SRCCON Spotlight: Through an iPhone Darkly

Joe Germuska’s session on prescient science fiction

(from Joe Germuska’s slide deck about ORA:CLE)

This year’s SRCCON—our fourth—begins next week. To kick off the run-up to the event, we’re featuring a selection of sessions from last year’s conference, including transcripts and audio when we have them, and brand-new interviews with the session facilitators.

The Session

Joe Germuska’s well-loved session on science fiction gathered presenters for short talks on real and imagined futures, and was especially focused on prescient representations of media, culture, and interconnectivity.

Notes & Docs

From the session description: Science Fiction authors often embed deep insights into the future of technology within their stories. Come to this session to share examples of fascinating science fictional treatments of media and networked communication with other attendees and geek out about who got it right and who may yet come out correct.

Transcription excerpts:

At the beginning of the story our protagonist goes out, and his Dac watch has failed. So he encounters one of these things. It almost kills him, he kills it and then later he finds out that somebody sabotaged his alarm…He writes about his experience and publishes it to the news banks and actually makes more money from selling the story than he did…on a daily basis… anybody can publish it to the news ecosystem…

In a post-scarcity world, what are the things that actually control the destiny of an individual and where they will end up in society?

The interesting thing is that the detective or some of the characters actually believe there’s a third city in the seam between the two cities.

I have a quote: ‘I wonder briefly how many people are synced with me. I used to be self-conscious about people who were tied in, experiencing what I’m experiencing when I fly. Now I don’t think about them anymore. If the numbers get high enough.’

Our Q&A with Joe Germuska

We caught up with Joe Germuska to talk about how their session unfolded, what kind of preparation they did to make it work, and what they learned from the experience.

Q. What was your session about, and how did you land on that topic?

Our session was set up to talk about ideas from science fiction which foreshadowed things we see in our media landscape today, or which have inspired us to think about what’s possible in the non-fictional near future. Landing on the topic was simple: I wanted to talk about a specific book (Kevin O’Donnell’s ORA:CLE) which I read in the 80’s, which seemed surprisingly prescient about some things. And I figured that other folks in the SRCCON community would have their own examples, many of which I might want to experience for myself.

Q. What was the session’s structure like?

I knew that I couldn’t sensibly talk for more than 5–10 minutes about my book. I remembered some sessions I’ve seen at NICAR which were built as a series of topical lightning talks and thought it would be a good model for this session. By making sure to tap a few people who were willing to prepare talks of that scope ahead of time, we could make sure to have substance in the session, instead of just hoping that people had off-the-cuff seeds for the conversation. But I made sure to only schedule about half of the time with “lightning talks” so that we’d have opportunity for follow-up, conversation, and whatever off-the-cuff contributions emerged.

Q. What did you cover in the session?

Our core co-conspirators, and their books:

Joe Germuska (me): ORA:CLE

Ted Han: The Diamond Age

Tiff Fehr: The City & the City

Martin McClellan: The Demolished Man

Brian Brennan: China Mountain Zhang

Gerald Rich: Back to the Future 2 / Minority Report (I think it was that version of MR, can’t remember)

My little slide deck is here.

Q. Do you remember any specific highlights or surprises from your session or its aftermath?

During the session, probably the biggest surprise was learning about the 1957 rom-com Desk Set, which was brought up by a participant. While far from science fiction, it still had some interesting ideas about computers replacing people’s jobs. One highlight was hearing from someone that he had promptly gone to Powell’s to buy at least two of the books talked about during the session! Hopefully there were more. (I’m afraid I’ve been too busy to read any of the new titles, but I’m hoping to maybe pick one or two up this summer.)

Q. Anything else we should know?

I can’t wait to see y’all at SRCCON!


  • Joe Germuska

    Joe Germuska is the Chief Nerd at Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, a community of designers, developers, students, and educators working on experiments designed to push journalism into new spaces. Before joining Knight Lab, Joe was one of the founding members of the Chicago Tribune News Apps team. In his free time… who are we kidding, Joe doesn’t have free time any more because he’s also enrolled in NU’s Masters in Product Design & Development program.

  • Lindsay Muscato

    Editor of Source from 2015-2020


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