Pornography, violence and JG Ballard: High Rise, the 1970s' internet

Start complaining about the lifts, soon you're doxing your own mum and eating the dog

The film High Rise is set in the 1970s and based on JG Ballard’s 1975 book. That’s roughly two decades before Tim Berners-Lee would “create” the web.

Heck, you were lucky then to have a colour TV, never mind a phone in your house. Yet, High Rise provides a vision of what was to come: the internet community.

That is, an increasingly insular society that descends into pornography and violent indulgence while some overseeing architect struggles to manipulate and control their creation.

The titular building, an ubiquitous symbol of urbanism and population density going up across our capital city ever day, is a world unto itself.

It offers all of the stratifications that its inhabitants secretly crave, as well as immediately accessible recreational and commercial amenities that neuters the community of its desire to travel or socialise outside of its confines.

Sound familiar?

Like the internet, the High Rise provides not just convenience but also delivers the self-identification that Ballard suggests individuals' crave from their environments - something that brings its inhabitants' latent psychopathies to the surface.

As the building's architect is eventually forced to reflect, the high rise did not necessarily fail in its ambition to provide an environment to match human desires. The social descent that occurs does not happen because it lacks an essential ingredient; rather, it happened because he included too many.

Speaking at a Q&A following a recent screening, University of Cambridge Ballard afficionados Yvonne Salmon and Dr James Riley spoke about the “urban uncanniness” that this film depicts – and its relationship to the modern age.

Producer Jeremy Thomas had held the rights to Ballard’s novel for about thirty years, and been involved in various iterations of trying to get it made.

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One version, directed by Vincenzo Natali – who would go on to make Cube, another science-fiction film about enclosure and claustrophobia – would have set High Rise in an ultra-modern hotel in Dubai. Riley didn't see how this would have worked, stating: “There's something extremely 1970s about this film. Ballard is really interested in these spaces of enclosure and retreat, and if you think about updating the events into the 21st Century, it may not work.”

“There's something peculiarly analogue about Ballard's mindset,” Riley continued. Mobile phones and social media hamper the elongated timeline that is necessary for the passive aggression that drives the film's plot. “It's a film about anarchy,” suggested Salmon. “You start complaining about the lifts and the water, and that's all it takes.”

The 1970s was a period of social stagnation in the UK, when when the country saw itself as either falling apart or sliding under the heel of a new fascist boot. Ballard's novel, and the film, plays on how the utopian vision of high-rise urbanism would not deliver society from itself.

High Rise is not a reflection on packet-switched networking, but it does pay particular attention to the psychopathology of how groups act in situations where people's interactions are stripped of niceties.

Through the social inertia provided by the building, which dominates its inhabitants lives, eventually the emotional driving force behind those interactions, the psychic substance which lies underneath social relations, becomes amplified with each iteration until it is eventually strong enough to surface and dominate those interactions completely.

The activities that have come to dominate human human interaction on the the internet – people's use of social media to distinguish identities for themselves; the easy consumerism in the world of e-commerce; the violence of doxing, hacking, abusive trolling, and swatting; as well as access to more pornography than everybody could ever watch – is the focus of the film.

High Rise is a clever satire on the intentions hidden beneath individuals' interactions, and poses questions on the morality of whether those intentions are best left hidden. ®

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