As we are wrapping things down for the term here at USC this week, I wanted to share videos of some of the public events I have helped to organize this past semester. Specifically, I am going to be focusing today on two sets of events — one focused on science fiction and the other on Reading in a Participatory Culture.
As part of my role as the Chief Advisor to the Annenberg Innovation Lab, I have launched a new lecture series, “Geek Speaks.” Each semester, we will host one or more events bringing together top artists and thinkers who work in the areas of games, comics, science fiction, fandom, or cult media. Part of the thinking here is that such programing will increase the Lab’s visibility with students at USC who might have an interest in participating in the Lab’s activities, which include work on digital books, social media, social hacking, and the future of entertainment. For our first program, we focused on The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction. Here’s how we described the event:
From its conception, science fiction was a genre which has encouraged speculation at the limits of known science, sometimes in the name of popular science education, sometimes as a mode of theory formulation and discussion. Across its history, the range of topics that science fiction might address has expanded to include topics in media, communications, gender and sexuality, race, political philosophy, and the social sciences more generally. Increasingly, science fiction concepts and themes are being folded directly into the design process at major companies, as they seek to identify potential products and services and prototype the needs and desires of consumers.
On this semester’s Geek Speaks panel, each of the speakers: Cory Doctorow, Henry Jenkins, and Brian David Johnson, has done work exploring the interplay between speculative fiction and real world communities, and each is also a hardcore fans of the science fiction genre. In this free-wheeling conversation, they will discuss the roles that science fiction has played, for better or worse, in shaping the ways we think about innovation and confront the challenges of designing for the future.
All three of us have a long-standing fascination with science fiction as a literary and media genre and with the role which speculative fiction plays in helping to shape our expectations about the future. Johnson has been a key advocate of science fiction prototyping in his role as the chief Futurist at Intel, and he recently produced a book, Vintage Tomorrows, which explores what designers might learn from the Steampunk movement. I wrote the introduction to the book and Doctorow was one of the key people Johnson’s team interviewed. Doctorow, of course, will be well known to my readers as one of the best contemporary science fiction authors, as someone whose young adult novels have contributed to the civic education of a generation of young geeks, and who has been a key activist fighting for our digital rights through his involvement in the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Below you can see the video of our USC conversation.
We billed ourselves as the Three Geeks, inspired in part by the Three Tenors. Johnson has suggested that when we speak together, you get to hear the perspectives of the fan, the futurist, and the activist, each of whom draws inspiration from the power of speculative fiction. In this exchange, we ended up talking a lot about utopian and dystopian conceptions of the future and the work each performs in our reflections about technology and politics. We had done a similar event (albeit much shorter) at the Tools for Change conference in New York City earlier this year, and the chemistry was so good that we have been seeking out other venues where we can continue the dialogue. Here’s the video of the earlier NYC version, which ended up being focused much more on the future of publishing.
The second set of events was organized around the release of our new book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the Literature Classroom. This book was inspired by the work of playwright, director, actor and educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater in Rhode Island. Pitts-Wiley had gone into prisons to work with incarcerated youth to get them to read Moby-Dick, no easy task for any reader, by challenging them to reimagine the characters for the 21st century. A 19th century novel about the whaling trade became through their eyes a way of reflecting on the contemporary drug trade and the world of street gangs. Inspired by these exchanges, Pitts-Wiley developed a stage production, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which involved an adult cast doing Melville’s original and a youth cast doing the contemporary remix. This whole process inspired my New Media Literacies team back at MIT and we ended up developing a whole curriculum designed to help students and teachers reflect on the place of remix as an expressive practice, moving back and forth between Herman Melville’s own writing and reading practices (as explored by literary critic Wyn Kelley) and contemporary forms of remixing, including fan fiction writing practices (as explored through my own research).
To coincide with the book’s release, we decided to bring Pitts-Wiley to USC and introduce his work and its underlying vision to Los Angeles. This effort was inspired by one of our Annenberg graduate students, Alexandrina Agloro, who has gotten to know Ricardo while working on an educational ARG at Brown University. Our plan was to bring Ricardo to LA and get him to work with local high school (Los Angeles High School for the Arts, Gertz-Ressler High School, and YouthBuild Boyle Heights) and college (USC) students to mount a production of Moby-Dick: Then and Now.
As we were planning the event, we discovered that the Los Angeles Public Library was running a whole series of events celebrating Moby-Dick and its author. They were nice enough to fly out my collaborator Wyn Kelley to join Ricardo and I for an event at the start of this project. You can hear the audio of that exchange here. AS part of their efforts, the LA Public Libraries commissioned a documentary film, My Moby-Dick, which included reflections on the novel by a range of well-known Los Angeles residents, including the techno musician Moby (who took his name from the novel), the food critic Jonathan Gold, the comedian Buck Henry, my USC colleague Howard Rodman, and yours truly, among many others. The film was screened as part of a theatrical extravaganza which included live performances by a range of local actors and musicians, including Stacey Keach, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Charlayne Woodard, Rinde Eckert, and Alan Mandell. Below is the opening segment from that documentary, some of which was produced by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame.
Ricardo was able to cast the play using local youth actors in under a week, leaving him less than a week to rehearse his staged reading. I was able to sit in on some of the rehearsals and watch him shape performances from a multi-racial cast. And we were proud to see so many people from South Central Los Angeles turn out for the performance to support their sons, daughters, students, and classmates. The video below will show you what the audience got to see — a dynamic performance of the play, followed with my discussion with Pitts-Wiley about the process which brought it to the Annenberg Auditorium.