james fish

@james.fish

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: An Honest Reflection on Further Future Festival.

This is a long post — about a 15 minute read. Yet, I guarantee it is worth it. I gave this a ton of thought before, during, and after the festival, and unlike many, I had zero agenda going in other than to experience what I could and report back.

In this, I detail:

  1. My motivations for attending Further Future, despite everything I’d heard
  2. My experience while there — the good, the bad, and yes…the ugly
  3. What I think those experiences mean about Further Future now, and in it’s (heh) future.
Sunrise with our alien friends. PC: Marko Markovic

Why I went this year

Before Further Future, I asked a few dozen friends for opinions. These could be generally classified as:

  • “I went, and I had an awesome time”
  • “I’ve never been, but i’m curious about it and think it could be interesting”
  • “I went, and it was alright — many things could have been better”
  • “I didn’t/won’t go, because the idea turns me off” (meaning: I perceive the values of the festival or its organizers to be wrong/at odds with mine, and so I won’t even consider it)

A mixed bag — which piqued my curiosity. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that an event like Further Future is a fascinating research environment.

  • In my day job, I’m a user experience designer and researcher, applying methods that evaluate products, services, brands, or experiences from the point of view of their users.
  • On weekends, I’m DJing and organizing events, some of which offer interaction, education and introspection in addition to music and fun (albeit on a smaller scale and a much different price point than Further Future.)
  • An event like Further Future is seemingly at the intersection of those passions.

My initial intention was to approach Further Future as a design research exercise to evaluate the guest experience as objectively as possible. This included factual observations of logistical successes/failures as well as a few dozen interviews (I brought a voice recorder and a notebook.) This is not that report. That report will be posted soon and shared directly with the organizers — I’ll link it here later.

This personal reflection aims to focus less on the logistical successes/failures, and more on the qualitative meaning my experience had.

An excerpt from one of the many interviews I conducted at Further Future, which will be digested into a more formal evaluation.

The Good:

Let’s start with the good, of which there was plenty.

Music

I experienced enough incredible music during Further Future to last me a year. I’m hard to please, and it takes a really special combination of music, sound design, and vibe to get me going. To Further Future’s credit, I danced some of the hardest I’ve ever danced.

Moments that stood out to me:

  • DJ Tennis’ Friday evening set was the perfect accompaniment to my molecular gastronomy meal — had the food not been equally incredible, I’d have wolfed it down to get up and dance.
  • Four Tet’s punchy, polyrhythmic and tribal DJ set left me sweating and ready for the weekend.
  • The Pharcyde brought an incredibly tight, yet totally relaxed and positive performance despite a crowd that didn’t know more than a couple songs (myself included, though I know at least a few bars to “Ya Mama.”)
  • Later that night, I remarked to a friend during Leftfield’s mind-blowing and genre-bending trip through electronic music that if it were the only show I’d seen that weekend, it would have been worth the cost of attendance.
  • Jane Fitz is a name I’ll definitely be following — she spun an incredible all-vinyl set through punchy house, groovy acid, and driving melodic deepness that showcased versatility, soul, and technical prowess all while providing the perfect soundtrack to Saturday afternoon and sunset.
If Leftfield were the only show I’d seen that weekend, it would have been worth the cost of attendance.

Sound and lighting design

That Robot Hearts founders have professional expertise in lighting and sound production was supremely evident.

  • The Robot Heart bus sounded fantastically clean and powerful, yet not overdriven, as did the Mothership when it was dialed in right (the vocals during Pharcyde weren’t really all there, and parts of Nicolas Jaar’s set lacked oomph.)
  • The visuals at each stage were crisp, intense, vibrant, and totally entrancing — I caught myself and friends with screen gaze more than once.
  • The lighting during Caribou’s ten minute rendition of Sun, performed during the start of an all night thunderstorm, was mesmerizing. Orange spotlight “sunbeams” shot through fog in a fan over the audience, backlighting the band as the music crescendoed again and again.

