How Did a Censored Writer from the 1970s Predict the Future with Such Uncanny Accuracy?
50 years ago, J.G. Ballard anticipated everything from Instagram to Netflix binging
J.G. Ballard got his first taste of fame—or infamy, some might suggest—as author of the strangest and most shocking science fiction novels of the New Wave movement. Few books are more unsettling than his novel Crash (1973), except perhaps his The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), which was so transgressive that US publisher Doubleday, after consulting its lawyers, decided to cancel its release and destroy all copies.
One publishing house, after evaluating the book for possible publication, preserved this pithy verdict in the reader’s report: “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!”
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I don’t think any major publishing house would consider The Atrocity Exhibition for release in the current moment—which hasn’t prevented the work from gaining a cult following. But that particular cult, you may not want to join. I’ve heard various opinions about Ballard’s work over the years, but one thing I’ve never heard is that his books have mellowed with age. They haven’t. With the benefit of hindsight, they’ve actually gotten gnarlier and nastier.
So I’m not ready to recommend those Ballard books—which leave even a tolerant reader like me perturbed. (On the other hand, if I ever compile a list of the 50 Novels You Really Don’t Want to Read, I’ll need to revisit them.) In the interim, those who prefer a less distressing introduction to Ballard’s fiction should start with The Drowned World from 1962—one of the first significant global warming novels—or his 1984 crossover success Empire of the Sun, made into an award-winning film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring 13-year-old Christian Bale.
That said, I’m not concerned with those books here, or with any of Ballard’s fictional works. There’s another aspect of his legacy that I find far more compelling. When Ballard wasn’t writing stories, he was predicting the future—a pastime he pursued in almost every interview he ever gave. And more than any other figure of his day, he anticipated the 21st century with uncanny and unsettling accuracy.
With the passing years, I’ve come to recognize that this was Ballard’s true calling—not as a writer of imaginative works, but as a genuine futurist. This is even evident in his novels. For example, my favorite parts of The Atrocity Exhibition aren’t in the story itself, but rather the accompanying notes Ballard wrote for a 1990 reissue—an appendix that serves up the most penetrating insights on celebrity culture you will find anywhere. Yet what an odd state of affairs: a novelist who is more inspiring when commenting on the book than while actually writing it.
So let me share the non-fiction predictions of J.G. Ballard—taken from various interviews he gave in the 1970s. In other words, these prognostications were made long before the rise of the World Wide Web and at a time when home computers were practically non-existent.
Be prepared for surprises. And, after reading them, ask yourself whether anyone else 50 years ago—politician, philosopher, business leader, fortune teller, or whatever—possessed more powerful insights into the world we now inhabit. In other settings, I’ve considered some of the most extraordinary futurists from the past, including the prophetic wisdom found in the writings of José Ortega y Gasset, John Brunner, etc. But they all must defer to J.G. Ballard, who truly envisioned the digital age back in an analog world.
J.G. Ballard predicts Facebook (1977)
“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.”
J.G. Ballard predicts memes and ideas going viral (1978)
“In the future—this is part of the problem in the ‘arts’ as well—you will get some radical new idea, but within three minutes it’s totally accepted.”
J.G. Ballard explains the real impact of the space program (1979)
Interviewer: “Does that mean that the space program has ended once and for all? Are you saying that we will never go any farther?”
Ballard: “Far more real—and we don’t have to wait fifty years for it—is the invisible Space Age, which exists already: the communication satellites, literally thousands of them, television relay systems, spy satellites, weather satellites. These are all changing our lives in a way that average person doesn’t yet comprehend. The ability to pass information around from one point in the globe to another in vast quantities and at stupendous speeds, the ability to process information by fantastically powerful computers, the intrusion of electronic data processing in whatever form into all our lives is far, far more significant than all the rocket launches, all the planetary probes, every footprint or tire mark on the lunar surface.”
J.G. Ballard predicts the selfie (1978)
“In exactly the same way as when you at last get a camera you spend your time photographing children playing in a paddling pool. . . . I think the same thing will happen, beginning with people endlessly photographing themselves.”
J.G. Ballard predicts Netflix binging (1977)
“Will it occur to us, perhaps, that there is still one unnecessary intruder in this personal paradise — other people? Thanks to the videotape library, and the imminent wonders of holistic projection, their physical presence may soon no longer be essential to our lives.”
J.G. Ballard predicts surveillance society (1974)
Interviewer: “You don't see nuclear holocaust being one of the plausible doomsdays we might be discussing?”
Ballard: “Threats to the quality of life that everyone is so concerned about will come much more, say, from the widespread application of computers to every aspect of our lives where all sorts of science-fiction fantasies will come true, where bank balances will be constantly monitored and at almost any given time all the information that exists about ourselves will be on file somewhere—where all sorts of agencies, commercial, political and governmental, will have access to that information. Now, I think that's much more of a danger.”
J.G. Ballard predicts Google (1971)
“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.”
J.G. Ballard predicts the confrontational tone of public discourse (1974)
“I don’t think people are getting weak minded. I think quite the contrary—they are getting very much more tough-minded than ever before. . . . We take in our stride a high degree of ruthlessness in ourselves, in our private lives. We take for granted a wide range of options that we exercise without any self-doubts. . . .I think that is why the future is going to be a very electric and aggressive place.”
J.G. Ballard predicts surfing the web—and even reaches for the metaphor of an “information highway” (1979)
“Just as the 20th century has been the age of mobility, largely through the motor car, so the next era will be one in which instead of having to seek out one's adventures through travel, one creates them, in whatever form one chooses, in one's home. The average individual won't just have a tape recorder, a stereo hifi, or a TV set. He'll have all the resources of a modern TV studio at his fingertips, coupled with data processing devices of incredible sophistication and power. No longer will he have to accept the relatively small number of permutations of fantasy that the movie and TV companies serve up to him, but he will be able to generate whatever he pleases to suit his whim.”
These and other interviews with J.G. Ballard can be found in the book Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews.
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