History of the Future, Spring 2006

Week 1 January 16/18

The Construction of Time

Overview of course
Lecture: Time and the Future in Human Societies
Film clips

Week 2 January 23/25

Millennialism and Eschatology in Medieval Europe

Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium
The Book of Revelation (read the introductory commentary and then skim the Book of Revelation itself)
Ralph Glaber, “On the First Millennium”
Bernard McGinn, “Who Was Joachim of Fiore?”

Week 3 Jan 30/Feb.1

City on the Hill, Revolution, Enlightenment: Making New Futures

Francis Bacon, “New Atlantis”, in Claeys, ed.,Utopia Reader
Condorcet, “Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind”, in Claeys, ed., Utopia Reader
Steven Kreis, “The Vision of Human Progress”
John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
Matthew Shaw, “Reactions to the French Republican Calendar”, French History, 15:1, 2001.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Giambattista Vico (read section 3, “The New Science”)

Week 4 Feb. 6/8

Chasing Utopia: Romantics and Revolutionaries in the 19th Century

Fourier, Marx, Bellamy, Owen in Claeys, ed., The Utopia Reader
William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
Isaiah Berlin, “The Counter-Enlightenment”

First paper due at the beginning of class

Week 5 Feb. 13/15

Looking Ahead From the Fin d’Siecle

Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon
Lady Henry Somerset, “The Position of Woman in the Twentieth Century”, in Varty, ed., Eve’s Century
John Elfreth Watkins, “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”, in Varty, ed., Eve’s Century
Tokutomi Soho, Shorai no Nihon (The Future Japan)
The World’s Columbian Exhibition, 1893
“The Eiffel Tower Stirs Debate and Controversy”
In-Class viewing: A Trip to the Moon

Week 6 Feb. 20/22

The High Modernist Future I

Le Corbusier, The City of To-morrow and Its Planning, pp. 5-106, 159-248, 298-301
The Iconography of Hope: the 1939-40 World’s Fair
F.T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism”
Radebaugh: The Future We Were Promised
In-class viewing: “Flash Gordon”
Scheduled film: “Things to Come”

Week 7 Feb. 27/March 1

The High Modernist Future II

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
James Scott, Seeing Like A State, selections
Scheduled film: “Metropolis”

Week 8 March 13/15

Go Into Plastics: Postwar Futures and Their Discontents

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”
Hugo Gernsback’s Forecast, 1951
Motorola Advertisements
Yesterland (look at the material about Disney’s Tomorrowland)
Paul Wilborn, “Tomorrowland”
Comics: Adam Strange, Tommy Tomorrow, Space Cabby
In-class viewing: “Design for Dreaming”, “The Jetsons”, “Star Trek”, “Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland”
Scheduled film: “Sleeper”

Week 9 March 20/22

Futures For Sale: The Hubris of Expertise in an Age of Prediction

Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
Daniel Bell, Towards the Year 2000
Scheduled film: “Clockwork Orange”
Scavenger hunt assignment due

Week 10 March 27/29

Futures For Sale II

Daniel Bell, Towards the Year 2000
Short excerpts from miscellaneous futurist works in Professor Burke’s collection
Short excerpts from Tom Swift novels
In-class viewing: “Barbarella”, “Logan’s Run”, “Zardoz”
Scheduled film: “Soylent Green”
Text analysis paper due

Week 11 April 3/5

Postmodern Revisitations and Revisions

Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan
Scott McCloud, “Zot: Hearts and Minds”
Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
In-class viewing: “Futurama”, “Demolition Man”
Scheduled film: “Blade Runner”

Week 12 April 10/12

Apocalyptics Now

Tim LaHaye, Left Behind
Jason Boylett, Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse
Bill Joy, “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us”
Chris Gorak, “Right At Your Door” (if we can find a way to see it)
Scheduled film: “The Road Warrior”

Week 13 April 17/19

The Singularity and Other Contemporary Futures

John Brockman, The Next Fifty Years
Vernor Vinge, “What Is The Singularity?”
The Extropy Institute
In-class viewing: “Batman Beyond”
Scheduled film: “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”

Week 14 April 24/26

Who Needs the Future?
Emergence, Complexity, Prediction
Beyond Expertise: Futures Markets and Other New Auguries

Final research paper due May 11th

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15 Responses to History of the Future, Spring 2006

  1. Tim, I don’t know if you’ve taught this class before or if it’s old hat to you, but to me it just looks astoundingly cool. Weeks 8 and 12 (“Go Into Plastics” and “Apocalyptics Now”) sound especially fun. Please post on how this class goes at one point or another.

  2. sepoy says:

    This is insanely cool. I could re-mix this course to make History of the South Asian Future easily. Use Islamic apocalyptic tradition; Gandhi etc.

    Do keep us informed as the class goes forward.

  3. tattycat says:

    I agree- this looks like a fantastic class. I’ll be using this syllabus for some interesting reading for myself this semester. Do keep us updated on how this goes!

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks, guys. I’ve taught this once before, almost with this syllabus. I adjusted a few things: Norman Cohn instead of Eugen Weber’s Apocalypses; I did Verne’s obscure novel about the future of Paris, which is interesting from the standpoint of understanding Verne but not really for this course, and a few other minor differences.

