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Posts Tagged ‘Futurism’

New Essay – Humanities in the Digital Era

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I have a new essay on “humanities in the digital era” in the web journal Film International – here’s a link.

As I argue, “We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, ‘aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.’

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati - you can read some responses here - some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, ‘Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,’ while Cynthia M. Pile, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that ‘for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.’

Pile goes on to note that ‘we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away — to the detriment of the book — is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.’

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled ‘On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor,‘ in which I noted – again, in part – that ‘the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or bank . . . it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of “outlaw” art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation . . . and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.’

In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia - in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the ‘Outerlands’ to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, ‘men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.’ And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that ‘no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that ‘I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,’ to which Lemmy replied ‘I shall fight so that failure is possible.’ The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, ‘the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.’”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Black Mirror is one of the most original and disturbing visions of Dystopia ever produced for television.

Juts like The Twilight Zone in the 1960s, Charlie Brooker’s British television series Black Mirror, of which there are now six episodes plus one 90 minute multi-part special, White Christmas, starring Jon Hamm of Mad Men, is disturbing and thought provoking television. Designed, like The Twilight Zone, so that every episode has a new premise, a new cast, and a new plot, but consistently offering visions of a totally wired-up future in which there is no freedom or hope, Black Mirror is available on Netflix streaming in the US – or, as I did, you can buy the Region 2 British DVDs of all six episodes. Regarding the structure of the series, Brooker has commented that “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” Which, I’m afraid, we are.

The series kicked off in early December 2011 with the truly horrific episode The National Anthem, in which the Prime Minister of Britain is forced by terrorists to disgrace himself on worldwide live television to save the life of a kidnapped member of the Royal Family; followed by 15 Million Merits roughly a week later, in which the future is seen as a world of endless drudgery and nonstop video commercials which are forced upon workers who must ceaselessly toil at meaningless jobs simply to survive. The Entire History of You deals with the endless recording of human existence on cellphones, Twitter and other media, which has reached the point of total immersion, so that everyone knows everything about everyone else – there’s nowhere to hide.

The second season – starting in February of 2013 – picks up on this theme with Be Right Back, in which a young widow finds comfort in an artificially created “web” version of her late husband, which “comes back to life” through the aid of every video, Tweet, e-mail and photo scan, and later a synthetic body, but still brings her no real solace. White Bear, easily the most brutal episode of the entire series, came next, with its tale of a young woman who awakes in strange house, unable to remember her identity. Wandering outside, she discovers that no one will talk to her; rather, they incessantly record her every move with their cellphones. The last regular episode to date, The Waldo Moment, chronicles what happens when a CGI cartoon character is suddenly thrust into a race for a seat in Parliament.

The episodes vary in length, from 44 to 62 minutes, and they’re broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK, which has a history of innovative programming going back to the early 1980s. In this country, you’ll have to watch them online, on buy the DVDs, and there is, of course, an American version of the show in the works, for which I hold out little hope – some things just don’t travel well. London at the moment is a fearfully expensive, fairly Dystopian location itself, and the series makes full use of all the technology that comes with a society under constant surveillance – which is life in the UK today. Black Mirror is a paranoid vision of the near future which comes all too close to probability – if we let tech get out of hand (and I would argue we already have), this is just a sample of the world we can expect to live in.

That said, I don’t think the episodes from season two are as strong as those in season one. With completely uncharted territory to mine, and no real risk of failure – if the series clicked, fine, but if not, it would have been a noble experiment – Brooker and his associates could afford to take nearly any risk to create something really off the charts. Season two is slightly more formulaic, though I enjoyed Be Right Back the best of the lot, having just the right mixture of menace and melancholy in its construction. Still, the entire series is literally light years ahead of anything on American television, with the partial exception of PBS, and I suggest you check it out for yourself- whatever you might think of it, it’s an authentic and original vision of society in collapse, and all of us are the victims. It’s a mixture of satire, prognostication and social criticism that really hits home. But beware – it’s not for the faint of heart. Not at all.

You can get more information on Black Mirror by clicking here, or on the image above.

What Does Eric Schmidt Mean When He Says “The Internet Will Disappear?”

