Harman, W. Global Mind Change; Glenn, J. Future Mind

Global Mind Change: the Promise of the Last Years of the Twentieth Century, Willis Harman (Indianapolis, Knowledge Systems Inc/Institute for Noetic Sciences, 1988) 185pp + xx. Future Mind: Artificial Intelligence, Jerome C. Glenn (Washington, D.C., Acropolis Books, 1989) 307pp + x

One way to view the futures field is to see it in terms of overlapping layers. At the most superficial level is what I call “pop futurism”. Among its distinguishing features are that it takes existing social relations as given, it tends to be ideologically naive, it assumes that “the future” is largely constructed through science and technology and, wittingly or not, it supports a conservative status quo. A second layer is “problem-focused.” It identifies “problems” (such as population or pollution) and explores “solutions” within a taken-for-granted worldview. Much of the early futures literature is like this. A third level is “critical.” It concentrates on ideas and undertakes an inter-cultural and comparative analysis of paradigms, assumptions and traditions of enquiry. Finally, there are “philosophical” or “epistemological” approaches. These locate and problematise the sources of problems and issues at the level of worldviews and ways of knowing. At this deeper level the problem/solution dichotomy becomes obsolete. Resolutions occur not because ready answers are found but because the underlying framework(s) and assumptions change. Problems are not so much solved as dissolved. A sense of optimism can arise from understanding the potential for change in deep-seated shifts of perception and meaning.[1]

The two works under consideration overlap as regards their subject matter, but they are poles apart in their approach. Future Mind is a disappointing book that seeks to be profound but falls squarely under the heading of pop futurism. It is a self-indulgent work that should have been pared down and rigorously edited into shape. On the other hand, Global Mind Change is a rich and significant book that deals clearly with some of the most profound issues of our time. It displays great insight and an enviable lightness of touch. It certainly qualifies as a fine example of futures writing at the “epistemological” level.

When I first encountered “pop futurism” I will admit to being carried along for a while on the frothy surface of its glitzy prose. I enjoyed the freshness of its neologisms and the apparent audacity of its vision. The illusion, however, soon faded because the material lacked authority and staying power. It was of little use for serious study, let alone for research. It tended to conceal a lack of insight and a disregard for the standard “rules” of scholarship.

Now I do not normally spend time defending “standards” and rules. They can be misused and I sometimes tire of moralists and others holding forth about them. But in a field like ours we cannot do without standards. If we want to be taken seriously we must write clear, literate prose, avoid over-exaggeration, cite the correct sources and give credit where it is due. We cannot afford to scramble arguments, talk down to our readers, misuse metaphors and erect grand schemes on slender foundations. That’s a recipe for professional suicide. So, while it’s easy to understand why Gerry Glenn would have written this book, it’s harder to see why anyone would want to publish it in its present form. The fact that they did identifies a continuing weakness in the futures field and an inability on the part of the publishers to learn from past mistakes.

The thesis is that ‘Conscious Technology (or CT) represents a potent metaphor for an interrelated series of changes now taking place in the world and, further, that these developments take us forward into a new era.[2] The key to this transformation is a fusion of the view of the mystic and that of the technocrat, specifically, to merge the attitude of the former with the knowledge of the latter. Now that insight is OK as far as it goes. But Glenn clearly has a much greater enthusiasm for the technology than he does an understanding of what might be meant by ‘mystic.’ He simply has not done the necessary groundwork.

One of the features of Future Mind is the shallowness of its sources. It refers to Obi Wan Kanobi (of Star Wars fame) but ignores Hess’s Siddhartha (who, by any account, represents an archetypal figure of great relevance to the thesis). It mentions a certain T. Leary but passes over Ken Wilber. It has examples from televised science fiction but misses Huxley and the work of many others who have written at length and with greater insight on these matters. [3] And so it goes. The result is a painfully personal book which is built around some individualistic metaphors and insights but which totally fails to convince.

The difficulties begin early. On page two we read that “the whole thrust of advances in electronics is to take the best of our consciousness, simulate it in computer programs, and make it part of our environment.” Really? What happened to the brain/mind controversy – or the debate about AI? Is reductionism no longer an issue? Such a view lacks credibility. It is as if many of the most influential books of the last decades had not been written. So, sadly, this book on which the author has worked so hard to inspire us about the future, ends up being about the past. It is a past familiar to any who have followed the evolution of futures thinking during the present century.

The redundant future at the heart of Glenn’s book is one that was rightly been a long-standing focus of criticism. It was understood (and rejected) by E.M Forster who wrote The Machine Stops in 1909 specifically in order to counter some of the technocratic assumptions in some of H.G. Wells’ early work. The dangers of technocratic futures were thoroughly explored some time ago by Lewis Mumford. His critique of technicised culture still rings true today, as does his view of the ancient ‘megamachine’ (i.e., a de-humanised social system) which was fully present during the pyramid-building age of Egypt. [4] Sadly, Glenn misses the point of all this. He professes to admire such a system for its ‘coherence’ but fails to notice the lure of totalitarianism. Given the context, this is a dangerous omission.

