one who predicts future events or developments
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Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in all of human history.
By 2030 the average person in the U.S. will have 4.5 packages a week delivered with flying drones. They will travel 40% of the time in a driverless car, use a 3D printer to print hyper-individualized meals, and will spend most of their leisure time on an activity that hasnt been invented yet.
The world will have seen over 2 billion jobs disappear, with most coming back in different forms in different industries, with over 50% structured as freelance projects rather than full-time jobs.
Over 50% of todays Fortune 500 companies will have disappeared, over 50% of traditional colleges will have collapsed, and India will have overtaken China as the most populous country in the world.
Most people will have stopped taking pills in favor of a new device that causes the body to manufacture its own cures.
Space colonies, personal privacy, and flying cars will all be hot topics of discussion, but not a reality yet.
Most of todays top causes, including climate change, gay liberation, and abortion, will all be relegated to little more than footnotes in Wikipedia, and Wikipedia itself will have lost the encyclopedia wars to an upstart company all because Jimmy Wales was taken hostage and beheaded by warring factions in the Middle East over a controversial entry belittling micro religions.
Our ability to predict the future is an inexact science. The most accurate predictions generally come from well-informed industry insiders about very near term events.
Much like predicting the weather, the farther we move into the future, the less accurate our predictions become.
So why do we make them?
In the segments below, Ill make a series of 33 provocative predictions about 2030, and how different life will be just 17 years in the future.
I will also explain why predictions are important, even when they are wrong.
Why Understanding the Future is Important
Ignorance is a valuable part of the future. If we knew the future we would have little reason to vote in an election, host a surprise party, or start something new.
Once a future is known, we quickly lose interest in trying to influence it. For this reason, our greatest motivations in life come from NOT knowing the future.
So why, as a futurist, do I spend so much time thinking about the future?
Very simply, since no one has a totally clear vision of what lies ahead, we are all left with degrees of accuracy. Anyone with a higher degree of accuracy, even by only a few percentage points, can achieve a significant competitive advantage.
The Power of Prediction
If I make the prediction that By 2030 over 90% of all crimes will be solved through video and other forms of surveillance, a forecast like that causes several things to happen.
First, you have to decide if you agree that a certain percent of crimes will be solved that way. If so, it forces you to think about how fast the surveillance industry is growing, how invasive this might be, and whether privacy concerns might start to shift current trends in the other direction.
More importantly, it forces you to consider the bigger picture, and whether this is a desirable future. If it reaches 90%, how many police, judges, and lawyers will be out of a job as a result of this? Will this create a fairer justice system, a safer society, or a far scarier place to live?
Please keep this in mind as we step through the following predictions.
33 Dramatic Predictions
Reading through the prediction above you will likely have experiences a number of thoughts ranging from agreement, to amusement, to confusion, to total disagreement.
As with most predictions, some will be correct and others not. But the true value in this list will come from giving serious consideration to each of them and deriving your own conclusions.
If you were expecting me to aggressively defend all these predictions, then this column will certainly disappoint you. It has been a lifetime journey for me to formulate my thoughts about the future, but there are far too many variables to build a defensible case for any of them.
That said, I would love to hear your thoughts. Whats missing, too aggressive, or simply misguided? Sometimes my crystal ball is far too fuzzy, so Id love to hear what ideas come to mind.
ByFuturist Thomas Frey
Author ofCommunicating with the Future the book that changes everything
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Physicists are pretty great at smashing particles such as protons and lead ions together at mind-boggling speeds in particle colliders like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but particles are only half the story when it comes to understanding the tiniest interactions that govern the fundamental workings of the Universe. There are also interactions between particles 
Hyperloop Technology A Video featuring the first full-scale demonstration of Hyperloop Technology
Technological Inventions Inc the First drone with virtual reality goggles as well as a mug that regulates the temperature of its contents. Also the only smart key you will ever need and a smart indoor ecosystem that allows you to grow anything with ease. Simplify the way you store and organize your photos by time, 
Here is an amazing new Motorcycle that can turn into aJet Ski in under 5 seconds at the touch of a Button
For the first time, researchers have created a type of stretchy, polymer film that theyre claiming acts like a second skin barrier layer. Thats a big deal, because it means it could one day be used to protect us from sunburn and treat conditions like eczema, but what people are getting really excited about is 
Scientific discovery doesnt get anywhere without collaboration. Even Einstein knew that one genius locked in a room cant solve all the mysteries of the Universe. So when NASA does a patent dump, and allows scientists and engineers from all over the world to get a look at its incredible research, its an awesome thing. This 
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The Meditation Wall is a form of stress management that will allow our minds to experience an Oasis of Peace and Love within our heart and mind. The Meditation Wall gives back control, so that no matter what is happening externally, whether it is positive or negative, you can still develop control over your thoughts and thus control the emotions and feelings in your mind.
No one can control or eradicate adversity in lives, but you can master the way you respond in regards to your thinking processes. With Positive Energy and a collaborated group effort of like minded individuals, we are focusing on Healing, Positive Energy for everyone who participates in this Meditation Wall.
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futurist (plural futurists)
adherent to the principles of futurism
futurist (comparative more futurist, superlative most futurist)
futristm (Cyrillic spelling )
declension of futurist
What does the future hold? Without a magic ball, no one truly knows. And yet, businesses the world over count on a certain degree of premonition when they plan out a product unveiling two years into the future, or schedule changes in hardware or infrastructure within the next decade. A Futurist is the professional combination of Mathematician, Scientist, and Fortune Teller who offers predictions of what the future holds.
As a Futurist, you might have a background in just about anything. Whether youve been a Lawyer, a Landscaper, or a Librarian, youve acquired the skills of reading between the lines, understanding what people want, and forecasting behaviors.
You earn the title of Futurist when you tap into that understanding and begin to draw conclusions about how customers will act five or more years into the future. Will they go back to brick-and-mortar shopping or rely even more heavily on the Internet?
While your skills benefit pharmaceutical companies planning to promote a new line of medications and toy manufacturers seeking the new generation of electronics, you also promote a better understanding of important societal issues. For example, you might forecast gas consumption, or crunch the most reliable data to calculate up-and-coming economic powerhouses, key players in the political world, or world-altering weather changes.
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As a thinker about the future, corporations and institutions around the world have retained him, due to his high level insights and forecasts about the future. As a speaker he has delivered more than 400 speeches on all six inhabited continents and in twelve countries. He has called this new age The Shift Age. Welcome to the future!
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A Sample of Jim’s Recent & Upcoming Engagements PGA – Professional Golf Association
94th Annual General Meeting Boston, Massachusetts
Leadership Meeting Athens, Greecet
Innovation Thought Leadership Event Greenbelt, Maryland
CSC Executive Exchange St Andrews, Scotland
Leadership Meeting Pasadena, California
“Putting Capital To Work” Event New York, NY
Annual Executive Conference Austin, Texas
HIPO Leadership Meeting San Francisco, California
Global IT Meeting San Francisco, California
World Energy/Utilities Conference San Francisco, California
Leadership Innovation Symposium Albequerque, New Mexico
ERA Connect Annual Conference Austin, Texas
Client Investment Symposium Baltimore, Maryland
Global Conference New Orleans, Louisiana
Global Payments Conference Phoenix, Arizona
100th Annual Conference and Exhibition Gaylord, Texas
Robotic Automation Conference Davenport, Iowa
5th Annual Program / Project Leadership Kickoff Galveston, Texas
Executive HR Leadership Conference Washington, DC
Worldwide Operators Congress Toronto, Ontario
CITE Higher Education Leaders Conference Denver, Colorado
Multi-Unit Franchise Conference Las Vegas, Nevada
Annual CEO Summit Ojai, California
“An outstanding presentation for an industry and association that falls on its traditions so often. We learned that our tradition should not be something that holds us back, but rather the launching pad for innovation for the future. Thanks Jim for your thought provoking presentation!”
– 94th PGA of America Annual General Meeting
“On behalf of the entire Innovative Technology Partnerships Office, thank you for your engaging and thought-provoking presentation at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. From the feedback we have received, the event was a great success. Thank you for sharing your insight and expertise with us!”
– NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
“We were extremely pleased with Jims presentation… the content was bang-on and would hopefully prompt people to think about the rapidity of change going on in our world!. Jims storytelling approach really helps to get his points across! He did a great job!”
– Walt Disney Company
“We thought Jim was amazing – just the positive message we wanted to leave folks with.
– T. Rowe Price
People were really excited and energetic. I got comments about your presentation and the day as a whole like home run and perfect. Your presentation was policy in a thought provoking way – and with the focus on the future and technology, the Denver Chamber of Commerce will surely see this as a great jumping off point to their broader transportation conversation.
– Colorado Transportation Summit
“Jim Carroll recently presented at Lockheed Martins Executive HR Leadership conference. His content was very provocative, fascinating, and relevant. Ive embedded a couple of his nuggets into my operating model
– Lockheed Martin
“Many thanks for your presentation, 7 Things You Need to Do Right Now: Aligning the Fast Future to Your Current Strategy It couldn’t have been more energy filled and dynamic to start the conference out on the right foot. It was exactly what the audience wanted and needed to hear. The feedback from all attendees was excellent.”
– VIBE Conference, Las Vegas
“Bringing Jim into our MLC Sales Conference in Sydney through a fibre optic line was truly incredible. The key note session Jim delivered was on the money, he exceeded my expectations.”
– MLC National Australia Bank
“Jim is one of the best speakers we had. He had excellent information that our attendees could take home and incorporate it into their plans immediately. He also incorporated our messages into his presentation that helped localize the information for our group. Highly recommended!”
– Illinois Bureau of Tourism.
“After seeing Jim speak at another conference, I was so motivated by his presentation, I invited Jim to speak at a conference for my organization. Another home run! Powerful, articulate, thought provoking and energetic! Jim’s delivery on the importance of staying abreast of rapidly changing trends truly can assist in changing the way we do business!”
– US Navy, Air Force, Marine Child Youth Program Conference
“… your talk hit just the right note…..I did have several people ask me if they could get a copy of your presentation as well as many who noted that the programming was fantastic and gave them a lot to think about.”
-Consumer Electronics Association CEO Summit
“Thank you for an outstanding opening keynote for the 10th Anniversary Opportunities Conference: you received a 100% approval rating which has only been achieved 2 other times in our 10 year history!”
-Opportunities Conference Organizer
We were extremely pleased with Jims presentation.. the content was great and would hopefully prompt people to think about the rapidity of change going on in our world! You were superb! As we make changes your message could not have come at a better time. This group likes tradition but unfortunately that often gets in the way of moving forward. Thank you again for reminding us that our greater responsibility is to the future!”
– US National Recreation and Parks Association
I have been working with Jim for the past four years, and, without question, he is one of the most dynamic speakers and professional partners Ive ever come across. Our audiences (internal and external) love him, and he works wonderfully with our customers. .Im willing to bet your first experience will lead to many, many more, as it has with SAP. I wish you the best with him.book him before someone else does!
Healthcare in 2021? What will we be doing in 10 years time? Well, according to Jim Carroll, keynote speaker for the opening session, definitely not what we’re doing today! He presented an invigorating view of what our healthcare systems could be looking like and it’s up to us to decide how we get there. We’ll be accepting his challenge to take three scary ideas away and think about how we can make them work, rather than the reasons why they won’t. The poll4 system was fun and it was definitely the first time we’d been asked to turn our phones on during a presentation!
– International Society of Medical Publication Professionals
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1. Of or relating to the future.
a. Of, characterized by, or expressing a vision of the future: futuristic decor.
b. Being ahead of the times; innovative or revolutionary: futuristic computer software.
3. Of or relating to futurism.
1. (Art Terms) denoting or relating to design, technology, etc, that is thought likely to be current or fashionable at some future time; ultramodern
2. (Art Movements) of or relating to futurism
1. of or pertaining to the future.
2. ahead of the times; advanced.
3. (sometimes cap.) of or pertaining to futurism.
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Barber & Associates acts only as an entertainment broker/producer for corporate functions, private engagements and special events and does not claim or represent itself as the exclusive booking agent, booking agency or management of any artist or speaker on this website.
Barberandassociates.com is for talent buyers interested in contracting artists or speakers for corporate, association & private functions, domestically and worldwide. This is not a fan site.
Click Here For Additional Information
Barber & Associates will not respond to following:
We are unable to arrange for autographs. DO NOT SEND ITEMS TO BE AUTOGRAPHED! It will not be returned (no matter the value of the item). We will not be responsible for lost items.
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The Association of Professional Futurists is a global community of professional futurists committed to leadership and excellence in the futures field. Our members provide unique perspectives to help people anticipate and influence the future.
The APF aims to set the standard of excellence for foresight professionals. Members include futurists from businesses, governments and non-profits, consulting futurists, educators, and students in futures studies.
We meet regularly, host active electronic discussions among practitioners, provide professional development programs, recognize excellence in futures works, and offer a rich body of ideas and information about the future for the public.
For members: please see further instructions about the new website on the Community page (navigation at left, sign-in required).
Excellence in Leadership Awards 2015
The APF recognizes Maree Conway and Ken Harris with Excellence in Leadership awards for their extraordinary service. Certificates were presented at the Annual Reception and Awards Presentation in San Francisco on 25 July 2015.
