Saturday, May 17, 2008

1979, the future

Courtesy of Mike Holliday at the JGB list, the compete transcript of a 1979 Penthouse interview of J.G. Ballard by his friend Chris Evans. The interview is an outstandingly cogent and complete articulation of Ballard's key insights about man and technology, the essence of life in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the role of science fiction in understanding it all.

Penthouse 1979 (Vol.14 No.1) (U.K. edition)




Penthouse: Science fiction is supposed to reflect the future. How well
do you think it has done that over the years?

Ballard: I think it's been amazingly accurate, not necessarily in terms
of the technology itself, but in predicting society's response to
technology. Jules Verne, over 100 years ago, was the first writer of any
kind to respond to the impending transformation of society by
technology, and from his time onwards science fiction has picked out the
main preoccupations and anxieties of the Industrial Age, identifying
them way ahead of their appearance. Incidentally it has also anticipated
the present unease about science which has recently become a public
issue, but which was featured in SF as far back as the 1930s. I suspect
it will also turn out to have been extremely accurate in the way in
which it is now predicting or anticipating the peculiar affectless
quality of life in the 1980s and 90s.

Penthouse: What kind of things?

Ballard: Well, for example the way in which the traditional togetherness
of the village is giving way to the inbuilt loneliness of the new high
rises, or the peculiar fact that people nowadays like to be together not
in the old-fashioned way of, say, mingling on the piazza of an Italian
Renaissance city, but, instead, huddled together in traffic jams, bus
queues, on escalators and so on. It's a new kind of togetherness which
may seem totally alien, but it's the togetherness of modern technology,
and the science fiction writers of the 40s, 50s and 60s picked it out
unerringly as being a dominant feature of the future - often without
realising what they were doing.

Penthouse: Can you give an example?

Ballard: You've only got to look at copies of "Galaxy Magazine" and
"Astounding Science Fiction" of the early 50s to see the anxieties and
wish-fulfilment fantasies of modern surburbia and city life - the
escapist dreams of jet liners and airport lounges - all absolutely
contained in the science fiction of the period. Take Pohl and
Kornbluth's classic novel, "The Space Merchants". Here the future is
portrayed in terms of a world totally dominated by the advertising
agencies. It's a world run not by the Pentagon and the Kremlin but by
Madison Avenue, with giant rival advertising consortia fighting to
control everything and everyone through the mechanism of the mass media.
And indeed, we can look back now and realise that the logical evolution
of Western society of the 1950s would have been a world in which the
copywriter was king. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it took science
fiction writers to spot it and write about it a quarter of a century

Penthouse: You evidently don't rate too highly science fiction's highly
successful predictions about space travel?

Ballard: Well you can't underestimate that achievement, but in many ways
space travel was the least adventurous of all SF concepts. It so happens
that my first stories were being published at almost exactly the time
that Sputnik One - in case you've forgotten, that's the first artificial
satellite - was launched in 1957. At the time I remember a great mood of
optimism in science fiction circles. It seemed that the Sputniks had
ushered in the space age, and that everything that the science fiction
writers had been predicting for 100 years was coming true. And with the
space age, science fiction was set fair for a golden era. Now I
remember, paradoxically responding to this general euphoria, by being
intensely pessimistic rather than optimistic. Although I had no real
evidence to support my hunch - quite the opposite in fact - I felt very
strongly that the age of space, as far as science-fiction was concerned
was ending rather than beginning. And indeed the space age did end and
far from lasting hundreds or even thousands of years, its total life
span was hardly more than a decade. One can date its end quite
precisely. The space age clearly ended in 1974 when the last Skylab
mission came to earth. This was the first splashdown not to be shown on
TV - a highly significant decision on the part of the networks which
signalled the fact that space simply wasn't interesting any more. As I
said I had a strong hunch that this was the case, but didn't have any
unequivocal evidence to back it up. But in the summer of '74 I remember
standing out in my garden on a bright, clear night and watching a moving
dot of light in the sky which I realised was Skylab. I remember thinking
how fantastic it was that there were men up there, and I felt really
quite moved as I watched it. Through my mind there even flashed a line
from every Hollywood aviation movie of the 40s, "it takes guts to fly
those machines." But I meant it. Then my neighbour came out into his
garden to get something and I said, "Look, there's Skylab," and he
looked up and said, "Sky-what?" And I realised that he didn't know about
it, and he wasn't interested. No, from that moment there was no doubt in
my mind that the space age was over.

