Millennium People

22 April 2009

Random, insomniac thoughts follow… sorry. I’m coming from the point of view of someone who has read his novels more than his short stories, incidentally

This part of a chat between JG Ballard and Eduardo Paolozzi from 1971 caught my eye the other day:

[Ballard:] Technology may make it possible to have a continuous feedback to ourselves of information. But at the moment I think we are starved of information. I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I’d love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the colour mixes of a new automobile varnish. In fact, Eduardo and I in our different ways are already gathering this kind of information, but we are using the clumsiest possible took to do it: our own hands and eyes. 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

Wow! JG Ballard must have loved the Internet! Or did he? He didn’t seem so keen on it. Way back in 1997:

I?m not hooked up to the internet, which is rather bad of me. I write all my books in longhand ? don?t believe all this stuff I say about technology! My girlfriend has a PC and a modem, but we don?t seem able to connect it up. But I love the idea. My dream would be to download the entire Harvard University database, or to consult every psychiatric journal ever published. However, I?m terrified that if I do get the modem working, I?d never do anything else!

Although he certainly appreciated its qualities, he never seemed to delve right into it:

Twenty years ago no one could have imagined the effects the internet would have – entire relationships flourish, friendships prosper on the e-mail screen, there’s a vast new intimacy and accidental poetry (from the osprey-tracking site to tours round old nuclear silos and the extraordinary aerial trip down the California coastline and a thousand others), not to mention the weirdest porn. The entire human experience seems to unveil itself like the surface of a new planet.

Entertained though he was, the Ballard of the 21st century did not share his 1971 version’s thrall for information overload. In fact though he inspired much of 21st century fiction, he was very much a product of the 20th, in thrall to monstrosities of modernity such as cars and concrete, and obsessed by human decay, rather than computers and transcending into cyberspace.

Ballard shunned email and Internet, it was irrelevant to his obsessions. His concern was space, the body, travel, the dark underbelly of a suburban tract housing development.

Pity. I’d have loved to have seen what he made of it all, of not just visiting the online world but living in it. I’m not sure any modern author quite has his eye for the human condition or the true consequences of the world we build and immerse ourselves in, but maybe I’m not reading enough of the right people.

PS In case you didn’t catch it on the linklog, do check out the brilliant, “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race


4 Responses

Some anecdotal counter-evidence from MetaFilter, suggesting that Ballard wasn’t entirely cut off from the internet (although it does seem he connected to it mostly through his girlfriend ):

In 2001, Claire Walsh, J.G. Ballard’s long time companion, sent me an email about a image they had seen on my website. I had mentioned “High-rise” as an inspiration for creating the picture (it had also an accompanying short story) and they were curious about it. The idea that one of my favourite writers had been reading my stuff on the internet was really a thrilling moment.

The 1971 quote looks incredibly prescient. I wonder if he never enjoyed the charms because – given his difficulties with the modem – he might not have got to grips with searching and aggregating to get at stuff he might actually have wanted. Or perhaps, when the future caught eventually up with him it wasn’t as interesting any more…

Thanks for the link to the chat with Paolozzi – I like Paolozzi but had never realised the connection between the two.

Tom – just to clarify my meaing, he undoubtedly dabbled and used it casually, but he never got involved with it in the way his 1971 self hinted that he would, if he were exposed to all that information.

Yeah, sorry, you did actually make that clear – my comment was responding more to the quote suggesting he “shunned email and Internet,” which was a lot more one-sided a perspective than your post as whole.