Maree Conway, Thinking Futures, took APFs membership data from an unruly mess of several lists and incomplete information to a full-fledged database that links profiles and engagement to financial and membership for each member. This fully integrated system enables members to maintain and access their own data. Furthermore, Maree nurtured the program through the first five years, communicating with members and managing their questions and concerns. Marees work put the APF on firm footing as a proficiently-run organization.
Ken Harris, The Consilience Group and Tech Cast, founded the Most Significant Futures Works awards program in 2007 which recognizes excellent publications in professional futures works. Initially a virtual book club, under Kens leadership, MSFW grew to an annual program with awards in three categories: methods, content, and images of the future. Ken managed heated differences with smooth leadership, practicality and evidence. This award was presented posthumously to Kens widow. Ken is deeply missed in the APF community.
The Board of the APF would like to thank the leaders, including committee and task force chairs and members for their important contributions in developing a more relevant, robust Association of Professional Futurists.
If you have questions,
2015 Student Recognition Program (SRP) Awards
The theme of the APF 2015 AnnualGatheringwas the future oflearning. The event featured outstanding speakers, workshops, installations, andplay. Participants explored majorforces aligned to disrupt the world offormal and informal learning over the coming decade.
For those who attended: thanks for coming and joining us as we deconstructed and remixed these myriad challenges and opportunities and did what we do best: generate not just future scenarios but ground-breaking concepts that could change the world.
For APF pro futurists who could not attend: all of the sessions were video taped and will be made available soon. Be watching for links and access instructions via the listserv and email notification.
Here’s the Atlanta Gathering Learning Remix webpage.
Contact Joe Tankersley (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions.
image: Atlanta GA Chuck Koehler flickrcc
2015 San Francisco July 24-26
Professional Development Seminar–SOLD OUT!THE FUTURE OF WORK
APF’s professional futurists explored what the changing future of work means to us, in an interactive experience with knowledgeable members of our community and outside speakers.
When: Friday July 24th, 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (in time to return to WFS Conference Hotel for 4:30 pm key note speaker.)
Breakfast: 8:00 a.m., Workshop Cafe, 180 Montgomery Street (on way to General Assembly.)
Working sessions: General Assembly’s library, 225 Bush Street, 5th floor
Happy Hour: Thursday July 23rd, 5:30 – 7:30, Klyde’s Wine Bar, 386 Geary
APF Town Hall, Saturday lunch – Members Only
When: Saturday, July 25, 2015, 12:30 to 1:50 pm
Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum
When: Saturday, July 25, 2015 approximately 6-8pm
Send questions to Verne Wheelwright or Cindy Frewen.
Other APF Events in San Francisco
We had a limited number of copies of a special edition of Compass created for the WFS conference at the Professional Development Day. Saturday evening at the Annual Reception, and at the WFS bookstore.
APF Members Presenting at WFS San Francisco: A Guide
Each year the Association of Professional Futurists puts together a list of its members who will be speaking at the World Future Societys annual conference. APF members have provided some of the best presentations at WFS each year, and this year looks to be no different!
Here’s the Guide (pdf).
APF members presenting at WFS
This year featured 38 presenters from the APF in wide variety of sessions.
Rosa Alegria Joel Barker
Clem Bezold Alisha Bhagat
Jim Burke Stuart Candy
Maree Conway Adam Cowart
Cornelia Daheim Cindy Frewen
Thomas Frey Joyce Gioia
Fabienne Goux-Baudiment Linda Groff
Bob Harrison Glen Hiemstra
Andy Hines Katie King
James Lee Zhan Li
Richard Lum Mathew Manos
Wendy McGuinness Sam Miller
Katherine Prince Richard Yonck
Herb Rubenstei Omar Sahi
Yvette Montero Salvatico Wendy Schultz
Gray Scott Frank Spencer
Jeff Suderman Jason Swanson
John Sweeney Aubrey Yee
Terry Collins Alisha Baghat
APF Virtual Gathering – June 2015
This V-Gathering was inspired by a conversation on the APF Listserv on the Apple Car and other driverless vehicles. A half hour of ideas by professional futurists was followed by a hosted exchange with attendees.
When:June 02, 2015 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM EDT/US (13.00 New York)
Speakers:Paul Graham Raven, John Jackson, Cindy Frewen
The well attended event explored global futures of transportation, focused on self-driving cars and why Apple and Silicon Valley is interested in automobiles. Paul brought a policy perspective, Cindy discussed design and user experience, and John talked about Apple’s role and the potential of luxury vehicles. The idea of cars as a third place and other alternative forms of transportation turn out to be very freeing for people. A number of links and statistics were shared by attendees. The lively discussion surely could have extended for another hour. Thanks to all who came and offered their expert knowledge. Thanks to Jim for organizing so well despite his flooded home from Houston storms.
Send questions to V-Gatherings Chair/HostJim Breaux.
2015 LONDON GATHERINGS
Last Friday London Gatheringsoccur in the Spring and Fall with three or so events during each series, six total per year.
For questions, contactAndrew Curry.
The second APF event on the 24th April (13:30 for a 14:00 start) was a collaboration between the Club of Amsterdam and the Association of Professional Futurists.This session focused on the human aspect of the future of cities. The soft architecture of cities.People in cities seem to have more in common with each other than with people living in their own country outside of the city. Are we watching a deep global change in values and understanding, led by the boom in city living?
For questions, contactNick Price.
Last Friday London Gathering:
Arctic Futures and the Postnormal Perspective
When: 30 May 2014 430 pm to 700 pm
Where: The Futures Company
Guy Yeomans, UK based futures consultant specialising in the Arctic, opened up the topical part of the session. Guy took on the hard job of translating a complex picture into a pragmatic primer for the subsequent postnormal futures session. He made good use of visualisations and graphics to avoid getting stuck in detail. This content seemed to be engaging for both members and non-members.
John Sweeney, from the University of Hawaii, then lead a two part presentation. First introducing the concept of postnormal futures and the three tomorrows method which went down well particularly with the APF members. Including hard futures content is good for that audience section. John then went into bridging the postnormal framework into the Arctic futures ground Guy had set up.
The third section was group work in three groups. Guy and John had some Arctic Futures scenario seeds for the groups to build out. Each group created a postcard visualisation of their possible future. This new format for APF events creates an intimate, high level learning dialogue for members and visiting futurists.
2014 Gathering: Convergence in San Francisco March 31 – April 2
A fantastic time, among the best APF gatherings, which is saying a great deal. Thanks to Art Kleiner, Chris Ertel, Nancy Murphy, and Jason Tester (IFTF) for their excellent presentations.
If you have questions, please contactAndy Hines,MSFW Chair.
2013 Most Significant Futures Works Awards
Emerging Fellows 2013-14 Speak Out#4futr
Check out the weekly blog posts by the 2013-14 Emerging Fellows. You will find exciting, thoughtful ideas about futures by new futurists who are still discovering her or his way into the field. They ponder deep ideas about their own futures, chase contagious futures, and question the direction of the field as well as other futures.
Simeon Spearman writes about “Big Data”:
“My initial answer to the challenge of dogmatically data-driven deciders is to reiterate that at the end of the day, our value as futurists is to provide the second derivative perspective, or rather providing insights on how the rates of change are changing.”
2013 Pro Dev Seminar Friday July 19#apfpd13
Here’s the agenda (pdf).
At the APF annual reception Saturday eve July 20, 2013, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, over fifty people convened at the Firehouse in Chicago. The new Emerging Fellows and winners of the Student Recognition Project and the Most Important Futures Works winners were announced. Terry Grim, Foresight Alliance/University of Houston received a first place award for Category 1: “Advance the methodology and practice of foresight and futures studies” for her article in JFS on the Foresight Maturity Model. Heather Schlegel and Jim Breaux were recognized for their exemplary student work. Emerging Fellow Bridgette Engeler-Newberry received her certificate. Congratulations to all!
Town Hall Exchange
APF leaders held a round table discussion on the Future of Foresight Project and the APF’s next Strategic Plan 2014 – 2016.The Future of Foresight essays are posted in the community section (members only, sign in required). and the current Strategic Plan (2011- 2013) being implemented is here.
At the 2013 APF Gathering, an historic number of people experienced one of the best gatherings filled with fantastic ideas, fun, and community.
Wendy Schultz said,
“a terrific and stimulating three days, exactly what I expect of our colleagues. The visits to IST and ADL were interesting and useful, and the Saturday workshop with Starr Long and Mary Flanagan enlightening and fun.”
Special thanks to all our speakers and the Gatherings Team!
This witty short proffers futuristic visions of London landmarks by way of a ‘magic’ camera. But while its gleeful inventor turns out to be an escapee from the local asylum, French director Gaston Quiribet may not have been entirely barking up the wrong tree with one of his trick shots – which imagines Trafalgar Square flooded by rising sea levels. Could this be a prophetic glimpse of our great capital’s fate?
Watch more films from the BFI National Archive on the BFI Player: http://player.bfi.org.uk/
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Posted by drtyrell on April 27, 2015
Car Styling Magazines May 2015 issue features a 16-page article Hypervan & the Showcase of Previous Works. The article highlights Syds iconic van design as well as a collection of illustrations and includes the announcement of the soon to be available limited edition Hypervan scale model by chroniclecollectibles.com. (http://chroniclecollectibles.com)
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> Stay on the Leading Edge Future-proof yourself! Stay on the edge of innovation trends and breakthroughs with Dr. Canton. See today’s news from vantage point of the bigger picture that going to matter. Stay abreast of how science and technology are converging with business and government. > In-depth Presentations Are you Future Ready? Are you learning, innovating and preparing to meet the challenges in your organization for the New Future? Dr. James Canton, CEO The Institute for Global Futures forecasts the future of business and the connected economy, genomics, media, mobile, and more.
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Heres my re-write of the chapter on money again. I must stress that this is now going into an edit process so it will come out looking slightly different. Quite a bit of material got dumped (which really hurts when you like it). Otherwise it was a matter of better signposting, starting with the economy and then moving into money and constantly teasing out the digital. Sorry about the layout, its gone rather haywire. (BTW, Ive added a few links, which obviously wont appear in any paper versions of this chapter).
The Economy and Money: Is digital money making us more careless? The idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behaviour that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on its practice. John Maynard Keynes, economist Networks of inequality A few years ago I was walking down a street in West London when a white van glided to a halt opposite. Four men stepped out and slowly slid what looked like a giant glass coffin from the rear. Inside it was a large shark.
The sight of a live shark in London was slightly surreal, so I sauntered over to ask what was going on. It transpired that the creature in question was being installed in an underground aquarium in the basement of a house in Notting Hill. This secret subterranean lair should, I suppose, have belonged to Dr Evil. To local residents opposing deep basement developments it probably did. A more likely candidate might have been someone benefiting from the digitally networked nature of global finance. A partner at Goldman Sachs, perhaps. This is the investment bank immortalised by Rolling Stone magazine as: a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity. Or possibly the owner was the trader known as the London Whale, who lost close to six billion dollars in 2012 for his employer, JP Morgan, by electronically betting on a series of highly risky and somewhat shady derivatives known as Credit Default Swaps. London real estate had become a serious place to stash funny money, so maybe the house belonged to a slippery individual dipping their fingers into the bank accounts of a corrupt foreign government or international institution. In the words of William Gibson, the former sci-fi writer, London is: Where you go if you successfully rip off your third world nation.
Whichever ruthless predator the house belonged to, something fishy was underfoot. My suspicion was that it had to do with unchecked financial liberalisation, but also how the digital revolution was turning the economy into a winner-takes-all online casino. The shift of power away from locally organised labour to globally organised capital has been occurring for a while, but the recent digital revolution has accelerated and accentuated this. Digitalisation hasnt directly enabled globalisation, but it certainly hasnt restrained it either and one of its negative side effects has been a tendency toward polarisation, both in terms of individual incomes and market monopolies.
Throughout most of modern history, around two-thirds of the money made in developed countries was typically paid as wages. The remaining third was paid as interest, dividends or other forms of rent to the owners of capital. But since 2000, the amount paid to capital has increased substantially while that paid to labour has declined, meaning that real wages have remained flat or fallen for large numbers of people.
The shift toward capital could have an innocent analogue explanation. China, home to an abundant supply of low-cost labour, has pushed wages down globally. This situation could soon reverse, as China runs out of people to move to its cities, their pool of labour shrinks, due to ageing, and Chinese wages increase. Alternatively, low-cost labour may shift somewhere else possibly Africa. But another explanation for the weakened position of human labour is that humans are no longer competing against each other, but against a range of largely unseen digital systems. It is humans that are losing out. A future challenge for governments globally will therefore be the allocation of resources (and perhaps taxes) between people and machines given that automated systems will take on an increasing number of previously human roles and responsibilities.
Same as it ever was? Ever since the invention of the wheel weve used machines to supplement our natural abilities. This has always displaced certain human skills. And for every increase in productivity and living standards thereve been downsides. Fire cooks our food and keeps us warm, but it can burn down our houses and fuel our enemys weapons. During the first industrial revolution machines further enhanced human muscle and then we outsourced further dirty and dangerous jobs to machines. More recently weve used machines to supplement our thinking by using them for tedious or repetitive tasks. Whats different now is that digital technologies, ranging from advanced robotics and sensor networks to basic forms of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, are threatening areas where human activity or input was previously thought essential or unassailable.In particular, software and algorithms with near-zero marginal cost are now being used for higher-order cognitive tasks. This is not digital technology being used alongside humans, but as an alternative to them. This is not digital and human. This is digital instead of human. Losing an unskilled job to an expensive machine is one thing, but if highly skilled jobs are lost to cheap software where does that leave us? What skills do the majority of humans have left to sell if machines and automated systems start to think? You might be feeling pretty smug about this because you believe that your job is somehow special or terribly difficult to do, but the chances are that you are wrong, especially when you take into account whats happening to the cost and processing power of computers. Its not so much what computers are capable of now, but what they could be capable of in ten or twenty years time that you should be worried about.
