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Prediction Versus Prophecy

About the author

Sam Kriss

Sam Kriss is a British writer and dilettante. This article originally appeared in shorter form in the Trinity 2022 issue of The Lamp.

Like every other idiot out there, I failed to see the new world coming. Sometime in January, on a bright cold sunny day in New York, I distracted myself with news from distant places. Emptied streets in a Chinese city I’d never heard of. An unimaginable crisis very far away. “Are you worried about this coronavirus thing?” I asked my girlfriend. “It’s weird, I can’t really bring myself to freak out about it.” I couldn’t imagine that the world would actually change. She wasn’t too worried either. I flew back across the Atlantic at the end of the month, and we decided to meet again in London, maybe sometime in March. We decided what the future would look like. We predicted that there would be international flights, and restaurants, and pubs, and maybe something interesting on at the Tate Modern, and all the mild miseries of the twenty-first century. We were wrong.

Now, I spend my days counting the dead. Glued to the data, neurotic and mesmerized. The numbers are read out in daily press conferences from Downing Street. Sometimes there are names, but mostly it’s a sequence: three-hundred forty-six corpses yesterday, six-hundred twenty-six the day before, five-hundred thirty-nine the day before that. We’re looking for a pattern; something in the numbers that can tell us what the world will look like next week, next month, or next year. According to the government, these numbers should be falling, and sometimes they do fall. Sometimes they rise sharply again. Lines on charts coil around the projections, the mathematical curves, the inferences—and then uncouple again.

Some of my friends think this will be over soon, and it’ll be followed by joy. We’ll return to each other in the streets, without digital mediation, without fear, in a new Summer of Love. Others predict that the state of exception will become permanent. We’ll simply never get out of lockdown: the world will stop being something you physically live in, and start being something you access through your computer. Both predictions seem equally possible. None of our predictive apparatuses seem to be working. Common sense fails. Statistics are shaky. Hope is out of the question.

There’s only one thing left. There’s one power that seems to have predicted everything that happened. It saw the future where I couldn’t, because its powers were greater than mine, and not human. For those of us lost in time, this is a comforting thought. There’s a vaster plan, a higher symmetry, behind the chaos of the world. Everything we’re suffering was set down in a half-remembered past, in half-remembered texts.

I’m talking, of course, about The Simpsons.

Once, The Simpsons was an excellent cartoon for balding millennials. Over the last decade, it’s turned into something else: the yellow and ageless creatures of Springfield have become an oracle, probably the most powerful of our time. In “Bart to the Future,” an episode from 2000, a newly elected President Lisa is shown meeting with her advisors. “As you know,” she says, “We’ve inherited quite a budget crunch from President Trump.” For about a decade and a half, this was a joke. Then, very suddenly, it wasn’t.

There’s more. From 1992 to 1994, the show correctly predicted the Super Bowl winners three years running. In a sight gag from 1998, it predicted the eventual Disney-Fox merger. In 1997, it even hinted darkly at the attacks of September 11, 2001. (There’s a brief shot of a brochure advertising bus tickets to New York for nine dollars. The Twin Towers themselves, silhouetted to the right, form the eleven. Even the showrunner Al Jean, who dismisses most of the show’s oracular powers as coincidence or good guess-work, was baffled. “That one,” he told the New York Times, “is a completely bizarre, strange thing.”) And when Covid-19 started to spread, it turned out that this too had been prefigured. The season four episode “Marge in Chains” depicts an outbreak of Osaka flu in Springfield. A mob masses outside the medical center, furiously failing to observe social distancing, and demands a cure. Then there’s the following exchange:

Mob: We need a cure! We need a cure!

Dr. Hibbert: Why, the only cure is bed rest. Anything I’d give you would only be a placebo. 

Woman: Where do we get these placebos? 

Man: Maybe there’s some in this truck!

The mob knock over the truck, and a crate full of killer bees bursts open in their stupid faces. The first recorded coronavirus outbreak in America was in Washington state around the beginning of 2020. At exactly the same me, in exactly the same place, Asian “murder hornets” were discovered to have spread to the United States. It was written. It was foretold.

