Listen to this article
I find myself reading books of short stories these days. Short stories don’t take as long to read as novels, and if you read a few in a row it feels just like binge-watching Netflix. I’ve also found that when it comes to reading, and if you really want to annoy someone, just tell them you’re taking a week off to do nothing but read. Their eyes will goggle and their reptile cortex will flare with envy. A whole week?
To read? Make it worse by saying you’re also going offline for your Reading Week. You may as well tell them you’re spending the week snorkelling on the Amalfi coast with Brangelina. Taking time off solely to read has become something akin to temporal eco-tourism, a visit to a mindspace that seems ever more distant by the day.
Lately I’ve been experiencing a new temporal sensation that’s odd to articulate, but I do think is shared by most people. It’s this: until recently, the future was always something out there up ahead of us, something to anticipate or dread, but it was always away from the present.
But not any more. Somewhere in the past few years the present melted into the future. We’re now living inside the future 24/7 and this (weirdly electric and buzzy) sensation shows no sign of stopping — if anything, it grows ever more intense. Elsewhere I’ve labelled this experience “the extreme present” — or another label for this new realm might be “the superfuture”. In this superfuture I feel like I’m clamped into a temporal roller coaster and, at the crest of the first hill, I can see that my roller coaster actually runs off far into the horizon. Wait! How is this thing supposed to end?
Is it ever going to end? Help! I want a pill called 1995! I want a one-year holiday from change! But that’s not going to happen.
The future is always supposed to be a mess, isn’t it? I think it’s funny the way people have an almost impossible time envisioning a future that isn’t a dystopian waste-scape. Growing up in the 1970s, the year 2016 was to have been a wasteland populated by a rifle-toting Charlton Heston, zombies and the Statue of Liberty poking out of a beach. Both oil and fresh water would be non-existent. No politics; just anarchy. But by many measurable statistical standards, right now is the best time ever in our history . . . and yet mostly we bitch, complain and worry — it’s what we do as humans. I think the biggest surprise for a 1970s Rip Van Winkle awaking in 2016 might probably be oil: cheap and plentiful oil. Wait — how did that happen? And look at the variety and quality of produce in even the most dismal grocery store . . . and cars look smashing and don’t belch blue smoke and gays seem to be part of society at large. And . . . wait, this is 2016? Count me in!
It’s hard to accept that our new superfuture mind state is permanent and that it’s not going away — how could it? Our devices that cause it aren’t going to go away. They’ll just get better and faster and we’re going to embed ourselves in the superfuture ever more deeply.
It makes me wonder if the most important thing we could invent right now would be a technology that takes away our bottomless fear of missing out, our need to read the latest news update, our latest hook-up or our latest upgrade.
What kind of technology would that be? How would it free us from our current superfuture prison? How could it convince us that everything is OK? How do we invent our way out of this mess?
Human beings weren’t built for progress — maybe a bit of change here and there, a bit of adaptability, but not for what we’re now collectively enduring. No animal is built that way. Until recently we lived in a cave or a hut and you assumed our great-great-grandchildren would be living in the same cave or a hut identical to our own; their lives would be in no way different from ours. When did that end — 1850? Dear Industrial Revolution: thanks for nothing.
Last month I was visiting an editor friend in Toronto and I asked her, “So Anne, what’s killing publishing this week?” and she said, “Oh that’s easy. TV binge-viewing.” She wasn’t being facetious; people now measurably use the time they once spent reading novels to binge-watch Netflix or HBO. And then the next day at work they discuss what they’re watching the same way people used to discuss novels. What season are you on? Which episode? No spoilers! They might as well have been by the water cooler discussing The Catcher in the Rye in 1951.
A few paragraphs back I asked what sort of technology it would be that would help rescue us from this nonstop trapped-inside-the-future nagging buzz we all share living in the 21st century. This was a trick question because we already have this technology: it’s called books. But there’s another twist here and it’s this: it’s harder to read books these days. We all know it. It is a very rare and very honest person who’ll cop to the truth that they don’t read half as much fiction as they did 10 years ago. People seem to be buying novels but they just join the pile beside the bed that topples over when you go to plug in the laptop’s power cord.
For a recent museum show I made T-shirts that read “i miss my pre-internet brain”. We photographed them on 17-year-old models and everybody had a good laugh. Me, I don’t miss my pre-internet brain. I no longer remember it, and that may be a necessary step to survive in the upcoming 100 years. Nostalgia for your pre-2005-ish brain may be actively holding you back from living a better life right now. Who’s to say? The world only spins forward. If you do want a portal back to The Way Things Were, you can read a book, but the moment you finish it you’ll be right back here. And that’s better than nothing.
Douglas Coupland is artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has works in the exhibition ‘Electronic Superhighway’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios ©Douglas Coupland
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published