Disaster Writing: New Book By Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist Wreaks Havoc on Original Thought



Readers of a certain age will probably know Marshall McLuhan best for his cameo in Annie Hall, in which the Canadian-born media scholar appears suddenly to chastise an annoying member of a movie queue, situated directly behind Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer character. But there was a time in the 1960s when McLuhan was one of the most famous intellectuals in the world, and a divisive figure at that. He was either the media critic par excellence or an amateurish pseudo-scientist. In his obituary in The New York Times, the paper praised his scholarly contributions while also referring to him as “an arrogant apostle of electronic media.” He coined the phrase “the medium is the message” to argue that the way in which humans communicate in an increasingly electronic age has as much of a psychological effect on those humans as whatever is being communicated.

He had a hard time getting his message across, however, and his writing could be so opaque that in 1967 he teamed up with a graphic designer to produce an easily consumable omnibus of quotes summing up his ideas. The book, a bestseller, was The Medium Is the Massage, the title—conveniently enough—a printing error of McLuhan’s most famous saying that McLuhan decided was too perfect to correct. Alongside the satirical gloss of repurposed Madison Avenue advertising from magazines and television, McLuhan offered bits of wisdom about the modern age: “Art is anything you can get away with,” or the city will become “an information megalopolis.”

He believed the world had shifted from an auditory understanding of communication in pre-literate times, to a visual understanding with the invention of the written word and print culture, to something altogether indefinable in the electronic age, with our ancient brains unable to keep up with new technology. The book, with its pretty pictures coupled with foreboding wisdom, is a kind of precursor to the so-called post-Internet art by the likes of Brad Troemel and the collective DIS. Like those artists, McLuhan saw a certain potential in the culture he was critiquing—the book, for example, was released both in paperback and as an hour-long TV special broadcast on NBC—and his fear was laced with respectful awe: “The television generation is a grim bunch,” he wrote. “It is much more serious than children of any other period—when they were frivolous, more whimsical. The television child is more earnest, more dedicated.”

McLuhan fits into a long literary tradition of men decrying all the new advancements that frighten them. “The discovery of the alphabet,” Socrates (as quoted by McLuhan) said, “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls.” Mark Twain gave away his typewriter because, “I found it was degrading my character.” George W. S. Trow, in Within the Context of No-Context, said of television, “No good has come of it.” Jonathan Franzen, writing in the Guardian, compared Googling something on an iPhone to “handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.” Now, the critic Shumon Basar, the artist and novelist Douglas Coupland, and the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist have together written a self-proclaimed update to McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage for a generation reared online. It is called The Age of Earthquakes (Blue Rider Press).

The book’s central argument is the same as McLuhan’s, and it is delivered in a similarly packaged paperback of floating platitudes alongside contemporary imagery—albeit refigured to depict the barrage of information and signifiers found online. The medium, in other words, has changed: “By rewiring our brains on the Internet, we’ve tampered with the old-fashioned organic perception of time,” the authors write. “We’ve rejiggered our body’s perception of time, and it’s not just because you’re older and each year is a smaller percentage of your life. It’s simply moving more quickly.”

I have little to say about Basar, who is the youngest and least distinguished contributor here. For Coupland, a prolific and popular novelist whose literary accomplishments have spilled over into a successful career as a visual artist, as well as for Obrist, who, if not the world’s most celebrated curator, is certainly the most ubiquitous, this short book might seem like a minor entry in an otherwise storied career if it weren’t such a perfect example of the general foolishness and presumption that plagues much of the art world.

The first problem is a lack of cohesion. McLuhan’s work, even at its most obscure, functioned clearly as a cautionary tale about the media while still reveling in its newness. On the other hand, Basar, Coupland, and Obrist, the latter of whom claimed in a recent interview with the Observer to have only “curated” the pictures in The Age of Earthquakes, don’t seem to know whether they are indicting, mocking, or celebrating digital culture. The book begins by citing data about the amount of energy needed to power the Internet (“10 percent of the world’s total electricity”), culled from a report by Mark P. Mills, who is, among other things, a Forbes columnist. “The carbon that fuels our electronic life is melting the ice caps,” the authors continue. And yet only a few pages later, there is this passage:

Some people think you should get off the Internet. Why would you want to disconnect from the Internet? It’s fun. It keeps you from feeling alone. It gives you information and doesn’t judge you. Most of all everybody on earth is feeling the same way as you. The last time humanity had so much in common was when a few remaining cave people sat out the last Ice Age.

Leaving the humorless punch line alone, my question is: Which is it? A harbinger of the end times or just so much fun? The Internet, the authors claim, against the backdrop of two hands shaking above a forest tree line, “tends to foster an increased sense of individuality, and at the same time it’s terrific at bringing people together.” Or wait, maybe it’s “tricked [people] into thinking they’re isolated,” as the authors state a few pages earlier, above the image of a Roz Chast cartoon. The writing, what little there is, is all over the place.

