Unhappy medium: Basar, Coupland and Obrist analyse the ‘procelerated’ future

The future is happening faster than we ever anticipated – and three of the brightest minds in contemporary culture seek to make sense of our disorientation.

A collage by Douglas Coupland, Family in Mid-Rapture, from The Age of Earthquakes. Courtesy Penguin
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If you’ve spent time with a 2-year-old these days, perhaps you’ve seen this: handed a storybook or a magazine, the child, after tiring of a picture, will swipe her finger over the page, and often keep swiping with mounting frustration. The technology of turning a page is somehow more cognitively advanced than the touchscreen world that so many are now born into. This is adorable, obviously, but also kind of ­terrifying.

The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present is a book-shaped security blanket for that child's parents.

Shumon Basar, one of the book's three authors – the others being famed novelist and artist Douglas Coupland (Generation X) and Hans Ulrich Obrist, widely considered the most influential contemporary art curator in the world – has described the book as being like "a paperback that's swallowed a smartphone. Or a book for swiping fingers. Maybe even, a new history of how we feel in the world today?"

Not only does The Age of Earthquakes have three authors, but it has a designer, Wayne Daly, and the contributions of more than 30 artists, including the UAE's Farah Al Qasimi and Rami Farook, and even former REM frontman Michael Stipe. Despite this, the book feels singular, cohesive and familiar, its voice like the internet's voice wiped clean of stupidity and horror. It is not a book with a plot, necessarily, or a book with chapters. There are not a tremendous number of words in The Age of Earthquakes. Each page you turn is like a link you have clicked, thematically related to the last page, but often in surprising ways. It is like a grown-up picture book, written in the internet's language of memes – those internet catchphrases or pieces of media that spread from person to person: instant messages, kitten photographs, anxiety-inducing security questions and definitions for words everyone seems to know but you. ("Deselfing (n.) Willingly diluting one's sense of self and ego by plastering the internet with as much information as possible.") It is a book not only inspired by the internet, but seemingly written by the internet. It is as if the internet gained not only artificial self-consciousness but wisdom – and then became your pal.

Like the internet, it is also addictive. There is the double page spread of two Sims-like people sitting on a bench, with the words: "On the internet, until proven otherwise, always assume the person on the other end is a 40-year-old pony-tailed guy wearing a diaper." One page simply says: "I miss getting emails from Nigerian princes." Another explains the Singularity: "You either know what the Singularity is or you have no idea whatsoever. Knowing about the Singularity is one of the new class demarcations of the 21st century." The next page says: "Waiting for the Singularity is getting dull." Another asks: "Where does personality end and brain damage begin?" Things get dark, as the book begins to pick at the slow death of the middle class. "Welcome to Detroit," one page says, over a photograph of burnt-out buildings and uncompleted high rises. "In the future everywhere will be Detroit."

The Age of Earthquakes could nearly fit in the pocket of your trousers. That "nearly" feels important. Despite its design and theme, it is not electronic, and takes advantage of the stability of print and matter to give weight to otherwise ephemeral modes of themes. It is self-consciously a paperback, or "relentlessly paper", as Obrist has said. The dissonance between the object and its content draws attention to itself, and, in doing so, makes it feel more like a book than most books. This is similar to the way that reading a book on an e-reader draws attention to the traditional ways books are supposed to look and feel: so much technology devoted to making a screen reflect light like actual paper. Needless to say, your 2-year-old will find this all amusingly quaint in 10 years.

Like so many versions of our present future, The Age of Earthquakes began in Dubai.

Shumon Basar has a long, fruitful history with the UAE. He first arrived in 2005, drawn by the rumours of visionary urban growth that included vast islands in the shape of palm leaves or even The World itself. He co-edited two books, Cities from Zero and With/Without, that attempted to capture the frenetic transformation from pre- to post-industrial state, from West to post-western world. And he's been back and forth ever since.

Fittingly, I spoke with him over the internet, shortly after he, Coupland and Obrist returned from having their entire bodies scanned into a 3-D printer and made into full-colour six-inch figurines. The idea of creating an action-figure voodoo doll of yourself feels like something out of The Age of Earthquakes. "None of us remember the first time we saw a photograph of ourselves," Basar says, "but we will all remember the first time we encounter ourselves in 3-D miniature form. It's a spooky, future-now, feeling."

I asked Basar about the origin of The Age of Earthquakes.

“In 2012, I gave the Global Art Forum, in Dubai, a theme of ‘The Medium of Media’. This was an explicit reference to the Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan, who coined the term ‘the medium is the message’ in 1964. Arguably, McLuhan invented media studies, and gave it the same importance as literature or anthropology. At the time, Douglas Coupland had recently written a fascinating biography on McLuhan. So, I invited Doug and Obrist to the forum. The three of us probed the prophetic relevance of McLuhan’s ideas for the 21st century. We imagined what he’d make of the internet-addled world today.”

How did Dubai colour their relationship? “The three of us share an interest in what makes the current historical moment the way it is. We always find that when we’re in Dubai, our thinking goes all High Definition, and our senses feel more vivid. One of our new words is ‘Proceleration’. It means ‘the acceleration of acceleration’. That’s what Dubai and parts of the UAE have been for the last few decades.’

The Age of Earthquakes feels like something you want to share. Both in the old-fashioned way – while reading, I called my girlfriend over and showed her particular pages – and in the modern way: it was hard not to want to copy-and-paste pages, link them, post them to social media, email them to others. Which is to say, it is a fun read. But one that makes you question how you read, why you read and just how much the internet has restructured our brains.

Putting the book down, my overwhelming emotion was sadness, as if I had just finished a very sad novel where none of the characters die at the end, but things aren’t necessarily going to go their way either. Things are out of their control. Things could turn on them at any second. I remember thinking: I never want to see another screen again. I want to log off now and forever and roam the hills, live in a cave, have happy little butterflies land on my fingers.

I asked Basar about this. Is this creeping sense of unease something the book is going for or does it say more about my personal relationship with technology? “Well, the Extreme Present we define as the current historical moment when the future seems to be happening much faster than we ever thought it would. Symptoms include your life not feeling like a story any­more; you not feeling like an individual any longer; seismic shifts in the structure of your brain and of the planet caused by the internet; waiting for something smarter than us – and dreading what that might be.

“This has led to enormous changes in the texture of life. These changes include shortened attention spans, an intense dislike of inactivity, new ways of consuming old and new forms of culture, new relationships with history, an addiction to speed and memory, the expectation of all needs being met on-demand, and new ways of perceiving both the near future and the distant future.”

So it’s not just me?

“The stuff about the butterflies,” he said, “is probably just you.”

The book is available from Amazon.co.uk.

Tod Wodicka lives in Berlin and Moscow. His second novel, The Household Spirit, will be published by Jonathan Cape in June.