J.G. Ballard, Social Media Prophet

ballardtvQuick nugget: this excerpt of an interview with J.G. Ballard in a 1977 issue of Vogue has been making the rounds on the web today:

All this, of course, will be mere electronic wallpaper, the background to the main programme in which 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 starring role.

My impression of Ballard has always been a writer who lived somehow outside of time, in a dreamlike precognitive amnion. Despite my headline above, it’s not that he was a prophet, and it’s hugely reductive of his work to just credit him, now, for “nailing” social media; rather, he understood the most base tendencies of human desire and saw in technology various nodes in which those desires could be sublimated. In the Ballardian worldview, the subconscious can never be separated from our higher operating functions. Sporting white coats, we can edify the race, but behind closed doors, we are still human, dominated by strange, primeval needs and fears, which will have us deconstructing our modern high-rise apartments into concrete terrors, perverting our technologies, and licking our windshields in no time. Ballard was one of the first writers to port human sexuality over to technology, most famously in Crash, a novel of automotive lust and carnage, and it’s not surprising that he foresaw the rise of the selfie–they’re both clear expressions of the fact that technology can’t be separated from the egos of its makers.

In the Vogue interview, Ballard talks about how the “apotheosis of all the fantasies of late twentieth-century man” is the “transformation of reality into a TV studio, in which we can simultaneously play out the roles of audience, producer and star.” He used TV as his primary metaphor–interesting, considering he once referred to the 1960s as an enormous electronic novel governed by simultaneity–but today, our dramas play out over fragmented media on the hand-held micro-screens which dominate our everyday. It’s particularly boggling to me that Ballard not only got the gist of how our inherent narcissism might play out in a world of total access to tech, but even presumed we’d be kicking around “kind filters” for the images of ourselves. Touché, J.G.

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2 Responses to J.G. Ballard, Social Media Prophet

  1. K says:

    Dammit, am I the only one reading your essays? Because that would be a shame.

    I read somewhere that you are the be the editor for an OMNI reboot. I can think of no one better qualified. Looking forward to it.

  2. dbcooper says:

    Congrats on the OMNI relaunch.

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