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

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1953, a Tele­phone-Com­pa­ny Exec­u­tive Pre­dicts the Rise of Mod­ern Smart­phones and Video Calls

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

The Very First Film of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Star­ring Bal­lard Him­self (1971)

Hear Five JG Bal­lard Sto­ries Pre­sent­ed as Radio Dra­mas

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


by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!


Leave a Reply

Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.