Happy birthday JG! The late, great poet laureate of the high rise and pioneer of making people feel uneasy near big motorways with nightmarish stories and precise prose would have turned 83 last Friday. So, for this Throwback Thursday, we celebrate his enduring vision with this unpublished interview, conducted in 2003 by the radical publisher V Vale for his RE/Search journal.
Despite being a decade old, the conversation, which runs from the Internet, surveillance and pervasive photo/video documentation, is shockingly prescient. So dig in, buy some Ballard (the recent Folio editon of The Drowned World is a great start) and find out what JG though of reality TV.
JG Ballard: Hello? It’s very early in the morning where you are ...
Vale: Yes. But through some technological miracle that I really don’t understand, we can talk ...
JG Ballard: I know; it’s amazing. It’s great to hear from you, and great to know you’re still in business. All sounds as well as can be?
V Vale: Perhaps! And now you have four grandchildren – the last time I talked to you, your first grandchild had just been born. I can’t even fathom what that must feel like...
JG Ballard: It feels good, take my word for it. It does. I don’t want to sound macabre, but it takes away the fear of death. There’s no doubt about that. One has done one’s biological duty, and that’s very meaningful…
V Vale: Actually, it’s strange how much cheaper it’s gotten to make international phone calls.
JG Ballard: Yes. This young American who made a film of "The Atrocity Exhibition" spends a lot of time in New York and Pennsylvania. He was talking to me, going on and on, and I said to him, “Hey, this is going to cost you a fortune.” He said, “Oh, no – international calls are cheaper than local toll calls. It’s cheaper to ring you across the Atlantic than it is to ring my girlfriend across town.”
V Vale: It’s crazy, but he might be right.
JG Ballard: And the Internet is pretty cheap, isn’t it? I mean, what does it cost to send an email? It costs less than an airmail letter. The transmission charge is almost nothing.
V Vale: Right; if you pay your monthly charge, you can send almost as many emails as you want. In fact, let’s discuss the futuristic implications of the Internet – how it is changing society. You’ve always been so prescient at extrapolating the larger implications of new technology – the social changes that technology brings about.
JG Ballard: I think I’m being left behind, you know. I’m not sure I am a good guide anymore, but I’ll do my best. My girlfriend Claire Churchill lives on the Internet, and when I visit her I’m looking over her shoulder.
V Vale: This is a drastic change of “lifestyle,” isn’t it? She wasn’t doing this ten years ago.
“[Online there is] some marvellously poetic material that’s quite extraordinary. The Internet is an amazing development.” – JG Ballard, 2003
JG Ballard: Well, she’s ten years younger than me, and got her computer about five years ago. And she’s a highly intelligent woman with no technical background of any kind – I mean, she’s not particularly good with camcorders or any kind of advanced domestic appliances; she’s all fingers and thumbs. But when she got her computer she took to it, really, like a duck to water. It was quite amazing.
Every day she faxes me great masses of material that she’s taken off the Net. So I’m reading editorials from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal before the people in New York read them! I’m not exaggerating, because of the time difference. She’s a wonderful surfer of the Net, often coming up with some marvellously poetic material that’s quite extraordinary. The Internet is an amazing development.
V Vale: My friends and I have been combing the Internet looking for “Ballardiana”…
JG Ballard: There isn’t much, is there?
V Vale: People used to say, “You can find anything on the Internet!” But it’s simply not true, and what’s there is...
JG Ballard: ... inaccurate, too. On any topic, you get these “digests” of topics that are full of holes of various kinds. You’ve got to be careful, particularly on medical sites – some of the material is downright misleading, and you can’t rely on it.
If you go to a website like the Encyclopedia Britannica, the information on the whole is fairly reliable. If you want to know the population of Venice, you can rely on the Britannica to give you a fairly (or approximately) accurate answer. But you can’t rely on the Net . . . at least, that’s my experience.
“Don’t refer to “home-made bombs” or the weaknesses of large engineering structures like skyscrapers—don’t make any reference to that sort of thing! Or you’ll find some guy in a raincoat with a radio mic in his ear knocking on your door.” – JG Ballard, 2003
Since Claire lives on the Net, whenever I’m with her at her home, she’s very keen that I become a kind of “Net person,” too. I’m resisting this to some extent – I mean, you’re talking to a man who writes his novels in longhand! Still, you can’t help but be amazed by the sort of transaction speed—the Internet is like that “Democracy Wall” in Peking ten years ago, where anybody can post up anything. It’s quite extraordinary.