I remember ten or so years ago reading that if you index the cost of robots to humans with 1990 as the base (1990=100) the cost of robots had fallen from 100 to 18.5. In contrast, the cost of people had risen to 151. Der Spiegel, a German magazine, recently reported that the cost of factory automation relative to human labour had fallen by 50 per cent since 1990. Over the shorter term there wont be much to worry about. Even over the longer term therell still be jobs that idiot savant software wont be able to do very well or do at all. But unless we wake up to the fact that were training people to compete head on with machine intelligence theres going to be trouble eventually. This is because we are filling peoples heads with knowledge thats applied according to sets of rules, which is exactly what computers do. We should be teaching people to do things that these machines cannot. We should be teaching people to constantly ask questions, find fluid problems, think creatively and act empathetically. We should be teaching high abstract reasoning, lateral thinking and interpersonal skills. If we dont a robot may one day come along with the same cognitive skills as us, but costs just $999. Thats not $999 a month, thats $999 in total. Forever. No lunch breaks, holidays, childcare, sick pay or strike action, either. How would you compete with that?
If you think thats far fetched, Foxconn, a Chinese electronics assembly company, is designing a factory in Chengdu thats totally automated no human workers involved whatsoever. Im fairly sure well eventually have factories and machines that can replicate themselves too, including software that writes its own code and 3D printers that can print other 3D-printers. Once weve invented machines that are smarter than us there is no reason to suppose that these machines wont go on to invent their own machines which we then wont be able to understand and so on ad infinitum. Lets hope these machines are nice to us. Its funny that our obsessive compulsive addiction to machines, especially mobile devices, is currently undermining our interpersonal skills and eroding our abstract reasoning and creativity, when these skills are exactly what well need to compete against the machines. But who ever said that the future couldnt be deeply ironic. There are more optimistic outcomes of course. Perhaps the productivity gains created by these new technologies will eventually show up and the resulting wealth will be more fairly shared. Perhaps therell be huge cost savings made in healthcare or education. Technologically induced productivity gains may offset ageing populations and shrinking workforces too. Its highly unlikely that humans will stop having interpersonal and social needs and even more unlikely that the delivery of all these needs will be within the reach of robots. In the shorter term its also worth recalling an insightful comment attributed to NASA in 1965, which is that: Man is the lowest-cost, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labour. But if the rewards of digitalisation are not equitable or designers decide that human agency is dispensable or unprofitable then a bleaker future may emerge, one characterised by polarisation, alienation and discomfort. Money for nothing
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, once responded to demands that Apple raise its return to shareholders by saying that his aim was not to make more profit. His aim was to make better products, from which greater financial returns would flow. This makes perfect sense to anyone except speculators carelessly seeking short-term financial gains at the expense of broader measures of benefit or value. As Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric once said: Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. It was Plato who pointed out that an appetite for more could be directly linked with bad human behaviour. This led Aristotle to draw a black and white distinction between the making of things and the making of money. Both philosophers would no doubt have been disillusioned with high frequency trading algorithms algorithms being computer programs that follow certain steps to solve a problem or react to an observed situation. In 2013, algorithms traded $28 million worth of shares in 15 milliseconds after Reuters released manufacturing data milliseconds early. Doubtless money was made here, but for doing what?
Charles Handy, the contemporary philosopher, makes a similar point in his book The Second Curve that when money becomes the point of something then something goes wrong. Money is merely a secure way to hold or transmit value (or frozen desire as someone more poetically put it). Money is inherently valueless unless exchanged for something else. But the aim of many digital companies appears to be to make money by selling themselves (or their users) to someone else. Beyond this their ambition appears to be market disruption by delivering something faster or more conveniently than before. But to what end ultimately? What is their great purpose? What are they for beyond saving time and delivering customers to advertisers? In this context, high frequency trading is certainly clever, but its socially useless. It doesnt make anything other than money for small number of individuals. Moreover, while the risks to the owners of the algorithms are almost non-existent, this is not generally the case for the society as a whole. Huge profits are privatised, but huge losses tend to be socialised. Connectivity has multiple benefits, but linking things together means that any risks are linked with the result that systemic failure is a distinct possibility. So far weve been lucky. Flash Crashes such as the one that occurred on 6 May 2010 have been isolated events. On this date high-speed trading algorithms decided to sell vast amounts of stocks in seconds, causing momentary panic. Our blind faith in the power and infallibility of algorithms makes such failures more likely and more severe. As Christopher Steiner, author of Automate: How Algorithms Came to Rule Or World writes: Were already halfway towards a world where algorithms run nearly everything. As their power intensifies, wealth will concentrate towards them. Similarly, Nicholas Carr has written that: Miscalculations of risk, exacerbated by high-speed computerised trading programs, played a major role in the near meltdown of the worlds financial system in 2008. Digitalisation helped to create the sub-prime mortgage market and expanded it at a reckless rate. But negative network effects meant that the market imploded with astonishing speed, partly because financial networks were able to spread panic as easily as they had been able to transmit debt. Network effects can create communities and markets very quickly, but they can destroy them with velocity and ferocity too. Given the worlds financial markets, which influence our savings and pensions, are increasingly influenced by algorithms, this is a major cause for concern. After all, who is analysing the algorithms that are doing all of the analysing?
Out of sight and out of mind Interestingly, its been shown that individuals spend more money when they use digital or electronic money rather than physical cash. Because digital money is somehow invisible or out of sight our spending is less considered or careful. And when money belongs to someone else, a remote institution rather than a known individual for instance, any recklessness and impulsiveness is amplified. Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, has even gone as far as to link the 2008 financial crisis to digitalisation because digitalisation creates a mindset of disposability. If, as a trader, you have grown up playing rapid-fire computer games in digital environments you may decide that similar thrills can be achieved via trading screens without any direct real-world consequences. You can become desensitised. Looking at numbers on a screen its easy to forget that these numbers represent money and ultimately people. Having no contact with either can be consequential. Putting controls on computers can make matters worse because we tend to take less notice of information when its delivered on a screen amid a deluge of other digital distractions.
Carelessness can have other consequences too. Large basement developments such as the one I stumbled into represent more than additional living space. They are symbolic of a gap thats opening up between narcissistic individuals who believe that they can do anything they want if they can afford it and others who are attempting to hang on to some semblance of physical community. A wealthy few even take pleasure seeing how many local residents they can upset, as though it were some kind of glorious computer game. Of course, in the midst of endless downward drilling and horizontal hammering, the many have one thing that the few will never have, which is enough. Across central London, where a large house can easily cost ten million pounds, it is not unusual for basement developments to include underground car parks, gyms, swimming pools and staff quarters, although the latter are technically illegal. Its fine to stick one of natures most evolved killing creatures 50 feet underground, but local councils draw a line in the sand with Philippino nannies. The argument for downward development is centred on the primacy of the individual in modern society. Its their money (digital or otherwise) and they should be allowed to do whatever they like with it. There isnt even a need to apologise to neighbours about the extended noise, dirt and inconvenience. The argument against such developments is that its everyone elses sanity and that neighbourhoods and social cohesion rely on shared interests and some level of civility and cooperation. If people start to build private cinemas with giant digital screens in basements this means they arent frequenting public spaces such as local cinemas, which in turn impacts on the vitality of the area. In other words, an absence of reasonable restraint and humility by a handful of self-centred vulgarians limits the choices enjoyed by the broader community. This isnt totally the fault of digitalisation, far from it, but the idea that an individual can and should be left alone to do or say what they like is being amplified by digital technology. This is similar, in some respects, to the way in which being seated securely inside a car seems to bring out the worst in some drivers behaviour toward other road users. Access to technology, especially technology thats personal and mobile, facilitates remoteness, which in turn reduces the need to interact physically or consider the feelings of other human beings. Remote access, in particular, can destroy human intimacy and connection, although on the plus side such technology can be used to expose or shame individuals that do wrong in the eyes of the broader community.
In ancient Rome there was a law called Lex Sumptuaria that restrained public displays of wealth and curbed the purchasing of luxury goods. Similar sumptuary laws aimed at superficiality and excess have existed in ancient Greece, China, Japan and Britain. Perhaps its time to bring these laws back or at least to levy different rates of tax or opprobrium on immodest or socially divisive consumption or on digital products that damage the cohesiveness of the broader physical community. Income polarisation and inequality arent new. Emile Zola, the French writer, referred to rivers of money: Corrupting everyone in a fever of speculation in mid-19th Century Paris. But could it be that a fever of digital activity is similarly corrupting? Could virtualisation and personalisation be fraying the physical bonds that make us human and ultimately hold society together? Whats especially worrying here is that studies suggest that wealth beyond a certain level erodes empathy for other human beings. Perhaps the shift from physical to digital interaction and exchange is doing much the same thing. But its not just the wealthy that are withdrawing physically. Various apps are leading to what some commentators are calling the shut in economy. This is a spin-off from the on-demand economy, whereby busy people, including those that work from home, are not burdened by household chores. But perhaps hardly ever venturing outside is as damaging as physically shutting others out. As one food delivery service, Door Dash, cryptically says: Never leave home again. Where have all the jobs gone? Id like to move on to consider some other aspects of digital exchange, but before I do Id like to dig a little deeper into the question of whether computers and automated systems are creating or destroying wealth and what happens to any humans that become irrelevant to the needs of the on-demand digital economy.
The digitally networked nature of markets is making some people rich, but also spreading wealth around far more than you might think. Globally, the level of inequality between nations is lessening and so too is extreme poverty. In 1990, for example, 43 per cent of people in emerging markets lived in extreme poverty, defined as existing on less than $1 per day. By 2010, this figure had shrunk to 21 per cent. Or consider China. In 2000, around 4 per cent of Chinese households were defined as middle class. By 2012, this had increased to two-thirds and by 2022, its predicted that almost half (45%) of the Chinese population will be middle class, defined as having annual household incomes of between US $9,000 and $16,000. This has more to do with demographics and deregulation than digitalisation, but by accident or design global poverty has been reduced by half in 20 years. Nevertheless, the gap between the highest and lowest earning members of society is growing and is set to continue with the onward march of digital networks. As the novelist Jonathan Franzen says: The internet itself is in an incredibly elitist concentrator of wealth in the hands of the few while giving the appearance of voice and the appearance of democracy to people who are in fact being exploited by the technologies. If you have something that the world feels it needs right now its now possible to make an awful lot of money very quickly, especially if the need can be transmitted digitally. However, the spoils of regulatory and technological change are largely being accrued by people who are highly educated and internationally minded. If you are neither of these things then you are potentially destined for low-paid, insecure work, although at least youll have instant access to free music, movie downloads and computer games to pass the time until you die. Theres been much discussion about new jobs being invented, including jobs we cant currently comprehend, but most current jobs are fairly routine and repetitive and therefore ripe for automation. Furthermore, its unrealistic to expect that millions of people can be quickly retrained and reassigned to do jobs that are beyond the reach of robots, virtualisation and automation. Losing a few thousand jobs in car manufacturing to industrial robots or Amazon wiping out a bookshop is one thing, but what happens if automation removes vast swathes of employment across the globe? What if half of all jobs were to disappear? Moreover, if machines do most of the work how will most people acquire enough money to pay for the things that the machines make, thereby keeping the machines in employment? Maybe we should tax robots instead of people?
In theory the internet should be creating jobs. In the US between 1996 and 2005 it looked like it might. Productivity increased by around 3 per cent and unemployment fell. But by 2005 (i.e. before the global recession) this started to reverse. Why might this be so? According to McKinsey & Company, a firm of consultants, computers and related electronics, information industries and manufacturing contributed about 50 per cent of US productivity increases since 2000 but reduced (US) employment by 4,500,000 jobs. Perhaps productivity gains will take time to come. This is a common claim of techno-optimists and the authors of the book, Race Against the Machine. Looking at the first industrial revolution, especially the upheavals brought about by the great inventions of the Victorian era, they could have a point. But it could be that new technology, for all its power, cant compete with simple demographics and sovereign debt. Perhaps, for all its glitz, computing just isnt as transformative as stream power, railroads, electricity, postage stamps, the telegraph or the automobile. Yes weve got Facebook, Snapchat and Rich Cats of Instagram, but we havent set foot on the moon since 1969 and traffic in many cities moves no faster today than it did 100 years ago. It is certainly difficult to argue against certain aspects of technological change. Between 1988 and 2003, for example, the effectiveness of computers increased a staggering 43,000,000-fold. Exponentials of this nature must be creating tectonic shifts somewhere, but where exactly?
