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The Extreme Present: An Evening of Self-Help for Planet Earth

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Generation X author Douglas Coupland, and critic Shumon Basar examine the neurological, social and geological effects that the internet is having on our brains, our lives and our planet.

In the space of just 20 years, the internet has transformed us completely. It has changed not just the structure of our brains, but the structure of the planet. Our attention spans have narrowed to the length of a Beatles song. Our lives used to feel like stories; now they’ve collapsed to a perpetually refreshing stream of tweets and posts. We outsource our memory to the ‘Cloud’, and remember nothing we don’t have to. All that exists is immediately in the now. The internet, like all technologies, is not being shaped to resemble humans. Humans are being shaped to resemble the internet. Welcome to the age of the Extreme Present.

Shumon Basar, writer, thinker and cultural critic, Douglas Coupland, the renowned author of Generation X, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, one of the world’s best-known curators, have joined forces for a special event with Intelligence Squared to explore the challenges that the planet faces in the Extreme Present. Ours is an era so unfamiliar that in their book, The Age of Earthquakes – their 21st-century update of Marshall McLuhan’s seminal 1967 book The Medium Is the Massage – Basar, Coupland and Obrist have developed a new ‘Glossarium’ to describe the unsettling experiences of the always-on, networked age. Do you suffer from ‘monophobia’ (the fear of feeling like an individual) or from ‘connectopathy’ (a range of irregular behaviours triggered by the rewiring of our brains)? Do you spend more and more of your time ‘deselfing’ (willingly diluting your sense of self by plastering the internet with as much information as possible) or, as technology makes you ever smarter yet leaves you feeling ever more stupid, maybe you – along with everyone else on the net – have begun to feel ‘smupid’?

New times require new means of understanding. We were joined by these three commentators on the digital age as they conducted a rapid-fire event on March 5, together with a panel of eminent experts, as they examined the neurological, social, cultural and geological effects that the Extreme Present is having on our brains, our lives and our planet.



Shumon Basar

Writer, thinker, cultural critic

Writer, thinker, cultural critic. His edited books include Translated By, Cities from Zero and Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews Volume 2. He is Commissioner of the Global Art Forum in Dubai, editor-at-large of Tank magazine and contributing editor of Bidoun magazine, director of Format at the AA School, London, and an adviser to the Fondazione Prada, Milan.

Douglas Coupland

Author and regular columnist for the FT

Author of more than 13 novels, including Generation X, Microserfs and Girlfriend In a Coma. He began a visual art practice in 2000, and his first museum retrospective opened in summer 2014 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. He has written and performed for the Royal Shakespeare Company and is a regular columnist for the Financial Times.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Co-director of the Serpentine Galleries

Co-director of the Serpentine Galleries in London since 2006. He is widely considered one of the most influential contemporary curators in the world and is the author of many books, including Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects, and Ways of Curating.

Sophia Al Maria

Artist, writer and filmmaker

Artist, writer and filmmaker based in London. Studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, and aural and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work has been exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale, the New Museum in New York, Frieze, London and Cornerhouse, Manchester. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, Five Dials, Triple Canopy, and Bidoun. She is the author of the memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth, described by the New York Times as ‘an original outlook on ancient ground.’ Her first feature film, Beretta, is in progress.

Dr Mike Ellis

Geology expert

Director of Climate and Landscape Change science at the British Geological Survey. He was previously program director in Geomorphology and Land Use Dynamics at the National Science Foundation in the USA, and is a Professor of Geology at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis.

Daniel Glaser

One of the country’s most popular neuroscientists

One of the country’s most popular neuroscientists. He has presented and contributed to numerous BBC television and radio programmes, and was the first scientist to serve as a judge for the Man Booker Prize. In 2002, he was made the first Scientist in Residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Formerly the Head of Engaging Science at Wellcome Trust, he is now Director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London.

Ben Hammersley

Internet technologist, journalist and author

Internet technologist, journalist, author and broadcaster. He has been a technology reporter for The Times, and the Guardian, and deputy editor of WIRED magazine. He is credited with introducing the word ‘Podcast’ to the world in 2004.