2014 may not resemble the sinister visions conjured by the dystopian literature of the mid to late 20th century, but that's not to say none of its dark futurism has come true. Society may not have become as brutal and amoral as Burgess conceived, or as tyrannically governed as Orwell envisaged, but the all-consuming spread of social media was presciently painted by J.G. Ballard on our pages decades ago...
"Fear of the unknown and the illusions we create to push them into the unknown. The real life elevated to soap opera. Are you frightened? J.G. Ballard is." These were the words that opened Ballard's prophetic yet sombre 1987 interview. Concerned with the relationship between human consciousness and technology, Ballard discussed, among other things, fear, and made the prediction that in the future each one of us would become the actor, writer and director of our own television show, with our friends and family as the supporting characters. 27 years later, in an age defined by our online profiles and personas, his prescience is quite stunning.
With his Booker prize nominated Empire of the Sun about to be adapted for the cinema by Steven Spielberg, and undoubtedly his most extreme work Crash re-released in the USA to a warmer reaction, by '87 Ballard had cemented his status as a successful albeit controversial figure in literature. Under the heading Traveller in Hyper Reality, Ballard discussed with Jim McClellan and Steve Beard Europe's "media landscape", a phrase he had coined to describe the disappearance of 'the real' under a media-induced haze, a theme that runs through a lot of his literature.
According to Ballard, the "media landscape" of Europe in 1987 was defined by an increasingly warped sense of reality thanks to television entertainment. His most recent novel at the time of the interview, The Day of Creation, alluded to the way that Westerners had developed an appetite for the more morbid things in life. Ballard saw the replacement of traditional, old-fashioned documentaries on the Third World, with documentaries on the same topic that displayed the conventions and format of fictional entertainment rather than "the needs of those who live there," as an example of this. Whilst only a side-note to an otherwise straightforward adventure story, Ballard's conviction that our desire for entertainment framed as factual information should certainly resonate with a modern day audience, one obsessed with constructed reality television shows.
"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." J.G. Ballard, 1987
The concept of the Internet is only lightly touched on within the interview; "the future [lies] in invisible streams of data pulsing down lines to produce an invisible loom of world commerce and information", but given the lack of understanding around the topic at this time, Ballard certainly showed an acute awareness of the way it worked and the fundamental importance it would hold. However it is his prediction of the way we use technology to create a new persona for ourselves that is so eerily astute. "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 21st century obsession with updating a perceived audience on what we're doing certainly fits this notion, not to mention the recent surge in popularity of video blogging via YouTube.
It's no secret that many of us use this opportunity of a "starring role" as a means to create a complementary, improved version of ourselves; a role we have complete creative control over to write, direct and act ourselves. Far from a lucky guess, this idea was one Ballard had contemplated in Vogue ten years prior to his i-D interview. In this essay, Ballard posited that in the future each of us will spend our evenings using "a computer trained to pick out our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue our most affecting expressions filmed through the kindest filters," and would "stitch these together into a heightened re-enactment of the day." 37 years on and 1.28 billion active Facebook users later and its hard to ignore the reality of this statement. But was Ballard right to be frightened?
The dark side of having an online self has already reared its ugly head in many respects, thanks to a growing feeling of inadequacy spreading among young people when comparing their online selves to others.
The dark side of having an online self has already reared its ugly head in many respects, thanks to a growing feeling of inadequacy spreading among young people when comparing their online selves to others. Recently the Public Health England (PHE) claimed there exists a connection between time spent on social media and "lower levels of well-being." But on a more cerebral level, regardless of our feelings and intentions, is the basic notion of constructing a different version of ourselves online a sinister one? Like much of his writing, Ballard's i-D interview seems to have sounded alarm bells; "In the media landscape it's almost impossible to separate fact from fiction," he said.
An inability to separate fact from fiction online could undoubtedly be distorting our perception of real life. Psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Professor Daniel Kahneman has made the claim that we, the 'Instagram generation' now "experience the present as an anticipated memory." How many of us now construct situations purely for the purposes of exhibiting it to others, writing ourselves favourable scenes purely for the sake of the audience? Furthermore, as a result are we losing sight of how to enjoy ourselves in the moment, more concerned with a desire to give a good show?
Ballard died in 2009, on the cusp of the social media and reality television explosion he'd effectively predicted, but in the wider scheme of things, social media remains in its infancy and the long-term effects of documenting our lives are yet to be seen. Perhaps we have only just scratched the surface of the detrimental effects it can have on us. "I think, therefore I am" said French philosopher Descartes - a statement he believed proved his own existence, purely due to the fact he could conceive of the thought. "I think, therefore I (Instagr)am", would be closer to the mantra for a modern day generation. Roughly translated - if I'm not on Instagram can I really exist?
In 1991 Ballard spoke to i-D once more, this time on the topic of Fictional Identity, however the interview has sadly been lost in the archives.
Text Ryan White
Image from The Fear Issue, No. 53, November 1987