The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present
Your answer is probably “No!” or “…what?,” but if it’s not, have I got the book for you. Art curator celeb and director of international projects at the Serpentine Gallery Hans Ulrich Obrist has teamed up with Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar to make a wholly unnecessary book called The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present. It’s a diversion that can be read cover-to-cover in about thirty minutes, and reads like a series of Media Studies fortune cookies overprinted over found photographs. “Welcome to… the Post-Analog Condition,” the book says (using two whole pages do so). Interspersed between these idea-pages are definitions of new words coined by the authors, like “proceleration,” “cyphoria,” and “Detroitus” (the fear of Michigan, if you were wondering).
Despite its format, font and tone, The Age of Earthquakes is a far cry from its inspiration, The Medium is the Massage, and lacks the substance necessary to be either thought-provoking or remembered. Comparing the two side-by-side will expose how thin The Age of Earthquakes actually is. In a meta-joke that I’m sure the Earthquakes gang would try to say is exactly what they’re talking about, one can find a PDF of The Medium is the Massage in a mere handful of Google-seconds. Try it if you’d like, or heck, I’ll make it easy for you.
Readers who flip through this PDF (or even better, the actual book) after they buzz though The Age of Earthquakes will be astonished by how much there is to actually read and think about in The Medium is the Massage. Ideas are not just introduced but expounded upon: there are pages of text that build to staggering, resonant points. One page, for instance, features five whole paragraphs about our “brand-new world of allatonceness,” and the “global village” of our “simultaneous happening.” Pages later, McLuhan finds the apex of this particular thought and writes “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” This sentence appears alone over a full-bleed, two-page spread showing a striking photograph of African villagers positioned around a man who looks to be either in pain or in the middle of a story. This is one of many thoughtfully developed (but still easily digested) ideas in The Medium is the Massage, and one that shows an interesting interplay between words and image.
The Age of Earthquakes, however, misses the concept of developing its ideas. Its imagery, too, is quickly forgettable. This is a book that says a lot without meaning anything and is lacking in any thoughtful discourse. Let’s flip to a random page: “SPEED,” it reads, sideways and all-caps, in distorted font. Across the gutter, the idea is completed: “IS IRREVERSIBLY ADDICTIVE.” A quick flip of the page shows a tropical island, and asks “Have you ever bragged that you’re going on holiday and won’t be checking your emails, only to crumble within two days?” “Of course you have,” reads the following page. “This was a rhetorical question.” The next page rants some nonsense about how a “day will soon be here when a box of aquarium gravel will have more intelligence than the entire NASA programme circa 2014.”
It’s drivel. Obrist, Coupland, and Basar have sucked the marrow out of an important, fun, and thought-provoking book from the 60s and unintentionally shown us how our ADHD hyper-clicking culture has eaten away at an era when people actually thought about how they thought about things. They try to inspire: towards the end of the book they ask “How could you be any freer than you are now” and write “whatever you answered is what you should be fighting for as a human being.” Finally, a beautiful thought, but it’s cheapened by its proximity to pages, mere minutes away, that say things like “Money will soon be going to money heaven” and “Photographing your salad turns it into a ghost.” Its creators meant well, but The Age of Earthquakes is vapidity disguised as vintage thoughtfulness.