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In 1996, John Perry Barlow published 'A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace', which began: 'Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.'

Victoria Sin, Illocutionary Utterances (2018). Exhibition view: Age of You, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (28 January–14 August 2021). Photo: Daniela Baptista.

In many respects, Barlow's vision of a self-governing internet unperturbed by governments or geography has largely collapsed under the weight of surveillance capitalism. Gone are hacker manifestos, today replaced with Facebook rants and Instagram stories; the internet has impacted all levels of social and political life, becoming the omnipresent medium of the 21st century.

The Extreme Self, a new graphic novel released in June 2020 by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, attempts to track the accelerated hieroglyphs of the emoji age. It asks whether technological beliefs have brought forth new evangelisms (e.g. Silicon Valley libertarianism and transhumanism), stating matter-of-factly that the '21st century is about who belongs to what.'

In shades of grey, a hand with a pointed index finger swipes the words 'The 21st century is about who belongs to what', which gradually fade out.

Words: Shumon Basar/Douglas Coupland/Hans Ulrich Obrist. The Extreme Self: Age of You by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Design by Daly & Lyon. Published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter und Franz König.

With graphic design by Daly & Lyon, the novel contains imagery overlaid with text from the authors. Theoretical texts merge into vignettes of sculpted language and visual contributions illustrating new trajectories of futurism and its many discontents by over 70 trans-disciplinary artist-practitioners from fields as diverse as electronic music, art, technology, dance, and theory, including Hito Steyerl, Philippe Parreno, and Sophia Al-Maria.

Two lines form a cross, with the four squares that they delineate encompassing the words 'you', 'me', 'us', and 'them' in each.

Words: Shumon Basar/Douglas Coupland/Hans Ulrich Obrist. The Extreme Self: Age of You by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Design by Daly & Lyon. Published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter und Franz König.

As a whole, this unruly, rhizomatic text—an assemblage of thoughts, visuals, and fragments—is not only a handy guide to 21st-century neologisms, but also a kind of bitch slap that shows how fucked up society has become. Pierre Huyghe's Self-portrait (2019) is befitting for these digitally polyphonic times, an image outfitted with distorted machine hybrids that seems to stand in for the discombobulated self; while Yuri Pattison's statement, 'We are all conspiracy theorists now', is set on a page plastered with eye emojis.

A closed elevator is covered in white wallpaper covered in eyes, as are the walls around the elevator.

Yuri Pattison, Untitled (iOS emoji content aware fill) (2021). Exhibition view: Age of You, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (28 January–14 August 2021). Photo: Daniela Baptista.

From surveillance and machine learning through to crypto and deep fakes, artworks from the book were initially presented in an exhibition, including a wallpaper rendition of Pattison's page: first at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Toronto (5 September 2019–5 January 2020), then at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, where it remains on view through to 14 August 2021.

Both the book and exhibition act as a sequel to The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present (2015), a speculative take on Marshall McLuhan's 1967 classic The Medium is the Message. Back then, McLuhan's underlying idea was that any given technological media—be it a lightbulb, the telephone, or the internet—embeds itself in any given message, creating a reciprocal relationship that is only revealed via the technology of the medium underpinning it.

Two heads in plastic, one pink and one yellow, frame a poster in the background that reads 'The majority can no longer be trusted'

Exhibition view: Age of You, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (28 January–14 August 2021). Photo: Daniela Baptista.

The Extreme Self continues this trajectory by examining the symbiotic relationship between technology and the individual, with anecdotes and examples that track trajectories of 21st-century technological evolution from bitcoin and troll farms to bots and A.I.

Another work, Audio Deepfakes (2020) by Vocal Synthesis plays computer-generated songs such as Bob Dylan singing Britney Spears, or Barack Obama singing Notorious B.I.G.'s 'Juicy'. The core of the book and exhibition tracks the effects of the internet on human interaction, but also the ways in which technology has become a method of control. An image of Jarvis Cocker's Hong Kong Mirror (2018) is bespoke with text from the authors that reads: 'Anyone over 40 knows what classic individuality felt like. Now it's almost a handicap.'

A series of posters hangs in a line in the space, including one that reads 'I take great pride in my vast humility'.

Exhibition view: Age of You, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (28 January–14 August 2021). Photo: Daniela Baptista.

Across both the exhibition and book there are multiple levels of authorship, with the exhibition effectively staging a curated feed of memes in three-dimensional space. The effect is that of an online comment section, which offers hot takes on everything from Covid to democracy. The more extreme, the better. 'We're not interested in other people so much as we're obsessed with ourselves', reads one of the captions over an image of the performance artist and model Eliza Douglas.

A series of posters hang in the space.

