Phase One Essential Questions
- How does literature depict benefits and drawbacks to technology?
- What is the function of technology?
- How does advancing technology prompt people to reevaluate their relationships to one another?
- Do advancements in technology ultimately have more of a positive or negative impact?
Phase One Scope and Sequence (Suggested Length: 3-4 Weeks)
To recognize the potential capabilities of technological advances, it is useful for students to explore a variety of writing on both sides of the issue. The first phase of this unit will find students reading and discussing speculative science fiction and fantasy literature in order to develop an understanding of the wide range of possibilities of technologies that are available to us, as well as those that are not (yet) existent. Students will also be introduced to the concept of novum, which is defined for the purposes of this unit as fictional, futuristic technology that is scientifically feasible. This concept will frame our discussions of many of the texts used in this phase.
Analysis of the readings used in the first phase of the unit will force students to consider how each author has used extrapolation to suggest a possible future for humankind. It is necessary to consider this from the beginning of the unit because identifying the real-world implications of speculative fiction, as well as each author’s possible motivations for writing each piece, will condition students to connect fictional concepts to real, current issues. As they read, students will use a journal to collect responses to these texts as they explore the various authors’ perspectives, and how each seems to assess humankind’s relationship with (or dependence on) technology. How are interpersonal relationships in each text affected by technology? What are the potential benefits and limitations of each technological advance described?
Often, the perspectives found in these texts are multifaceted and complex. Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope,” for example, illustrates how advanced technology can fail humans, beginning with the explosion of a spacecraft that sends the crew off to their inevitable deaths. However, radio contact allows the astronauts to have one final conversation and discuss and assess the relative value of their lives. While the technological advances described in the story do not directly facilitate the reflection and forgiveness at the heart of the astronauts’ conversation, they do provide context that is necessary to delve deeply into Bradbury’s perspective. According to this story, is technology ultimately destructive or productive for humans? “Kaleidoscope” asks readers to consider whether existential peace is worth dying for.
Students will also consider the implications in Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” in which borders between virtual reality and real lives are crossed. It will be useful to draw connections between currently available immersive entertainment technology and the fictional devices described in “The Veldt.” An applicable resource to connect to this story is The VOID1, a chain of virtual reality arcades. Showing students one or more of the trailers for the fully immersive virtual experiences available from The VOID can demonstrate the connection between Bradbury’s speculation and real advancements in technology. Additionally, contextualizing this particular story by reminding students that it was published in 1950 will be helpful to illustrate how authors use extrapolation to suggest possible outcomes for current trends.
Another relevant text to explore during this phase of the unit is Ken Liu’s “Simulacrum,” which explores an advanced (fictional) technology that enables users to create three-dimensional, artificially intelligent replications of others based on memories (and crucially, without the subjects’ knowledge). Although these simulacra allow their users to feel more connected to distant loved ones, the story highlights the manufactured and impersonal nature of digital relationships. Students may prepare for reading this story by brainstorming the possible benefits and drawbacks of preserving memories digitally. For example, an Instagram user may post a “throwback Thursday” image featuring others in situations they may no longer wish to remember. Does this violate individuals’ rights to privacy? If so, to what extent? Negotiating ethically ambiguous territory in this context will calibrate students well to read and analyze Liu’s short story, in which a relationship between a father and daughter collapses as a result of these issues. The potential advantages of the novum described in the story, however, are clear, providing much room for discussion and debate.
Students may also look to short texts like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” or Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” to consider the relative social value of technology to different groups of people. In each of these stories, which societal groups are benefiting, and which groups are being exploited or constrained? Students may discuss the implications raised by these stories: the civilians of 2081 depicted in “Harrison Bergeron” are physically and mentally restricted, but government workers are not, and Charlie Gordon, the subject of the experiment in “Flowers for Algernon,” has an intellectual disability. If these two texts are divided among students in a class, reading could be followed by valuable comparative discussions in groups facilitated by the teacher. Asking students to role-play as government officials in “Harrison Bergeron” or medical scientists in “Flowers for Algernon” will also be useful in order to evaluate the risk and reward (and the recipients of both) of the technology described in each text. Considering questions of inequity (specifically, how technology may play a role in the subjugation of some groups for the benefit of others) at this point in the unit will be helpful, as these issues will connect to the social justice focus of the unit later on.
Excerpts from Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle will be examined and discussed. Specifically, readers will look to points in the novel when the main character relinquishes her privacy in the interest of “transparency,” which refers to publicly broadcasting every moment of her life to viewers online. Students should recognize the connections here between online “oversharing” and Eggers’ suggested potential outcome. Reflective writing will be valuable here, as students will likely have very different ideas of where the line should be drawn between individuals’ personal and publicly shared experiences. Providing students with a list of scenarios and asking them to evaluate each as “shareable” or “not shareable,” along with an explanation for each answer, could be an effective writing prompt in this case.
