Not many people have been wondering why the internet doesn’t have a nose. But some have. Among them: Amy Radcliffe, a design student at Central St. Martins in London. She is working on a machine that can harvest a smell by putting a big glass nose over it, analyze it, then reproduce it remotely. Twenty-first century Smell-o-Vision. It’s still pretty proto—the chief problem is that it’s easy enough to get the raw data on what molecules are inside a smell, much less to gather all the molecules you’d need to recreate it. And harder still to combine them all exactly enough for it not to bear the same resemblance as a deformed waxwork does to the real-life Tom Cruise.
But today’s shed pooterers are tomorrow’s megacorps. Amy's designs are a reminder that, with the basic concept already lodged somewhere along the development spectrum, big business is inevitably going to get its claws in on this one and figure it out properly.
The teleportation of smells is going to give us the first door toward a new humanity. But the humans themselves will not be teleported; they will be the same old apes with drapes. Meaning that it’ll bring out the most stupid in all of us, because as the past decade has shown, when complex life-enhancement breakthroughs occur, most of us are more interested in using them for celebrity gawking or exploring them as new mediums for dick jokes. So smells—as the most information-low but emotion-rich sense—will be the ideal fodder for the parts of modern culture that can’t be bothered to read.
By 2016, you’ll be passing time on the bus by sniffing your mobile phone, scrolling through the crowd-sourced suppositories of the latest kooky celebrity smells: "The scent of Will.I.Am eating a bowl of spaghetti,” "The smell of the top of Hilary Clinton’s head," leaked smells borrowed from the crotch of Miley Cyrus’s short shorts, and the acrid whiff taken from the scene of some iconic, fatal car crash.
There will be high-mindedness mixed in, of course; Rageh Omar tweeting out the smell of factory pollution spilling into the streets of Karachi, for example. Or the much-reblogged odor of the refrigerator where Assad’s body is being stored after his murder by an angry mob. But even intellectual big guns will need to knock out a smelly gag every now and then to keep people interested. And, as with most social media, there will be a creeping need to reveal intimacies to strangers. Sometimes this will be the scent of family pets or Christmas tree needles. Sometimes it will be the smell of Brian Williams's wife’s perfume: "Just a whiff of this reminds me why I fell in love in the first place #fridaynightwiththemrs."
Soon enough, like pimpy directors with actresses, corporations will start pressurising more and more physical intimacy from their contracted stars. Nike will swab Usain Bolt’s post-victory torso and market a viral campaign around the scent. Porn companies will be pocketing millions from the same stinks that soap companies once made billions by eradicating.
At the bottom of the pile, frat boys will be telling the stories of their sordid Friday nights via scent uploads of vomit, fingering, and shawarma. Meanwhile, the social foodies who were Instagramming their delicious dinners will have a secondary means to secrete self-satisfaction.
And the young? God, they’ll be terrifying. Teenagers will be turning smells into a complex metalanguage, firing off long bursts of them in olfactory GIFs. They’ll be the ones who know the difference between the smell of a lion being eaten by a crocodile and a croc being murdered by a lion, and what the inverse metameaning of each is. We’ll all have to come to terms, for the first time in human history, with the idea that smells can be ironic. It’ll end up as Proust’s madeleine in reverse. Certain smells will become so associated with internet culture that you’ll never be able to attach true or personal memories to them ever again. Fresh-baked bread will now be a meme signifying that you "are feeling fat," and the smell of a roaring log fire will signify that you’re "bored by what someone’s saying."
Oh, and $20 says that the smell version of Tumblr is called Prousterest or Madeleinstagram, or something along those lines.
Smell you later.
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.