As subtitles go, the one Laurence Scott selected for his new guide, “Picnic Comma Lightning,” is definitely on the formidable facet: “The Experience of Reality in the Twenty-First Century.” Scott’s hard-to-categorize, essayistic investigation of actuality and expertise is literary, cultural and deeply private. The literary facet is mirrored in his title, which is taken from Humbert Humbert’s terse description of the reason for his mom’s loss of life in “Lolita”: “(picnic, lightning).” The private entails the deaths of Scott’s personal mother and father: his mom in 2010, when he was 30, and his father in 2012. Scott is within the methods social media and different applied sciences change our understanding of what’s public and non-public. It’s a capacious guide, shifting freely from Walter Benjamin to the TV cleaning soap “Dynasty”; from the “metaphysics” of Marie Kondo to Heidegger’s consideration of the query “What is a thing?” Below, Scott talks about Brexit, influencers, how our emotions have grow to be huge enterprise and extra.
When did you first get the concept to write down this guide?
In 2015, I’d simply written “The Four-Dimensional Human.” In that guide, I used to be making an attempt to discover the brand new pleasures, anxieties and etiquette of inhabiting the fourth dimension: the web and social media. I wished to broaden that and have a look at how applied sciences blur the boundary between our non-public and public lives in new methods.
As I write within the guide, my mother and father died in “impolite succession.” What I observed once I thought of digital life was that loss of life actually calls into query what an actual individual is. The lifeless typically really feel very current and actual to us. I wished to see if the expertise of non-public bereavement may assist illuminate bigger cultural shifts in our sense of actuality and the fact of different folks.
I didn’t wish to write a guide that provides a plan for residing fortunately within the digital age. I’ve nearly no solutions for that. I simply wished to speak how this new world feels to me, and hopefully readers would acknowledge a few of these emotions in themselves: I discover this bizarre; do you discover this bizarre?
What’s essentially the most stunning factor you realized whereas writing it?
I’ve unexpectedly coined the time period Big Emotion on this guide. I believed it should have been used some place else, however so far as I can inform, it’s simply me. I exploit it to explain the multibillion-dollar trade that makes use of the facility of huge information and machine studying to check the feelings of customers. If companies know the way we’re feeling at any second, they’ll know higher learn how to promote us issues. Stores are already utilizing facial-recognition cameras that may inform when our eyes are dilated with curiosity, perhaps after we’re about to purchase a product.
I used to be shocked to study, whereas researching that chapter, that there’s a complete trade of individuals referred to as “sentiment analysts” or “opinion miners.” They’re paid to seek out the actual that means of our social media posts. They would possibly write a program, as an example, to detect when a tweet is sarcastic or not. Sarcasm is a big downside for them.
So, understanding our emotions is absolutely huge enterprise. The irony I wished to discover is that whereas we’re at all times being requested about how we really feel — each service we use on-line is punctuated by a survey; “What was your experience on a scale of 1 to 6?” — expressing our emotions on-line is usually getting us in hassle. A superb instance of this was in London, when somebody excitedly posted on social media: “It’s snowing!” And varied folks stated, “This is going to be awful for homeless people tonight.” Our non-public ideas are sometimes tactless when stated to a big viewers.
In what manner is the guide you wrote totally different from the guide you got down to write?
It received totally different fairly rapidly. I had simply sat down to write down, and the instances all of a sudden grew to become hyper-unreal. Publishers accepted the proposal in June 2016, at precisely the identical time Brexit was unfolding and a couple of months earlier than the Trump administration, and each occasions have had a big impact on our sense of actuality. I used to be writing simply as “fake news” and “post-truth” were becoming buzzwords. In Brexit, the debate, on both sides, was about fantasy. Both Leave and Remain voters were accusing their opponents of living in a land of make-believe at every stage, dismissing the opposite view as a kind of hallucination.
The figure of the influencer also rose to prominence during this time. Influencers are amazing symbols of unreality, because their authentic feelings are often indistinguishable from those dictated by whatever corporate partnerships they have. When I proposed the book, I didn’t even mention influencers. So I had to bring in these subjects as I went, which I think gave the writing of the book a kind of urgency.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
There’s a BBC series, some of it available on YouTube, called “What Do Artists Do All Day?” Each episode features a day in the working life of various artists: Tracey Emin, the British visual artist; an etcher called Norman Ackroyd. There’s something about the rhythm of these half-hour programs that I would return to. It was this concentrated effort of focus, like there was no other life but the concern of what was on the etching plate or the canvas. There was a certain artistic intensity — something about the artist in a purified, distilled form — that helped me.
The novelist John Banville once said something like, “Isn’t it terrible to be a full-grown man and still crying about your mommy?” I love that. My mother was a creative person and amateur visual artist, and even more than that, her sensibility shaped me. When I was growing up, she made me more afraid of being a boring child than a naughty child. That was an aesthetic and moral education for me, and useful for a writer: Don’t be boring or repetitive, and always say something worth thinking about. To this day, she keeps my paragraphs in check.
Persuade someone to read “Picnic Comma Lightning” in 50 words or less.
Ours is a weird age of both endless data and limitless skepticism. Social media profits from turning private lives into public monuments. Our gadgets can now decide when we’ve watched too much television. But when these unreal times meet the unquestionable fact of death, what becomes of those we’ve lost?