V Vale: Unfortunately, there’s almost no one to challenge the accuracy and veracity of the information posted.
JG Ballard: Yes. But so far it’s supposedly uncensored.
V Vale: Although I’m not sure that’s true. I put out an occasional e-newsletter, and recently it has been rejected as “spam” (even though the people on my list subscribe to it). And because the word “sex” or “sexy” may have been mentioned, some servers reject it as “obscene”!
“Now everybody can document themselves in a way that was inconceivable 30, 40, 50 years ago… I think this reflects a tremendous hunger among people for 'reality' – for ordinary reality. It’s very difficult to find the 'real', because the environment is totally manufactured.” – JG Ballard, 2003
JG Ballard: You’d better be careful there, because I think they’ve got computers scanning all this email traffic. Certain key words are supposed to detect people with pedophile interests, and Al Qaeda terrorists trying to communicate with each other. So don’t refer to “home-made bombs” or the weaknesses of large engineering structures like skyscrapers—don’t make any reference to that sort of thing! Or you’ll find some guy in a raincoat with a radio mic in his ear knocking on your door. I mean, this is understandable in America because September 11 was such a shocking event .
V Vale: Let’s have your thoughts on 9/11. Did it really change the world?
JG Ballard: Well, it certainly changed America.
V Vale: Yes, it gave President George W Bush practically free license to do whatever he wants.
JG Ballard: Absolutely. As always with these things, it’s the sort of secondary effects that often turn out to be the most worrying. It’s the effects on free speech, on tolerance: what’s going on now is like the McCarthy era after WWII, during the Cold War in the 1950s! All these academics were being hounded out of their jobs because once during the war they had gone to some pro-Russian fund-raising event in 1942 or something.
V Vale: Right, or attended a Communist Party meeting just to “find out what it’s all about”.
“People think that by living on some mountainside in a tent and being frozen to death by freezing rain, they’re somehow discovering reality, but of course that’s just another fiction dreamed up by a TV producer.” – JG Ballard, 2003
JG Ballard: Exactly. If you read accounts of the secondary effects of the McCarthy era during Eisenhower’s presidency, amazingly thousands of “innocent” Americans lost their jobs and had their careers destroyed. The whole climate of intolerance and conservative reaction came into existence very rapidly. It wasn’t just the “Hollywood Ten” [those singled out for high-profile persecution/ prosecution] who suffered; the knock-on effects were enormous. And there’s a danger of that happening now – over here in England as well.
Our British tabloid press is in a perpetual frenzy over what we call “asylum seekers.” These are refugees from Eastern Europe, the former Yugoslavia, from Iraq even, who are trying to get in here. Not only is the tabloid press going mad, there are unattractive signs of right-wing fanatics making the most of it, as you’d expect. The so-called British National Party, which is our Hitler-right / fringe group, have started winning council seats, which is more significant than it sounds, because local councils here have quite a lot of power. So it’s that secondary knock-on effect that’s worrying. But we’ll see. In America, you’ve got a “climate of conformity” coming in, don’t you?
V Vale: Yes, enforced by surveillance cameras absolutely everywhere. Also, everybody seems to have a videocamera these days.
JG Ballard: Now everybody can document themselves in a way that was inconceivable 30, 40, 50 years ago… I think this reflects a tremendous hunger among people for “reality”—for ordinary reality. It’s very difficult to find the “real,” because the environment is totally manufactured.
Even one’s own home is a kind of anthology of advertisers, manufacturers, motifs and presentation techniques. There’s nothing “natural” about one’s home these days. The furnishings, the fabrics, the furniture, the appliances, the TV, and all the electronic equipment—we’re living inside commercials. I think people realize this, and they’re desperate for reality, which partly explains the surge in popularity of “adventure” holidays. People think that by living on some mountainside in a tent and being frozen to death by freezing rain, they’re somehow discovering reality, but of course that’s just another fiction dreamed up by a TV producer. And there’s no escape.
Follow Charlie Robin Jones on Twitter here @charliexjones