Food

Excellent, and (usually) reasonably priced

  • Aside from some lukewarm pho and coffee late Saturday night, I generally found the food worth the festival prices (about $12 for a meal). Further Future’s vendors offered a great array of much healthier options than the usual festival fare, yet still with plenty of protein to keep me going.
  • Many of the drinks were equally tasty, even if I balked at the pretty high prices ($15 for a watermelon mezcal slush, okay… but $15 for a well cocktail? And a $3 upcharge on almond milk, making a $12 latte? Ouch.) I tempered my consumption of drinks not to save my liver, but to save my wallet.
  • I did partake in one pricier dinner, an $80 molecular gastronomy meal prepared by the truly passionate Arthur Tsui from Hong Kong. I loved hearing him talk about the dedication he put into every dish and the science behind how he got each bite to look, feel, and taste the way it did. The man is an artist with a clear love for his work — all six of us at the dinner were staring wide-eyed at each other in amazement, as each tiny course topped the last. I do however wish it had been in its own tent. (Why pay $80 to sit at a high top in the noisy vendor village, straining to hear Arthur talk over the music?)
Real, honest to goodness nutrition at a festival? Yes, please. PC: Anna Fedorova

Speaker series

The talks I attended would have been interesting even if they weren’t in the desert.

  • Eric Schmidt held court Saturday afternoon, fielding some very good (and some kind of inane) questions for over an hour.
  • The Envelop soundstage made for a wholly immersive mindfulness session, as Biet Simkin led us through a guided meditation and Christopher Willits moved ambient tones around our heads and bodies.
  • The next day, I heard a panel of talented installation artists speak about their craft designing interactive art pieces and stage lighting for musicians and brands around the world.
  • Speakers were accessible and down to earth, usually sticking around to chat and answer questions. If I had been more diligent about attending talks, I’m pretty sure I could have treated it like a networking weekend. I spoke to quite a few people who did just that, and enjoyed it.

Generally, when I was consuming something, I was pretty happy. More on that later…

Even though cut short by thunder, Envelop’s guided meditation got us feeling present, mindful, and connected with one another. (I’m center, in the white/black patterned getup.)

The People

Small size made Further Future a great environment for personal interaction.

  • Some 50 of my friends were in attendance, meaning I was never far from seeing a familiar face. Some I had no idea were there, resulting in a Playa-like feeling of serendipity every few hours. The small size meant I could ‘ghost’ on friends and do something at my own speed, and never had to feel bad — I’d run into them in an hour or two anyway.
  • It also made for more intimate experiences as I got to know some of the people on the fringe of my existing social circle a little better through dancefloor interaction, or perhaps discussing transhumanism in a Shift Pod at 1 in the morning.
  • In rolling solo, I had some really positive interactions making new friends, a few of which I got to see repeatedly thanks to the intimate size of the festival. This made for a better foundation for a new friendship than at other larger festivals where I might assume we’d never see one another again. By Sunday night’s afterparty at Robot Heart, we were incredibly happy to run into one another and dance our goodbyes.

I cannot however give Further Future 100% of the credit for the ‘amazing people.’ I met dozens of people, some of whom with which I felt a deeper connection, and some of whom I wasn’t terribly interested in (those who seemed to be there only to party or see and be seen.) I don’t think Further Future deserves credit yet for ‘creating a community’ when there’s so much evidence to suggest that has not been their primary aim so far. On the strength of their brand, the lineup, and the relative accessibility of ticket price and location, they were able to attract those that would want to get to know one another anyway: young people who like festivals and making new friends. This is par for the course for any large gathering around mutual interests.

I don’t think Further Future deserves credit yet for ‘creating a community’ when there’s so much evidence to suggest that has not been their primary aim so far.
Meeting new friends (and interview subjects.) PC: Anna Fedorova

The Bad

Logistics and operations

There are enough reviews of Further Future’s logistical difficulties. I won’t add much here by beating that dead horse, and I’m sure the organizers are pretty aware what went wrong and what they could have done better.