Penthouse: What is the explanation for this. Why are people so

Ballard: I think it's because we're at the climactic end of one huge age
of technology which began with the Industrial Revolution and which
lasted for about 200 years. We're also at the beginning of a second,
possibly even greater revolution, brought about by advances in computers
and by the development of information-processing devices of incredible
sophistication. It will be the era of artificial brains as opposed to
artificial muscles, and right now we stand at the midpoint between these
two huge epochs. Now it's my belief that people, unconsciously perhaps,
recognise this and also recognise that the space programme and the
conflict between NASA and the Soviet space effort belonged to the first
of these systems of technological exploration, and was therefore tied to
the past instead of the future. Don't misunderstand me - it was a
magnificent achievement to put a man on the moon, but it was essentially
nuts and bolts technology and therefore not qualitatively different from
the kind of engineering that built the Queen Mary or wrapped railroads
round the world in the 19th century. It was a technology that changed
peoples lives in all kinds of ways, and to a most dramatic extent, but
the space programme represented its fast guttering flicker.

Penthouse: You were one of the leaders of the "New Wave" in science
fiction. Could you say something about that? Was the New Wave a response
to the shift from one technological epoch to another?

Ballard: Yes, in a sense. You see technology advances on a number of
fronts and opens up a number of different doors. The transformation of
London by its tube system in the 19th century, the spread of the
telephone in the 1920s and 30s, the coming of radio and the dominance of
TV in the 50s and 60s were all tied up with technology, but with
communications and information transfer rather than with giant feats of
Meccano engineering. I was born in 1930, and I am old enough to remember
the popular encyclopaedias of the day, the mass magazines like "Life" in
which space exploration was seen as a natural extension of the
development of aviation. It took 50 years from the Wright Brothers to
the first faster than sound rocket planes in the '50s. It then seemed
only natural that the next step was Outer Space and these were the sort
of projections that "Old Wave" science fiction made about the future.
And while the logic of our past history seemed to be a continued
expansion outwards, a persistent invasion of extra-terrestrial
territory, the growth of communications technology in the 50s and 60s
was already suggesting that these huge spatial excursions were becoming
not only less and less necessary, but also less and less interesting.
The world of "Outer Space" which had hitherto been assumed to be
limitless was being revealed as essentially limited, a vast concourse of
essentially similar stars and planets whose exploration was likely to be
not only extremely difficult, but also perhaps intrinsically
disappointing. On the other hand, inside our heads so to speak, lay a
vast and genuinely infinite territory which, for the sake of contrast I
termed "Inner Space." The New Wave in science fiction - it's not a
phrase I care for actually - reflected this shift in priorities, from
Outer Space to Inner Space, and in my own writing I set out quite
deliberately to explore this terrain.

Penthouse: Was your novel "Crash" an investigation of Inner Space?

Ballard: Yes and no. "Crash" was really about the psychology of the
motor car, or about people's attitudes to the motor car, and it tried to
highlight the vast range of emotional ties that man has with this highly
specialised piece of technology. It was a kind of science fiction of the
present if you like. I'm not interested in motor cars myself by the way,
but I am interested in what motor cars say about modern man, and about
how they reflect man's needs and aspirations. Many people make the
mistake of assuming that people buy motor cars because of great
advertising and external social pressures. Nothing could be further from
the truth. Since the 1930s when styling first began to be a big feature
of design in the States, the automobile industry has emerged as a
perfect example of a huge technological system meeting profound
psychological needs. The motor car represents, and has done for 40
years, a very complex mesh of personal fulfilment of every conceivable
kind. On a superficial level it fulfills the need for a glamorous
package that is quite beautifully sculptured in steel and has all sorts
of built-in conceptual motifs. At a deeper level it represents the
dramatic role one can experience when in charge of a powerful machine
driving across the landscape of the world we live in, a role one can
share with the driver of an express train or the pilot of a 707. The
automobile also represents an extension of one's own personality in
numerous ways, offering an outlet for repressed sexuality and
aggression. Similarly it represents all kinds of positive freedoms - I
don't just mean freedom to move around from place to place, but freedoms
which we don't normally realise, or even accept we are interested in.
The freedom to kill oneself for example. When one is driving a car there
exists, on a second-by-second basis, the absolute freedom to involve
oneself in the most dramatic event of one's life, barring birth, which
is one's death. One could go on indefinitely pointing out how the motor
car is the one focus of so many currents of the era, and so many
conscious and unconscious pressures. Indeed if I had to pick a single
image which best represented the middle and late 20th century, it would
be that of a man sitting in a car, driving down a superhighway. "Crash"
was an attempt to explore this vast facet of human existence, and to
that extent, I suppose, was part of the exploration of Inner, as opposed
to Outer, space.

Penthouse: What was the general response to this shift of direction in
science fiction?