Is efficiency a good measure of value? In its heyday, in 1955, General Motors employed 600,000 people. Today, Google, a similarly iconic American company, employs around 50,000. Facebook employs about 6,000. More dramatically, when Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, Instagram had 30,000,000 users, but employed just 13 people full time. At the time of writing, Whatsapp had just 55 employees, but a market value exceeding that of the entire Sony Corporation. This forced Robert Reich, a former US treasury Secretary, to describe Whatsapp as: everything thats wrong with the US economy. This isnt because the company is bad its because it doesnt create jobs. Another example is Amazon. For each million dollars of revenue that Amazon makes it employs roughly one person. This is undoubtedly efficient, but is it desirable? Is it progress? These are all examples of the dematerialisation of the global economy, where we dont need as many people to produce things, especially when digital products and services have a near zero marginal cost and where customers can be co-opted as free click-workers that dont appear on any balance sheet. A handful of people are making lots of money from this and when regulatory frameworks are weak or almost non-existent and geography becomes irrelevant these sums tend to multiply. For multinational firms making money is becoming easier too, not only because markets are growing, but because huge amounts of money can be saved by using information technology to co-ordinate production and people across geographies. Technology vs. psychology If a society can be judged by how it treats those with the least then things are not looking good. Five minutes walk from the solitary shark and winner takes all mentality you can find families that havent worked in three generations. Many of them have given up hope of ever doing so. They are irrelevant to a digital economy or, more specifically, what Manuel Castells, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, calls informational capitalism. Similarly, Japan is not far off a situation where some people will retire without ever having worked and without having moved out of the parental home. In some ways Japan is unique, for instance its resistance to immigration. But in other ways Japan offers a glimpse of what can happen when a demographic double-whammy of rapid ageing and falling fertility means that workforces shrink, pensions become unaffordable and younger generations dont enjoy the same dreams, disposable incomes or standards of living as their parents. Economic uncertainty and geo-political volatility, caused partly by a shift from analogue to digital platforms, can mean that careers are delayed, which delays marriage, which feeds through to low birth rates, which lowers GDP, which fuels more economic uncertainty. This is all deeply theoretical, but the results can be hugely human. If people dont enjoy secure employment, housing or relationships, what does this do to their physical and especially psychological state? I expect that a negative psychological shift could be the next big thing we experience unless a coherent we emerges to challenge some of the more negative aspects of not only income inequality, but the lack of secure and meaningful work for the less talented, the less skilled and less fortunate. A few decades ago people worked in a wide range of manufacturing and service industries and collected a secure salary and benefits. But now, according to Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School, the on-demand digital economy is efficiently connecting people selling certain skills to others looking to buy. This sounds good. It sounds entrepreneurial. It sounds efficient and flexible and is perhaps an example of labour starting to develop its own capital. But its also, potentially, an example of mass consumption decoupling from large-scale employment and of the fact that unrestrained free-markets can be savagely uncompromising. Of course, unlike machines, people can vote and they can revolt too, although I think that passive disaffection and disenfranchisement are more likely. One of the great benefits of the internet has been the ease with which ideas can be transmitted across the globe, but ideas dont always turn into actions. The transmission of too much data or what might be termed too much truth is also resulting in what Castells calls: informed bewilderment. This may sound mild, but if bewilderment turns into despair and isolation theres a chance this could feed into fundamentalism, especially when the internet is so efficient at hosting communities of anger and transmitting hatred. There is also evidence emerging that enduring physical hardship and mental anguish not only create premature ageing, which compromises the immune and cardiovascular system, but that this has a lasting legacy for those people having children. This is partly because poorer individuals are more attuned to injustice, which feeds through to ill health and premature ageing, and partly because many of the subsequent diseases can be passed on genetically. But perhaps its not relative income levels per se that so offend, but the fact that its now so easy to see what you havent got. Social media spreads images of excess abundantly and exuberantly. Sites such as Instagram elicit envy and distribute depression by allowing selfies to scream: look at me! (and my oh so perfect life). Its all a lie, of course, but we dont really notice this because the internet so easily becomes a prison of belief.
A narrowing of focus In the Victorian era, when wealth was polarised, there was at least a shared moral code, broad sense of civic duty and collective responsibility. People, you might say, remained human. Nowadays, increasingly, individuals are looking out for themselves and digitalisation, true to form, is oiling the wheels of efficiency here too. Individualism has created a culture thats becoming increasingly venal, vindictive and avaricious. This isnt just true in the West. In China there is anguished discussion about individual callousness and an emergent culture of compensation. The debate was initiated back in 2011 when a toddler, Yue Yue, was hit by several vehicles in Foshan, a rapidly growing city in Guangdong province, and a video of the event was posted online. Despite being clearly hurt no vehicles stopped and nobody bothered to help until a rubbish collector picked the child up. Yue Yue later died in hospital. Another incident, also in China, saw two boys attempting to save two girls from drowning. The boys failed and were made to pay compensation of around 50,000 Yuan (about 5,000) each to the parents for not saving them. Such incidents are rare, but they are not unknown and do perhaps point toward a world that is becoming more interested in money than mankind a world that is grasping and litigious, where trust and the principle of moral reciprocity are under threat. You can argue that we are only aware of such events due to digital connectivity, which is probably true, and that both sharing and volunteering are in good health. But you can also argue that the transparency conjured up by connectivity and social media is making people more nervous about sticking their necks out. In a word with no secrets, ubiquitous monitoring and perfect remembering people have a tendency to conform. Hence we click on petitions online rather than actually doing anything. I was innocently eating my breakfast recently when I noticed that Kelloggs were in partnership with Chime for Change, an organisation committed to raise funds and awareness for girls education and empowerment through projects promoting education, health and justice. How were Kelloggs supporting this? By asking people to share a selfie to show your support. To me this is an example of internet impatience and faux familiarity. It personifies the way that the internet encourages ephemeral acts of belonging that are actually nothing of the sort. As for philanthropy, theres a lot of it around, but much of it has become, as one Museum director rather succinctly put it: money laundering for the soul. Philanthropy is becoming an offshoot of personal branding. It is buildings as giant selfies, rather than the selfless or anonymous love of humanity. One pleasing development that may offset this trend is crowd-funding, whereby individuals fund specific ideas with micro-donations. At the moment this is largely confined to inventions and the odd artistic endeavour, but theres no reason why crowds of people with small donations cant fund political or altruistic ideas or even interesting individuals with a promising future. I sometimes wonder why we havent seen a new round of revolutions in the West. Due to digital media we all know all about the haves and the have yachts. Its even easy to find out where the yachts are moored thanks to free tracking apps. Then again, we barely know our own neighbours these days, living, as we increasingly do, in digital bubbles where friends and news stories are filtered according to pre-selected criteria. The result is that we know more and more about the people and things we like, but less and less about anything, or anyone, outside of our existing preferences and prejudices. Putting aside cognitative biases such as inattentional blindness, which means we are often blissfully unaware of whats happening in front of our own eyes, theres also the thought that weve become so focussed on ourselves that focusing anger on a stranger five minutes up the road or on a distant yacht is a bit of stretch. This is especially true if you are addicted to 140 character updates of your daily existence or looking at photographs of cute cats online. Mugged by reality Is anyone out there thinking about how Marxs theory of alienation might be linked to social stratification and an erosion of humanity? I doubt it, but the fall of Communism can be connected with the dominance of individualism and the emergence of self-obsession. This is because before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 there was an alternative ideology and economic system that acted as a counter-weight to the excesses of capitalism, free markets and individualism. Similarly, in many countries, an agile and attentive left took the sting out of any political right hooks. Then in the 1990s there was a dream called the internet. But the internet is fast becoming another ad-riddled venue for capitalism where, according to an early Facebook engineer (quoted by Ashlee Vance in his biography of Elon Musk) the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. The early dream of digital democracy has also soured because it turns out that a complete democracy of expression attracts voices that are stupid, angry and have a lot of time on their hands. This is a Jonathan Franzen again, although he reminds me of another writer, Terry Prachett, who pointed out that: real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. To get back to the story in hand, the point here is that if you take away any balancing forces you not only end up with tax shy billionaires, but income polarisation and casino banking. You can also end up with systemic financial crashes, another of which will undoubtedly be along shortly, thanks to our stratospheric levels of debt, the globally connected nature of risk and the corruption and villainy endemic in emerging markets. Its possible that connectivity will create calm rather than continued volatility, but I doubt it. More likely a relatively insignificant event, such as a modest rise in US interest rates, will spread panic and emotional contagion at which point anyone still living in a digital bubble will get mugged by reality. Coming back to some good news, a significant economic trend is the growth of global incomes. This sounds at odds with declining real wages, but I am talking about emerging not developed markets. According to Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm, an additional 3 billion individuals are being added to the global middle class. Thats 3 billion more smart-phone using, FitBit wearing, Linked-in profiled, Apple iCar driving, Instagram obsessives. In China, living standards have risen by an astonishing 10,000 per cent in a single generation. In terms of per capita GDP in China and India this has doubled in 16 and 12 years respectively. In the UK this took 153 years. This is pleasing, although the definition of middle class includes people earning as little as $10 a day. Many of these people also live behind the Great Firewall of China, so we shouldnt get too carried away with trickle down economics or the opening up of democracy. What globalisation giveth to jobs automation may soon be taketh away too and many may find themselves sinking downward towards working class or neo-feudal status rather than effervescently rising upward. According to Pew Research, the percentage of people in the US that think of themselves as middle class fell from 53 per cent in 2008 to 44 per cent in 2014, with 40 per cent now defining themselves as lower class compared to 25 per cent in 2008. Teachers, for example, that have studied hard, worked relentlessly and benefit society as a whole find themselves priced out of real-estate and various socio-economic classifications by the relentless rise of financial speculators. Deeper automation and virtualisation could make things worse. Martin Wolf, a Financial Times columnist, comments that intelligent machines could hollow out middle class jobs and compound inequality. Even if the newfound global wealth isnt temporary theres plenty of research to suggest that as people grow richer they focus more attention on their own needs at the expense of others. So a wealthier world may turn out to be one thats less caring. Of course, its not numbers that matter. What counts are feelings, especially feelings related to the direction of travel. The perception in the West generally is that we are mostly moving in the wrong direction. This can be seen in areas such as education and health and its not too hard to imagine a future world split into two halves, a thin, rich, well-educated, mobile elite and an overweight, poorly educated, anchored underclass. This is reminiscent of HG Wells intellectual, surface dwelling Eloi and downtrodden, subterranean Morlocks in The Time Machine and Tolkiens Mines of Moria. The only difference this time might be that its the global rich that end up living underground, cocooned from the outside world in deep basement developments. An upside to the downside Its obviously possible that this outcome is re-written. Its entirely possible that we will experience a reversal where honour, spiritual service or courage to country are valued far above commerce. This is a situation that existed in Britain and elsewhere not that long ago. Its possible that grace, humility, public spiritedness and contempt for vulgar displays of wealth could become dominant social values. Or perhaps a modest desire to leave as small a footprint as possible could become a key driving force. On the other hand, perhaps a dark dose of gloom and doom is exactly what the world needs. Perhaps the era of cheap money is coming to an end and an extended period of slow growth will do us all a world a good. A study led by Heejung Park at UCLA found that the trend towards greater materialism and reduced empathy had been partly reversed due to the 2008-2010 economic downturn. In comparison with a similar study looking at the period 20042006, US adolescents were less concerned with owning expensive items, while the importance of having a job thats worthwhile to society rose. Whether this is just cyclical or part of a permanent shift is currently impossible to say. These studies partly link with previous research suggesting that a decline in economic wealth promotes collectivism and perhaps with the idea that we only truly appreciate things when we are faced with their loss. There arent too many upsides to global pandemics, rogue asteroids and financial meltdowns, but the threat of impending death or disaster does focus the long lens of perspective, as Steve Jobs pointed out in his commencement speech at Stamford University. Digital Vs Physical trust Thats enough about the economy. How might the digitalisation of money impact our everyday behaviour in the future? I think it is still too early to make any definitive statements about particular technologies or applications, but I do believe that the extinction of cash is inevitable because digital transactions are faster and more convenient, especially for companies. Cash can be cumbersome too. Its also because governments and bureaucracies would like to reduce illegal economic activity and collect the largest amount of tax possible thereby increasing their power. In the US, for instance, its been estimated that cash costs the American economy $200 billion a year, not just due to tax evasion and theft, but also due to time wasting. A study, by Tufts University says that the average American spends 28 minutes per month traveling to ATMs, to which my reaction is so what? What are people not doing by wasting 28 minutes going to an ATM? Writing sonnets? Inventing a cure for cancer? But a wholly cashless society, or global e-currency, wont happen for a long time, partly because physical money, especially banknotes, is so tied up with notions of national identity (just look at the Euro to see how that can go wrong!). Physical money tells a rich story. It symbolises a nations heritage in a way that digital payments cannot. People in recent years have also tended to trust cash more. The physical presence of cash is deeply reassuring, especially in times of economic turmoil. In the UK, in 2012, more than half of all transactions were cash and the use of banknotes and coins rose slightly from the previous year. Why? The answer is probably that in 2012 the UK was still belt-tightening and people felt they could control their spending more easily using cash. Or perhaps people didnt trust the banks or each other. Similarly, in most rich countries, more than 90 per cent of all retail is still in physical rather than digital stores. We should also be careful not to assume that everyone is like ourselves. The people most likely to use cash are elderly, poor or vulnerable, so it would be a huge banking error, in my view, if everyone stopped accepting physical money. Its also a useful Plan B to have a stash of cash in case the economy melts down or your phone battery dies leaving you with no way to pay for dinner. This is probably swimming against the tide though and I suspect there is huge pent-up demand for mobile and automated payments. Globally cash is still king (85% of all transactions are still cash according to one recent study) but in developed economies this tends not to be the case. In the US about 60% of transactions are now digital, while in the UK non-cash payments have now overtaken physical cash. Money will clearly be made trying to get rid of physical money. According to the UK payments council the use of cash is expected to fall by a third by 2022. Nevertheless, circumstances do change and I suspect that any uptake of new payment technologies is scenario dependent. I was on the Greek island of Hydra in 2014 and much to my surprise the entire economy had reverted to physical money. This was slightly annoying, because I had just written a blog post about the death of cash based on my experience of visiting the island two years earlier. On this visit almost everywhere accepted electronic payments, but things had dramatically changed. Again, why? I initially thought the reason was Greeks attempting to avoid tax. Cash is anonymous. But it transpired that the real reason was trust. If you are a small business supplying meat to a taverna and youre worried about getting paid, you ask for cash. This is one reason why cash might endure longer than some e-evangelists tell us. Cash is a hugely convenient method to store and exchange value and has the distinct advantage of keeping our purchasing private. If we exchange physical cash for digital currency this makes it easier for companies and governments to spy on what were doing.
