When you hear a line like, “It’s all over but the screaming,” you’re curious. But when you hear it at the meeting of the world’s super-elite at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, it really gets your attention. To be sure, it was said in jest. At least sort of: the basic point to which the comment referred is real. We are on the brink of seismic structural and social change.  And we’re not ready.

The overarching themes of the meeting have been widely talked about. Pretty much every journalist snickered that the Davos “Mountain Few” (as Jon Stewart put it) talked a lot about the worrying rise in income inequality, but when 85 people have as much money as the poorest 50% of the world’s population, well, how could they not talk about it? “Extreme science” is reshaping life, death and the very idea of nature (spider genes spliced into goat’s so that there’s spider silk in the goat’s milk, anyone?). Privacy and security are on everyone’s mind in a post-Snowdon world. And, underpinning all of this, as Thomas Friedman pointed out, is the convergence of globalisation and the IT revolution. The two new technologies most up for discussion were 3D printing (we’re already printing human jaws, next it will be houses) and cognitive computing which could replace entire industries.

Taken together, these trends represent fundamental shifts in how our world works. They probably won’t feel like science fiction as they start to unfold – every change builds on one before so we become habituated to them. But they will be profound. The difference isn’t just machines doing our work for us and displacing certain kinds of labour. That trend has been around since the Industrial Revolution. And the difference isn’t just even that the so-called knowledge economy will collapse around us because knowledge per se won’t have much value anymore. Rather, the most significant difference will be in the way these trends could impact deep values like social inclusion, democracy, social stability and a belief in individual growth and potential.

On the threshold of the structural changes we’re in for – and mindful of the potential screaming – it’s more important than ever to be asking some big questions. The ones I heard repeatedly in Davos were where the jobs of the future will come from when whole industries are transformed or eradicated? And how do we avoid winner-take-all economies and the civil unrest that might go with them?

These are important. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee said, societies that don’t think about the future don’t tend to do well there. And there’s no doubt that the world’s governments will need very good policies and practices indeed to manage the coming changes.

But there are other important questions that we need to ask too. And for the most part, I didn’t really hear them in Davos. I was left wondering what it will mean to be human in this new world? And what will we need to flourish? Setting policy aside – what should we as individuals be seeking to nurture in ourselves through the coming transitions?

Considering not just the wealth of data on well-being but also its consistency, I’d venture that the things we’re most going to need to cultivate is connection. Not just social connection through smart phones or Skype or maybe even virtual reality. God knows these have their merits, but we need to think more deeply about the sorts of connections we need to be happy, healthy and (because I think we’ll need it) grounded.

We’re going to need meaningful connections to our own bodies. This means remembering that we’re not machines to monitor and measure (one delegate on a healthcare panel, referring to the wearable device Jawbone, said, “We wouldn’t dream of driving a car without a speedometer, so why are we trying to manage our health without these?”), but rather living animals who need to play and move. We need to walk long distances, dance, jump in puddles, skip and play. We need to be connected to our bodies through the use of them, not just through machines that read back our vital signs to us.

We also need meaningful connections to the world around us through our bodies. We need to touch and feel things with our hands and skin. We will need to gasp at the shock of cold lake water, pull away from the clingy fabric of spiders’ webs, feel comforted by the warm skin of a beloved’s body, and savour the richness of a tomato picked from the garden.

We’re going to need – more than ever – a connection to where we’ve come from, to the traditions that have shaped us and the human skills that are so awesome and beautiful that they’re worth cultivating and keeping even when they’re technically redundant: penmanship, stonemasonry, pottery, baking, needlework and so on.

And we’re going to need connections to a creativity that isn’t defined by or directed to technology alone but rather is valued in whatever form it takes, whether it’s the community spirit of a street musician or the social observation of a novelist.

These comments aren’t a romantic lament for a lost world. In a time in which people seem to be defining themselves as technological optimists or pessimists, I see myself simply as a realist. As it stands, we’ve got a whole lot of evidence that while the material benefits that technological innovation have brought are real and need to be acknowledged, we’re also grappling with unprecedented rates of anxiety, depression, obesity and so on. But there’s plenty of research out there that suggests what humans need to thrive. And it’s not technology, or at least, not just technology. It’s the connections that remind us of our very natures.

As we venture into what Thomas Friedman calls this ‘Gutenberg-scale moment’ let’s keep the notion of the good life front and centre. It should be guiding not only the policy choices with which we’ll be managing these structural changes, but also the daily choices (and refusals) we make.

 

 

I’ve never really understood the compulsion to climb a mountain just because “it’s there”, but I’ve always had a soft spot for explorers. The drive to discover, sometimes at great risk, is a phenomenal human trait. We might now cringe at the colonial implications of early European exploration, but there’s no denying the awesome human spirit at work in someone like a Captain Cook, or a Burton and Speke.

