Society is constructed on the basis of history. Some of our greatest lessons, learnings and future engagements ascend from events which shaped our past. Yet in a world so driven by emergent technology, connectedness and globalisation, the ability to predict the future through the vehicle of media has become paramount. As Natale (2014) phrases it, “the capacity to forecast the future is often presented as one of the main responsibilities for everyone who works with media and technology, as well as in other fields”.
When I began this semester, my understanding of the media’s portrayal of the future was primarily concerned with futuristic, science fiction, space-themed movies; and hover boards. All the stereotypes associated with sci-fi classics such as the likes of Blade Runner, Star Wars and Avatar, were responsible for shaping my perception of how the media depicts the impending. Or as The Playlist Staff (2015) describe it, “as kids, we looked ahead to the imminent 21st century and thought of a big bold, sci-fi future”.
However, if anything this semester I have come to understand that the representation of the future by the media comes in many different forms. Whether it’s the short term, medium term or long term future, the way it is depicted and discussed is highly interesting and central for society as we delve into the unknown.
Representing the short-term future through media encompasses much more than the daily weather report. As Happer and Philo (2013) argue, “the media play a central role in informing the public about what happens in the world, particularly in those areas in which audiences do not possess direct knowledge or experience”. As such, the media has a significant impact on the construction of public attitudes and this relationship to social change (Happer & Philo, 2013). News media is perhaps the most obvious example of the short-term representation of the future, with our daily feeds consistently filled with information about the upcoming. Whether this is the impending election, the latest iPhone to hit stores or the daily stock market report, our growing demand for anticipatory knowledge is fuelled primarily by our increased connectedness and decreased attention spans.
By this, I mean the new media environment we find ourselves consistently immersed in is designed so that information is disseminated rapidly and in large volumes. Instead of sitting down after dinner with the family to watch the 7:30pm news report, we are abidingly and continually plugged in to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds, with new information being replaced just as quickly as it popped up. As Kim argues, this has resulted in a potentially dangerous outcome when it comes to an individual’s understanding of their current reality and the imminent future. “The dissemination of false news, the rise of canned reality show demagogues, the easy manipulation of the masses, the temptations of quick infamy for an embittered few, and the fickle rapidity of clickbait-based communication are all cause for great concern” (Kim, 2018).
When considering the medium to long term portrayal of the future by the media, it is my belief that the three time frames (short, medium and long term) are difficult to separate and individually discern. The reason is that through our experience with the short-term representation of the future, the flow-on effect often naturally leads us to consider the impacts of our current reality on what is forthcoming. Supposition is quite characteristic of future portrayal in the media, and more often than not this speculation brings negative connotations. As Natale (2014) argues, “claims about the future of digital media are often presented as innocent and unbiased. This is probably due to their speculative character: like all statements about the future, they refer to the order of possibility rather than to that of reality.”
One example which I have become rather acquainted with through my digital artefact this semester is the debate around climate and the future of the planet itself. As Holsten (2018) explains, “traditionally, the media have focused on the extreme consequences of climate change and the uncertainty surrounding climate research”, which ties in with the speculative character that Natale discusses. “The focus on uncertainty has shifted towards an unquestioned, taken-for-granted frame of certainty” (Holsten, 2018).
In my experience this semester, social media has been paramount in this portrayal of the future. With online collective movements such ‘Say No To Plastic Straws’, #banthebag and multiple others, the depiction of our medium to long term future has been flavoured with significant emphasis on environmental sustainability. On a daily basis, we find our news feeds scattered with articles, videos and images about the future of the planet and climate change, typically hinted with an aura of doom. The relationship that the media has with the portrayal of the planet’s long term future is complex and dynamic. As Boykoff and Roberts (2007) explain, “it is clear that science and policy shape media reporting and public understanding, however, it is also true that journalism and public concern shape ongoing climate science and policy decisions and activities”. This, in turn, has greatly shaped the long-term portrayal of the future in modern media. “While journalists have consistently viewed their role as one of information dissemination rather than education, the distinction between these roles becomes blurred in practice” (Boykoff & Roberts, 2007).
The issue of the media’s portrayal of the long, medium and short term future is certainly considerably more complex than has been explored here, and encompasses a multi-faceted approach across various topics. What I hope this blog post articulates is that through my investigation of one very specific area through my digital artefact, I have witnessed a shifting of my own attitudes in what was previously perceived as the media’s role in future speculation. That is to say; sci-fi movies and high-tech-AI-dystopian films are certainly an enjoyable and intriguing commentary on the future, however are only just a fraction of the role that the media plays in forecasting whatever it may be that lies ahead of us.
Boykoff, M & Roberts, J 2007, ‘Media coverage of climate change: current trends, strengths, weaknesses’, Human Development Report 2007/2008, p. 8.
Happer, C & Philo, G 2013, ‘The Role of the Media in the Construction of Public Belief and Social Change’, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Vol. 1, No. 1.
Holsten, H 2018, ‘How do the media portray climate change?’, UiO: Centre for Development and the Environment, online article, 4 January, viewed 28 July 2019, <https://www.sum.uio.no/english/research/news-and-events/news/2018/how-do-the-media-portray-climate-change-.html>
Kim, J 2018, ‘Is Social Media Destroying Our Attention Spans?’, Psychology Today, online article, 14 December, viewed 27 July 2019, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/culture-shrink/201812/is-social-media-destroying-our-attention-spans>
Natale, S 2014, ‘New Media and the Imagination of the Future’, Journal of Mobile Media, Vol. 8, No. 2,
The Playlist Staff 2015, ‘The 25 Best Sci-Fi Films Of The 21st Century So Far’, Indie Wire, online article, May 7, viewed 28 July 2019, < https://www.indiewire.com/2015/05/the-25-best-sci-fi-films-of-the-21st-century-so-far-264273/>