Course Syllabus

Instructor

Jim Collier
jim.collier@vt.edu
231-4336
Office: Lane Hall 215
Hours: 11:00-12:00 T, H and by appointment

Course Description

We imagine, and live for, accelerating change—a bright, gleaming future inhabited by our better selves, our improved bodies, and our augmented intellect. Let’s consider the year 2068. Many futurists claim we will inhabit a world born of runaway technological growth, a world of almost incomprehensible change in which an “intelligence explosion” allows the human species to transcend evolution. Even though futurists enjoy notoriously bad track records predicting what will happen, we persist in our faith in the unabated, beneficial progress of science, technology and, perhaps, society. In this class, we will examine how our visions of future progress shape our decisions and our work, and analyze how understanding the interrelation of science, technology, and society allows us to intervene in, and not merely accept, the future.

Course Goals

❧ To examine our assumptions and arguments regarding scientific, technological, and social progress; 

❧ To analyze the structure of how humans project, and connect to, the future; 

❧ To develop and express, individually and collectively, norms that address our future conduct. 

Course Origin

The origin of this course resides fifty years in the past.

Two distinct memories from my childhood resurfaced as I conceived this course.

The first memory took me back to a television show hosted by Walter Cronkite—"The 21st Century." The show offered a kind of news cast from the future. Cronkite's well-honed measured demeanor would slip just a bit into tour-guide enthusiasm. He offered a rosy view of a world in which humans had resolved the persistent problems of poverty, crime, and unfulfilling labor, and built wonderful cities and homes filled with cool gadgets. The show reflected, I believe, the great optimism regarding social change found in 1967. Star Trek, which debuted in 1966, conveyed the same hope. "The 21st Century" fascinated me. I longed for a world built through human ingenuity with the full confidence of progress for all. In 1967, the technology captivated me and seemed well within reach in my immediate lifetime. As you can see in the creation of this course, the hook of a wondrous technological future resides in me still.

The second memory that bubbled to the surface was more of a vision—the bright orange cover of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. The book appeared in 1970 (and, subsequently, had many reprintings and redesigns). My parents had a copy. I found the title foreboding. I didn't know exactly what it meant—juxtaposing 'future' and 'shock' both troubled and enticed me. The book's thickness made it appear important. And in most every house I visited at the time, I noticed the bright orange cover. While I remain unsure about the correlation between having a book and reading a book, I believe Future Shock's presence signaled a cultural moment. A concern, perhaps, about rapid change in a decade that ended in ruinous violence. I would come to read Future Shock as a teenager. The optimism for the future I felt as a viewer of "The 21st Century" was replaced by the wariness I felt as a reader of Future ShockThe complex allure of science and technology resides at the heart of this class.  

Life fifty years ago yields to life in fifty years. In fifty years, you will in your late-sixties, early-seventies. I am approaching this age rather more quickly that I would have imagined (or desired) at your age. In fifty years, I may well be gone. But, as we will discover in our course, death and life, how they are defined and how they are realized, are undergoing extraordinary changes. If the futurists are correct, I may be around in some form in 2068. I gather my human form, like yours, and the world we will come to occupy will be both radically different and, somehow, very much the same. Like you, I am fascinated by the possibilities. This course gives us a wonderful opportunity to imagine freely, and to begin building, life in fifty years.

Course Narrative

We make, and remake worlds, determinedly. We imagine, reimagine, negotiate, exploit, and assume past, present, and future worlds. We construct and reconfigure worlds with science, technology, history, medicine, architecture, literature, philosophy, politics, religion, language, trade, laws, music, art, social and cultural institutions—all our means interacting with all other means. Future worlds remain always outstretched and beckoning us with great promise and peril. We create and recreate future worlds with a mixture of hope and weariness.

Many of us desperately want to know the future. We want to know what to do now to secure the future, and how we ought to act given our knowledge. We try to know the future in same ways that we know the past and present. We use the tools and concepts we have at our disposal in the hopeful, and perhaps desperate, belief that they will get us to other worlds. We may believe in the universality of natural laws, or symbols, or rights. We may believe in the transcendence of gods, or stories, or markets. We may believe on the absolute uniqueness of humanity, of knowledge, of the earth. Or, like the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, we may believe our answers lie only in the permanence of change.

The story of this course is the story of testing our ideas and beliefs against an unknowable future. Of course, life in fifty years likely will remain recognizable—so much so that we may not properly appreciate change over time. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. began his Poor People’s Campaign. Will we end poverty fifty years hence?

