Laurence Scott
Generation Embarrassed

Early in 2015 writer Laurence Scott met the tragic fate of losing both his parents in quick succession. A traumatic event which left him not only in emotional tatters but also sent him on a personal journey questioning the very fabric of reality.

Over the ensuing years, Scott spent time writing a series of essays exploring the predicament we face as a society overwhelmed with reality splitting tools such as social media, data and selfies.

The result, a book titled Picnic Comma Lightning (the title, a reference to Nabokov’s Lolita), playfully and at times despondently investigates the weirdness of digital life. Our increasing obsession with ourselves, the politicized world of social media and the accelerating pace of AI, AR & VR are all causing cerebral disruptions, and Scott believes a new vocabulary is needed to describe it.

In this consciousness-raising discussion, Laurence argues that relevancy for youth is more important than the apocalypse, emotions are set to become the next big marketplace and how do we agree on what reality really is.
This is after all 2018, a time when conspiracy theories have gone mainstream, where influencers wield more power than the pope and where social media has become the defining platform for public discourse.

The Youth Want to Be Remembered

I teach students who are aged between 18 and 21 and I see the particular pressures on them, so I don’t always envy it. One of their main adjectives is ‘relevancy’. That’s almost like a virtue. It’s in their generation’s reality code of how to be a citizen. Relevance is sometimes maybe even more important than goodness. It’s funny how our value systems gets distorted by technology. The pressure to be relevant is a burden and doesn’t need to be.

I think young people who are feeling these pressures, they’re feeling it in the marketplace, the whole way their economy is set up, they’ll be excluded from it if they don’t have a certain online persona or presence. It’s become part and parcel of who a person is, and there are explicit economic pressures. To get certain jobs, you have to demonstrate that you have this online capability and immediacy and this suits the people who are building the infrastructure of social media, and apps, and platforms. That sort of fear is very expedient and useful for them, and they think that everyone must participate all the time otherwise they’re nobody. I don’t think this desire has come up organically from people fearing irrelevance; I think it’s a form of coercion quite frankly.

It’s how the system is set up for young people to get into the job market, get into internships, and at the same time their social media presence is policed and disciplined. I know people who have talked about their guidance counsellors forcing them to be friends with them on Facebook so they can monitor them for anything inappropriate.
Some businesses will clean up your social media presence before you apply for universities, so some tweet from when you were 15 doesn’t ruin your life. So I think there’s a real climate fear around it which needs to be examined.

The cast of Love Island Image: ITV


“when we agree about our hallucinations, we call it reality.”

When I said these are strange times for reality in my book what I meant by that was this whole language of what is real and not seems to be saturating public life in a way it wasn’t a few years ago.

I was interested in these critical questions we have about what a real thing or person is.  So, on the one hand, we have these cutting-edge technologies that are promising us virtual reality, and augmented reality, as though our everyday world was this stable thing that could be simulated using a headset. 

It throws reality into doubt and has strangely eroded our political discourse, for example around the Brexit referendum where I noticed in the papers, on the left and the right both sides would be accusing the other side of living in fantasy land. You know, “if you want us to leave the EU and keep freedom of movement that’s a fantasy,” and the left would counter back talking about these leaver’s fantasies of what the UK will be like as a pure nostalgic set of fantasies.

Even neuroscientists started saying, you know there isn’t a single stable reality that we assemble, that the world we live in is always a virtual one to some extent, and often that’s why there’s so much conflict because we can’t establish a stable solid sense of public reality.

My reality is not your reality

Every time I used the word reality in the book I was thinking, you can’t universalise this. And you’re quite right; no age in human history has ever had reality done and dusted.

But hopefully what people get from my book is the energy to ask, what’s happening in the early years of the 21st century that’s making us, in particular, sceptical about our reality?  One of the central tensions in the book is that fact that we live in an age of data. Our data is being collected in all sorts of ways.
We’re being monitored, we can take videos on our phones of what happened at any one time. So we should have all this certainty that we didn’t have 20 years ago and yet 
we’re living in an age of mega-scepticism. If something happened did it happen? Or is it fake news? How are we living in this age of hyper-proof and hyper-scepticism at the same time? That’s a fascinating tension of the time.

"Generations will look back on us pretty embarrassed – there are huge lameness attention-seeking qualities to us which I find embarrassing."

On todays's emerging tech culture

The story as a reality

We’re always being asked, as consumers, for our stories, as if they’re the real thing. You know, “go online and tell us your story.” Even if it’s a pizza restaurant you follow on Facebook, they want to hear your story. And the story itself, as you’ve been suggesting is a double-handed technology. A story is another word for a lie, but it’s also a term for truth, like “give me the story”, “what is the story here?” So stories act as a double edged technology, and yet they’re one of the main ingredients of how we structure reality.