Although vastly different in their execution, each text from this first phase of the unit presents a complex and conflicted view of advanced technology. While flawed, the technology in each is capable of bringing individuals closer together and/or making substantial advancements in society. To address this, student groups will critically examine one of the pieces of technology that they have encountered in this unit’s readings, and consider how they might redesign it in order to correct its shortcomings. In doing so, students will identify the potential constructive uses of the device as well as its limitations. After groups have redesigned their chosen devices, they will present their work to the class, who will then try to identify any new potential dangers posed by the reimagined technology.
In this first phase of the unit, forced debates will be held frequently to monitor students’ understanding and evaluation of the issues raised in our readings. In these sessions, students move to a particular area of the room, depending on whether they agree or disagree with a statement on the board. For example, after reading an excerpt from The Circle, students may have to agree or disagree with a statement like sharing every moment of people’s lives on social media would be good for society. After choosing their sides in the room, student groups will have a limited amount of time to prepare arguments based on issues in one of the texts we have read. Students on both sides of the issue will present their argument and then construct a rebuttal to the opposing side. During each of these debates, a rotating small group of students will be selected as judges to decide the outcome.
Phase One Non-Print Resources
Teachers may find it helpful to incorporate film and television excerpts into this portion of the unit. 2081, a short film based on “Harrison Bergeron,” is a dark and engaging adaptation that depicts Vonnegut’s “handicap” technology in grim detail. Selected episodes from the television series Black Mirror may also be used to illustrate benefits and drawbacks of speculative technology: “Nosedive” features a social ranking system, in which individuals’ ratings for one another determines their access to real-world resources. “The Entire History of You” imagines an implantable device that records and stores everything an individual sees, which could lead students to make meaningful connections with the issues raised by “Simulacrum.” Finally, the episode “Arkangel” focuses on a new child-monitoring technology marketed to parents, with which users can track their children and see everything their children see, ostensibly so that parents can keep their kids safe. Questions of privacy raised here can connect to those raised by Eggers in The Circle. In each Black Mirror episode, the advantages of these technologies are clearly demonstrated along with their limitations, so any of these would be useful for students to debate. Furthermore, clear connections between currently available devices and technology are identifiable in each of these episodes, which will help illustrate for students the process of extrapolation. Teachers should be cautious, however, when implementing any of these Black Mirror episodes, as each contains potentially offensive language and content.
Phase One Extension Texts
During this first phase of the unit, students who are inspired to move beyond the assigned class readings will have access to extension texts. For students who wish to pursue a full-length exploration of the potential effects of hypothetical medical technology, Keyes’ novel version of Flowers for Algernon will be available. Students who are interested in considering perspectives on weapons of mass destruction may choose to read Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Literature circles will provide students opportunities to further explore and discuss these extension texts and connect them to the overarching themes and guiding questions of the unit. If students wish to take on more challenging text options independently, they may wish to explore Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” This short story, while exceptionally dark (and in many ways problematic from a social justice standpoint), does provide an extrapolative view of artificially intelligent technology and its embedded dangers. Readers who wish to explore experimental media could be directed to Sarah Gailey’s online short story “STET,” which provokes questions about the ethics of artificial intelligence, as well as the contemporary topic of self-driving cars. Students who choose to explore this text may benefit from discussing in advance the structure of the story and the significance of the titular term.
Phase One Culminating Activity: Novum Product Review
The first phase of the unit will culminate in an analytical project that also allows students room for creativity. To put to use their accumulated knowledge of advanced, hypothetical technology, students will explore the potential drawbacks and benefits to a novum from one of the texts we have examined during the unit. To demonstrate this, students will create a mock product review of a device described in one of the texts we have read, but that does not yet exist in the real world. A student may choose to review a focal point in one of the texts, such as the Simulacrum camera from Ken Liu’s short story, or the “handicaps” depicted in “Harrison Bergeron,” or they may dig more deeply and review a product alluded to briefly, like the children’s automated picture painter mentioned in “The Veldt.” In doing so, students will be forced to consider the ways that advancements in technology cannot be classified as positive or negative in and of themselves; each novum described holds the potential to not only damage human relationships, but also to advance society in some way (often by providing opportunities for people to understand and/or help one another). Product reviews will include illustrations, completed digitally or by hand, from the students. Each student’s completed review should also contain references to the text in which the device is mentioned, which should be highlighted or otherwise made clear through text formatting.