Countless types of cashless transactions There are many varieties of digital money. Weve had credit cards for a very long time. Transactions using cards have been digital for ages and contactless for a while. Weve grown used to private currencies, virtual currencies, micro-payments, embedded value cards, micro-payments and contactless (NFC) payments. Weve also learnt to trust PayPal and various Peer-to-Peer lending sites such as Zopa and Prosper, although one suspects that, like ATMs, we are happier taking money out than putting money in. Were also slowly getting used to the idea of payments using mobile phones. There are even a few e-exhibitionists with currency chips embedded in their own bodies and while this might take a while to catch on I can see the value in carrying around money in our bodies. A chip inserted in your jaw or arm is a bit extreme, but how about a tiny e-pill loaded with digital cash that, once swallowed, is good for $500 or about a week? Theres even digital gold, but to be honest I cant get my head around that at all. The key point here is that all of these methods of transaction are more or less unseen. They are also fast and convenient, which, I would suggest, means that spending will be more impulsive and less considered. We will have regular statements detailing our digital transactions, of course, but these will also be digital, delivered to our screens amid a deluge of other digital distractions and therefore widely ignored or not properly read.
Really thinking or mindlessly consuming? What interests me most here is whether or not attitudes and behaviours change in the presence of invisible money. There is surprisingly little research on this subject, but what does exist, along with my own experience, suggests that once we shift from physical to digital money things do change. With physical money (paper money, metal coins and cheques) we are more likely to buy into the illusion that money has inherent value. We are therefore more vigilant. In many cases, certainly my own, we are more careful. In short we think. Physical money feels real so our purchasing (and debt) is more considered. With digital money (everything from credit and debit cards to PayPal, Apple Money, iTunes vouchers, loyalty points and so forth) our spending is more impulsive. And as I said, earlier, when money is digital and belongs to someone else any careless behaviour is amplified. Quantitative Easing (QE) is perhaps a similar story. If instead of pressing a key on a computer and sending digital money to a secondary market to buy financial assets including bonds we saw fleets of trucks outside central banks being loaded with piles of real money to do the same I suspect that our reaction would be wholly different. We might even question whether a government monetising (buying) its own debt is a sensible idea given that the 2008 financial meltdown was caused by the transmission and obfuscation of debt. Of course, pumping money into assets via QE circles back to create inequality. If you own hard assets, such as real estate, then any price increases created by QE can be a good thing because it increases the value of your assets (often bought with debt, which is reduced via inflation). In contrast savers holding cash, or anyone without assets, is penalised. Its a bit of a stretch to link QE to the Arab Spring, but some people have, pointing out that food price inflation was a contributory factor, which can be indirectly linked to QEs effects on commodities. If one was a conspiracy theorist one might even suggest that QEs real aim was to drive down the value of the dollar, the pound and the Euro at the expense of spiralling hard currency debt and emerging economy currencies. Im getting back into macro-economics, which I dont want to do, but its worth pointing out that in The Downfall of Money, the author Frederick Taylor notes that Germanys hyperinflation not only destroyed the middle class, but democracy itself. As he writes, by the time inflation reached its zenith: everyone wanted a dictatorship. The cause of Germanys hyperinflation was initially Germany failing to keep up with payments due to France after WW1. But it was also caused by too much money chasing too few goods, which has shades of asset bubbles created by QE. It was depression, not inflation per se, that pushed voters toward Hitler, but this has a familiar ring. Across Europe we are seeing a significant rightwards shift and one of the main reasons why Germany wont boost the EU economy is because of the lasting trauma caused by inflation ninety years ago. If a lasting legacy of QE, debt, networked risk and a lack of financial restraint by individuals and institutions, all accentuated by digitalisation, is either high inflation or continued depression things could get nasty, in which case we might all long for the return of cash as a relatively safe and private way to endure the storm. Crypto-currency accounts The idea of a global digital economy thats free from dishonest banks, avaricious speculators and regulation-fixated governments is becoming increasingly popular, especially, as youd expect, online. Currencies around the world are still largely anchored to the idea of geographical boundaries and economies in which physical goods and services are exchanged. But what if someone invented a decentralised digital currency that operated independently of central banks? And what if that currency were to use encryption techniques, not only to ensure security and avoid confiscation or taxation, but to control the production of the currency? A crypto-currency like BitCoin perhaps?
In one scenario, BitCoin could become not only an alternative currency, but a stateless alternative payments infrastructure, competing against the like of Apple Pay and PayPal and against alternative currencies like airline miles. But theres a more radical possibility. What if a country got into trouble (Greece? Italy? Argentina?) and trust in the national currency collapsed. People might seek alternative ways to make payments or keep their money safe. If enough people flocked to something like BitCoin a government might be forced to follow suit and wed end up with a crytocurrency being used for exports, with its value tied to a particular economy or set of economies. More radically, how about a currency that rewarded certain kinds of behaviour? We have this already, in a sense, with loyalty cards, but Im thinking of something more consequential. What if the underlying infrastructure of BitCoin was used to create a currency that was distributed to people behaving in a virtuous manner? What if, for instance, money could be earned by putting more energy or water into a local network than was taken out? Or how about earning money by abstaining from the development of triple sub-basements or by visiting an elderly person that lives alone and asking them how they are? We could even pay people who smiled at strangers using eye-tracking and facial recognition technology on Apple smart glasses or Google eye-contact lenses. Given what governments would potentially be able to see and do if cash does disappear, such alternative currencies along with old-fashioned bartering could prove popular. At the moment, central banks use interest rates as the main weapon to control or stimulate the economy. But if people hoard cash because interest rates are low or because they dont trust banks then the economy is stunted. But with a cashless society the government has another weapon in its arsenal. What if banks not only charged people for holding money (negative interest rates) but governments imposed an additional levy for not spending it? This is making my head spin so we should move on to explore the brave new world of healthcare and medicine, of which money is an enabler. But before we do Id like to take a brief look at pensions and taxation and then end on considering whether the likes of Mark Zuckerberg might actually be OK really. If economic conditions are good, Id imagine that money and payments will continue to migrate toward digital formats. Alternatives to banks will spring up and governments will loosen their tax-take. However, if austerity persists, or returns, then governments will do everything they can to get hold of more of your money but they will be less inclined to spend it, especially on services. Taxation based upon income and expenditure will continue, but I expect that it will also shift towards assets and wealth and to a very real extent individual behaviour. One of the effects of moving toward digital payments and connectivity is transparency. Governments will, in theory, be able to see what youre spending your money on, but also how youre living in a broader sense. Hence stealth taxation. Have you put the wrong type of plastic in the recycling bin again? Thats a fine (tax). Kids late for school again? Fine (tax). Burger and large fries again? You get the idea Governments will seek to not only maximise revenue, but nudge people toward certain allegedly virtuous behaviours and people will be forced to pay for the tiniest transgressions. This, no doubt, will spark rage and rebellion, but theyll be a tax for that too. As for pensions, there are several plausible scenarios, but business as usual doesnt appear to be one of them. The system is a pyramid-selling scheme thats largely bust and needs to be reinvented in many countries. 1 in 7 people in the UK has no retirement savings whatsoever, for instance, and the culture of instant digital gratification would suggest that trying to get people to save a little for later wont meet with much success. What comes next largely depends on whether the culture of now persists and whether or not responsibility for the future is shared individually or collectively. If the culture of individualism and instant rewards holds firm, well end up with a very low safety net or a situation where people never fully retire. If we are able to delay gratification, well end up either with a return to a savings culture or one where the state provides significant support in return for significant contributions. The bottom line here is that pensions are set firmly in the future and while we like thinking about the future we dont like paying for it. So what might happen that could change the world for the better and make things slightly more sustainable?
An economy if people still matter In 1973, the economist EF Schumachers book Small is Beautiful warned against the dangers of gigantism. On one level the book was a pessimistic polemic about modernity in general and globalisation in particular. On the other hand it was possibly prescient and predictive. Schumacher foresaw the problem of resource constraints and foreshadowed the issue of human happiness, which he believed could not be sated by material possessions. He also argued for human satisfaction and pleasure to be central to all work, mirroring the thoughts of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. They argued that since consumer demand was such a central driver of the economy, then one way to change the world for the better would be to change what the majority of people want, which links directly back into money and our current voracious appetite for material possessions. On one level Schumachers book is still an idealistic hippy homily. On another it manages to describe our enduring desire for human scale, human relationships and technology that is appropriate, controllable and above all understandable. Physical money encourages the physical interaction of people, whereas digital cash is more hands off and remote. Digital transactions require energy and while any desire for green computing wont exactly stop the idea of a cashless society in its tracks it may yet restrain it. There are already some weak signals around this, which Schumacher may have approved of. Our desire for neo-Victorian computing (Steam Punk), craft sites like Etsy, the popularity of live music events and literature festivals and digital detoxing all point to a desire for balance and a world where humans are allowed to focus on what they do best. The partly generational shift toward temporary digital access rather than full physical ownership is also an encouraging development against what might be termed stuffocation. Schumacher also warned against the concentration of economic and political power, which he believed would lead to dehumanisation. Decisions should therefore be made on the basis of human needs rather than the revenue requirements of distantly accountable corporations and governments. In this respect the internet could go either way. It could bring people together and enable a more locally focussed and sustainable way or living or it could facilitate the growth of autocratic governments and monopolistic transnational corporations. But remember that the dematerialisation of the global economy the analogue to digital switch if you will is largely unseen and therefore mostly out of mind so very few people are discussing this at the moment. To some extent digital payments are a technology in search of a problem. Cash is easy to carry, easy to use and doesnt require a power source except to retrieve it from an ATM. Meanwhile credit and debit cards are widely accepted worldwide and online, so why do we need additional channels or formats? Maybe we dont. Maybe we dont even need money as much as we think. One of the problems with the digital economy from an economics standpoint is that digital companies dont produce many jobs. But maybe this isnt a problem. Once weve achieved shelter and security and managed to feed ourselves, the things that make us happy tend to be invisible to economists. The things that fulfil our deepest human needs are not to be physical things, but nebulous notions like love, belonging and compassion. This is reminiscent of Abraham Maslows hierarchy of needs, but unfortunately self-esteem, altruism, purpose and spirituality dont directly contribute to GDP or mass employment. Perhaps they should. It pains me to say it, but maybe the digital dreamers are onto something after all. Maybe the digital economy will change our frame of reference and focus our attention on non-monetary value and human exchange even if this goes a little crazy at times. What would Schumacher make our current economic situation? Maybe hed see the present day as the start of something nasty. Maybe hed see it as the start of something beautiful. What I suspect he would point out is that many people feel that they have lost control of their lives, especially financially. Job insecurity, austerity, debt and a lack of secure saving and pensions make people anxious. This can have physical effects. According to a study published in the medical magazine The Lancet, economic conditions can make people and their genetic dependants sick. Putting to one side the increased risk of suicide, mental health is a major casualty of volatile economic and geopolitical conditions. Psychological stress means that our bodies are flooded with stress hormones and these can make us ill. Turbulent economic conditions can also make long lasting changes to our genes, which can be a catalyst for heart disease, cancer and depression in later generations. Another study, co-led by George Slavich at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that there is historical evidence for such claims and cites the fact that generations born during recessions tend to have unusually short lifespans. Research by Jenny Tung at Duke University in North Carolina also suggests that if animals perceive they have a lower social rank, the more active their pro-inflammatory genes become. This may be applicable to humans perceiving that they are becoming digital-serfs. Even the anticipation of bad news or negative events may trigger such changes, which might explain why I recently heard that the shark in Notting Hill is now on medication.
The rest is here:
Futurism as a Metaphysical Science
It is surprising how little the common perception of futurism has changed since 1967, when Maurizio Calvesi complained about the “reductive general idea of Italian futurism as a simple exaltation of the machine and superficial reproduction of movement.”1 Although the futurists did not always agree among themselves on a definition of the movement, they certainly would not have shared a view that reduces futurism to merely materialistic terms.2 If a similarly reductive attitude can already be found in Varse as early as 1917, the reduction of futurism to a materialistic movement within post-World War II art criticism was likely determined, as noted in the introduction, by a need to downplay the uneasy relationship between futurism and fascism.3
Yet futurism was a movement animated by contradictory ideas, constantly oscillating between science and art, the rational and the irrational, future and past, mechanical and spiritual. Indeed, it may well have been these very tensions and frictions that gave futurism its dynamic force.