My general stance on logistical failures is to cut organizers of big, complex events a bit of slack. It ain’t easy, especially when your venue pulls out just a few days before launch (2015) or it dumps rain on your desert encampment (2016). During the first run (or two), many problems can be excused as growing pains. Generally, it’s how organizers respond to those problems that make or break their reputation, and separate a quality event from a shoddily organized one. I know personally that many of the organizers were doing all they could to battle the intense thunderstorms, which could nigh be considered an act of God.

There are times when well-thought out logistical aspects do a good job of conveying the values behind an organization. Conversely, their failures can indicate that either someone’s asleep at the wheel, or maybe those values never existed to begin with. I heard more than the usual amount of griping from fellow guests, rather than cutting the organizers the slack we might at other events.

Here’s a list of ‘what the heck?” moments…

Why…

  • …were we offered stainless steel water bottles, but had to refill in odd, non-obvious locations?
  • …were vendors still selling thousands of cardboard/plastic water bottles?
  • …was there so much MOOP (trash) around?
  • …was camping sectioned by accommodation type and thus by price point, so I felt plebeian in the self camping area and separated from my friends who splurged on RVs?
  • …did I still have to pay ~$200 for the most basic of amenities (self camping + shuttle to and from the site), when neither purchase was checked onsite?
There are times when logistical aspects of an experience do a good job of conveying the values behind an organization. Conversely, their failures can indicate that either someone’s asleep at the wheel, or maybe those values never existed to begin with.
We’d heard the festival wasn't allowing multiple tents per $95, 10x10 ft campsite, yet no one checked when we got there.

Values, or perceived lack thereof

This brings me to the crux of my reflection on Further Future — values.

Taken apart from one another, each of these failures might not be so individually bad. My problem with the sum total of the negative experiences is that I believe they indicate a serious issue with the values and intentions of the organization and event — mainly that they are ill-defined, or possibly don’t exist (yet?) in a meaningful way. The tricky thing about promising people a vision of the future is that everything you show them sends a message.

The Why

When you want to create a product, you define the need up front. There’s the Why, Who, What, Where, When, and How. Everything depends on the Why. Without a clear Why, you don’t even know Who you really want to involve. It’s far easier to make design and operational decisions when you have a clear vision of the experience you want people to have, and who those people are. It’s much harder when you’ve got a theme and a grab bag of cool content, and want to recoup investments through ticket sales and add-ons. It’s pretty evident to me that Further Future threw together the What (high quality lineup, speakers, and food) before the Why.

It’s far easier to make design and operational decisions when you have a clear vision of the experience you want people to have, and who those people are.

The lack of a well defined Why and Who is one way to explain some of the logistical mishaps and poor design decisions above, and it’s definitely the only way I can explain their bizarrely out of touch marketing choices. I am 100% sure that if they thought up the Why and Who first, they would not have chosen to go in the direction they did. Let me explain:

One common critique of Further Future is that it seems like “Burning Man for the 1%.” But this event isn’t Burning Man, so why do we care whom it caters to, or that it offers tiered pricing? The problem is that for many people, Further Future = Robot Heart, and Robot Heart = Burning Man, and their marketing isn’t doing them any favors in breaking that distinction.

  • Robot Heart has a large, visible brand associated with their on-playa activities and contributions. Personally, I’ve enjoyed many nights (and sunrises) dancing in front of the bus. But, ask around, and you do hear opinions of Robot Heart and the Burners who flock to them that aren’t so rosy: image-obsession, money, ego, or objectification of women, where none of that belongs on the Playa. They’re the ‘cool kids of Burning Man.’ This is not, as far as I am aware, how Robot Heart got started, nor does it represent some of the very people at the core of the organization, but it is a perception that exists and is hard to ignore.
  • Much of Further Future’s marketing material so far does little to break the mold of their Playa reputation. If full-page spreads of models wearing futuristic fashion in desert landscapes sounds familiar, that’s because it is. If I had no idea who was behind Further Future, and you showed me these ads and told me ‘It’s the same people behind a well-known Burning Man camp,” Robot Heart would be my first guess.
  • So the association invites a cognitive dissonance for people that attend expecting Burner principles to apply. Since Further Future hasn’t done a great job divesting from their on-Playa brand, and yet are for profit with luxury experiences and amenities rather than self reliance and inclusion, we get a friction between said principles and the (albeit totally different) vision of Further Future.
The tricky thing about promising people a vision of the future is that everything you show them sends a message.