If McLuhan’s style could be described as a postmodern Poor Richard’s Almanack (or maybe a poor man’s Trow), The Age of Earthquakes is more like a teenager’s Twitter account: “The world feels out-of-control-ish because too many things are changing too quickly,” goes one irritating and unfortunately characteristic aphorism. Its various quips range from the simply pedestrian—“For the first time in history straight guys…think they’re having as much sex as gay guys were always supposed to have been having”—to uncomfortably naive. Here’s one that made me have to put the book down and leave the room for a moment: “Rodney King was the YouTube of 1993. If it happened today would it be able to compete with everything else?”

Such willful ignorance of what’s actually going on in the world on the part of not only the authors but everyone else who had to read this book before it went to press is surprising for a publication whose subtitle is “A Guide to the Extreme Present,” even if such stupidity—and I’m being generous here—is a halfhearted attempt at satirizing the pervasive idiocy regularly broadcast on the Internet. A text replicating that which it critiques is an old trick, and one that is especially popular among chroniclers of the digital age. The novelist Tao Lin, for example, who is quoted in the book comparing the Internet to a UFO that came to Earth suddenly and abducted everyone, deploys Gchats, e-mails, and a cold, affectless style in order to document the stress and malaise of living with a daily, inescapable deluge of new facts, rehashed history, and reactionary commentary. The presence of this rhetorical device is not enough to forgive Basar, Coupland, and Obrist for their tediousness. The Age of Earthquakes is stupid for stupid’s sake.

I’d be willing to give the authors the benefit of the doubt to the extent that publishing a book is a slow process, and possibly The Age of Earthquakes had already gone to the printer by the time the news broke about the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and Tamir Rice, though it isn’t as if police brutality and systemic racism appeared out of nowhere between July and November last year. But, on the level of mere logic, that Rodney King was the YouTube of 1993 is already a questionable metaphor—what does it mean, exactly? That his was the first viral video, and that it only took off due to an absence of competition? McLuhan was a lot of things, but he was never this smug. Also the date is off: Rodney King was assaulted in 1991, and the acquittal of his attackers in 1992 sparked the L.A. riots that year.

The Rodney King videotape, however, shot by George Holliday from his balcony in Lake View Terrace using his new camcorder, was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. This, I think, is an important point. That they would associate King with the year 1993 speaks to how blisteringly vapid these authors are, how shut off from any reality that doesn’t include gallery openings, museum exhibitions, and art-fair panels. In 1993, John G. Hanhardt, then the Whitney’s film and video curator, told the Los Angeles Times that he put the video in the show because “it’s part of a whole body of work I am showing which focuses on an emerging practice within video to rethink the medium and address public issues.” (The video also has a history of appropriation, and served as the title sequence of Spike Lee’s 1992 film, Malcolm X.) King was included in the biennial because the documentation of his abuse transcended boundaries of genre. King is included in The Age of Earthquakes for the purpose of a thoughtless bon mot.

I wouldn’t dwell on the Rodney King line if it weren’t indicative of a certain conservatism, and classism (or something even worse), that runs through the book. “Poverty with no Internet would be truly dreadful,” the authors write, as if such a thing doesn’t exist. They even create a new word—“Detroitus”—to define the fear that “in the future everywhere will be Detroit,” further describing this doomed scenario modeled after that city as “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.” Yes, because a struggling working-class Midwestern city could only be full of devolved, gluttonous, lazy criminals. I find this sententiousness, this shallow condescension, unsettling.

On a very basic level, though, I understand The Age of Earthquakes as merely a failed stab at the apocalyptic humor found in Coupland’s novels. I find Coupland’s fiction to be soulless, but I do think he’s managed a few clever moments: the drug Solon, for instance, from the 2010 novel Generation A, that cures anxiety by slowing down time and to which the world has become addicted. Whatever imaginative spirit occasionally arises in Coupland’s books is entirely absent here.

Obrist, who is at least a great supporter of artists, coined the term 89plus to describe those artists who, born in or after 1989, the year Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web, have never lived in a world without the Internet. With help from the curator Simon Castets, Obrist created, in 2013, a kind of roving and potentially endless exhibition to showcase the art and ideas of this generation “without forecasting artistic trends or predicting future creation.” Maybe that’s the problem. In attempting to make sense of the present and to offer a vision of what’s to come, he and his collaborators have produced a document that speaks more to the hubris of its authors than it does to anything happening in the world around them. “In the future,” they write, “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.” The future is now, and I don’t think I have to tell you which group Basar, Coupland, and Obrist fall into.

M.H. Miller is senior editor at ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 28 under the title “Disaster Writing.”

© 2019 ARTnews Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved. ARTnews® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.