Ballard: Although initially it seemed as though the various "New Wave"
writers of the 60s were significantly off-beam because of the apparent
success of the space programme, I believe now that we were very much
more in tune with the public mood than perhaps we realised. Don't forget
that the 60s were the years of the resurgence in pop culture, and a
turning away from the external material culture of the early 20th
century. People no longer saw their lives in terms of establishing basic
material securities - I must have a job, I must have an apartment, cars,
washing machines. They all had jobs, apartments, cars and washing

What people wanted to gratify were psychological rather than material
needs. They wanted to get their sex lives right, their depressions
sorted out, they wanted to come to terms with psychological weaknesses
they had. And these were things that a materialistic society was unable
to supply - it couldn't wrap them up and sell them for a pound down and
ten pence a week. Now this rejection of external in favour of internal
values was mirrored in the great popular movements of the time. Take the
career of the Beatles who began in the traditional materialistic mould
of young Rock 'n Roll stars - flashy cars, expensive clothes, big
stadium concerts and all that but turned in the end towards meditation,
mysticism. the pseudo-philosophical drug culture of the psychedelics,
and so on. In other words there was a great current moving through
Western Europe and the USA in the 60s in a direction completely opposite
to that emanating from the Kennedy Space Centre The stars and the
planets were out, the bloodstream and the central nervous system were
in. It's no wonder that by the time Armstrong had put his foot on the
moon, no one was really interested.

Penthouse: Does that mean that the space programme has ended once and
for all. Are you saying that we'll never go any further?

Ballard: Oh, no, there'll be a space age some day, perhaps 30, 40 or
even 50 years from now, and when it comes it will be a real space age!
But it will depend upon the development of some new form of propulsion.
The main trouble with the present system - all these gigantic rockets
sailing up off the launch pads consuming tons of fuel for every foot of
altitude - is that it just hasn't got anything to do with space travel.
The number of astronauts who have gone into orbit after the expenditure
of this great ocean of rocket fuel is small to the point of being
ludicrous. And that sums it all up. You can't have a real space age from
which 99.999 per cent of the human race is excluded. Far more real - and
we don't have to wait 50 years for it - is the invisible space age which
exists already; the communications satellites, literally thousands of
them, television relay systems, spy satellites, weather satellites,
These are all changing our lives in a way that the 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 tyre mark on the
lunar surface.

Penthouse: How do you see the future developing?

Ballard: I see the future developing in just one way - towards the home.
In fact I would say that if one had to categorise the future in one
word, it would be that word "home." 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. In this way people will soon realise that they
can maximise the future of their lives with new realms of social, sexual
and personal relationships, all waiting to be experienced in terms of
these electronic systems, and all this exploration will take place in
their living rooms.

But there's more to it than that. For the first time it will become
truly possible to explore extensively and in depth the psychopathology
of one's own life without any fear of moral condemnation. Although we've
seen a collapse of many taboos within the last decade or so, there are
still aspects of existence which are not counted as being legitimate to
explore or experience mainly because of their deleterious or irritating
effects on other people. Now I'm not talking about criminally
psychopathic acts, but what I would consider as the more traditional
psychopathic deviancies. Many, perhaps most of these, need to be
expressed in concrete forms, and their expression at present gets people
into trouble. One can think of a million examples, but if your deviant
impulses push you in the direction of molesting old ladies, or cutting
girl's pig tails off in bus queues, then, quite rightly, you find
yourself in the local magistrates court if you succumb to them. And the
reason for this is that you're intruding on other people's life space.
But with the new multi-media potential of your own computerised TV
studio, where limitless simulations can be played out in totally
convincing style, one will be able to explore, in a wholly benign and
harmless way, every type of impulse - impulses so deviant that they
might have seemed, say to our parents, to be completely corrupt and

Penthouse: Can you be sure that their exploration, even if they don't
involve other people in the "real sense," will be purely benign?

Ballard: Well it seems to me that these kinds of explorations have been
going on, if only in a limited sense, since time immemorial. Take the
whole business of organised sports and games which have been a major
preoccupation of man for tens of thousands of years. Now there's no
point in pretending that these games are played and watched solely
because of the fact that they determine some trial of skill or bravery
between opposing teams. The exhilaration of sport, from the pumping of
one's lungs, the twisting of ankles, the bruising of the rugger field,
the physical damage of the boxing match, and right at the other end of
the scale the multiple deaths of a Formula Two pile-up are all major
components, and all might seem like totally deviant pleasures if they
were not long-established components of participant and spectator
sports. Even today the idea that people watching a car race get some
measure of excitement from being an observer of an accident which
produces pain, mutilation and death, is somehow slightly shocking and
yet it's clearly one of the reasons why people go to motor races. But I
think we'll shortly be moving into a realm where we will be prepared to
take for granted the existence of these seemingly deviant interests and
through the limitless powers of our home computers and TV we will be
granted universes of experience which today seem to belong to the dark
side of so-called civilised behaviour. Of course this doesn't apply
solely to sport or to activities like the space programme; with the kind
of simulations I'm envisaging it may never be necessary to go into
space. One's own drawing room will be a thousand times more exciting
and, in a peculiar way, more "real." No, there will be a huge range of
activities, our sex lives included, in which we can explore endlessly
the permutations of possible relationships with our friends, wives,
lovers, husbands, in a completely uninhibited way, but also in a way
which is neither physically hurtful nor psychologically or morally

Penthouse: Will people really respond to these creative possibilities
themselves? Won't the creation of these scenarios always be handed over
to the expert or professional?