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Google CEO Eric Schmidt thinks the internet, as we now know it, will vanish.

As Luke Dormehl reports in Fast Company, “Google may have played a significant role in establishing the Internet as we know it, but according to its executive chairman Eric Schmidt, the future of the world’s most advanced information network is for it to disappear. Responding to a question about the future of the web during a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Schmidt said, ‘I will answer very simply that the Internet will disappear.’ Schmidt wasn’t referring to the actual disappearance of the World Wide Web, but rather our sense of it as its own technology, separate from everything else. ‘There will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it,’ he said, adding that the Internet ‘will be part of your presence all the time.’

As one example, Schmidt described the sensor-equipped room of the future. ‘Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic,” he said. ‘And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.’ Schmidt concluded by saying that, were such technologies to take hold, ‘A highly personalized, highly interactive and very, very interesting world emerges.’ He additionally touched on the subject of techno-replacement, and the idea that we may all lose our current jobs to machines as computers continue to improve. Schmidt dismissed the concept, and said that instead technology will create new job categories—with 7 out of every 8 being non-technology roles, which will nonetheless be benefited by technology.”

Somehow, I don’t find this all that reassuring – rather than disappearing, the internet will become so much a fabric of our lives that in Schmidt’s world, we’ll be on the grid whether we like it or not. I for, one, don’t really want to live in such a totally immersive, and necessarily intrusive environment- and despite Schmidt’s insistence that no jobs will be lost, it seems obvious that unless you’re a programmer, installing this technology, or else maintaining it, or selling it, or in some other way involved with it, that your horizons have definitely narrowed.

Rather than having my house become part of my consciousness through electronic means, I would much prefer to have an off the grid experience there, using technology only when I wish to, and tuning it out when I don’t. It’s like the old saying – “be here now.” Well, if “here” is so wired up that it in essence becomes a part of your being, then you’re not really any one place at all, but rather scattered throughout what should be a place of refuge, thoughtfulness, and contemplation. I’d rather not live in a “dynamic” house, but rather a restful one, in which I can unplug and find some respite from the digital world.

As for wearable technology, we’ve already seen the collapse of consumer demand for Google glass – for almost precisely the reasons I’ve outlined here – and while some may welcome a world of complete internet integration, I think it will create a world in which we are inextricably intertwined, 24/7, and who knows where all the data collected will wind up? There’s enough of that already – I think we may want to keep this kind of complete immersion in the box, but then again, it may already be too late – or right on time, depending on your point of view.

Really, what he’s saying is this – “the internet will become omnipresent.” And he may very well be right.

Embracing The Apocalypse: A World Without People

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in the latest issue of Film International, “Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People,” examining visions of the future as imagined by various Dystopian films and television programs.

As she writes, “Human-centered popular folktales of Apocalypse and Doomsday narratives of every imaginable scenario are undeniably as powerful and plentiful as they have been from the beginnings of human narrative tradition. Indeed, apocalyptic events permeate a plethora of grand narratives from myriad cultures and textual sources that prominently, almost ecstatically, feature and carefully describe the gory details of our violent end times. They are set in the future, and almost all revolve around human-centered stories complete with often similarly violent narratives, inevitable tropes of conflict, judgment, drama, and resolution, the stops we require of any genre or tradition in human narrative form.

At the center of apocalyptic vision we find, perhaps predictably, a human-dominant form of speciesism, revealing a widespread, almost universally held belief in the dominance of human beings as a species. Human beings are placed at the center of events and narratives, even narratives that don’t involve human beings. This is something that often goes unnoticed, but it is especially notable in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and depeopled futuristic visions.

The plethora of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic narratives are far too numerous to list, from religious scripture and Revelations, to secular visions of end times, to the myriad, often bizarre and insane sounding predictions of the end by various individuals and groups. All are narratives of human-centered destruction; some invoke the end of the earth, and some portray the end of people and human civilization; but all embrace, and seem to enjoy visions of the end. We cannot agree on much, but people agree that the end is near, the end is coming, and the end is usually defined as the end of people and human civilization.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; fascinating work in an area that is largely unexplored.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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