Published today, The Extreme Self is the newest publication by trio Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Functioning as a sequel to their first collaborative textual endeavour, The Age of Earthquakes, the book takes on the usurp of ‘real’ worlds by digital realms and is currently being previewed at an exhibition at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. As a founding member of the Prada Thought Council and a prominent curator in the Middle East, Basar shares his thoughts on our advance toward the technological and its effects upon the human mind.
Shumon, as a renowned writer and curator, what drew you to the comments sections of YouTube as the focal space of study in your new book? What do you believe is the current relationship between the ‘real’/material world and such digital worlds?
One of the chapters of The Extreme Self is called, The Comments Section is the Real World. And one of the pages says, ‘There’s no point being horrified that the online world has replaced the real world. It’s just a fact of life.’ What’s the reasoning behind this assertion? It’s to do with power. On the one hand, the comments section (that appends a news story, or, a social media post) has become a living discursive space, resplendent with the best and worst of what humans can be. The comments section is typically referred to as ‘the sewers’ because “normal people” suddenly turn into judgey, cruel, righteous monsters. But it can also be a place of extraordinary, terse humour. An entire stand-up routine in 6 words, for example. What the pandemic did was accelerate what I call ‘The Great Reversal.’ This is when what we used to call ‘Second Life’ (online screen-existence) becomes ‘First Life’ — and vice versa. Instead of media acting as extensions of us, we have become extensions of media. It’s a seismic shift, comparable to when Copernicus said Earth is no longer at the centre of the universe. So, if we want to get a glimpse of where we are heading as a species, the comments section is full of clues about how and where power is shifting.
I understand this book is the sequel to The Age of Earthquakes which reads as an updated version of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message. How does this relate to The Extreme Self, and does the text draw upon any other postmodern thinkers?
Yes, The Age of Earthquakes was our attempt to update The Medium is the Message from 1967 to 2015, when our book came out. McLuhan died in 1980 and never got to see the always-on, digitally dependent 21st century. In The Age of Earthquakes, we introduced a term: 'The Extreme Present,' which described the mutations taking place in time and in the perception of time. The Extreme Self is a study of the mutations of personhood within the Extreme Present. So, that’s the link, content wise. Form wise, our new book continues the fast-paced, paperback experience of The Medium is the Message, which was designed by Quentin Fiore. In terms of influences this time around: it’s Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian, who wrote a brilliant book in 1994 called The Age of Extremes. You can see how our title is derived from his; but so too is our chapter structure, which takes Hobsbawm’s outline, and updates it to 2021
Like it’s predecessor, the book is a collaborative project by yourself, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Can you enlighten us as to what the co-authoring process was like for you?
Conversation. The three of us are engaged in an incessant, cross continental, living conversation that’s already close to 15 years running so far. This really is the core of how our ideas ferment. People have seemed quietly obsessed about which of the three of us does which parts in the books. It’s impossible to dissect that way, especially since our graphic designer, Wayne Daly, is instrumental, and, this time around, we have visual contributions from over 70 people. (Plus the countless comments section comments littered like over sharing footnotes). Perhaps the most accurate way to describe the process is a portrait of collective intelligence, or, a “polyphony of voices,” as Hans Ulrich would say.
The Extreme Self also features over 70 artists – making it a graphic novel which explores our dizzying current moment. Do you feel that having the novel be an optical rather than purely textual experience is fitting for its contents which navigate digital spectacle?
Online humanity has recently passed a point where we now treat images as words, and words as images. Memes are the perfect crystallisation of this. Human literacy has changed, too: perhaps back to a time when writing consisted of pictographic characters (are emojis today’s hieroglyphs?). Sadly, my capacity to read a long novel has been shattered over the last decade. My eyes are trained to move with the agitated screen scroll or swipe. This is just a fact, as is the fact that attention spans are shrinking. What Douglas, Hans Ulrich, Wayne and I endeavour to do is not shy away from this actuality (that the average time taken to look at a painting in a gallery is now 2.7 seconds), but embrace it. However, we do this with the challenge of not diluting thought complexity. Readers take a particular joy in finishing our books in less than 59 minutes, or 22 minutes. It’s a kind of speed-philosophy, and for that to work, you need to signal-switch between words and images.
Some of these artworks are currently on display at Age of You exhibition which you curated alongside Coupland and Obrist. What questions did you wish to prompt with this exhibition? What emotive reactions did you seek to incite?
The insides of peoples’ heads have been feeling strange for a number of years. Change changes faster than our ability to process that change. At the centre of all this flux and fear is what? It’s each and every one of us, as we morph into something we don’t recognise, or understand. It’s been fascinating to see peoples’ reactions to the exhibition Age of You. There’s often a sense of being jolted, by an electric shock. Visitors tell us we narrate how they’re feeling, and that we also provide a language to describe those feelings. One of the biggest questions at any moment in modernity is: what makes this present unlike every present beforehand? And what makes it like precedents in history? I call this phenomenon PTSD: Present Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Returning to the book itself, it states that we should accept the replacement of the real world with the online world. I’m not contesting this at all (for I too believe that’s the case), however do you have any inkling for what comes next after this shift to the digital? Is morphing into the virtual the final frontier for humanity?
The thing about the future is: it always exceeds our capacity to predict it. If you look at sci-fi from the 60s and 70s, it anticipated many things — but it never predicted the Internet. We are at an early stage of what David Rudnick calls “digital prime,” (as opposed to “analogue prime”) and this is one reason we feel so vertiginous. Cinema, as a medium, is over 120 years old now, yet, it coexists with other, newer media. My point is: it’s the unintended consequences of technology that dictates the future. The blind spots that invention can never account for. My speculations might be a fun parlour game, but, they’d never truly envisage what is to come. But, as Douglas says, “The sequence is that technology changes the person, and then those changed persons collectively, consciously or unconsciously, create philosophy.”
You claim we are occupying an era of ‘emotional capitalism’. Can you delineate and elaborate on this?
In the 20th century, fossil capitalism largely dictated the geopolitics of the world. Countries that were resource rich — with oil, gas, coal, etc — had a disproportionate say over the shaping of the century. The ground and the sea were fracked to extract precious materials that literally fuelled late globalisation. In our part of the 21st century now, it’s our feelings that are the most valuable commodity — and how they’re transformed into tradable and sellable data. We are fracked, and, we also frack ourselves. Networked Individuals (Donald Trump, Elon Musk) understand this implicitly. The culture wars preside over democratic politics, and have played an immense role in public health efficacy regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. Guilt, shame, schadenfreude: private feelings are felt in public now, and are the medium through which public life conducts itself.
What is the role of the body in emotional capitalism?
That’s a great question. As Barbara Kruger said back in the 1980s: “Your body is a battleground.” And it still is. Bodies are things to aspire to, things to disown, things to defend or persecute. Bodies are full of hysteric erotics and also asexual pride. Bodies are cancelled and they are beatified. Bodies are imperfect technologies made more perfect by things like Neuralink. They’re also digital lies: edited to impossible aesthetic resolution: avatars, fantasy clones.
Lastly, will you and the trio consider making these books into a trilogy in the future? If so, what might that look like?
Hans Ulrich would say ‘Yes,’ emphatically. We don’t yet know what this will be, either in terms of themes, or shape. We tend to respond to a sense of historical crisis, when the world reboots itself. The pandemic has obviously had a towering presence whose effects are still far from being settled. What comes after this remains to be seen, heard, and felt.