Ballard: I doubt it. The experts or professionals only handle these
tools when they are too expensive or too complex for the average person
to manage them. As soon as the technology becomes cheap and simple,
ordinary people get to work with it. One's only got to think of people's
human responses to a new device like the camera. If you go back 30 or 40
years the Baby Brownie gave our parents a completely new window on the
world. They could actually go into the garden and take a photograph of
you tottering around on the lawn, take it down to the chemists, and then
actually see their small child falling into the garden pool whenever and
as often as they wanted to. I well remember my own parents' excitement
and satisfaction when looking at these blurry pictures, which
represented only the simplest replay of the most totally commonplace.
And indeed there's an interesting point here. Far from being applied to
mammoth productions in the form of personal space adventures, or one's
own participation in a death-defying race at Brands Hatch it's my view
that the incredibly sophisticated hook-ups of TV cameras and computers
which we will all have at our fingertips tomorrow will most frequently
be applied to the supremely ordinary, the absolutely commonplace. I can
visualise for example a world ten years from now where every activity of
one's life will be constantly recorded by multiple computer-controlled
TV cameras throughout the day so that when the evening comes instead of
having to watch the news as transmitted by BBC or ITV - that irrelevant
mixture of information about a largely fictional external world - one
will be able to sit down, relax and watch the real news. And the real
news of course will be a computer-selected and computer-edited version
of the days rushes. "My God, there's Jenny having her first ice cream!"
or "There's Candy coming home from school with her new friend." Now all
that may seem madly mundane, but, as I said, it will be the real news of
the day, as and how it affects every individual. Anyone in doubt about
the compulsion of this kind of thing just has to think for a moment of
how much is conveyed in a simple family snapshot, and of how rivetingly
interesting - to oneself and family only of course - are even the
simplest of holiday home movies today. Now extend your mind to the
fantastic visual experience which tomorrow's camera and editing
facilities will allow. And I am not just thinking about sex, although
once the colour 3-D cameras move into the bedroom the possibilities are
limitless and open to anyone's imagination. But let's take another
level, as yet more or less totally unexplored by cameras, still or
movie, such as a parent's love for one's very young children. That
wonderful intimacy that comes on every conceivable level - the warmth
and rapport you have with a two-year-old infant, the close physical
contact, his pleasure in fiddling with your tie, your curious
satisfaction when he dribbles all over you, all these things which make
up the indefinable joys of parenthood. Now imagine these being viewed
and recorded by a very discriminating TV camera, programmed at the end
of the day, or at the end of the year, or at the end of the decade, to
make the optimum selection of images designed to give you a sense of the
absolute and enduring reality of your own experience. With such
technology interfaced with immensely intelligent computers I think we
may genuinely be able to transcend time. One will be able to indulge
oneself in a kind of continuing imagery which, for the first time will
allow us to dominate the awful finiteness of life. Great portions of our
waking state will be spent in a constant mood of self-awareness and
excitement, endlessly replaying the simplest basic life experiences.

Penthouse: But isn't this tremendously passive?

Ballard: Just the opposite. I would say we were moving towards an era
where the brain with its tremendous sensory, aesthetic and emotional
possibilities will be switched on, totally instead of partially, for the
very first time. The enormously detailed, meticulously chosen re-runs I
have been talking about will give one a new awareness of the wonder and
mystery of life, an awareness that most of us, for biologically
important reasons have been trained to exclude. Don't forget that man
is, and has been for at least a million years, a hunting species
surviving with difficulty in a terribly dangerous world. In order to
survive, his brain has been trained to screen out anything but the most
essential and the most critical. Watch that hillcrest! Beware of that
cave mouth! Kill that bird! Dodge that spear! And in doing so he has to
screen out all the penumbral wonder of existence. But now the world is
essentially far less dangerous, and the time has come where the brain
can be allowed to experience the true excitement of the universe, and
the infinite possibilities of consciousness that the basic needs of
survival have previously screened away. After a million or so years,
those screens are about to be removed and once they have gone, then, for
the first time, man will really know what it is to be alive.

For a fresher dose, check out this German interview at Ballardian, "I really would not want to fuck George W. Bush."

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