Sci-Fi Author J.G. Ballard Predicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

Ballard Vogue

Say you were a fan of Steven Spielberg’s mov­ing com­ing-of-age dra­ma Empire of the Sun, set in a Japan­ese intern­ment camp dur­ing World War II and star­ring a young Chris­t­ian Bale. Say you read the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el on which that film is based, writ­ten by one J.G. Bal­lard. Say you enjoyed it so much, you decid­ed to read more of the author’s work, like, say, 1973’s Crash, a nov­el about peo­ple who devel­op a sex­u­al fetish around wounds sus­tained in staged auto­mo­bile acci­dents. Or you pick up its pre­de­ces­sor, The Atroc­i­ty Exhi­bi­tion, a book William S. Bur­roughs described as stir­ring “sex­u­al depths untouched by the hard­est-core illus­trat­ed porn.” Or per­haps you stum­ble upon Con­crete Island, a warped take on Defoe that strands a wealthy archi­tect and his Jaguar on a high­way inter­sec­tion.

You may expe­ri­ence some dis­so­nance. Who was this Bal­lard? A real­ist chron­i­cler of 20th cen­tu­ry hor­rors; per­verse explor­er of—in Bur­roughs’ words—“the non­sex­u­al roots of sex­u­al­i­ty”; sci-fi satirist of the bleak post-indus­tri­al waste­lands of moder­ni­ty? He was all of these, and more. Bal­lard was a bril­liant futur­ist and his dystopi­an nov­els and short sto­ries antic­i­pat­ed the 80s cyber­punk of William Gib­son, explor­ing with a twist­ed sense of humor what Jean Lyotard famous­ly dubbed in 1979 The Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion: a state of ide­o­log­i­cal, sci­en­tif­ic, per­son­al, and social dis­in­te­gra­tion under the reign of a tech­no­crat­ic, hyper­cap­i­tal­ist, “com­put­er­ized soci­ety.” Bal­lard had his own term for it: “media land­scape,” and his dark visions of the future often cor­re­spond to the vir­tu­al world we inhab­it today.

In addi­tion to his fic­tion­al cre­ations, Bal­lard made sev­er­al dis­turbing­ly accu­rate pre­dic­tions in inter­views he gave over the decades (col­lect­ed in a book titled Extreme Metaphors). In 1987—with the film adap­ta­tion of Empire of the Sun just on the hori­zon and “his most extreme work Crash re-released in the USA to warmer reac­tion,” he gave an inter­view to I‑D mag­a­zine in which he pre­dict­ed the inter­net as “invis­i­ble streams of data puls­ing down lines to pro­duce an invis­i­ble loom of world com­merce and infor­ma­tion.” This may not seem espe­cial­ly pre­scient (see, for exam­ple, E.M. Forster’s 1909 “The Machine Stops” for a chill­ing futur­is­tic sce­nario much fur­ther ahead of its time). But Bal­lard went on to describe in detail the rise of the Youtube celebri­ty:

Every home will be trans­formed into its own TV stu­dio. We’ll all be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly actor, direc­tor and screen­writer in our own soap opera. Peo­ple will start screen­ing them­selves. They will become their own TV pro­grammes.

The themes of celebri­ty obses­sion and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly con­struct­ed real­i­ties res­onate in almost all of Ballard’s work and thought, and ten years ear­li­er, in an essay for Vogue, he described in detail the spread of social media and its total­iz­ing effects on our lives. In the tech­no­log­i­cal future, he wrote, “each of us will be both star and sup­port­ing play­er.”

Every one of our actions dur­ing the day, across the entire spec­trum of domes­tic life, will be instant­ly record­ed on video-tape. In the evening we will sit back to scan the rush­es, select­ed by a com­put­er trained to pick out only our best pro­files, our wit­ti­est dia­logue, our most affect­ing expres­sions filmed through the kind­est fil­ters, and then stitch these togeth­er into a height­ened re-enact­ment of the day. Regard­less of our place in the fam­i­ly peck­ing order, each of us with­in the pri­va­cy of our own rooms will be the star in a con­tin­u­al­ly unfold­ing domes­tic saga, with par­ents, hus­bands, wives and chil­dren demot­ed to an appro­pri­ate sup­port­ing role.

Though Bal­lard thought in terms of film and television—and though we our­selves play the role of the select­ing com­put­er in his scenario—this descrip­tion almost per­fect­ly cap­tures the behav­ior of the aver­age user of Face­book, Insta­gram, etc. (See Bal­lard in the inter­view clip above dis­cuss fur­ther “the pos­si­bil­i­ties of gen­uine­ly inter­ac­tive vir­tu­al real­i­ty” and his the­o­ry of the 50s as the “blue­print” of mod­ern tech­no­log­i­cal cul­ture and the “sub­ur­ban­iza­tion” of real­i­ty.) In addi­tion to the Vogue essay, Bal­lard wrote a 1977 short sto­ry called “The Inten­sive Care Unit,” in which—writes the site Bal­lar­dian—“ordi­nances are in place to pre­vent peo­ple from meet­ing in per­son. All inter­ac­tion is medi­at­ed through per­son­al cam­eras and TV screens.”