This strange vatic power is often commented on—if you search Google for the phrase “predicted the future,” almost every result will be about The Simpsons—but as far as I can tell, nobody’s made any serious attempt to explain it. Two broad theories suggest themselves. Hypothesis one: the show’s floating timeline has caused it to come unstuck within history. Bart Simpson is ten years old; in the show’s golden age in the Nineties, his birth was depicted in the early Eighties. Thirty years on, and Bart—like the Sibyl at Cumae—diminishes but does not die. His form and movements are cheap and plasticky now, but he’s still ten years old. He was born in 2010—several decades after he’d already become a major global pop culture icon, and then faded away. He lived before his birth. He is always within his own future. Bart Simpson floats, anguished and unborn, into the swelling catastrophe of time.

Hypothesis two: The Simpsons predicted the future because it’s not a piece of entertainment, it’s a Llull machine. It’s an analogue computer from the thirteenth century.

The Llull machine is made of three concentric paper circles, each with a series of nine letters written around the outer edge. Spin the circles, and you can quickly arrive at any possible combination of the letters. It was the invention of Ramon Llull, a Catalan mystic and philosopher, alternately a candidate for canonization or proscribed as a heretic. The letters on his discs stand for the attributes of God. B for bonitas, goodness; C for magnitudo, greatness; D for aeternas, eternity , and so on. A certain congura might give the statement that “goodness is great” or “glory is eternal.” Llull described different rules for using the machine, to yield, for instance, questions. Is goodness so great that it is eternal? Might the truth of virtue bring glory? He believed that through this machine, the form of all possible human knowledge could be laid out. In 1314, he took his contraption to Tunis, where he hoped to use it to convert the people to Christianity. Instead, an angry crowd pelted him with stones. He died the following year. The Franciscans record him as a martyr.

Llull thought that his machine could use logical rules to make accurate and useful statements about reality. He was right. What he’d invented was the computer, along with almost all its present-day features. Hardware in paper and pins; a programming language of nine characters; software systems laid out in vast illuminated tables. The machine only needed a little refinement. Four centuries after Llull, Leibniz combined his innovations with a binary system poached from the I Ching—an ancient computer-text used (of course) to predict the future. After that, it was just a question of fine-tuning the machinery.

Present day capitalism is a system of computerized forecasting. Most exchanges on the market are now made by high-frequency trading algorithms, which predict minuscule fluctuations in share prices and automatically buy and sell accordingly. Tiny fragments of the future—a second, a millisecond—nibbled away and swallowed by the present. Vast market algorithms keep production of basic commodities tied precisely to expected demand. Social media systems sift through the vast quantities of data we shed like dead skin cells. They can accurately predict when a person will become pregnant, when she’ll move home, when she might be interested in a new line of ultra indulgent pet food products, and when she’ll die. All possibilities fester in the belly of the machine. Dull fates pour from its bowels. And this monstrous synthetic god still works on the principles outlined by Ramon Llull: take all the available data, combine it in all possible permutations, and compute.

It should be said that this system isn’t entirely novel. Two and a half millennia ago, Thales of Miletus got sick of life as a penniless philosopher, and decided to make some scratch. Aristotle: “From his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus and Chios.” He had invented the futures contract. Of course, for Aristotle, this was something unusual and worth remarking on, a power peculiar to philosophy. Nobody in ancient Greece could imagine, like Miguel de Unamuno in the nineteenth century, time as a “nocturnal” river following from “its source, the eternal tomorrow.” You need a bond market, a stock index, a complex and well-established traffic in predicted profits. But even so, Thales’ system still depended on the outputs delivered by a computing machine. This one just happened to be vast, and made of stars.

The Simpsons does exactly the same thing. As one of its successors has pointed out, “Simpsons already did it.” For every possible thought, or situation, or decision, there’s a moment from the cartoon that preempted it; you could build a plausible universal language from Simpsons references. This is because the show belongs to a very particular genre, which is the American epic. It stands in the same position as Moby-Dick or Gravity’s Rainbow. As Hegel points out, what distinguishes an epic is its “totality of objects”: it brings “together the whole sphere of the earth and human life.” And it’s worth noting that epic texts have been used directly as rudimentary divinatory computers. Before a battle, Brutus used the Sortes Homericæ, in which you augur the result by reading a random passage from the Iliad. He drew the line “by the cruel crown of Fate I was undone,” and knew who would win.