Had the Burning Man association been not as strong, vis-a-vis a more carefully considered marketing approach, I feel like the Why could have been more carefully defined and perhaps able to stand alone: “We want to create a vision of the future, provide a lot of provocative and forward-thinking content, and get creative makers and doers out there to experience and learn things and talk to people they might not always have access to. And we want it to be comfortable, so you can focus on the awesome content. You can choose your level of comfort. Also, we want to be financially sustainable, so we’re going to charge you for the luxury stuff, and that’s totally OK, because this isn’t Burning Man.”

  • (I will concede that some of the additional marketing did actually focus on more of the why and the who in longer form interviews, videos, and a digital magazine. Such long form content was really hard to commit to reading or watching, and I’d be surprised if you told me that more than 10% of Further Future guests read any of the magazines all the way through.)

The Who

or as is in vogue, the “Community.”

After defining your values (the Why), you can start thinking about building a community (the Who.) On site, the demographics and motivations of those at Further Future seemed to be a grab bag, a Venn diagram of “anyone who already loves (partying with) Robot Heart, anyone who likes good lineups, anyone who is interested in the tech talks, and anyone who might also be persuaded to drop some money on some bougier experiences.” (I’m somewhere in the middle of that Venn diagram, except that I self camped, so I probably wasn’t a huge moneymaker for them.)

Gotta love the grin on VR-man over here.

So who are they really trying to pull in? The story goes, “Anyone can attend. The festival itself doesn’t cost any more than other, similar ones. A few hundred for transportation, a few hundred for a ticket. It’s your choice as a guest whether or not you want a premium experience.”

But, there are clearly some experiences here that are outside the price range of the average festivalgoer. Premium accommodation ran north of $5,000. A Nobu dinner cost $400. I joked with friends that the $380 luxury IV drip they paid for could have been $0 via onsite health services, had they simply laid facedown in the middle of the parking lot and feigned dehydration.

Regardless of it being your choice to spend or not, this affects the message. Will the future be stratified according to how much one can afford to spend on housing and food? Yeah, unfortunately that’s pretty likely — but is that a vision of the future that I’d like to advocate for? Probably not. In my ideal future, we’d be fighting against the wealth gap that’s worsening every decade.

On site, the demographics and motivations of those at Further Future seemed to be a grab bag, a Venn diagram of “anyone who already loves (partying with) Robot Heart, anyone who likes good lineups, anyone who is interested in the tech talks, and anyone who might also be persuaded to drop some money on some bougier experiences.”

Interaction — or lack thereof

Earlier, I mentioned that I was generally happy when consuming something, and I can give Further Future credit for that — but not for ‘creating a community.’ To expound on that — a community, in my mind, is a group of people who share at least some values and have each a voice or contribution in that community. I didn’t observe anything that suggested that Further Future was giving anyone, other than their select group of artists and speakers, a voice or an arena to contribute.

The rare exception was the communal painting wall that a band of artists had somehow got commissioned to install in the middle of the campground. It was also home to one of the best vibes at Further Future, as the guys running it were fun, encouraged our creativity, and even let us connect an iPhone for an impromptu Talking Heads dance party. That was a real community moment, but it stood in stark contrast to the largely unidirectional feel of the rest of the festival’s content and interactions.