So what did Bal­lard, who died in 2009, think of the post-inter­net world he lived to see and expe­ri­ence? He dis­cussed the sub­ject in 2003 in an inter­view with rad­i­cal pub­lish­er V. Vale (who re-issued The Atroc­i­ty Exhi­bi­tion). “Now every­body can doc­u­ment them­selves in a way that was incon­ceiv­able 30, 40, 50 years ago,” Bal­lard notes, “I think this reflects a tremen­dous hunger among peo­ple for ‘reality’—for ordi­nary real­i­ty. It’s very dif­fi­cult to find the ‘real,’ because the envi­ron­ment is total­ly man­u­fac­tured.” Like Jean Bau­drillard, anoth­er pre­scient the­o­rist of post­moder­ni­ty, Bal­lard saw this loss of the “real” com­ing many decades ago. As he told I‑D in 1987, “in the media land­scape it’s almost impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate fact from fic­tion.”

via Buz­zfeed

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1964, Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Inter­net, 3D Print­ers and Trained Mon­key Ser­vants

In 1968, Stan­ley Kubrick Makes Pre­dic­tions for 2001: Human­i­ty Will Con­quer Old Age, Watch 3D TV & Learn Ger­man in 20 Min­utes

Philip K. Dick Makes Off-the-Wall Pre­dic­tions for the Future: Mars Colonies, Alien Virus­es & More (1981)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Peter Byrne says:

    Many of Ballard’s pre­dic­tions have proven dras­ti­cal­ly wrong. As late as 1996 in ‘Cocaine Nights’ he fore­saw a soci­ety whose prob­lem would be exces­sive leisure. Peo­ple would retire in their late 30s after a mere decade of active work. They would then fill their lives with slum­ber­ous TV watch­ing under chem­i­cal seda­tion. Crime would have to be encour­aged to wake them to a more active exis­tence. But since 1996 unem­ploy­ment has risen and aver­age incomes declined. Those employed are work­ing longer hours than ever. Crime con­tin­ues all on its own with­out hav­ing to be encour­aged.

  • Mark Gisleson says:

    Hav­ing read a lot of Bal­lard when I was young, this explains why social media seemed so obvi­ous to me. Back in the day much of this was called spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, to help sep­a­rate it from all the tech-dri­ven SF. Spec­u­la­tive fic­tion has, I believe, a much bet­ter track record of pre­dict­ing the future than the more tra­di­tion­al ray gun and rock­et ship crowd.

  • Reimer says:

    Over-rat­ed. Good at describ­ing creep­i­ly-desert­ed post-human set­tings and creepy social milieux but not much else.

  • John says:

    In ‘Cocaine Nights’, as with­’High Rise’ before it, Bal­lard did not describe future soci­ety as a whole, but the mon­eyed elite. They live entire­ly sep­a­rate lives from the work­ing and non-work­ing poor.

    As automa­tion has tak­ing the vast major­i­ty of blue col­lar jobs in the West, it will move on to the white col­lar jobs and then to the rest of the world as it becomes more cost effi­cient than pay­ing even the most mea­gre wages. ‘Non-work’ and ‘leisure’ may not end up being the same thing for all of us.

  • Kevin Powell says:

    I was a fan from the age of 12 when I some­how got hold of “The drowned world”, of course I was way to young to ful­ly com­pre­hend some of the con­cepts, but I became a real fan and read all of Bal­lards cat­a­log. This led me to hard core sci­fi and fan­ta­sy. Back in the late 60s, Asi­mov ruled but Hein­lein and AC Clark were right there. I read them all
    I then moved onto seri­ous fic­tion at 15 to 16 But I always came back to new releas­es of Bal­lard. “Crash” 1973 was rev­e­la­to­ry.
    Bal­lard cov­ered it all, “The drowned World is near­ly on us, and “High Rise” is pre­scient as is “The Drought”
    The oth­er oth­er fab­u­lous thing about Bal­lard is his style, its sim­ple, (and per­son­al) it draws you in, the worlds he cre­ates are like spells you fall under.
    I put Crash among some of the most inno­v­a­tive books of the 60s and 70s, its up there with the Antho­ny Burgess book “A Clock­work Orange” writ­ten in 1962 !
    Two Eng­lish­men defined the future with their imag­i­na­tions.
    Most of their pre­dic­tions are all too real .….

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