But The Simpsons is an epic without horizon. There’s no whale to fight, no Imipolex G or Rocket 00000 to seek out, no Ithaca to return to. It only churns endlessly through the materials of the world. Springfield is a formless, plastic place. It has a sea front when it needs one, shipwrecks strewn and sleazy; the rest of the time it’s landlocked. Some times it’s an anonymous town; sometimes it’s a major center (“Eh, New York, Springfield, and if we have time, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles”). Homer Simpson has been an astronaut, a clown, a barbershop singer, a car designer, a snow-shoveler, and a sideshow freak. For Hegel, the epic’s disclosure of a total world must form a concrete unity with individual action from the heroes, their “self-disclosure as whole men in the greatest variety of scenes and situations.”

Homer gets partway there. Homer Simpson completes the system, by letting it run until it fully exhausted itself with world sometime around season twelve.

Imagine Llull’s machine, but with faces drawn around the edges of its wheels. Homer, and Marge, and Principal Skinner, and Mr. Burns. The true esoteric language of creation.

Plausibly, this is why The Simpsons has been so good at prefiguring future events: it contains everything, and that includes the future. But this vastness actually makes it singularly unhelpful as an oracle. Its predictions only work retroactively; after something happens, you can go back to the text and see that in fact it was there all along. What you can’t do is consult the text in all its bewildering totality to find out what’s coming next.

This is the problem with most predictive systems. They work by gathering information about the present, and then projecting trends forwards in time. The most simple of these models, the so-called naïve approach, looks like this:

ŷT + h | T = yT

Here yT stands for the state of the data at any given time T, and h denotes the forecast horizon. In other words, this formula assumes that the future will be exactly as the same as the past. If today is Monday, then it stands to reason that tomorrow will also be Monday. Despite its obvious limitations, the naïve method is often strikingly accurate.

But prediction can’t calculate rupture: the moment where every rule suddenly stops working and the world becomes a very different place. Trading software is very good at forecasting whether a stock will go up or down, but there’s no system available that can accurately predict a coming financial crash. (If we could predict them, they wouldn’t exist, and neither would the market.) Predictive systems can model the exponential curve of a viral pandemic, but they can’t see it coming before it arrives. No algorithm can know the hour or the day.

But there are two ways of knowing about future events. Walter Benjamin observed that the Jews were forbidden from consulting oracles and soothsayers. This didn’t close off the future; instead, it meant that “every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.” There’s prediction— and then there’s prophecy. Prediction looks at the data, tots up the figures, and tells you: there will be a good crop of olives next year in Miletus. Prophecy is different. It roars: Awake, ye drunkards, and weep, and howl, all ye drinkers of wine, for it is cut off from your mouth. Hath this ever been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers?

In this age of uncertainty, what we need is a prophet. And we have one.

He lived in Shepperton, a scrap of medieval motor-way purlieu on the fringes of London. He lived in a semi-detached house with flaking paint and he wrote things down. His name was Jim.

Did J.G. Ballard warn us about the coronavirus? Don’t insult me with these questions. Of course he did. A short story from 1977 depicts a world in which everyone lives in a state of permanent social distancing. Children are conceived by artificial insemination, and brought up by parents who have never met through cooing video screens. Couples make pornography of themselves for each other. “Affection and compassion demanded distance. Only at a distance could one find that true closeness to another human being which, with grace, might transform itself into love.” The world is poison: houses are fitted with gas-tight doors, and nobody goes outside. But the real danger isn’t in the air; it’s other people. Come too close to your elderly mother, and she might die. The characters even communicate through a “zoom.” The story itself is even titled “The Intensive Care Unit.” It’s all there.

For most readers, Ballard is still best known as the author of Empire of the Sun, a mostly autobiographical account of his childhood in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, which had the misfortune of being adapted into a Spielberg film. But over his career, Ballard wrote nineteen novels and countless short stories—and almost all of them are a piece of strange, crystalline, prefigurative genius. I won’t bore you with a full and exhaustive list of every single one of his fulfilled prophecies. The thing would be enormous, terrifying, but also vaguely actuarial. The best form for it might be a kind of index for an unpublished book (a form Ballard himself experimented with). Something like this:

A terrible accident occurs near the Pripyat Marshes of Belarus, forcing the Soviet government to declare an exclusion zone

The Illuminated Man (1964)

Shallow, compulsory hypersexuality in an age of vanishing desire

Love in a Colder Climate (1989)