The motto felt far less like, “Come help us build this vision of the future” and more like, “If we build our vision of the future, they will come…and consume it.” A no-brainer would have been to organize some of the speaker series as workshops and group conversations instead of just expert panels and talks, or to include a stage where up and coming artists could come showcase their skills and talents.

I didn’t observe anything that suggested that Further Future was giving anyone, other than their select group of artists and speakers, a voice or an arena to contribute.
Communal painting wall — the one place where we were actually encouraged to co-create and contribute. PC: Marko Markovic

And now…the Ugly.

This is a difficult, though necessary story for me to share.

“No one came here to see you dance, now get the fuck down. Do you want to get kicked out of this festival? I can get you kicked out. You wanna fight right now? You wanna go?”

I will preface this by saying that my intentions are not to drag names through the mud, but simply to relate an unfortunate incident that colored the experience of my weekend very negatively. Since that time, I’ve talked to quite a few people about what happened, including some of the organizers of Further Future, who have been nothing if not genuinely compassionate and committed to making sure this incident was the sole exception to the community they envision building.

During Leftfield’s incredible performance on Saturday night, I felt incredibly inspired to join the half-dozen other dancers on top of the subwoofers on either side of the stage. I generally see it as my way of thanking the organizers by showing them their effort was worth it, and hopefully inspiring others to do the same. I come from a family of dancers, it’s a passion I am proud of, and I like to see guys up there where usually women are only confident enough (or encouraged enough) to be. I am all for gender parity at events like these.

After ten minutes of dancing with the others, I was approached by a guy wearing a Robot Heart pendant whose first words were, “you’re a good dancer but no one came here to see you dance, now get the fuck down.

  • I told him I was just dancing like everyone else, and made to move out of his reach (he had grabbed my foot).
  • He pulled another girl I had been dancing with down off the sub.
  • When I was turned around, he grabbed the waist of my pants and pulled me backwards so I fell.
  • He then grabbed my shoulders, got in my face MMA weigh-in style (forehead to forehead, pushing me back) and said, “Do you want to get kicked out of this festival? I can get you kicked out” and, “You wanna [fight] right now? You wanna go?

Realizing he was inebriated, I tried to de-escalate with “hey man, there’s no problem here, it’s all good,” and hugged him. He continued pushing. Eventually another guy wearing a similar Robot Heart pendant pulled him off, gave me a hug and apologized for the first guy’s behavior, saying that was not the vibe that they (Further Future) wanted to create. I am grateful to the intervener for removing the aggressor and for ensuring my safety.

Transcript of my voice notes, about an hour or so after the incident.

So this assault — because that’s what it was, a physical and verbal assault — has been on my mind quite a lot. Not only for how shocking it was personally, but also given my intention to evaluate the guest experience at Further Future. The following day I was approached several times, including by strangers, who said they enjoyed seeing me dance and were shocked with what happened. One mentioned that the aggressor “was totally out of his mind that night,” and added, “unfortunately he is one of the head people behind Robot Heart and this festival.” That it was one of the central figures behind Robot Heart made the entire experience even more surreal.

Why write this up?

Even though I know the organizers — some of whom are personal friends — are already aware of the incident, I’d be remiss not to write it up here. The alternative is sweeping it under the rug. I brushed it off at the time and just vented to friends because I don’t like escalating conflict, especially when I’m already invested in having a good time. But, I don’t like the thought that someone can excuse physical and verbal assault because they’re drunk, or because they have status in context of the organization and event, or both. It’s also pretty ironic at an event that is purportedly creating a community of inspired people who express themselves through creative contribution — exactly what I felt I was doing when I got up to dance.

For a while, I thought about the professional in addition to the personal, and what if anything I’d share more publicly. It feels conflicting: as I’m a DJ with a career and reputation at stake in the same circuit where the guy who assaulted me has influence (and let’s be clear — Robot Heart does have considerable influence), I hesitated before sharing this experience. Nonetheless, it felt like I’d be compromising personal integrity if I didn’t address it in some way in hopes of somehow keeping doors open in an industry based on personal relationships.