In this course, let us be alive to, and make informed judgments about, the strategies that we humans use to realize the future. As the course develops, I hope you will gain a more refined sense of how to understand the future and how you, individually and collaboratively, can create worlds in which we realize considered outcomes. I encourage you let your minds roam and to have fun doing it. Let's dream together.

Assignments

❧ Class Presence: 15%
Exam or Writing Project: 25%
Manifesto: Part I (Individual Norms): 15%
Manifesto: Part II (Collective Norms): 15%
Question Formation and Response: Forum Questions, Key Word and Concept Entry, Class Discussion: 15%
Question Responses (4): 15%

Assessment

Class Presence

A strong correlation exists between attending class —or attending any activity that you wish to develop as a practice or skill—and performing well. We, your fellow classmates, expect and need you to be present in class. We need your focus, your energy, your curiosity, your experience, your questions and your insights. And practically speaking, as our class emphasizes discussion, the class simply goes better the more informed opinions and ideas we have.

I will do my best to make the class one you want to attend through my preparation, effort, organization, spirit, and encouragement.

I will follow your class presence in two ways:

1. Participation. I ask that you participate in class discussions. We each possess a unique way of being in the world. Some of you like to discuss matters publicly. Some of you do not. I honor the different ways we have of being in class. Still, I would like you to be present in class; that is, actively listening, being aware and, as works for you, participating in discussion. Active listening and awareness, by my definition, severely curtails the use electronic devices for anything other than class-related use. I will leave the determination of "class-related" up to you, but patterns of behavior often tend to be noticeable. I will, then, notice. If you have any questions regarding my assessment of your participation in class discussions, please let me know. 
2. Attendance. Beginning January 30, and to the last day of class, I will have a sign out sheet—a sheet I will ask you to sign at the end of class; so, I will record attendance. Of course, I will take emergencies and contingencies into account at my discretion. The attendance part of the class presence grade will be determined as follows:
You have two absences (for any reason);
• If you miss class three times, you will receive a 'B' on attendance that will figure into your final class presence grade;
• If you miss class four times, you will receive a 'C' on attendance that will figure into your final class presence grade;
• If you miss class five times, you will receive an 'F' on attendance that will figure into your final class presence grade.

Our class addresses endlessly fascinating, and truly fun, topics. You will actively shape the meaningfulness of our shared inquiry. Please come and be present with us.

Exam or Writing Project

You will have a choice as to whether to write a take-home exam or develop a writing project. If you do not perform as well as you hoped on either assignment, you will have an opportunity to substantively revise based on my feedback and your judgment.

Question Formation Fromat and Response

Each group will pose questions, and post key words and concepts, to the appropriate forum on Canvas, and will lead class discussion. Members of the class will evaluate the presentation at the end of class. Scores and comments will be forwarded to me. I will share comments, anonymously, with the presenters. We will provide an overall assessment of the presentation.

Question Responses

Class members not leading a given week's discussion will provide 300-500 word responses to selected questions. As the responses are time sensitive, you will not have an opportunity for late submission. Responses will be evaluated, given the number completed, as follows:

• 4 responses: A
• 3 responses: B
• 2 responses: C
• 1 or nil responses: F

Manifesto

Both Part I and Part II of the assignment provide specific criteria as to the structure and content of the assignment. If you do not perform as well as you hoped on the assignment, you will have an opportunity to substantively revise based on my feedback and your judgment. Part II of the assignment is due by the scheduled end time of the final exam.

Texts

The Kindle Editions of these books (with free app) tend to be either somewhat, or significantly, cheaper than either the hard or soft cover versions.

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood, Random House, 2004 (PDF);
The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, W. W. Norton, 2014;
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari, Harper, 2017;
Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting, Shannon Vallor, Oxford University Press, 2016 (available in our library as a full-text EBook).

Honor System

The Undergraduate Honor Code pledge that each member of the university community agrees to abide by states: "As a Hokie, I will conduct myself with honor and integrity at all times. I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor will I accept the actions of those who do." Students enrolled in this course are responsible for abiding by the Honor Code. A student who has doubts about how the Honor Code applies to any assignment is responsible for obtaining specific guidance from the course instructor before submitting the assignment for evaluation. Ignorance of the rules does not exclude any member of the University community from the requirements and expectations of the Honor Code. For additional information about the Honor Code, please visit: https://www.honorsystem.vt.edu/.

Principles of Community

This course affirms and adheres to Virginia Tech's Principles of Community. If you have any questions, please ask me or consult the Principles of Community web site.

Course Summary:

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