That… you know, that whole Epstein thing

Super-Cannes (2000)

The Vietnam War stops being an actual conflict and turns into a film genre, without anything really changing in the transition

The Atrocity Exhibition (1966)

Lazy suburban fascism sprawls out from shopping centers to conquer the world

Kingdom Come (2006)

Donald Trump and his enemies collaborate to found a new and all-encompassing personality cult centered on his mental and physical decline

The Secret History of World War 3 (1988)

The rental market in London and New York right now

Billennium (1961)

British expats on the Costa del Sol furiously campaign for Brexit

The Largest Theme Park in the World (1989)

Life and love fade into a vague soup of placid entertainment and digitised violence; self-care, compulsory leisure, the gently administered spa resort at the end of time

Collected works (1962-2006), every single one of them

And so on, and so on, and so on.

But this would be entirely the wrong way to approach his work. Go back to “The Intensive Care Unit.” Its idea is prescient, but not actually unique. The same theme was worked over as early as 1909, in E.M. Forster’s story The Machine Stops. Here, humanity lives in vast underground hives: one hexagonal cell for each shapeless human organism, filled with buttons that summon food and music and everything you need, all courtesy of the titular Machine. People speak to each other via video chat; it’s all very modern. Forster quite accurately predicted the development of the telegraph into something like the internet. He saw the infrastructure. Ballard saw something else. Here’s his account of a marriage under permanent lockdown:

For our honeymoon we went to Venice. Happily we shared the panoramic views of the crowds in St Mark’s Square, and gazed at the Tintorettos in the Academy School. Our wedding night was a triumph of the director’s art. As we lay in our respective beds, I courted Margaret with a series of increasingly bold zooms, which she countered in a sweetly teasing way with her shy fades and wipes. As we undressed and exposed ourselves to each other the screens merged into a last oblivious close-up...

Ballard didn’t quite have a handle on the new communications that were coming; his model was still the TV camera, not the annihilating nexus of digital media. Wipes and fades, not custom filters. But he understood something far more fundamental: the people of the future would be curators of their own lives. Our main activity consists of generating visions of ourselves to disperse to the world, built out of objects we don’t own, places we’ve never visited, and books we haven’t read. Ballard’s characters, like the digital subjects of today, exist in the methods and techniques of their self-presentation. Neurotic patients are distinguished by their “disjointed cutting, aggressive zooms and splitscreen techniques.” Happy couples film themselves like René Clair or Max Ophuls; boisterous young children are “budding Godards.” In the end, Ballard’s narrator decides to actually meet his wife. It’s a disaster.

The figure of a small, narrow-shouldered woman stepped into the hall... Margaret’s face seemed pasty and unhealthy, and the movements of her white hands were nervous and unsettled. For years I had known Margaret as a huge close-up... Even in long-shot she was usually larger than this hunched and diminutive woman hovering at the end of the hall. It was difficult to believe I had ever been excited by her empty breasts and harrow thighs... Before I could speak, she had turned and fled. When she had gone I carefully checked the locks on my front door. Around the entrance hung a faint and not altogether pleasant odour.

Years ago, I shared a house with a professional Instagram model. A few times a week, she’d disappear into her room to put on clothes she’d never wear outside, contour her features in a way that looked nightmarish from any perspective other than the camera’s, and take selfies. She lived in Ballard’s world. The first time one of my friends told me they were in a relationship with someone they’d never actually met, I thought it was strange; now, it’s becoming a minor norm. What Ballard foresaw wasn’t the brute materials and events of the future—cars driving all by themselves, or two-way video interfaces, or whatever. (Much later, he’d complain about the kind of reader who’d snort: “Why don’t all those sleek people living in the future have PCs and pagers?") He didn’t describe new shapes the world would take, but new ways in which we’d withdraw from it. Not the infrastructure, but the experience of living in the twenty-first century.