Which is precisely why I love pianist Dotan Negrin’s work. Negrin is not just a musician, and a fine one at that. He’s an explorer in the truest sense of the word. His goal is to explore the power music has to connect people. And his means for doing so isn’t just a jam session in his basement or his local bar, or in the comparative safety of a conservatory classroom. Like so many great explorers before him, he’s taken his quest on the road.

His first project was Piano Across America, in 2011. Negrin emptied his savings account, bought a sturdy upright piano and a sturdier truck, and took off across America with his piano – and his dog, Brando, who has a habit of perching on top of the piano like a furry masthead, and is unfortunately occasionally prone to motion sickness. Negrin traveled over 15,000 miles and played on the streets of 32 cities and 8 National Parks. His website chronicles his adventures: the wild beauty of playing in the parks, impromptu dance parties on the streets of New Mexico, jamming with – and getting robbed by – an Oxycontin addict. But it wasn’t for the sheer wild ride of it all, or for some journey of self-discovery. It was to show that, in the words of famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, music “quickens” people. It brings them to life. And it can knit them together in a shared experience.

You can feel this power if you listen to some of the music he’s posted on his website. Go to his website and listen to him teasing out the blues from his piano, or creating impromptu jazz sessions with friends and strangers, or inspiring a bunch of Hasidic men to dance in circle around his piano in New York City. And listen to him absorbing the arrival of an entire marching band led by a bridal couple on the streets of New Orleans. If you can watch that clip without smiling, well, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Negrin’s latest project, which just got funding through Kickstarter earlier this week, is Language of the Universe. His plan is to drive from New York City to Panama with his piano and Brando in order to document the importance of music in peoples’ lives. I’m not quite sure what it would be like to drive a piano through Central America…in fact, I don’t think anyone could be. As far as anyone knows, it’s never been done before.

The project’s title sums up Negrin’s feeling about why music is such a great connector. As he put it to me, music connects because it’s in many ways a “universal language”. While he hastily added that he’s not the first person to say that, he’s actually seen what that means when he’s played on the streets of America:

“Everyone can feel a piece of music. You see how people react every time they walk by, even just for a second. Almost every person has a smile on their face. They brighten up a little, even if it’s just a little bit.

“I think when I play piano on the street, it becomes this ice breaker. Like there was this one time I was playing and I had this nice little crowd of seven or eight people surrounding me, and five or six of them were there for something like two hours. Just hanging out and talking and listening to music. And I would tell them how I practice and play.

“And what’s interesting is that I talk to people I’ve never met before. Total strangers. As if I’ve known them for years. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that I never have that opportunity unless I’m playing piano on the street. Like if I’m walking in New York on the street, I would never meet these people. I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t get that same opportunity without having the piano there. Without playing the piano.”

There are some fascinating studies (Negrin’s read them, I look forward to doing so) about how our brain processes music and why it affects us so strongly. And, as Negrin says, performing piano on the street (especially with a dog perched beside you) is a heck of a conversation starter. But I was lucky enough to have Negrin over for dinner last summer. We talked about music over gumbo and wine, and afterwards he played our piano and gave our daughter Mira a lesson in playing the blues scale.

I saw what the philosopher Albert Borgmann has written come to life in front of me. A skilled musician playing his instrument commands attention. A musical instrument is a wonderful thing in and of itself, something beautiful and redolent of human tradition. But in the hands of a good musician it reveals itself. Negrin made the playing look effortless, though I know from Mira’s own hours of beginner’s practice, it’s anything but. When Negrin played, the piano became something. Mira, playing alongside him, blossomed. And the rest of us were caught up too…we laughed, taped our feet any my three year old son jumped up and danced.

And one can see how Negrin’s power really would come to the fore in the public sphere. Borgmann writes about the power of street music – especially jazz – to create communities of celebration. His words might have been written directly for Negrin. While Borgmann notes that a “community” in this context as often as not is anonymous, and tends to form and dissolve quickly, it doesn’t need to be anything more than that to create something meaningful. “The bodily presence, the skill, the engagement, and the goodwill of the musicians radiate into the listeners and transform them to some degree.” And Borgmann adds that “Music as a celebration that is real all the way down will also sink its roots into the reality of the public space where it takes place. Celebration and place will inform one another.”

Piano Across America and The Language of the Universe are fantastic projects. It’s important for psychologists and neuroscientists to continue to study our relationship to music. But it’s equally important to have old fashioned explorers who hit the road in pursuit of a quest. Negrin’s mission, to explore the role of music in our lives and how it can connect one, is as emblematic of the new good life as anything I’ve seen. And by playing in the streets of North and South America, he’s not just studying the good life – he’s creating it.

Dotan Negrin and Brando: Piano Across AmericaImage courtesy of Dotan Negrin

Dotan Negrin and Brando: Piano Across America
Image courtesy of Dotan Negrin