A new post by Ted Gioia, a jazz historian and critic whose 1988 book, The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, directed much of my thinking in an early essay, The Turntable, heaps lots of deserved praise on J.G. Ballard for accurately predicting life in the 21st century from the considerable distance of the mid-1970s.
Ballard primarily wrote science fiction whose method of speculation was the concentration (and in this sense liberation) of the technological and pop culture trends of his times. He never really leapt (tigersprung) into the future by the sheer exuberance of extrapolation as, say, the popular TV show The Expanse does. His imagination instead recognized not the force of forwardness but that of an ever-increasing social squeezing into the juice of the future.
The new consumer technologies around him were under an extraordinary amount of social pressure, but they could only do so much (only so much processing power, mostly inaccessible to wage-earners, not enough network nodes). The job for Ballard, then, was determining the main points of force that circled and compressed the technologies that popped up on the box and window displays in malls. This is how he was able to accurately predict social media even before the rise of the personal computer.
“All this, of course, will be mere electronic wallpaper, the background to the main program 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 videotape. 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.”
But, again, he arrives at this conclusion not through extrapolation but rather compression. This is, indeed, how he easily predicted something like "Google" fifty years ago:
"The technology of the information-retrieval system that we employ is incredibly primitive. We fumble around in bookshops, we buy magazines or subscribe to them. But I regard myself as starved of information. I am getting a throughput of information in my imaginative life of one-hundredth of what I could use. I think there’s an information starvation at present and technology will create the possibility of knowing everything about everything.”
The technology is not there yet, but the hunger is already there. And each technological development only increases the force of this "starvation."
But I want to end by repeating something I have said before and also adding something I haven't. First, the repetition, but dressed up, hopefully, in new words and images.
Futurism, as associated with technological progress, is historically specific to capitalism. Before the emergence of this class system, there was nothing like a belief in sustained technological improvement. In this respect, we in the 21st century are the children of the Victorians (the 19th century). But we would not have easily absorbed this notion of progress if the foundation of our religious feelings was cyclical rather linear, as it is in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
In their original form, these three deeply related belief systems were attached to the conviction that things must begin and must end in what is called Sacred Time, which is a real form of time. Though there was no progress to be found in this sacred feeling, there was, apparently, room for it. And this is what the Victorians did. They stepped into the old space of this sacred temporality that was linear but undifferentiated or smooth, and imposed on to it the rising steps of a kind of improvement that directly contradicted the original curse: "By the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread." Then old-time religion became something truly new—Victorian. And in the new and strange stage of human events, history could move from Jesus on the cross to "people endlessly photographing themselves."