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.