Defining the futurist movement and analyzing its aesthetic is not an easy task. To the casual observer the futurists seem to present a united front, unified by the charismatic personality of Marinetti, but analysis shows them to have been highly diverse intellectual personalities, each with slightly different opinions and conceptions of life and art and sometimes in open and violent opposition to one another. They may have found themselves (for reasons of convenience, if nothing else, and perhaps sometimes opportunism) under one ideological roof, but individually they maintained autonomous physiognomies and attitudes and peculiarities of their own. It seems, then, impossible to hope to find coherence inside the different poetic positions of the futurists, let alone to formulate an organic presentation with which they would have been satisfied.
Marinetti’s work and personality succeeded in maintaining a certain order, at least in the beginning. It is well documented that Marinetti initially subsidized all the initiatives of the movement (including publications and exhibitions), and, like a good impresario, he reserved the right to supervise the work of the other artists of the group, to the point that all the first futurist manifestos unquestionably ran the gauntlet of Marinetti’s censorship; this explains their similar tone.4 But in the privacy of living-room discussions or personal correspondence-or anywhere outside Marinetti’s public control-the futurists’ aesthetic visions diverged synchronically and diachronically; they were in continual growth and in a restless state of becoming, changing along with the shifting alliances within the movement.
Critically the most lucid figure among them was probably Umberto Boccioni. Perhaps for a predisposition of spirit, perhaps because his career lasted for only a brief moment and almost did not leave him time to conclude a cycle of thought, Boccioni was one of the very few futurists to produce a volume that presented his poetics systematically.5
The other exception was Luigi Russolo. Although he was not as socially exuberant as Boccioni was, his thought was characterized by a surprising coherence of themes-many so extraordinarily close to those of his friend Boccioni as to suggest a sort of intersecting pollination between the two. Russolo was to repeat these early themes, unchanged in their substance, for the rest of his life; being spiritual in character, they corresponded well with futurism’s occult side.
To summarize all the instances that show connections between futurism and esoteric preoccupations at various levels-ranging from spirituality to interest in and practice of the occult arts, and also including black and red magic and spiritualism-would be an ambitious undertaking. Here I shall simply create a backdrop against which to project the fruit of research on Russolo’s interest in the occult and my reinterpretation of his sound-related activities in the context of this interest.
I am not the first to mention the influence of the occult arts on the futurist movement. Sporadic references to this influence can be found in volumes, catalogs, and essays on futurism and the visual arts edited by Calvesi and Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco. Until a few years ago the only contributing monographs available were a brief article by Germano Celant titled “Futurismo esoterico,” published in Il Verri in 1970, and Calvesi’s very brief article “L’criture mdiumnique comme source de l’automatisme futuriste et surraliste,” published in Europe in 1975, in which Calvesi shows connections between mediumistic phenomena and the poetics of the automatic writing adopted first by Marinetti and then by the Surrealists. To these should certainly be added Calvesi’s above-mentioned 1967 classic Il futurismo: La fusione della vita nell’arte, in which occult and spiritualist themes, however eccentric, occasionally color the overall discussion.
Renewed interest in the topic began first with the extensive catalog of a 1995 Frankfurt exhibition titled Okkultismus und Avantgarde, which devoted much space to the futurists; this was followed by Flavia Matitti’s writing on Balla and theosophy, as well as by the handsome volume by Simona Cigliana (Futurismo esoterico), which takes its title from Celant’s essay and is the most complete contribution to the topic to date. In contrast to the earlier sources cited, some of which are limited to a list of facts, Cigliana’s book offers a convincing in-depth analysis of the futurists’ occult frequentations, albeit primarily limited to the field of literature.
The futurists’ interest in the occult can be attributed to their full immersion in the culture of their period, principally inspired by French symbolism, which was in turn a reaction to Comte’s mid-nineteenth-century positivism and absolute materialism. In Italy, critiques of positivism and materialism also attacked idealism, and not just in rational and dialectic Hegelian formulations but also in idealism’s mainstream Italian dissemination through the writings of the philosopher Benedetto Croce.
It has been maintained that interest in the occult arts and metapsychics can be attributed to the futurists’ attraction to the then current understanding of science. There were those who, considering the future of scientific research, maintained that science should include among its fields of inquiry the study of paranormal phenomena and confer legitimacy upon it, since this was the natural direction toward which science was already tending. This view may be true, but it offers only a partial picture of futurism, and it bears the further defect of again putting science and technology at the center of the futurist poetic meditation, as if they were the end of this meditation instead of, as we will see, the means.
Already at this stage, however, it is clear that these occult interests were poles apart from an aesthetic conception preoccupied exclusively with the “simple exaltation of the machine and exterior reproduction of movement.” The futurists’ interest in science was not always exclusive or absolute, and it was not always blind idolatry. Calvesi addresses this point when he writes, “Boccioni did not want a scientific aesthetics, that is, definable into scientific rules, but only an aesthetics that took the acquisitions of science into account: which is very different.”6 For Marinetti the situation was entirely similar: “Art assimilates science intuitively, analogically, by parallelism and also by benefiting from science’s technical discoveries, but never by a substitution of methodologies.”7 For the futurists, science was above all a means; it was not the end of their aesthetic vision.
The present chapter considers the movement’s interest in occultism-alongside its interest in science and technology and its greatly underexplored interest in altered states of consciousness-as a means to achieve out-of-body experiences. Such experiences, in turn, would permit the futurists to observe reality from a hyperreal point of view, as well as to re-create reality through a new, spiritual mode of artistic creation. Subsequent chapters add Russolo’s musical activity to those expressions of futurism that are indebted to the occult tradition.
Science and the Occult at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Interest in the occult would seem to contradict the attention the futurists gave to the latest discoveries of the science and technology of the period. 8 But from the middle of the nineteenth century on, interest in the occult was increasingly shared by scientists and occultists alike, generating such terms as “scientific occultism,” which further muddied the waters.9 Increasingly spreading an image of the universe as an organism animated by mysterious and supernatural forces, new scientific discoveries made between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth showed that idealism, positivism, and materialism gave too restricted a vision of natural phenomena and the cosmos.10
A more dynamic conception of experimental science led various intellectuals of the time to consider occult manifestations as phenomena not yet known because of imperfect human senses and the limitations of human research tools; sooner or later, however, the scientific community was expected to be in a position to measure, understand, and explain. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle would eventually limit, if not altogether undermine, this hope for accurate measurements.
Exhortations to avoid reducing existence (and so the world) exclusively to what human senses can perceive came from all sides, as exemplified by the famous astronomer Camille Flammarion’s comment that X-rays were a further proof that “sensation and reality are two very different things.”11
Among the many attempts to systematize ways of understanding, ranging from alchemy to metapsychics to spiritualism, and drawn from sources as diverse as the Corpus Hermeticum, medieval mysticism, the neoplatonism of the Renaissance, freemasonry, and Eastern philosophies, was the philosophy of the Rose+Croix, which is worth citing for its direct influence on artistic disciplines.12 But even more relevant was the influence of theosophy.
Blavatsky’s theosophy, with its comparativist and encyclopedic popularizing approach, which embraced Eastern philosophical thought as well as having numerous points of contact with scientific research, found fertile ground in the cultural context of the epoch. In fact, it became fashionable in those end-of-the-century artistic circles that still believed in romantic philosophical ideas or had aligned with the new symbolist trend. Theosophy famously called for systematic research of parascientific phenomena that would apply the same criteria used by scientific method to investigate other natural phenomena. Such spiritual research was never intended for utilitarian purposes but only for the spiritual advancement of humanity.
In Italy theosophy paid particular attention to the study of the human psyche. In fact, perhaps because of the charismatic presence of the celebrated Turinese psychiatrist and anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, psychiatry and neurology were in Italy the first disciplines to take an interest in various forms of the occult. Among these forms were parapsychology and parascience (telepathy, clairvoyance, possession, psychokinesis, ideoplastic), as well as correlated mediumistic phenomena.13 The need to push beyond the appearance of things to understand the world and the belief that mediums and artists were gifted with more highly developed spiritual faculties-both principles that betrayed connections with romantic aesthetics-were propositions that futurists maintained on several occasions.
In this “sounding out” of reality the new frontiers of science were certainly helpful. Among the scientific discoveries of the age, that of Rntgen’s X-rays in 1895 was one of the most suggestive, because its application implied a complete revolution of the perceptive act itself. Unlike the theories on the fourth dimension or the study of non-Euclidean geometries that affected the representation of the perceptive act, X-rays revolutionized the very act of seeing. This discovery was fundamentally important in the development of theories of the pictorial avant-garde in the first years of the century-and not only for the futurists.14
X-rays bore a metaphoric weight: they encouraged one to view things profoundly rather than occupy oneself with the surface perceptible via the five senses. And an even closer relationship with mediumistic phenomena circulates in the scientific literature of the time: Lombroso, Flammarion, Ochorowicz, and Zoellner all drew a direct connection between Rntgen’s research on the vibration of ether waves and the phenomena of ectoplastic condensation.15 It is not surprising, then, to learn that X-rays profoundly fascinated Boccioni, Balla, and Russolo, and that they offered a concrete way of achieving (through the extension of human senses of perception) the futurist interpenetration of planes they promoted in the manifestos of futurist painting.
The futurists’ fascination with this new technology is first documented in a passage in the technical manifesto of futurist painting of April 11, 1910: “Who can still believe in the opacity of bodies, while our acuity and multiplied sensitivity makes us intuit the obscure manifestations of mediumistic phenomena? Why must one continue to create without taking account of our visual power that can give results analogous to those of X-rays?”16
The futurists were convinced that X-rays and X-ray-like clairvoyance could help to register otherwise invisible aspects of reality, such as the residual traces of the movement of bodies or the luminous emanations produced by the brain and projected in the surrounding aura-emanations that theosophists called “thought-forms.” This protocol of perception based on light and movement permitted one to grasp the spiritual level of reality. The technical manifesto claimed that “by the persistence of the image in the retina, objects in motion multiply, deform, following one another, as vibrations, in the space that they pass through [i.e., of their trajectory] [. . .]. To paint a figure one does not need to make the figure: one needs to render its atmosphere. [. . .] Motion and light destroy the materiality of bodies.”17
These convictions would be summarized at the end of the manifesto in the concept of complementarismo congenito (congenital complementarism), a notion that the art historian Marianne Martin, in her Futurist Art and Theory, considered “an occult spiritual experience bringing the artist in closer touch with the universal forces.”18 The term complementarismo congenito readily promotes a union of opposites that rings distinctively alchemical, and thus occult.
Space and Time Tamed: Marinetti’s Ectoplasm
An examination of the critical texts of Calvesi, Fagiolo dell’Arco, and Celant reveals that all of the most representative futurist artists were to varying degrees concerned with the occult.19 This is certainly true of Marinetti. By celebrating action and movement-a celebration clearly intoxicated with Nietzschianism-his aesthetics celebrated the energy manifested in every vibration of the cosmos, that is, energy itself.
Far from being a proposition of materialistic thrust, Marinetti’s obsessive celebration of movement and vibration reflects an occult, symbolist-derived substratum.20 Central to this view is the idea that matter is constituted by condensation of waves vibrating at different intensities; as such, through movement, matter either vanishes or better reveals its implicit spirituality. Basing his ideas on Nietzsche’s theory of action, his personal reading of Bergson’s vitalism, and Einstein’s theory of relativity (which Marinetti probably encountered by way of the popularizing work of Minkowsky), the founder of futurism derived a conception of the world in which, if only because we lack absolute parameters to show stasis, all is perpetual movement.21
According to Marinetti, “absolute space and time do not preexist, nor do any absolutely immovable points nor any objects in absolute movement, because there is no absolute term of reference: object and subject are, always, correlatively but discontinuously mobile.”22 According to Calvesi, futurists did not regard “spirit and matter (and therefore [. . .] intuition and intellect)” as separate; they saw them as a unity, under the “same principle of energy.”23 As is also true of Boccioni, Marinetti overcame Bergson’s dualism of matter versus movement. Matter never exists as absolute inertia: “Matter and movement, rather than contradictory ends, became ends that could be brought back to one single principle.”24
Behind this theory of energy we find not only the influence of Nietzsche’s interpretations and Einstein’s suggestions but also one of the core propositions of alchemy that futurists may have derived from pre-Socratic philosophies: the belief in a universe that may be synthesizable into a single generating principle, a primal matter, existing in various levels of density and from which all things derive.25 This primal matter, a wave vibrating at different frequency, was often referred to as the ether.
The interest in waves and vibrations, and in their relationship to occult themes, is a constant in Marinetti’s prose. In his Manifesto della declamazione dinamica e sinottica he writes that the futurist poet/performer will have the task of “metallizing, liquefying, vegetalizing, petrifying, and electrifying the voice, fusing it with the vibrations of matter, themselves expressed by Words-in-Freedom,”26 and in La grande Milano tradizionale e futurista Marinetti recognized in Russolo’s enterprise the capacity to “organize spiritually and fantastically our acoustic vibrations.”27
A similar transformative approach is found in the manifesto La radia, published with Pino Masnata in 1933. Among other things, the radio set (Marinetti and Masnata have recourse to the feminine gender for the word, radia) is here considered to be:
4. Reception amplification and transformation of vibrations emitted by living beings by living or dead spirits noisy dramas of states of mind without words.