I’m not sure it’s healthy for us to be encouraged all the time to think of our lives regarding narratives because our lives don’t work like stories. They don’t have character development necessarily. Most of us stay the same from 18 to 80. We have our blind spots and our moral problems, and shortcomings. We stay quite stable. There’s no climax to life. Life is almost a series of blunderings from one thing to the next, and yet we’re constantly trying to form it as a story.

An influencer is the weirdest term

I think it’s pretty ironic and bleakly funny. We’re so worried about climate change and legacy at the same time, so we have this sense of apocalyptic environmental doom matched with this drive to be remembered in 200 year’s time. So yeah this whole idea of what is left, you probably know all about these figures, the idea of the influencer, I just think that’s the weirdest term. You’re not even trying to hide the fact that you’re manipulating people. Influence wasn’t always a positive term, it was seen as a bit sinister.

Young people think if I can get those followers up, if I can amass this audience, then I can make money. It’s this strange commercialisation of our private lives. You go about your daily life, and if you have enough followers you’ll have a sponsored ad where suddenly you’re wearing Calvin Klein jeans, and you get some money for your Instagram if your audience is high enough. That seems to me, turning us all into brand ambassadors.
The urge to make a mark is now a lucrative option; it can be commodified. The drive to be important and have relevance because underlying it is an economic ownness. There was just this story this week about Tommy Hilfiger jeans, they’re launching a new range of smart clothing with Bluetooth in them, and they give you rewards every time you wear them so everyone can become a brand ambassador. This is seriously weird stuff.

"We have this sense of apocalyptic environmental doom matched with this drive to be remembered in 200 year’s time."

The complexities of living in today's society

Our emotions are big business

In the book, I coined the term Big Emotion, which is what you just described. It’s this quantifying of our feelings. There’s this whole industry coming from companies called sentiment analysis or opinion miners, whose job it is to tell what we’re feeling at any one time based on our tweets, or our Facebook updates.

So you’ll notice every time we access a service we’re constantly being surveyed. “How was your experience of our grocery delivery on a scale of one to six?” Or “What was your experience using our website like?”

It’s a late capitalist system of rewards and bonuses for interacting; there’s no space you come and talk that isn’t somehow creepily sponsored by something, or punctured by advertisements, all these weird incentives are driven with our lucrative data. Those big companies have got to be regulated. We have to have a way of organizing ourselves in digital spheres which is not commercialized. That’s the bottom line.

VR and AR

I think what will happen is necessary adjustments of values. If VR and AR are used all the time, and we have no alternative way of being then we’re really merciless to the forms of those technologies.

So I think in 50 years we’re going to have to try and create zones that are free of VR and AR. People are doing that on small, low-tech levels by saying “no phones at the dinner table”, or “no devices on Saturday”. I think this is also quite an adolescent period for our culture regarding these devices. In 50 years I think future generations will look back on us pretty embarrassed – there are lameness attention-seeking qualities to us which I find embarrassing.

Trump, politics and reality

I think what’s funny about Trump, and I write this in the book, is the idea of obscenity and the obscene. There are two routes for that; there’s a Latin root for obscene which is linked to genitals and faeces. What we would think of as gross stuff or pornography. But there’s the Greek root which etymologists are arguing over, that obscene actually means off stage, and I think Trump is an amazing amalgam of the two meanings.

He’s constantly bringing the offstage to centre stage. Even him tweeting from his bedroom at eleven at night threatening nuclear war with Iran. It’s obscene in two senses, and he’s the most obscene president not so much by the gross things that he does, but just the very form that he takes.

He’s making it pretty clear that this is a performance. When he was running for election, he was calling attention to the mechanics around the operation that multiple parties are engaged in. So we’re in this weird world where we see someone’s public self and their private self at the same time, which is a fascinating place to be.

"How are we living in this age of hyper-proof and hyper-scepticism at the same time? "

Upsetting Trump

It’s interesting because people have realised you can’t get Trump on reality versus non-reality, or even morality versus immorality. That doesn’t seem to matter. But what does get him is when you try to diminish his size. Like the size of his crowds. These memes are going around called Tiny Trumps, where Trump will be shrunken and look like a leprechaun figure around all these world leaders.

Or the blimp when he visited the UK of him as a massive baby. That seems to be a device people are using, playing with scale and I think that’s an interesting turn that political resistors have taken.

Picnic Comma Lightning: In Search of a New Reality is out now through William Heinemann