The Coming Wave
Mustafa Suleyman’s The Coming Wave (2023) builds on Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave by adding artificial intelligence and genetic science into the technology mix. Suleyman’s three main points are:
- The impossibility of stopping technological change.
- The fall in costs associated with new technologies over time.
- The need for ‘containment’.
He argues that the benefits of AI outweigh the potential dangers. The book covers the political management of AI and the cultural implications – from drone warfare, to the effects of AI on jobs, and medical research.
Decades after computers became common place and the internet went mainstream, we’re still only at the very beginning of the ‘information revolution’. It’s going to change the world in ways we never suspected.
The Third Wave
Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave (1980) begins with a history of humanity in terms of sequential (and overlapping) waves:
Each wave of new technology changes human behaviour, culture, and social expectation. Where Future Shock focused on adapting to a ‘super-industrialised’ society, the ‘third wave society’ shoehorns Alain Touraine’s concept of the ‘post-industrial’ society ideas from Future Shock. The book was published in 1980, so many of its examples are dated (CB radio, cable TV, the demise of city-based newspapers, and ‘news blip’ culture). The key point, which Toffler also made in Future Shock, is about fragmentation or ‘third wave diversity’.
Seen in today’s light, Hollywood’s problems, and the challenges facing the publishing industry, are not just about technological change, but one of audience fragmentation. Toffler also argues that the ‘third wave society’ will include a workforce that increasingly works from home (in the quaintly labelled ‘electronic cottage’). The nuclear family will become less important. There will be more single parent families, and people will increasingly choose childless lifestyles. These issues, he argues, are inevitable (as a way of coping with rapid technological change and personal stress). They shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of prejudiced social judgement.
Rushing to Paradise
J G Ballard’s Rushing to Paradise (1994) gets off to a slow start but, half-way through, it suddenly takes off. The story is told in third person viewpoint from Neil’s perspective. He’s a young, naive man who looks up to Dr Barbara. She’s the leader of an environmental activist group that takes-over a Pacific island (to stop it being used for nuclear testing).
The group’s power dynamics, exacerbated by the island’s isolation, sees the group descend into insanity – their noble aims perverted by mad justifications in the service of Dr Barbara’s crazed ego. The novel is a brilliant study of group politics, and a testament to Ballard’s skills as a writer.
Where High Rise is a study of social disintegration in a Brutalist tower block, Rushing to Paradise explores social disintegration on a deserted island. Where High Rise has a brilliant start with its crazed protagonist eating barbecued dog meat, Rushing to Paradise has a more leisurely setup.
This is another of Ballard’s stories about de-civilisation – social disintegration and people becoming barbaric. His interest reflected his childhood experience in a POW camp. Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood (2023) also focuses in on a group of eco-activists, but Ballard’s novel completely blows it away. Just when you think you’ve read the best that Ballard has to offer – a gem like this comes along. It’s a shame Rushing to Paradise isn’t more widely appreciated.
J G Ballard’s novel Hello America was published in 1981 – the year Ronald Reagan took office. The novel reflects fears of right-wing extremism in US politics, the off-shoring of industry, and America turning into a giant theme park.
Hello America is a literary fiction novel wrapped in the guise of a science fiction genre story. The novel has a ‘gonzo journalism’ feel to it – Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971), but set in 2114.
The story world of Hello America is surreal and absurd. It’s a celebration of America: the museum of Americana, American can-do attitude, American psychosis, American decline, and American reinvention. In the novel, America has suffered an ecological collapse and most of the population has emigrated. A group returns from Europe to investigate increased radioactive levels. (The timescale doesn’t make much sense when analysed.) They discover the re-emergence of a new America in Las Vegas (which feels like a precursor to Blade Runner 2049’s desert playground with its giant cowboy statues, and robot entertainers). The city is governed by a self-declared president who calls himself Charles Manson – ‘He wants to make America great again’. The tone combines matter-of-fact journal entries with deliberate screwball goofiness. Ballard uses the opportunity to go all Philip K Dick on the reader, depicting a future Las Vegas with robot presidents, miraculous can-do technology, reactivated nuclear missiles, and the reintroduction of Coca-Cola – in a city controlled by a lunatic.