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TV for dinner: Sci-Fi series serves up food for thought on futures

January 17, 2013

Perhaps the television has been our greatest ally in fostering critical, wide-reaching conversations about possible human futures, beginning in 1959 with “The Twilight Zone.”

“Science fiction television shows have some of the most passionate and dedicated audiences in the entire popular culture universe,” says Joseph Eschrich, senior coordinator for the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI), who is hoping to tap into that audience enthusiasm and expertise among ASU’s faculty, staff and students for the monthly discussion series known as the Science Fiction TV Dinner.

The recurring event that launched last fall pairs classic and contemporary science fiction television shows with open discussions designed to engage scientists, humanists, engineers and artists alike in key issues around scientific inquiry, the social and cultural impact of technological advances and the kind of future we want to create.

Coming up Wednesday, Jan. 23, the series will turn its lens on “The X-Files.” As usual, Ed Finn, director of CSI, will give a brief introduction before dinner is served for the screening. After a short break, guests then get the chance to discuss the show in small groups – selecting themes and issues from the episode. Finally, the entire group holds a public discussion to expand the overall conversation.

To RSVP to "The X-Files" event, click here

For the first TV Dinner Series event held in September, when the “Star Trek” Arena episode was screened, Eschrich says attendees discussed the ramifications of humans exploring other worlds and our reactions to encounters with the Other.

“Our guests also discussed how 'Star Trek' presented a rare, thoughtfully optimistic vision of the distant human future, how the episode and the entire original series reflected and worked through American anxieties about the Cold War, the specter of communism and the dangers of rampant militarism – and how science fiction serves as a tool for prototyping the future, creating narratives that help us explore the implications of technological development and human decision-making, and also helping us better understand the present.”

An early episode of “The Jetsons” provoked talks on the strengths and limitations of technology. Eschrich says that while the show proposes a future in which all of human activity is highly mechanized and people have a great deal of free time, it doesn’t clarify how that really improves their quality of life.

“Instead, the characters generally look bored or frustrated with minor technological snafus,” Eschrich says. “In addition, the show raises, but never answers, the question of these people’s total reliance on their technology – what would happen if it broke down?” Finally, many Jetsons-watching guests raised the question: “Why is the future so white and middle-class?” Despite the show depicting how a highly mechanized world can change one’s lifestyle, the social and familial structures in "The Jetsons" remain curiously static.

Science fiction is helpful in creating a unique platform for unintimidating conversations about science, technology, society and the future, Eschrich says, "because everyone, from physicists and sociologists to designers and electrical engineers, has the ability to share their opinion and join the conversation as an expert, and an active participant in creating meaning.”

The Science Fiction TV Dinner series is sponsored by CSI, Project Humanities, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Its upcoming screening and discussion of "The X-Files" is set to begin at 6:30 p.m., in the First Amendment Forum on the second floor of the Cronkite building, on the Downtown Phoenix campus.

Next up, the Center for Science and the Imagination will team up with the College of Technology and Innovation for a special Project Humanities spring kick-off event on Feb. 14, and later in March a screening of "The Twilight Zone."

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