Albert Robida’s Twentieth Century

The next session of our seminar (April 30th) will focus on how science fiction literature and film address technology and therefore create “media fantasies.” The text chosen is an essay written by Vivian Sobchack, a scholar who is doing some excellent work in the fields of media history and film studies. As always, you can download it through Ilias.

After discussing this text, we will focus on different examples of science fiction authors who particularly relied on media technologies in their work. In particular, I would like to bring to your attention the work of Albert Robida, a French writer who was the author in the 1880s of a trilogy of novels who promised to show the reader how the world would have looked like in the twentieth century.

Although less famous than his contemporary Jules Verne, Robida is a particularly interesting example because he was not only a writer, but also a gifted illustrator and caricaturist. His explorations into the future of technology and society was thus accompanied by some inspiring, visionary illustrations. You can give a look to some of these works here. The visualization of Robida’s futurist fiction is particularly interesting if we think it in reference to the impressive visual contents which would have been provided, some years after Robida’s books, by science fiction movies.

Another science fiction writer whose works are very relevant to our discourse is Philip Dick, who is most certainly known to many of you as the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was adapted into a cult film, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But Dick also wrote beautiful novels such as Ubik and Radio Free Albemuth, in which he merged radio waves and other media technologies with beliefs in telepathy and the occult. In this sense, he was certainly one of the most influential authors of “media fiction” in the twentieth century.


Following to our discussion of astrology in connection to prophecies on media and other kinds of predictions, I would like to add a bibliographic reference which could be of interest to those of you who would like to know more about this subject. This is a very interesting and inspiring book by the German media theorist and cultural critic Theodor W. Adorno, titled “The Stars Down to Earth.”

The book was also translated into German. It could be an excellent topic for a presentation and/or final paper (in connection to our discourse on media prophecies, of course), if some of you are interested.

Media Prophecies, Religious Prophecies?

In the next session of our seminar (April 23rd), we will focus on the role of prophecies, forecasts, and predictions in the cultural reception of communications media. The text chosen to address this issue is David Nye’s essay Technological Predictions: A Promethean Problem (please download it through Ilias).

Our examination of media prophecies, however, will start by comparing the predictions made in the realm of technology to those conceived in a rather different context: religion. There might be, in fact, some kind of religious or superstitious framework behind the idea that a visionary science-fiction writer, a technologist, or a “futurologist” is able to grasp the future of the media.

Prophecies have always been part of religious beliefs and practices. In ancient Greece, the Delphic oracle was one of the major sites of religiosity. Also the Romans accorded a relevant role to prophets, practicing a number of techniques to divine the future, such as the inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals or haruspicy. Today, the power to forecast the future is often accorded to spiritualist mediums, psychics, as well as to Christian saints, priests and other religious leaders.

In media history, prophecies and prophets have always been important, too. Inventors such as Thomas Alva Edison, who reportedly predicted the advent of something similar to long-distance telephony as early as 1878, have been regarded as prophetic and visionary. Also, science-fiction writers were frequently appreciated for their ability to foresee the technological world of the future. In 1930, for instance, the American magazine Popular Mechanics accorded to the French writer Jules Verne quasi-messianic powers: “Jules Verne (…) is the major prophet of modern civilization. In the strict sense, he was a scientist as well as a fiction writer. His description of airplanes, submarines, rockets and engines aroused jeers and hoots, and his defence was, ‘Man can achieve what man can imagine’.”

Is, therefore, a “media prophecy” in some way similar to a religious prophecy? Next week, we will try to answer to this question in class. In the meantime, please write below if you have a question, a comment, or a criticism to share.

“Old” and “new” media

The next session of our seminar (April 16th) will examine how the idea of novelty influences the cultural reception of media technology, and how the emergence of “new” technologies stimulates reactions of fear as well as enthusiasm. The text chosen to address this topic is the introduction to a collection of essays titled Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies. Please download it through the ILIAS system of the University of Cologne and be prepared to discuss it in class.

Beside reading this text, however, it is useful to discuss briefly what the contrasting ideas of “old” and “new” mean in the history and in the present of media communications.

Today, we usually regard as “new media” those technologies that are connected to the so-called digital revolution, such as personal computers, internet, smart phones, tablets, e-readers, and so on. However, technologies that we now consider “old,” such as radio, television, or the telephone, were also regarded as a novelty when they were first introduced. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, cinema and wireless telegraphy were new media. In this sense, we should realize that the ideas of “new” and “old” are first and foremost cultural and historical constructions.

Take, for instance, the case of television. When it was initially introduced in Germany, at the beginning of the 1950s, it was heralded by the public and by newspapers as something radically new, a symbol of progress and modernity. However, while the possibility to broadcast both images and sounds was indeed new, less attention was given to the fact that the television reproduced forms and techniques that had been developed by older media. Most of the early TV shows, for instance, replicated quite exactly the genres that had been broadcasted through the radio in the previous decades, or were based on older forms of live entertainment, such as the theater act or the variety show.

In media studies, one of the first authors to realize the importance of the concept of novelty in the history of media is Carolyn Marvin, who wrote in 1990 a book titled When Old Technologies Were New, which examined the introduction of electrical technologies such as the telephone at the end of the nineteenth century. This book is available at our University Library.

If you want to discover something more about the way “new” and “old” media are categorized today, try to google the words new old media.

I look forward to discussing this topic and the text posted on ILIAS with you in class. Please post comments below if you have any questions or comments.