5. Reception amplification and transformation of vibrations emitted by matter Just as today we listen to the song of the woods and of the sea tomorrow we will be seduced by the vibrations of a diamond or of a flower.28
It is, furthermore:
6. Pure organism of radiophonic sensations
7. An art without time or space without yesterday or tomorrow [. . .] The reception and amplification, through thermionic valves, of light and of the voices of the past will destroy time [. . .]
9. Human art, universal and cosmic, that is like a voice with a true psychology-spirituality of the noises, of the voices and of the silence.29
In these passages points of contact with panpsychism are evident. The idea that everything is vibration is an eminently occultist one, as it implies that all phenomena occurring in the world are in some way secretly linked. Once the corpuscular theory of light, inspired by Democritus and upheld by Newton, was put aside in favor of the theory of waves traveling through ether, which lasted until Einstein, it was as if the scientific community implicitly validated the long esoteric tradition that had always included a belief in the correlation between light and sound. The discovery of electromagnetic waves, X-rays, and, shortly after, radioactivity, confirmed this occultist proposition.30 In fact, the theory of waves propagating themselves in the ether reinforced and essentially confirmed an alchemical/synesthetic conception of art, because both sound and light are, according to this vision of physics, waves that only differ in frequency or wavelength-a difference of degree, not of kind.
Futurism was always characterized by a strong synesthetic component, and synesthesia has traditionally been an indicator of the occult (by way of the vibrational tradition).31 This connection was a remnant of the connection between futurism and French symbolism in the latter’s most occultist (and psychedelic) moments-one may think of the Baudelaire of Correspondances or the Rimbaud of Voyelles-but also of the Italian version of that same symbolism, alcoholic and brilliant, that we call Milanese scapigliatura, an antibourgeois art movement surely characterized, just as futurism is, by an overlap of scientific and occult interests.32
The debate about synesthesia was widespread at the opening of the twentieth century.33 Marinetti’s interest in the relationship between the arti sorelle (sister arts) and the different senses was ever present, even when not taking center stage as it does in his manifesto “Tactilism” (1921, revised in 1924).
Tactilism, Marinetti maintains, could be considered the result of the mortification of the other four senses, producing an empowered sense of touch; this would occur following a deviation of the sun from its proper orbit that would cause its unusual distancing from the earth.34 But, Marinetti maintained, the phenomenon was instead created by “an act of futurist caprice/faith/will.” In fact, in an extreme situation such as a planetary catastrophe, the five senses would be reduced to only one. Marinetti wrote, “Everybody can feel that sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste are modifications of a single, highly perceptive sense: the sense of touch, which splits into different ways and organizes into different points.”35
In this manifesto, tactilism is a provisional term for a new art form that merges all of the five traditional senses as well as a series of new senses that Marinetti lists. He chooses to give “the name of Tactilism to all the senses that are not specified,” since he believes that the perceptive senses are in fact “more or less arbitrary localizations of that confused total of intertwined senses that constitute the typical forces of the human machine”; these forces could in his opinion “be better observed on the epidermal frontiers of our body.” Notwithstanding this, the attention here is obviously on the sense of touch; as Marinetti describes it, to arrive at a tactile art, other stimuli (including the visual) must be sacrificed or neutralized.36
Marinetti therefore contemplates a synesthetic emotion-which by definition links different senses by means of association-that is evoked and activated by use of specially made implements that he calls tactile tables (tavole tattili). In tactile art it is exclusively through touch that the perceiver reconstructs, by association, stimuli that, while similar, belong to other expressive fields such as music or painting; this kind of reconstruction is encouraged in the tactile tables. Marinetti chose not to integrate the expressive protocol of the tactile tables with expressive modalities derived from other art forms (like painting or sculpture)-a choice made not to prevent a dialogue between the arts but to protect the newborn art form tactilism and permit it, at least in the beginnings of its journey, to develop autonomously.
Marinetti believed that the sense of touch, when empowered, permits seeing beyond the physical-permits seeing even inside objects, as if by a sort of tactile X-ray vision: “A visual sense is born, at the fingertips. Interscopia is developed, and some individuals are able to see inside their own bodies. Others can shadowy make out the shadowy insides of nearby bodies.” The connection with Boccioni’s interpenetration of planes, and of its occult and scientific matrices (or implications), could not be clearer.
At its core, Marinetti’s tactilism aimed at the perfecting of “spiritual communications between human beings, through the epidermis.” Often read as merely an erotic proclamation, this statement was, rather, the testimony of Marinetti’s spiritual and occult attitude, perhaps even traceable to the conversations with his father, who was an enthusiastic reader of Eastern philosophy.37 With Tactilism, Marinetti proposed to “penetrate better and outside of scientific methods the true essence of matter” and to promote the type of spiritual experience that could reach the point of “negating the distinction between spirit and matter,” an affirmation that in substance overcomes, as stated above, Bergson’s dualism of movementversusmatter. Marinetti believed that comprehension of the essence of matter could be obtained by eliminating the mediation of the brain (i.e., of human reason), which is guilty of polluting the virgin, immediate perfection of the tactile experience. As he wrote: “Perhaps there is more thought in the fingertips than in the brain that has the pride of observing the phenomenon [the act of touching].”
According to Marinetti, the new art had more relations with spiritualism and could better demonstrate the validity of theories of reincarnation than other arts: “The futurist Balla declares that by means of Tactilism everyone can enjoy again with freshness and absolute surprise the sensations of his past life, that he could not enjoy again with equal surprise by means of music nor by means of painting.”38
Only a few years after this manifesto, the Manifesto della fotografia futurista, a collaboration between Marinetti and Tato published on April 11, 1930, proposed updating Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s fotodinamica (photodynamics) by taking advantage of the new technological possibilities. The aesthetic coordinates of this book however are not that distant from Bragaglia’s, who was from the beginning of his career interested in phenomena of mediumistic materialization.
The goals of futurist photography in 1930 included, among other things:
4. The spectralizing of some parts of the human or animal body isolated or joined nonlogically; [. . .]
11. The transparent and semitransparent superimposition of concrete persons and objects and of their semiabstract phantasms with simultaneity of memory/dream; [. . .]
14. The composition of absolutely extraterrestrial landscapes, astral or mediumistic by means of thicknesses, elasticity, turbid depths, clear transparencies, algebraic or geometric values, and with nothing human, vegetable, or geologic;39
But in L’uomo moltiplicato e il regno della macchina, part of Guerra sola igiene del mondo of 1915 (and originally in Le futurisme of 1911, perhaps even drafted as early as 1910), Marinetti aspired to a structural modification of man that in future would, thanks to the materialization of wings produced with the force of thought, allow man to fly.40
In L’uomo moltiplicato, Marinetti wrote: “The day it is possible for man to exteriorize his will such that it extends outside of him like an immense invisible arm-on that day Dream and Desire, which today are vain words, will rule sovereign over tamed Space and Time.”41 Having lost the reader in this forest of his postsymbolist prose, Marinetti then showed us the way. He believed that this prophecy, which he himself recognized as paradoxical, could be more easily understood by “studying the phenomena of exteriorized will that constantly manifest themselves in sances.”
This uomo moltiplicato, a metallic alter egothat would duplicate man without duplicating his defects, would even have the gift of clairvoyance and, in addition to being a “non-human and mechanical type, constructed for an omnipresent velocity, it will be naturally cruel, omniscient and combative.” The figure of the multiplied man shows interesting similarities with the metallic animal of the subsequent manifesto, “Ricostruzione futurista dell’universo” by Balla and Depero, the aggressiveness of which would unquestionably have been inebriated with the spirit of World War I interventionism.
For Marinetti, the man of the future was not so much the product of Darwinian evolution as, rather, the transformist hypothesis of Lamarck (whom, indeed he cited in his essay): not an evolution of man but his alchemical transformation into a more perfect being created by the futurists, a “non-human type in whom moral pain, kindness, affection and love, i.e., the only corrosive poisons of inexhaustible vital energy, will be abolished”-in short, a man aiming for a suspended, ataractic, beyond-good-and-evil spiritual state.
These scientific-alchemical themes never disappeared from Marinetti’s repertoire. In his 1933 manifesto La radia, he again announced the “overcoming of death” through futurism “with a metallizing of the human body and the appropriating of the vital spirit as machine force.”42 In this proclamation, Marinetti reelaborated his 1915 position, according to which the futurists had the power to reawaken mummies with the charismatic electricity of their hand movements. In a passage of “Guerra sola igiene del mondo,” Marinetti recounts some of the brawls after the futurist evenings of the first years: “Everywhere, we saw growing in a few hours the courage and the number of men that are truly young, and [we saw] the galvanized mummies that our gesture had extracted from the ancient sarcophagi, becoming bizarrely agitated.”43 By now it should be clear that Marinetti’s will futuristically to abolish death is a trope, a trope that will recur frequently in Marinetti’s writings (e.g., the closing of the manifesto “La matematica futurista immaginativa qualitativa”). 44
Painting the Invisible: Boccioni’s Sixth Sense
Contro ogni materialismo.
Umberto Boccioni, “Note per il libro”45
At the intersection of romantic impetuousness and Bergsonian critique of materialism, the personality of Umberto Boccioni stands out dramatically. Departing from a type of formation close to Marinetti’s but influenced by Marinetti’s theories, Boccioni too demonstrated a strong interest in the occult. Drawn to symbolism, Nietzsche, and Bergson, familiar with the ideas of Einstein, admirer of Wagner, and more generally attracted to the titanic and romantic aesthetic, Boccioni had the vocation and the presumption of the demiurge, the creator of worlds, the materializer.
Boccioni, like Marinetti, overcame the Bergsonian dualism of matter and movement by wedding himself to Einstein’s vision (and perhaps to that of Steiner, if one substitutes the term energy for spirit).46 Everything moves, everything vibrates(all bodies are “persistent symbols of the universal vibration,” can be read in the technical manifesto of futurist painting), all creation is energy, existing in the form of waves that organize the primal matter, the ether, into different levels of density or, as Boccioni puts it, of intensity. There is no separation between one body and another: in Boccioni’s thought, continuity is preferred. In fact, in his article “Fondamento plastico della scultura e pittura futuriste,” which appeared in the periodical Lacerba on March 15, 1913, Boccioni writes that “distances between one object and another are not of the empty spaces, but of the continuities of matter of different intensity,” immediately adding that in the paintings of the futurists one does not have “the object and the emptiness, but only a greater or lesser intensity and solidity of spaces.”47
And he adds, further advocating for continuity,
They accuse us of doing “cinematography, which is an accusation that really makes us laugh, so much it is vulgarly moronic. We do not subdivide visual images: we search for a shape, or, better, a single form [forma unica] that would substitute the new concept of continuity to the old concept of (sub)division.
Every subdivision of motion is completely arbitrary, as it is completely arbitrary every subdivision of matter.48
In confirmation of this proposition, Boccioni presents two quotes form Bergson.
This passage can be better understood after reading the futurist Ardengo Soffici’s restatement of this principle of continuity, since he returns the concept to what would have been its original theosophical coordinates. In his article “Raggio,” published in Lacerba on July 1, 1914, and republished not by chance a few months later in the Roman theosophical periodical Ultra with the eloquent title “La teosofia nel futurismo,” Soffici wrote that bodies are not separated from one another but that “the entire universe therefore is a single whole without interruption of continuity,” and that, moreover, “the world is not a molecular aggregate, but a flux of energy with varied rhythms, from granite to thought.”49
Soffici goes on to maintain that “a privileged organism, a center of extra-powerful vital force, can in a certain moment and under certain circumstances attract and concentrate within itself its distant parts, the peripheral waves of its energies, making them concrete,” and that “an artist can live and make concrete in a work the life of another being, of things, of places that he has not visited. A prophet [can] see and reveal future events-future for sensibilities less acute than his own.” In a crescendo of self-centered hubris, Soffici maintains that his consciousness is “a globe of light that shoots its rays all around in accordance with its force,” and he concludes, “I am the point of confluence of history and of the world. I am one with eternity and with the infinite.”50
Soffici’s claim that the psychic energy of the artist could not simply reproduce but must re-create reality was shared by all futurists. I shall investigate how determinative this proposition is in analyzing the work of Russolo. This idea led to the futurists’ interest in the creation of ectoplasmic forms by sensitive subjects in a mediumistic trance. In “Fondamento plastico della scultura e pittura futuriste,” Boccioni wrote:
When, through the works, one understands the truth of futurist sculpture, one will see the form of atmosphere where before one saw emptiness and then with the impressionists a fog. This fog was already a first step toward atmospheric plasticity, toward our physical transcendentalism which is then another step toward the perception of analogous phenomena until now occult to our obtuse sensitivity, such as the perceptions of the luminous emanations of our body of which I spoke in my first lecture in Rome and which the photographic plate already reproduces.51
A year later, at the close of his volume Pittura, scultura futuriste, Boccioni wrote: “For us the biological mystery of mediumistic materialization is a certainty, a clarity in the intuition of psychic transcendentalism and of plastic states of mind.”52 In his preparatory notes for the book, which were published posthumously, Boccioni formulated yet anothereloquent phrase: “Our painting is esoteric.”53
In the passage from “Fondamento plastico della scultura e pittura futuriste” quoted above, Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco read an allusion to the photographs of ectoplasms produced at the beginning of the century by the notorious Neapolitan medium Eusapia Palladino.54 Both Marinetti and Boccioni were fascinated by Palladino’s sances.55 These sances had became still better known after the director of the Corriere della sera tried to discredit them.56
Palladino based her credibility on the fact that she had agreed to repeat her mediumistic sances in the presence of neurologists and psychologists, and she was defended fiercely by the anthropologist Lombroso. Celant records that Lombroso, along with a Turinese group of faithful followers, was in those years investigating the study of phenomena of psychic condensation and materialization. Lombroso’s theories would have been fairly widespread in the artistic circles of the time. Kandinsky, for example, was well informed about the studies on spiritualism that Lombroso conducted in Palladino’s mediumistic sances,57 and the young Balla in his early years in Turin took Lombroso’s classes.58
Materialization phenomena were also the point of departure for the work of Anton Giulio Bragaglia, the author of that “futurist photodynamism” that incited Boccioni’s wrath. In two articles from 1913 titled “I fantasmi dei vivi e dei morti” and “La fotografia dell’invisibile,” Bragaglia published photos of fake ectoplasms; in doing so he was following a well-established international trend.59 But the year before, influenced by mediumistic photos and those theories of chronophotography of Muybridge or Maray on which Giacomo Balla based his 1912 paintings of the frame-based breakdown of movement (scomposizione del movimento), Bragaglia had already produced the first works of photodynamism.60 In these works he retraced blurs and trajectories of bodies in movement, aiming to reveal that spiritual essence that is lost as a result of the limitations of the human eye: “In motion, things, dematerializing, become idealized,” he declared in his Fotodinamismo futurista.61 Calvesi, considering this phrase to be a departure from Bergsonian ideas, linked it to one of the key phrases of the technical manifesto of futurist painting of 1910: “Movement and light destroy the materiality of bodies.” Bragaglia’s interest in the supernatural did not exhaust itself in this first phase, as testified by his 1932 photograph Alchimia musicale.