That it was one of the central figures behind Robot Heart made the entire experience even more surreal. It’s pretty ironic at an event that is purportedly creating a community of inspired people — exactly what I felt I was doing when I got up to dance.

And yet — I want to be clear about my intentions here. I am not sharing this anecdote in hopes of dragging anyone’s name through the mud, or perhaps getting some sense of self-righteous justice through shaming. We’ve seen that happen in the electronic music world enough recently, to little positive outcome. But it’s an incredibly poignant vignette and raises a number of valid questions about Further Future and the values of some of the people who represent it. As I’ve heard, they were busy kicking other people off the speakers, some of whom were being difficult (I wasn’t). As I’ve heard, he wasn’t sober. As I’ve heard, that’s ‘not who he is at his core…’

still. When you create something, you represent it. When you represent something, you are ALWAYS its face. You have to be 200% more accountable than anyone else there for the way you treat others. Even when chaos strikes and things aren’t going the way you want. Even when it means delegating responsibility, or walking away, if you know you’re not in a position to handle something. Even when you’re not sober.

In a convoluted way, perhaps an incident like this is a catalyst for a much needed conversation. As I mentioned, I have since talked at length with a few of Further Future’s organizers, who have been extremely compassionate and apologetic for the incident, and made it clear that if I’m open to sitting down with the cofounder in question, they’re happy to arrange that. That doesn’t make what the offender did any less inexcusable, but if anything, the silver lining was that through these conversations I was able to get a little more insight into the roots of Robot Heart and into the minds of some of the people working hardest on instilling the kinds of values I believe they should be defining. As I’ll explain, I still have high hopes for Further Future and also for Robot Heart, even though this entire weekend has made me keenly aware of the work they have cut out for them.

In light of that, my next point — where do we go from here?

I still have high hopes for Further Future and also for Robot Heart, even though this entire weekend has made me keenly aware of the work they have cut out for them.
Channeling joy and gratitude for music and motion during Leftfield — just minutes before the incident. PC: Jessica Stanell

What comes next?

I think Further Future has potential. There are people within the organization who have the right vision and values. There are people in the audience who love to learn as much as they love to party. There are people out there who want more from a weekend than just a good bender — who want to be transformed or inspired to contribute in some way. I’m squarely in that audience.

Here’s what I believe Further Future’s organizers need to do to realize that potential:

Step one: Define their values (the Why)

  • Dig deep. Go back to the origins of what made Robot Heart special when they started. I’ve heard good things about that origin. It may take a while, but this is the most important step.
  • I’d love to see a meaningful mission statement or list of values that isn’t just marketing jargon or lip service to Burning Man. I’d love to see transparency in who’s behind the organization and the event. I’d love to see a measure of Humility that is far more outwardly visible than the measure of their Cool.

Step two: Get good people on board (the Who).

  • Getting the right people in the room for an honest conversation about values is a start. This should be an ongoing process that should also include asking people that may not have been core to Robot Heart’s creation or operations every year, but are the ones participating for the right reasons — not flocking like moths to the Cool.
  • Continue to involve people that clearly embody those values and can further help them build their vision. This is the core Who of their community. Positivity attracts positivity (metaphorically, if not in physics.) Light attracts light. But Cool attracts Cool, and Cool is a hollow mirage, not a foundation worth standing on.

Step three: Design for their values (the What.)

  • At every opportunity, at every moment of interaction on the Playa and at Further Future, ask whether the thing they are building, making, saying or doing represents those values. If not, ask why, and ask how they can change this to do so.

The Where and When …

  • …is up to them. If they do this right, I’ll be there. If not…well, there are plenty of other sub stacks I’d be happy to dance atop.

I welcome your comments and questions, though I may not be able to get to them all. If you’d like to get in touch privately, you can find me at:

  • FB: facebook (dot) com (slash) jamesafish
  • Email: james (dot) fish (at) gmail (dot) com

Whew! You made it this far! As a reward, I present you with a doge:

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