It's the future, Jim, but not as we know it...

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sleepwalking Through the Extraordinary

Today’s blog post is based on the introduction of my academic paper “Deep Futures: Beyond Money and Machines”,which you cam find on my web site, MindFutures, if interested. Today's post will tell you a little bit about what I am passionate about as a futurist.

It was Washington DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. A man peeled a violin from his case, placed his hat before him, and proceeded to play six Bach pieces. During his sixty minutes in that place, some 3,000 people passed by, most on their way to work.

Three minutes after the man began playing, a middle-aged gentleman stopped to look for a few seconds, before hurrying on. About four minutes after that, a woman threw a dollar into the hat and continued past. A couple of minutes later, a young man leaned against the wall nearby and listened for a few moments. Then he checked his watch and left. Next, a boy of about three years stopped, but his mother pulled him away. As she dragged him off, he kept turning back to look at the man with the violin.

Similar scenes unfolded as several other children took an interest in the musician, but in every case the parents dragged them on. In total, only six people stopped to listen, most for just a few moments. About twenty gave money, then hurried off. The man collected a total of $32. He finished playing and humbly left. There was no applause, nor any indication his playing had been appreciated.

Yet this had been no ordinary street performance.
The violinist was Joshua Bell, a world-renowned player, and he had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written. His violin was worth 3.5-million dollars. Just two days prior to his inauspicious subway performance, Joshua Bell had played to a packed house in Boston, where the cost of a seat averaged one hundred dollars.

The subway performance had been organised by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and people’s priorities. In commonplace situations, where time has been reassigned to focus attention upon other things, how readily can we perceive the present? Beauty? Do we stop to appreciate the subtle? Are we capable of recognising human passion, human expression in a novel context? Have the cognitive spaces of our lives been colonised by an unconscious and invisible

One person who did stop a moment to observe Bell was a woman named Jackie Hessain. Her perception tells us much about the nature of the modern world. When later asked what she had noted, she replied: “…nothing about him struck me as much of anything.” (Weingarten 2007)

In fact she was not listening to the music at all. Instead, her perception was mediated by the social context of the situation and layers of subtle, unexamined meaning.

“I really didn’t hear that much,” she said. “I was just trying to figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was analysing it financially.”

She was then asked what she does for a living.

“I’m a lawyer in labor relations with the United States Postal Service. I just negotiated a national contract.”

Hessain’s delimited perception emerges from the key way of knowing she employs within the situation: analysis, or “figuring out.” Analysis is one of the dominant ways of knowing of modern education, and especially modern academia. When we analyse, we go into the head, and we lose connection with the thing we are thinking about. As William Wordsworth put it, we "murder to dissect". Analysis is one of the key cognitive processes within the modern western way of thinking, or what I call "critical rationality". Critical rationality has assumed a hegemony over and above other ways of knowing the world.

An important related factor to note is that the mind is a self-organising system. What we focus upon expands. Hessain’s attention within the context of Joshua Bell’s subway performance, and possibly across the broader context of her life, is upon financial concerns and “getting ahead.” Similarly, where the study of futures focuses upon money, technology, and power, the futures that are discussed and imagined may be artificially narrow. I refer to these futures as “money and machine” futures.

The discipline of Critical Futures Studies (CFS) was initiated to address some of these cultural delimitations. In theory it allows for other ways of knowing to be used by futurists, yet in practice CFS remains heavily analytical. This is because it is mostly used by academics and stakeholders in educational or business settings.

My concept of Deep Futures (DF) may be one way to help futurists and those thinking about the future get out of "the head", by permitting other ways of knowing, especially the intuitive, the creative, and the spiritual. Besides the longer academic article about Deep Futures which I referred to above, on March 18 I made a shorter post on this blog, which outlines the main ideas of DF.

So, when pushed to classify myself, I talk of myself as a Deep Futurist.

There is something far more critical here than the contestations of an academic discipline. Being present is the key to awakening from the dream of the mind, and it is billions of alienated minds that have ensnared humanity in endless illusory battles for control and power. The failure to be present is what locks tight the shackles of ego which have tied humanity to a relatively low level of consciousness evolution. It also stops us from just having a good time in the present. What is a future worth if we can't be happy with it?

 (Hong Kong) Money and machine futures are like the bright lights of the city. They entice you with glittering promises, alluring but forever distant, perceptible but intangible. They can never fulfill the deeper needs of the soul. 

Money and Machines Futures still populate the academic landscape. Yet it is my hope that people will begin to think more critically, and more deeply about the kinds of futures that are really meaningful, and genuinely fulfilling. To paraphrase the wisdom of a bygone era, what is the profit if we gain the world, but lose touch with our souls.

Note: You can see Joshua Bell's performance on Youtube:


  1. Thanks, Nancy. Good to see you back.

  2. Yes great post, a couple of weeks ago, there was an old man near the DB ferry (at the end of the overpass) playing the violin, he was amazing, I was listening to him the whole way to the end of the overpass and gave him a $100, his face lit up like a light, it was a beautiful moment!

  3. So you are from "DB", Carly! I'm afraid our American and overseas friends won't know what that means! (it's "Discovery Bay", by the way, where both Carly and I live in Hong Kong).

    I'll keep a look out for that guy with the violin!

  4. Hi Marcus, yes I am from DB! From Australia. I found your website on the DB forum and I have sent you a private message on there too. I am very happy I have found your website too!