The next five minutes: Some snapshots of J.G. Ballard’s futures

5 min readMar 25, 2016


Cover of 1975 edition of High Rise by Craig Dodd, via Best Science Fiction Books

“I just have a feeling in my bones. There’s something odd going on, and I explore it by writing a novel, by trying to find the unconscious logic that runs below the surface and looking for the hidden wiring. It’s as if there are all these strange lights, and I’m looking for the wiring and the fuse”

J.G. Ballard’s work is often described as prescient. This isn’t because he foresaw the advent of this or that gizmo, but because he foresaw the psychological landscape of a society addicted to gizmos, mass media and technological augmentation. He didn’t tell us about the shape of things to come, but he told us about their mood.

His work is catnip for people like me, interested in the future and the forces taking us there. Whenever I read one of his stories or novels, I get into the same frame of mind I do with great science fiction: What model of reality underpins this scenario? what experiment is the author running? What happened? What changed?

In this series of blogs, I’ll go through some Ballard short stories that, in my opinion, are particularly illuminating in their description of our reality today…or in the coming five minutes.

Chronopolis (1960)

Image from Biblioklept

“Why is it against the law to have a clock?”

Stacey tossed a piece of chalk from one hand to the other.

“Is it against the law?”

Conrad nodded. “There’s an old notice in the police station offering a bounty of one hundred pounds for every clock or wristwatch brought in. I saw it yesterday. The sergeant said it was still in force”.

Stacey raised his eyebrows mockingly. “You’ll make a million. Thinking of going into business?”

Conrad ignored this. “It’s against the law to have a gun because you might shoot someone. But how can you hurt someone with a clock?”

“Isn’t it obvious? You can time him, know exactly how long it takes him to do something”.


“Then you can make him do it faster”

Chronopolis takes place in a city where measuring time is forbidden. Before its rebellion against time, this city was organised like a model of perfect Taylorism. Everybody’s actions were timed, measured and controlled by a small number of “programmers”, all with the goal of keeping its industrial, transportation and environmental systems going — like a dystopian take on the Smart Cities agenda, or the day-to-day of workers in one of Amazon’s fulfilment centres.

This world, where the Time Police arrests anyone who tries to fix a clock, isn’t a humanistic utopia though, but a nightmare of inefficiency and scarcity. Time is, after all, an essential standard to manage complexity. Without it, society and economy break down. What would we give up to be free from it? Chronopolis explores this trade-off.

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista (1962)

Image taken from Existential Ennui

The real trouble was that most of Vermillion Sands is composed of early, or primitive-fantastic psychotropic, when the possibilities offered by the new bio-plastic medium rather went to architect’s heads. It was some years before a compromise was reached between the one-hundred percent responsive structive and the rigid non-responsive houses of the past. The first PT (Psycho Tropic) houses had so many senso-cells distributed over them, echoing every shift of mood and position of the occupants, that living in one was like inhabiting someone else’s brain.

Ballard’s Vermillion Sands short stories evoke the languor of a post-scarcity society where creative classes of poets, sound sculptors and breeders of singing flora (yes) come together with the jet-set in a complex — from time to time lethal — dance to escape boredom.

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista focuses on Psycho-Tropic houses that can sense the moods of their owners, and adapt to them. This is like today’s web and info-personalisation, but physically embodied. It doesn’t sound like a far-fetched scenario if the Internet of Things hype is fulfilled, and smart materials become a reality.

But there is a catch: what happens to houses that are so adapted to their previous owners that they are almost like physical effluvia of these individuals’ subconscious? What happens to houses whose sensoria have been disrupted by an awful event — a burglary, an earthquake, a murder?

Those houses are like the sites of a haunting, and the only way to exorcise them is with a good reboot.

The Watch Towers (1962)

“Do you think you should have come today?” Mrs Osmond asked, shifting her plump hips nervously in the chair.

“Why not?” Renthall said, scanning the towers, hand loosely in his pockets.

“But if they’re going to keep a closer watch on us now they’ll notice you coming here”.

“I shouldn’t believe all the rumours you hear,” Renthall told her calmly.

“What do you think it means then?”

“I’ve absolutely no idea. Their movements may be as random and meaningless as our own.” Renthall shrugged. “Perhaps they are going to keep a closer watch on us. What does it matter if all they do is stare?”

The Watch-Towers, with its city living under the silent gaze of a grid of mysterious watch-towers, brings to mind mass surveillance and the Panopticon.

This isn’t new, or that different from Orwell’s premonitions. What’s interesting is the mood of the story. Its protagonists don’t know what data is collected from them, or how it’s used, so they spend all the time second-guessing, coming up with conspiracy theories and trying to coerce each other into behaving as the watchmen in the Watch-Towers want (but no-one knows how this is).

Their uncertainty and their powerlessness make us think of poor K in Kafka’s The Castle, or ourselves very soon, when faced with the gnomic decisions of a black-box algorithm which uses what it knows about us to dictate our future, in unfathomable ways. But maybe we are doing this already, when we try to improve our credit score.

The stories above are all included in J.G. Ballard’s Complete Short Stories Volume 1. A follow-up blog will look at some of the stories in the second volume.




Head of innovation mapping (Nesta). Using data science to understand where new ideas come from & design good policies to support them