In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert offers a memorably brief account of his parents’ death: “picnic, lightning.” Picnic Comma Lightning, too, opens with death—that of Laurence Scott’s mother—because, for a philosopher, death raises a profound existential question: How do we know what is real, especially when we have come to question the reality of so many of our day-to-day experiences? Writing from the intersection of philosophy, politics, and memoir, Scott transforms his personal meditation on loss into a beguiling exploration of what it means to exist in the world today.
It used to be that our lives were rooted in reasonably solid things: to people, places and memories. Now, in an age of online personas, alternative truths, constant surveillance and an increasingly hysterical news cycle, our realities are becoming flimsier and more vulnerable than ever before. Scott’s far-ranging examination charts the ways our traditional mental models of the world have started to fray. He ponders how ubiquitous cameras reframe our private lives (an event only exists once someone posts the video), how mysterious algorithms undermine our attempts at self-definition through their own data-driven portraits, and what happens in those moments when our illusions about reality are ruptured by incontrovertible facts (like the death of a parent or a bolt of lightning). “A report from the front line of the online generation” (Sunday Times), Picnic Comma Lightning is an essential account of how we’ve started to make sense of our strange new world.
Each of us exists in three-dimensional, physical space. But, as a constellation of everyday digital phenomena rewires our lives, we are increasingly coaxed from the containment of our predigital selves into a wonderful and eerie fourth dimension, a world of ceaseless communication, instant information, and global connection.
Our portals to this new world have been wedged open, and the silhouette of a figure is slowly taking shape. But what does it feel like to be four-dimensional? How do digital technologies influence the rhythms of our thoughts, the style and tilt of our consciousness? What new sensitivities and sensibilities are emerging with our exposure to the delights, sorrows, and anxieties of a networked world? And how do we live in public with these recoded private lives?
Laurence Scott—hailed as a “New Generation Thinker” by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the BBC—shows how this four-dimensional life is dramatically changing us by redefining our social lives and extending the limits of our presence in the world. Blending tech-philosophy with insights on everything from Seinfeld to the fall of Gaddafi, Scott stands with a rising generation of social critics hoping to understand our new reality. His virtuosic debut is a revelatory and original exploration of life in the digital age.