In 1967, an unusual-looking book called The Medium is the Massage sold in millions and became that rare cultural phenomenon: a mass-market cult success. Its prophetic words came from a 56-year-old Canadian professor of English literature called Marshall McLuhan (not exactly a hipster or a hippie). Three years earlier McLuhan had introduced a phrase that still sounds current today: ‘the medium is the message’.
This dictum became the driving logic behind The Medium is the Massage (and no, that’s not a typo). McLuhan’s fizzing ideas about how all media - including radio, television, magazines and advertising - are “extensions of man” were shaped into a kaleidoscope of graphically audacious words and images in flux. The border between man and technology is porous, McLuhan was saying, and with every new invention we reinvent ourselves as humans.
In Massage, Professor McLuhan was flanked by two other first-rate intelligences: former advertising man turned ‘book producer’ Jerome Agel, and New York graphic designer Quentin Fiore. They aspired to animate and activate McLuhan's often-obtuse prose into something that even children could access. And enjoy.
This week, Penguin (who released Massage in 1967) is publishing our own ‘experimental paperback’ called The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present. It’s intended as The Medium is the Massage for the 21st century and wonders, “What would McLuhan have made of the world today?” He died in 1980 and never got to see the Internet - but seemed to anticipate many of its qualities and effects.
Our book is a poetic manifesto, designed by Wayne Daly with images sourced from 35 visual artists, that portrays what we call ‘the Extreme Present’. What’s that?
The ‘Extreme Present’ is the realisation that the causes of the modern condition are not going to go away. If anything, the forces driving the current world can only keep accelerating. This leads to enormous changes in the texture of life. These changes include new ways of consuming old and new forms of culture, new relationships with history, and new ways of perceiving both the near future and the distant future.
One thing McLuhan taught us is that reality is usually one step ahead of the language we already possess to describe it. As such, we tend to misunderstand the present moment as it’s unfurling. So, new words and new terms must be constantly invented to fully apprehend the volatile changes taking place to us, to our values and our surroundings.
Here are examples from The Age of Earthquakes’ new Glossary for ‘the Extreme Present’. Feel free to use them today over lunch while you’re ‘deselfing’. Or when you’re paying for groceries, you suddenly forget your PIN number and you feel completely ‘smupid’.
Aclassification is the process wherein one is stripped of class without being assigned a new class. If you lose your job at an auto assembly plant and start supporting yourself by giving massages and upgrading websites part time, what are you? Middle class? Not really. Lower class? That sounds archaic and obsolete. In the future, current class structures will dissolve and humanity will settle into two groups: those people who have actual skills (surgeons; hairdressers; helicopter pilots) and everyone else who’s kind of faking it through life. Implicit in aclassification is the idea that a fully linked world no longer needs a middle class.
Blank-collar workers (n.)
Blank-collar workers are the new post-class class. They are a future global monoclass of citizenry adrift in a classless sea. Neither middle class nor working class – and certainly not rich – blank-collar workers are aware of their status as simply one unit among seven billion other units. Blank-collar workers rely on a grab bag of skills to pay the rent. By the time they’ve died from neglect in a badly run senior-care facility, blank-collar workers have had at least 17 careers, none of which came with a pension scheme.
The process whereby one’s life stops feeling like a story.
Willingly diluting one’s sense of self and ego by plastering the Internet with as much information as possible.
Detroitus is the fear of Michigan. It is the queasy realisation that it’s probably much too late to fix whatever little bit of the economy is left after having shipped most of it away to China. Detroitus is also the fear of roughly ten million primates needing 2,500 calories a day sitting on top of a cold rock in the middle of the North American continent, with nothing to do all day except go online and shop from jail. Detroitus is an existential fear, as it forces one to ponder the meaning of being alive at all: we wake up, we do something – anything – we go to sleep, and we repeat it about 22,000 more times, and then we die.
Interruption-driven memory (n.)
We only remember red stoplights, never the green ones. The green ones keep us in the flow; the red ones interrupt and annoy us. Interruption. This accounts for the almost near-universal tendency of car drivers to be superstitious about stoplights.
Fear of feeling like an individual.
Occession is the process whereby the West cedes its claim to having the sole means of attaining enlightenment in all realms. Implicit in Occession is the assumption that the traditional Western mode of creating ideas based in secularist theory has possibly run its course, or is hitting an unclimbable wall. This wall may, in the end, be surmountable. In the interim, the East is forging forward with modes of thinking grounded in radically different ways of approaching individual identity, capital, globalisation, religion, politics, global ecology and nationalism.
Smupidity defines the mental state wherein we acknowledge that we’ve never been smarter as individuals and yet somehow we’ve never felt stupider. We now collectively inhabit a state of smupidity where the average IQ is now 103 but it feels like it’s 97. One possible explanation for smupidity is that people are generally far more aware than they ever were of all the information they don’t know. The weight of this fact overshadows huge advances made in knowledge accumulation and pattern recognition skills honed by online searching.
Time snack (v.)
Often annoying moments of pseudo-leisure created by computers when they stop to save a file or to search for software updates or merely to mess with your mind.
The glossary is taken from The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present by Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Shumon Basar (published by Penguin).