  • Humanistic critique often relies on implicit value assumptions that intrinsically conservative, and should be challenged or inverted.
  • The possibility of a wildly divergent future with an alternative cosmology.


1.3.10 Simulation

The prospect that reality is an illusion has a long history across many human cultures. Sensation is not satisfying, there must be some other reality out there. Make no mistake, this is not a claim that the physical world does not exist, but that there is no higher essence that could somehow be beyond the world as we understand it.

Jean Baudrillard provocatively claimed that “the Iraq War did not take place.”[57] What he meant by this was not that there was no military conflict in Iraq, but that role of media performance in the war was such that it produced a new reality of war, a virtual world where one experiences the war through the vision of a military system attacking a building. The kinds of wars, and seemingly spectacular yet invisible costs, could dramatically recalibrate the choice to engage in armed conflict. At the highest level, this forms a simulacrum, a symbolic world more real than reality.[58] Escape is not an option, there is no way out of language, the alternative is to critique the most pernicious forms within our simulation. In opposition to the central thesis of accelerationism, that there is an end point that can be approached to history or a system of symbols, Baudrillard reminds us that there is no end point. History is always already in the dustbin as we are continuously remaking it, there is no end point that we are moving toward: just more discourse.

The most popular simulation topic today comes in the form of the simulation argument. Presented in this form by Nick Bostrom, we are asked to consider the possibility that we are currently living in a simulation. The essential premise of this argument is that it is likely that a highly technically advanced civilization would have seemingly infinite computing power.[59] From this point, the prospect that a civilization could run an ancestor simulation (a realistic virtual world that we are a part of) is possible, assuming that the processes by which such a civilization would come to pass would not be entirely self-destructive. Bostrom is thus not arguing directly that we live in a simulation, but that we should consider the conditions of possibility for arriving at the state of post-humanity where we might have seemingly infinite computing power.

Existential risk, the prospect that humanity or any human like civilization could be destroyed, becomes a central concern for the evaluation of possible futures.[60] HG Wells consideration in Professors or Foresight wanted, was the new technologies obliterated distance, it was not that a utopia of infinite communication was coming, but that the new technologies heralded new destructive possibilities. Simulation provides us a framework for considering what the world could and should be.

In a more concrete sense, deepfakes are a profound immanent problem. Deepfakes use neural nets to map images and sounds together.[61] Primarily used for the production of pornography, deep fakes allow the simulation of what would be real material. The status of photographic evidence has already been in decline for many years, the deep fake transitions from the world of the singular fake to the entire moving vivacious simulated fake. The reason why deep fakes are so vexing for the public sphere is their ability to fully break the chain of the indexical trace. Phillip Rosen argued that the fundamental quality of images in the public sphere is their capacity to providing evidence of having been there – that there was something real and evidence of action that could exist.[62] Metaphysical games are fun, pragmatic questions about the status of evidence in court point toward the danger of simulation.

Simulation is important in three ways:

  • Philosophy has been concerned with the feeling that this is all an illusion or simulation for thousands of years: this is a foundational idea. These are tightly bound up with questions of the meaning of life, hope/despair, genesis/apocalypse.
  • People are often searching for some trace of perception that is a life-line to the “real” world. No such connections exist.
  • Simulations can appear to be more real than reality, are quite useful; dangerous.





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  2. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization and Perception of Time and Space (University of California Press, 1986).
  3. Manuel De Landa, Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason (London; New York, NY: Continuum, 2011).
  4. Dean Burnett, “Jetpacks: Here’s Why You Don’t Have One | Dean Burnett,” The Guardian, September 23, 2014, sec. Science,
  5. John Peters, “Democracy and Mass Communication Theory: Dewey, Lippmann, Lazarsfeld,” Communication 11, no. 3 (1989): 199–220.
  6. H G Wells, “Wanted – Professors of Foresight!,” October 1, 2018.
  7. F.T. Martinetti, “We Abjure Our Symbolist Masters, The Last Lovers of the Moon,” in Futurism: An Anthology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 94.
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  9. Nick Statt, “Zuckerberg: ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ Isn’t How Facebook Operates Anymore,” CNET, accessed October 2, 2018,
  10. This book is a fascinating achievement that covers much of the same potential ground as this book. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Relationship of Federal to Local Authorities,” in Toward the Year 2000: Work in Progress (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).
  11. Moynihan, 1.
  12. Moynihan, “The Relationship of Federal to Local Authorities.”
  13. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 2012).
  14. James W. Carey and John J. Quirk, “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” The American Scholar 39, no. 3 (1970): 395–424
  15. The critique of McLuhan’s utopianism appears in Bell’s work as well.
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  18. Ibid, 76.
  19. Ibid, 143.
  20. Ibid, 215.
  21. Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility", 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 2010).
  22. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014). The assumptions of order and natality are among the most important reasons for the continuation of psychoanalysis as a field.
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  27. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, n.d.
  28. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (Routledge, 2005).
  29. Michael Foucault, “What Is an Author?” (Lecture, 1969).
  30. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Jonathan Cape (Paris: Noonday Press, 1991).
  31. Edwin Black, Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method (Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 75.
  32. “‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ Trials and Tribble-Ations (TV Episode 1996) - IMDb,” accessed October 2, 2018,
  33. John Durham Peters, “Calendar, Clock, Tower” (Media in Transition 6, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009),
  34. Julian Borger, “Tapes Reveal Enron’s Secret Role in California’s Power Blackouts,” The Guardian, February 5, 2005, sec. Business,
  35. Ivan Penn, “California Invested Heavily in Solar Power. Now There’s so Much That Other States Are Sometimes Paid to Take It,”, accessed October 2, 2018,
  36. Spend some time looking at this time zone map and it will become clear that time zones are political.
  37. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (MIT Press, 2013), 5.p 5
  38. Richard Barbrook, Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village (Pluto, 2007), 8; Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,” Science as Culture 6, no. 1 (1995): 44–72. imaginary futures, 8
  39. Barbrook, Imaginary Futures, 243.
  40. Dunne and Raby, Speculative Everything, 67–88.
  41. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 133. 133
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  43. Andrew Murphie, “Putting the Virtual Back into VR,” in A Shock to Thought: Expression After Deleuze (New York: Routledge, 2002), 188–215.
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  47. The key idea in the psychoanalytic critique of ideology is to acknowledge that people are often actively participating in the reproduction of a discourse, they are not duped by ideology, they are manufacturers of it. As a theoretical construct, this compliments the social science research and provides a forward looking sense of the narrative structure around ideology today. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology; Dean, Jodi, Publicity’s Secret.
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