This is no small feat. Most of the high-profile cultural products available right now (your Black Mirrors, your Jia Tolentinoes) are attempting in some way to bear witness to our times, to present a vision of what it feels like to live in our present— which is to say, what it feels like to live online. And sometimes they’re even convincing, for an audience as dazed by the technological now as the artists themselves. Marshall McLuhan thought that artists could act as early-warning systems for new media; they “correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures.” Maybe once. But you only need to look at the efforts of anyone working at “the intersection of art and technology” to see that McLuhan was wrong. Artists are more disorientated by digital communications than anyone else; more mesmerized the more they try to understand it. And even McLuhan, who has his own prophetic cult, didn’t really get it. He thought electronic media would be tactile and organic, communitarian, implosive; they’ve turned out to be relentlessly audiovisual and cruel. Only one man saw the thing in its entirety. The only person capable of describing our world circa 2020 is James Graham Ballard, circa 1977.

I’m not, of course, the first person to name Ballard as a prophet. The dust jacket on the first edition of The Atrocity Exhibition describes it as “one of the most prophetic, enigmatic and original works of fiction of the late-twentieth century.” And the man himself didn’t resist the idea. For the book’s 1989 reissue, he supplied some annotations to the original text, describing one of his brief sentences as a “prophetic leap in the dark.” The word has been denatured by over-use, but when I say Ballard was a prophet I mean it quite literally. A figure like Jeremiah or Ezekiel, only trading the wastes and the wilderness for a small town in the south of England.

A prophet does not speak; he is spoken through. God tells Moses that “Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.” The word passes from God, through Moses, through Aaron, to the world. The prophet is a medium, in every sense of the word. A relay, a channel, an extension, a regime of signs and codes. Mohammed’s prophecy starts with a command: “Recite!” Jeremiah describes the word that comes to him: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations.” He complains: “Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a child.” And a hand comes forth, to fill his mouth with speech and his eyes with visions.

Ballard’s texts work the same way. Take one of his most outstanding prognostications. In September 1962, J.F.K. stood in a football stadium in Texas and revealed his chilling plot to deposit a parcel of human flesh on the surface of the Moon. For a science fiction writer, this should have been an extraordinary gift : all those fantasies of rocket ships to Venus, where green skinned alien babes writhe half-naked among the rocks, were finally becoming real. And Ballard was a science fiction writer. But three months before the “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, he conjured something very different.

“The Cage of Sand” is set in Florida, among the resorts and launch pads of the Space Coast. It’s in ruins. Humanity's brief adventure in other worlds is over. All it’s brought back to Earth is millions of tons of Martian topsoil, dumped out into the Atlantic as ballast, to compensate for the materials fired off into space. Now, the tides wash Kennedy’s dream away:

The tireless shoulder of the Gulf Stream drummed against the soft Martian dust and piled the dunes into grotesque rococo reefs which the wind carried away into the sand-sea. Gradually the ocean was returning, reclaiming its great smooth basin, sinking out the black quartz and Martian obsidian which would never be wind-borne and drawing these down into its deeps.

This Earth, our Earth—in blind, mute, geological processes, it devours our hopes.

The other thing brought home by the space program is a dormant Martian virus. It’s harmless to humans, but deadly to plants; the whole of Florida has been turned into a desert and quarantined. Only a few, strange, obsessive people remain. They forage canned food from places called “ The Satellite Bar” or “The Orbit Room,” half-buried in alien sand. They hide out from the authorities, who comb the beaches in full hazmat suits, trying to kidnap them back to civilization. At night, they watch new stars zip through the sky: dead astronauts, mummified in their capsules, orbiting the world forever. Twenty-four years before Challenger, forty-one years before Columbia, Ballard saw the disastrous end of the space age before it had even really begun.

And then he saw it again, and again, and again. He couldn’t stop writing “The Cage of Sand.” For decades afterwards, his stories were filled with half-buried motels, dead astronauts in orbit, “the great void that lay over Florida," and images of Cape Canaveral in ruins. The gantries at the Kennedy Space Center: “These ancient towers, as old in their way as the great temple columns of Karnak, bearers of a different cosmic order, symbols of a view of the universe that had been abandoned.” The birds have reclaimed this place, “a gaudy aviary of parakeets and macaws.” Nearly three millennia previously, Zephaniah proclaimed the fate of Nineveh. “The pelican and the bittern shall lodge in her upper lintels; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be at the thresholds.”