But the passage from Lacerba of March 15, 1913, in which Boccioni talked about “perceptions of the luminous emanations of our body,” seems actually to refer to the particular metapsychics phenomena that Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater called “thought-forms.” Their book Thought-forms of 1901 was read assiduously in the early twentieth century by artists who were interested in abstract painting. In fact, it exerted great influence over the work of Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, and Mondrian.
The book’s central proposition is that all thoughts and emotions create corresponding forms and colors in the aura that surrounds the physical body of every human being. These forms and colors are directly determined by the vibrations of the aura, which only clairvoyants can perceive. According to Besant and Leadbeater, the aura of an individual is composed of the union of different “bodies,” among which are the astral body, generated by the passions, and the mental body, generated by the thoughts. The vibrations of the astral and mental bodies have the power to produce special psychic forms, both concrete and abstract, which they called thought-forms. Thought-forms can move freely, and they can distance themselves from the body if the energy of the mind that produced them is sufficient. Their color is based on the quality of the thought, their form on its nature, and their sharpness on its clarity.62
Besant’s and Leadbeater’s book contain a famous series of color plates painted by various artists on indications furnished by the authors after experiencing trances. Their indications were intended to document scientifically, down to the smallest detail, the thought-forms produced by subjects while feeling emotions ranging from devotion to fear and rage that were collected on specific occasions, at specific times of the day. The largely abstract plates attracted the interest of artists of the time, as did the illustrations of Leadbeater’s Man Visible and Invisible of 1902. Thought-forms was quickly translated into a number of languages; in Italy it was first disseminated in the 1905 French translation, in which version it was read by Luigi Pirandello and influenced his poetics from the writing of Il fu Mattia Pascal onward.63
It is useful, however, to remember that Boccioni first expressed interest in the occult in that Roman lecture of 1911 that he referred to in his Lacerba article of March 15, 1913, a lecture in which his spirituality is clearly revealed. The text of the lecture, which remained unpublished for a long time, represents one of the high points of Boccioni’s poetics. Conscious of its relevance, he referred to it often in his subsequent works. His familiarity with the books of Leadbeater and Besant, particularly Thought-forms, emerges from the very opening lines of the lecture, where, in prophesizing the art of the future, Boccioni affirms:
There will come a time when a painting will no longer be enough. Its immobility will be an archaism when compared with the vertiginous movement of human life. The eye of man will perceive colors like feelings in themselves. Multiplied colors will have no need of forms to be understood, and pictorial works will be whirling musical compositions of enormous colored gases, which on the scene of a free horizon, will move and electrify the complex soul of a crowd that we cannot yet imagine.64
The reference to the use of colors as “feelings in themselves,” the use of “colored gases” that can electrify the soul, and the synesthetic link between colors and musical composition are all concepts from Thought-forms. In that same year, 1911, Luigi Russolo exhibited perhaps his most ambitious canvas, on which he had worked for many years.65 Titled La musica, it represents a whirling azure wave that unfolds in the air while the protagonist of the painting, a pianist, executes equally whirling musical figurations on a keyboard. Russolo’s painting probably inspired Boccioni’s visionary remarks above; and it certainly inspired some elements of Citt che sale, Boccioni’s masterpiece of 1910-1911 (fig. 3).B66[fig.3]/B
The synesthetic hypothesis returned in the closing words of Boccioni’s 1911 lecture, where Boccioni clarified that by painting the sensation, the futurists stop “the idea before it can be localized in any one sense and be determined either as music, poetry, painting, architecture, that way capturing without any mediation the primal universal sensation.”67 Moreover, because futurists live in the absolute, Boccioni maintained that it was necessary for those wishing to understand their works to be not only extremely intelligent but also ready “to enter into contact with pure intuition,” which is possible only “after a long and religious preparation.”68
Thanks to this spiritual preparation, we are endowed with a new sensitivity that, through new perceptive and psychic means, guides us in the search for the absolute, Boccioni writes:
We painters [. . .] feel that this sensitivity is a psychic divining force that gives the senses the power to perceive that which never until now was perceived.69 We think that if everything tends toward Unity, that which man until today has sought to perceive in unity is still a miserable blind infantile decomposition of things.70
Boccioni believed that the artist must aspire to re-create this unity from the “chaos that envelops things.” Sensation is the synthesis, the essence of things, their transfiguration. It is the “subjective impression of Nature.”
Moving from the more spiritual aspects of the artistic currents that had gone before (divisionism, impressionism, symbolism), Boccioni arrived at a definition of futurism as the culmination and overcoming of these previous artistic currents. Divisionism represents for Boccioni the achievement of a “symphonic and polychromatic unity of the painting that will become more and more a universal synthesis.” With the impressionists, figures and objects, although still in a fairly embryonic way, “are already the nucleus of an atmospheric vibration.” But the impressionists exchanged “appearance for reality.” It was their limit, and as a result they were trapped in a superficial representation of nature.
Boccioni considered the painting style of the Italian symbolist Gaetano Previati, in which he noted contacts with the “Rosa Croce,” which was the direct predecessor of futurist painting. In Previati, “forms begin to speak like music, bodies aspire to make themselves atmosphere, spirit, and the subject is ready to transform itself into a state of mind.”
Boccioni perceived futurism as a new kind of impressionism: “Our impressionism is absolutely spiritual since more than the optical and analytical impression, it wishes to give the psychic and synthetic impression of reality.” The spiritual role of futurist painting and the psychic force that it develops exhibits far loftier ambitions than French impressionism. In Boccioni’s words, it “hypnotizes, grasps, envelops and drags the soul to the infinite.” Boccioni had already defined this psychic synthesis as “simultaneity of state of mind.”It was a mnemonic-optical representation of what is remembered and what is seen; in substance, it was a spiritualization of the perceptive experience. As if it were an X-ray view, this psychic synthesis offered possibilities of “penetrating the opacity of bodies.”
The influence of X-rays and the mythology that the futurists developed around them returns with Boccioni’s mention of X-rays in a catalog note for the painting La risata (also painted in the year 1911), which was prepared for the program of the 1912 London exhibition: “The scene is round the table of a restaurant where all are gay. The personages are studied from all sides and both the objects in front and those at the back are to be seen, all those being present in the painter’s memory, so that the principle of the Roentgen rays is applied to the picture.”71
This quote shows similarities with his affirmations in the Roman lecture. For Boccioni the model of the modern artist was the “clairvoyant painter,” capable of “painting not only the visible but that which until now was held to be invisible.”72 He believed that the modern painter “can only paint the invisible, clothing it with lights and shadows that emanate from his own soul.” Thanks to the progress-spiritual and technological-of the modern age, the five senses can be transcended: “It is our futurist hypersensitivity that guides us and makes us already possess that sixth sense that science strains in vain to catalog and define.”73
This perceptive sensitivity permitted the futurist artist to understand the spiritual essence of the movement of bodies. Everything is perennially in motion, all is composed of the same waves that have various grades of density and that vibrate at different intensities. “Bodies are but condensed atmosphere,” Boccioni wrote, and minerals, plants, and animals are composed of “identical nature.” This new sensitivity is a true and real “psychic divining force” that allows one to grasp that substantial “Unity” of everything that Boccioni considered-as he phrases it in his lecture notes in a crossed-out line-the symbol of the “universal vibration.” 74 Futurist painting aspired to reproduce a more profound reality as it is perceived by the subject and as it produced states of mind in the subject: “If bodies provoke states of mind through vibrations of forms, it is those that we will draw.”
The following excerpt from the closing paragraph of the Roman lecture is both the most visionary passage of that document and the one where Boccioni’s familiarity with Leadbeater is most evident:
There is a space of vibrations between the physical body and the invisible that determines the nature of its action and that will dictate the artistic sensation. In short, if around us spirits wander and are observed and studied; if from our bodies emanate fluids of power, of antipathy, of love; if deaths are foreseen at a distance of hundreds of kilometers; if premonitions give us sudden joy or annihilate us with sadness; if all this impalpable, this invisible, this inaudible becomes more and more the object of investigation and observation: all of this happens because in us some marvelous sense is awakening thanks to the light of our consciousness. Sensation is the material garment of the spirit and now it appears to our clairvoyant eyes. And with this the artist feels himself in everything. By creating he does not look, does not observe, does not measure; he feels and the sensations that envelop him dictates him the lines and colors that will arouse the emotions that caused him to act.
The Craft of Light: Balla’s Occult Signature
In Balla one finds again the confluence of two streams common among many of his futurist comrades: the scientific/positivist and the spiritualist.75 The merging of these two tendencies into a sort of metaphysical rationality would constitute, toward the end of the nineteenth century, one of the aims of theosophy. As Linda Henderson maintains, the preferred meeting place between science and spirituality is the theory of vibrations.76 In the light of this convergence of ends, it is no surprise that Balla, literally obsessed with vibrations, was involved with theosophy for many years, and that an understanding of his relations with it are crucial to reconstructing his artistic journey.
During his formative years in Turin, Balla studied with Cesare Lombroso (whose contacts with spiritualism have been mentioned by Germano Celant, among others).77 But the encounter first with freemasonry and occultism, and later with theosophy, occurred only in 1895, once Balla had moved to Rome. In the first years of the century, Balla furthered his interest in psychiatry by reading Hoepli’s popular compendia and manuals.78 His interest in X-rays may have been piqued by his acquaintance with Professor Ghilarducci, an expert on radiology, psychology, and electrotherapy, whose portrait Balla painted in 1903.79 This is indicated in an undated entry in his notebooks: “Roentgen rays and their applications.”80 I believe he made this entry to remind himself to look into Ignazio Schincaglia’s popular 1911 book Radiografia e radioscopia: Storia dei raggi Roentgen e loro applicazioni piu importanti.
The supernatural element is already present in some of Balla’s first Roman works, both in the impressive dimensions of Ritratto della madre from 1901 and in the metaphysical angle and hyperrealism of the formidable Fallimento of 1902.81 As early as 1904 he maintained a friendship with Ernesto Nathan, an occultist and freemason (he was grand master of the Grande Oriente d’Italia in 1899 and again in 1917), who in 1907 became the first anticlerical mayor to take office in the Campidoglio. Nathan acquired nine canvases from Balla and commissioned a portrait in 1910, and Balla even taught painting to Nathan’s daughter, Annie.82 Notwithstanding his contact with Nathan, Balla apparently never affiliated himself with a lodge.83
Information about Balla’s first contact with theosophy comes from Balla’s daughter Elica: “In 1916 Balla is also interested in psychic phenomena and attends the meetings of a society of theosophists presided over by General Ballatore; they hold, in said society, sances. […] Inspired by this interest, […] he outlines some sketches on this subject and then a larger painting, aptly titled Trasformazione forme spiriti” (fig. 4).B84[fig.4]/B
Flavia Matitti has reconstructed the history of the circle around Generale Ballatore, the “Gruppo Teosofico Roma,” and Balla’s relationship with that circle. Gruppo Roma was founded in 1897 and recognized as a theosophical association in 1907. In the same year, the first issues of the periodical Ultra came out; in it Ballatore published articles on hyperspace and the fourth dimension; later he wrote on radioactivity. Ultra was the official organ of Gruppo Roma until 1930. In October 1914, Ardengo Soffici published his article “La Teosofia nel futurismo” in Ultra.85
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“A hectic and invigorating hodgepodge of brainy rants, poignant reminiscences,…and palate-cleansing silliness.” – Zac Thompson, Chicago Reader Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind
30 plays in 60 minutes every weekend, and ever-changing.Over nine-thousand 2-minute plays written since 1988.
Our signature show, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, which had its first performance on December 2, 1988, is now in its twenty-seventh year, making it the longest-running show in Chicago today. Too Much Light, with its ever-changing menu, is an attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. The single unifying element of these plays is that they are performed from a perspective of absolute honesty.
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