    The last time I taught it, the final papers on various tropes in representations of the future (world without poverty, population bomb, flying cars) simply blew me away: the students found some amazing things.

    I’d love to take this class more global the next time I teach it: Scott helps me hint at that a bit, and last time I also used Ferguson’s Expectations of Modernity to get at some issues in an African context (I felt it was a bit forced as a one-off gesture to the non-Western: I want to do that more seriously if I’m going to do it).

  5. Chris Clarke says:

    You have almost certainly seen William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” but here’s a link just in case.

  6. Chris Clarke says:

    Ah, I see that page is formatted oddly, and the story “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” is tacked on at the end, the title added as if it were the continuation of the last paragraph of The Gernsback Continuum.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks, I’d seen it a while back, but hadn’t thought of it (oddly) in the context of the course. The students do write a paper where I give each of them a futurist work of some kind that they have to fit within this intellectual history; I have Gibson’s Neuromancer on the list. In some ways this would be a more clever choice.

  8. Dan says:

    This is a great class. Really great. The kind of class I wish I’d done.

    Why not Kern’s Culture of Time and Space? Or do you want to focus on primary sources for more recent (well, compared to Medieval Europe) sources.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    I talk about Kern some in the introductory lecture and it’s one of the books that can be picked for the second paper assignment. My feeling was that the book might be a bit of a challenge in terms of the referential terrain that he traverses–this class is for first-year students. I may take the Jameson off for the same reason. The first time I taught the class, I was really pleased that the argument for a changing experience of temporality and the emergence of a very particular concept of the future came rather naturally out of the primary materials rather than as an interpretation forced on the students “from above”.

  10. Laura says:

    I wanna take this class. Looks really cool.

  11. Simon Shoedecker says:

    I hope, if you’re going to direct your students towards the theory of the “singularity,” that you will also point them in the direction of “One Half of a Manifesto” by Jaron Lanier, an argument that the likelihood of such an event is vastly overblown, and held with a form of religious faith that ignores reality.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks for that, Simon. In a way the whole class instructs them that the idea is overblown: for anyone who wants to take futurists too seriously, this class should be a huge splash of cold water in the face. What I find interesting about the “singularity”, however, is that it’s spurred a whole new swarm of whiggishly optimistic futurism after the postmodern burn-out of the kind of expert futurism that pops up in the Bell anthology. I’ll add the Lanier to the list of writings that the second paper can focus on, thanks.

  13. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    Yow, I just took a look at Lanier and he’s using a line of argument I know to be completely wrong. He’s deploying a really ancient trope of the writing about software called “the software crisis”. Whenever you see someone deploy it, you know there’s going to be an argument of roughly the following form:

    “Programmers are pushing conventional techniques to their limits to produce barely-working systems consisting of N lines of code. There are many problems that will become critical in the near term, which will require programs of size 10*N lines of code. Ergo, we face a crisis in the field of software — in the very near future we won’t be able to solve the problems that need solving. Our only hope is to adopt this bundle X of techniques I advocate, which will save the day.”

    The trouble with this argument is that it has persisted, unchanged, for the past forty years, since the mid-1960s. The only thing that changes are the techniques X, and the number N, which keeps growing as the impossible limit keeps getting passed. What really happens is that we have an infinite menu of problems that need solving, and as soon as a new technique is invented, it gets used to increase the complexity of the problems we can solve, right up to the limits of what the new technique can manage. So no matter what techniques we have available, it always looks like our techniques are about to collapse under their own weight.

    I have no doubt that in a hundred years, the super-AIs beloved of Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec will be complaining about how software is doomed because they can’t write programs of a trillion lines of code.

  14. Arisian says:

    As one of the lucky few who was in this class the last time around, I wanted to say (again) that I absolutely loved it. If you’re still looking for readings, I mannaged to get my hands on the entire Galactic Patrol series by E.E. “Doc” Smith recently. I’d previously read a few of them as ancient, disintigrating paperbacks in Cordwainer, but I’ve been reminded of just how fascinating they are, both as an example of futurism, and also as the work that lead to practically every spaceship-based SF TV show and movie made in the last 30 years. It’s fascinating comparing some of the old Tom Swift books (which I read a great many of in my youth) to Smith’s works; they were written about the same period, and have a similar feel to their narratives, but the Smith books have a scope that makes Appleton’s books seem tiny and unimportant. I have no idea whether or not you could get your hands on copies of the Smith books, but if you can, “Galactic Patrol” would be a fun addition to the sylabus. It’s a pretty quick read, and a lot of fun. For anyone who hasn’t read these books (and can get their hands on them), the entire series is highly entertaining as well as historically fascinating for anyone who likes reading FTL science fiction. If you want more information on them, there’s some on my website: http://arisia.no-ip.org/arisia.html

  15. Chris Segal says:


    I keep forgetting to check your blog, and I should really swing by Swarthmore some time to say hi, but I just wanted to repeat again what a great class this is, and what an amazing introduction to Swarthmore it was in the fall of 2001.

    Also, I thought I should remind you that you *still* owe us ’05ers a showing of Star Trek. Don’t disappoint this semester!

    Also, hi Ben.

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