This is not the result of some rational calculation, Ballard weighing up the evidence and deciding that all this outer space business will come to no good. He was a seer of visions. He was haunted by images. Critics tend to call these his “obsessions”— and Ballard himself was happy to adopt the term. (“All obsessions,” he told an interviewer, “are extreme metaphors waiting to be born.”) His endless reworkings of the themes from “The Cage of Sand” all also feature the image of an old man—nude, insane, and menacingly virile—buzzing around in an antique aircraft. Reaching for some kind of ecstatic union with the Sun, or trying to kidnap the hero’s wife “Slade stepped from the cockpit. He was  still naked, except for his goggles, and his white skin was covered in weals and sun-sores, as if time itself were an infective plague.” For years he dreams this terrifying figure. Clearly, he’s trying to scratch whatever itch this man represents, dig out the metaphor beneath his skin. Nothing works. It comes to him from somewhere else.

There are a whole host of these fixations. The Nazi bunkers on the Atlanic Wall, which at one point he describes as “older than the planet.” Car crashes; dead celebrities. ( The death of the former Princess of Wales was heavily plagiarized from his fictions.) Infinite space, depopulated cities, homesickness. Empty swimming pools.

That last one, in particular, lends itself to a slightly cynical account of Ballard’s prophetic abilities. Drained pools crop up in Ballard’s work with an almost comic predictability . In High Rise the pool is full of “skulls, bones, and dismembered limbs.” In Hello America the drained pools “seemed to cover the entire continent.” In Super-Cannes, he imagines an explorer, ten thousand years in the future, coming across “these empty pits . . . the altars of a bizarre religion.” Concrete troughs, carved into his prose; read blindly, without looking ahead, and you’ll fall into one. Why did this image prey so much on him throughout his entire career? Near the beginning of his 2008 memoir Miracles of Life—the last book published before his death— he lifts the veil.

Curiously, the house we moved to had a drained swimming pool in its garden. It must have been the first drained pool I had seen, and it struck me as strangely significant in a way I have never fully grasped. My parents decided not to fill the pool, and it lay in the garden like a mysterious empty presence… In the coming years I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left Shanghai for Australia and Canada, or the assumed ‘safety’ of Hong Kong and Singapore, and they all seemed as mysterious.

A childhood experience that he returned to throughout his life. How Freudian; how banal. In the end, was it all just a refracted vision of Shanghai, circa 1941? Were those empty, ruined cities an echo of the International Settlement? Were his infinitely large space stations the Lunghua detention camp? When nude men in antique planes buzzed his dreams, were they really flying Mitsubishi Zeroes? If his work accurately described our present, was it just because our present is just a traumatic repetition of the cruelties of Imperial Japan?

Obviously I’m biased here, but: no. What is an empty swimming pool? A hole in the ground. A lack that continually empties itself. An “empty presence”: something is here, but its qualities are unknown to this world. If we wanted, we could start thinking about bushes that burn without being consumed, or how generations of theologians from Eriugena onwards have been forced to think of God as a titanic, all encompassing void. An empty swimming pool is a mouth.

In a sense, though, this is still the model for all Ballard’s prophecies. The prophet has a strange tic when he starts talking about the future as such. In “Now: Zero,” which is probably a truer autobiography than any of his actual memoirs, a bitter young man discovers that everything he writes down really does happen—so long as it involves death and suffering. At this point, something unusual happens to time itself. He wonders whether he was “in some fantastic way twenty-four hours ahead of time when I described the deaths, simply a recorder of events that had already taken place.” The hero of his 1975 novel High-Rise finds himself surrounded by broken down technology; fridges and washing machines now used as garbage containers, hollowed out, turned into empty spaces:

He found it hard to remember what their original function had been… Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology … Sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.

If Ballard could see the future, it might be because there is no future; it’s already taken place. The present is not the materials for what is to come; it’s the wreckage, the ruins left behind by a catastrophe we can’t yet see. A drained swimming pool is this concept in its most immediately visible form. Seen only slightly differently, in its nullification of empty homogenous time, it is an image of eternity.

This essay was written in May 2020, before the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent global protest movement. I wrote that some of my friends were predicting that we would “return to each other in the streets, without digital mediation, without fear, in a new Summer of Love,” while others thought we’d “simply never get out of lockdown.” In a way —and maybe this was inevitable—all of them were right. We really did return to each other in the streets. But it didn’t mark the end of social distancing, which is now being re-imposed as cases soar. This might be what the future will look like: months of seclusion, occasionally broken by the nocturnal intimacy of the riot, the only way we can touch.