Future Tense

How today’s media diet saps optimism for a better tomorrow.

conceptual illustration of a person looking at a cell phone while images of world tensions and natural disasters swirl in their head by Marcos Chin


I first taught media history as a young instructor at Penn State three decades ago. My first students are turning 50 this year. As part of that course, we’d take a side trip into the golden age of what “futurism” meant in the early 20th century: Four-wheeled juggernauts were barely a staple of American life when popular magazines enticed newsstand browsers with colorful illustrations of flying cars, radio with pictures, and electric newspapers. As we journeyed into futurism, I’d assign a highly subjective essay: “Thirty years hence, when you are 50ish, what will the world be like? What will you be like?” For years, students’ answers trended toward optimism:

Flying cars would be cool, but we’re not holding our breath.

Technology will improve our lives.

We’ll have time and money to travel and explore.

We’ll probably be partnered up and possibly have children.

After an extended hiatus, I resumed teaching media history in 2020, in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. How times had changed, both present and future. The same assignment today elicits astonishingly different responses. Hopeful dreams of benevolent technology and fulfilling lives have been supplanted by apocalyptic visions of rogue social media, job-killing AI, and a smoldering planet where my students will find themselves sad, anxious, powerless, and waiting with resignation for the end times. Consider:

“When I am 50 in 2052, society will be in complete political shambles. Political unrest will divide the nation and lead to revolt against the government.”

“Social media, AI, and fake news will continue to wreak havoc on America.”

“Climate change will be irreversible, and political and social divides will be intense.”

“Thanks to social media, children today have trouble interacting with each other in a normal human way. Kids born 10 years from now won’t stand a chance.”

Why the shift? Beyond the obvious reality of climate change, growing inequity, Franken-tech, civic fratricide, and myriad other perilous forces, I lay some measure of blame on modern media’s obsessive quest for “engagement,” the magical metric of digital success. And there is no more effective form of engagement than fear. A person on the edge of their seat is engaged. Keeping them engaged requires that otherwise factual developments be wrapped in worst-case—and often overly speculative—narratives.

My students fear the physical world they might one day inhabit because in the present they are engaged by the catastrophic future-world inside their phones. Engaged all the time, they are anxious all the time.

Alas, even the strongest form of engagement can’t hold an audience in thrall forever. Eventually, exhaustion sets in. I hope I’m wrong in thinking that the next generation of young adults, confronted with the “30 years hence”
question, will reply: “Who cares?”


Mike Dillon is a journalism professor at Duquesne University.