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:
Before Further Future, I asked a few dozen friends for opinions. These could be generally classified as:
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.
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.
Let’s start with the good, of which there was plenty.
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:
If Leftfield were the only show I’d seen that weekend, it would have been worth the cost of attendance.
That Robot Hearts founders have professional expertise in lighting and sound production was supremely evident.
Excellent, and (usually) reasonably priced
The talks I attended would have been interesting even if they weren’t in the desert.
Generally, when I was consuming something, I was pretty happy. More on that later…
Small size made Further Future a great environment for personal interaction.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
Whew! You made it this far! As a reward, I present you with a doge:
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