Exhibition view: Age of You, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (28 January–14 August 2021). Photo: Daniela Baptista.

The works on display question how we interact and see data. From the metadata of a photograph as an incomprehensible string of letters and numbers, to Trevor Paglen's video Behold These Glorious Times! (2017)—an ongoing research project that focuses on artificial intelligence and machine vision that pairs thousands of faces into a montage of fragmented images, exhibited in both the book and in the show as a video installation.

A darkened room shoes a video installation, from which the image of a woman's face is rendered in black and white.

Trevor Paglen, Behold These Glorious Times! (2017). Exhibition view: Age of You, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (28 January–14 August 2021). Photo: Daniela Baptista.

Whether deconstructing the omnipresence of surveillance or virtual inertia, The Extreme Self appears hell-bent on asking some interesting questions, like to what extent have we become interpolated into new data megapolises, and how has the psychology of the self in the digital age changed from Gen X to the present—an ongoing subject in Douglas Coupland's other notable titles, like Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991) and Jpod (2006).

The Extreme Self bares the soul of our extreme present. It is a marker of emotional intensities that reveal the discombobulated stasis of our neurally networked selves.

In the exhibition, viewers walk through rooms encountering large-scale print-outs from the book hanging in the space—a kind of doomscrolling likened to an infinite feedback loop with no beginning or end.

A series of posters hangs in the space, including one that reads 'You are righteous...'

Exhibition view: Age of You, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (28 January–14 August 2021). Photo: Daniela Baptista.

The authors are, at their best, describing the linguistic nuance of our present techno-neologisms, but at times this can leave the reader wanting something deeper. For example, they gloss over political binaries as seemingly insignificant. 'It's actually astonishing how much the Left and the Right have in common,' one passage reads. Or another in which they conflate 'micro-othering' with 'microfascism', essentially arguing that they are two sides of the same proverbial coin. Perhaps, however, that's precisely the point: to assemble nuance rather than finite theories or grand narratives.

Like the internet meme Doomer, who lives in a state of perpetual anxiety and indifference, The Extreme Self provides no reprieve from this current malaise.

A poster split in two reads, on the one side, 'Dysmorphia of the soul', while the other shoes a heavily made up female figure, with two phrases written in white against a black background above and below: 'The opposite of fame is no longer anonymity', and  'The opposite of nobody is no longer somebody'.

Fatima Al Qadiri, Shaneera (2016). Words: Shumon Basar/Douglas Coupland/Hans Ulrich Obrist. The Extreme Self: Age of You by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Design by Daly & Lyon. Published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter und Franz König.

The authors describe contemporary life as laden with a 'dysmorphia of the soul', simultaneously unveiling the fragments of identity rupture and life amongst the unindividuated masses. But they also decipher the emergence of a 'second life' bound by identity and self-styled mythologies.

The Extreme Self bares the soul of our extreme present. It is a marker of emotional intensities that reveal the discombobulated stasis of our neurally networked selves.

A darkened room shows a computer on a bed, the screen lighting up the space, and to the right a phrase reads: 'The opposite of empathy is no longer indifference. Now, it's shaming someone else.'

Image: Yuri Pattison, IMG_2019 (2019). Words: Shumon Basar/Douglas Coupland/Hans Ulrich Obrist. The Extreme Self: Age of You by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Design by Daly & Lyon. Published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter und Franz König.

However, if 'the age of you is the new age of extremes', as the authors state in their introduction, then perhaps it is worth asking what brought us here in the first place. Could it be bots harvesting likes for Siberian troll syndicates? Or engineers toiling away at natural language programming and sentiment analysis? We have entered an age ruled not by political dynasties, but by algorithmic ones, the authors/curators continuously point out.

If the Gutenberg Galaxy prefaced the emergence of the typographic man, as McLuhan argued years ago, then perhaps our digital delirium has extended toward the machine age, harvesting likes and attempting to engineer our emotions in order to develop slightly less conspicuous methods of control.

A photograph of a breaking iceberg reads 'The Apocalypse arrived one day. It was not what we expected.'

Koo Jeong-A, DEEP & SIMPLE (2019). Words: Shumon Basar/Douglas Coupland/Hans Ulrich Obrist. The Extreme Self: Age of You by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Design by Daly & Lyon. Published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter und Franz König.

Somewhere on the ruins of this neon new world order, beneath silhouettes of A.I.-controlled drones swarming with pure kinetic energy, The Extreme Self insinuates that we have entered a rapturous new present: on the brinks of a neo-Futurist revival, the new Marinetti might be a reply guy to Grimes's AI communism TikTok rant. Whatever the present or future has in store, new extremities are likely on the horizon. —[O]

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