The tenor of the book can be gauged by the following examples. There is a dismissive one-liner about time that, in his view, is “simply a measurement of motion.” (p. 15) Having recently read J.T. Fraser’s literate and wide-ranging work Time, the Familiar Stranger, I find this kind of comment unacceptable. As noted below, Fraser has spent half a lifetime showing that time is not simply anything! [5] Again, the section on Defence exhibits the hallmarks of a typically American paranoia about the Russians. It is “the Politburo of the Soviet Union” which threatens to “doom the world to power politics and brinkmanship…” (p. 199). (Strange, I thought Glasnost was a Soviet initiative and it was the Americans who had built the stealth bomber and developed contingency plans to eliminate the Soviet leadership. But perhaps I am reading the wrong papers.) Elsewhere the author asserts that “we are becoming cyborgs.” (p. 103) Well, I don’t know about that. What is clear is that this future is not what Glenn intended. He has tried to create a synthesis from two poles of a very wide field, but he has not understood his sources, he does not have a method and he is clearly not in control of the material.

It’s a relief to turn to Harman’s book which is a joy to read. It is a fine example of careful, unassuming scholarship. The author knows full well that epochs are not made and destroyed by mere machines so much as by shifts at the very foundations of knowing and being. He conveys a sense of optimism about the future (which is missing from the other volume) because he has explored some of the richest sources of insight available. He does not argue from exclusivity but from complementarity. Following Wilber, he recognises the role that sensory, intellectual and spiritual knowledge each plays in the wider scheme. Indeed, he takes up the theme that consciousness itself is a causal reality. New (or renewed) epistemologies literally create new realities, open out new and ‘other’ futures, just as Polak maintained. [6]

Given that the book is intended for a wide, non-academic, readership, Harman’s treatment of ‘three metaphysical perspectives’ is exemplary in its understated economy. His alertness to the centrality of the ‘Perennial Tradition’ is, in my view, exactly right. He uses it to show how the world ‘macroproblem’ can be transformed. The discussion is of major importance because our categories and ways of knowing actively shape the world, revealing some possibilities and cancelling out others. Futures work that misses this level of analysis cannot be other than misleading and superficial.

One thing which could have saved Future Mind would have been some recognition of the value of different metaphors and approaches. So it is regrettable that Glenn explicitly writes the notion of hierarchical ‘levels’ out of his universe because, he asserts, it is a cause of prejudice. This idiosyncratic view appears to be based on the notion that the ‘higher’ can be mistaken for ‘better’ and the ‘lower’ for ‘inferior’. (Notice that this mistake is, indeed, an error.) This represents a pivotal misunderstanding for the writer who has compounded the error by responding naively to it. I’ll return to this point below.

I am sure that I’m not the only one to have traced clear hierarchical structuring principles in the work of writers as diverse as Fraser, Schumacher, Habermas and Wilber. [7] But Glenn’s preference for circular graphics and metaphors has blinded him to the insights available through other means. He claims to have invented the futures wheel but has made of it a prison. To take but one example, Fraser’s elegant account of different temporalities, each corresponding to distinct Umwelts (or worlds of reference) have greatly clarified the detailed structure of time and provided us with a rich and productive vocabulary to describe it with. He shows very clearly how that shifts from simpler to more complex systems permit the emergence of new qualities. For those who fear the prospect of technocratic nightmares this represents a way forward. Such vertical transformations have the power to wholly alter the terms of the debate. [8]

So one writer probes in depth while another loses his way on the margins, unaware of his heritage, mistaking opinion for insight. It is a risk we all run – particularly in the USA where pop futurism can so easily flourish alongside the superficial and parochial aspects of that culture. It is greatly to Harman’s credit that he has explicitly recognised these dangers and drawn so deeply on universal and perennial sources. He has thereby helped to re-locate some of the central concerns of the futures field away from the management of implicitly technocratic futures to the constitution of humanness in a vertically differentiated world. This is a major achievement.

I am in no doubt that there can be a rapprochement between so-called ‘mysticism’ and technology. This translates into a balance between different ways of knowing. But we will not achieve it if technology leads. As Stephen Hill has recently shown with such admirable clarity, the ‘technological frame’ and its trajectory have taken unto themselves a culture-defining power that is hegemonic in character. It can no longer be simply assumed and taken as natural. [9] That is partly why pop futurism is dangerous. It fails to confront a machine-led, ‘hyper-industrial’ view of the future that rationalises the mounting costs and dismisses the grounds of our common humanity as if they did not exist. Given the sheer power of techno/industrial systems, and the magnitude of the dilemmas they create, this is just not good enough. On the other hand, Kenneth Rexroth located the heart of Harman’s argument when he wrote that:

philosophies and theologies come and go, but the group experience of transcendence is embedded in human nature, and when it is abandoned, theology, philosophy, and eventually culture, perish. [10]

The role of transcendent knowledge has been widely misunderstood because it has been all but eliminated from the western world picture and because, as noted, it has been taken for better knowledge. But this is nonsense. True masters of the contemplative arts do not look dismissively upon the rest of us. They exude a very human warmth and a sense of commonality with all living beings. They understand that different ways of knowing produce different results. Each has its own level and necessity. Each is part of the whole. As Wilber puts it, “sensation, reason and contemplation disclose their own truths in their own realms and anytime one eye tries to see for another, blurred vision results.” [11]

Pop futurism is an expression of naivety, lack of insight and a failure to deal in depth with the problematics of futures work. It cannot say much of value about futures because its frame of reference is antiquated and under-dimensioned. The technological gloss is a sad illusion, compelling at first sight perhaps, but thin and unproductive because it overlooks so much. When human beings and technologies are treated as interchangeable and equal, category errors proliferate. Something essential to our humanity, and to our common future, is irretrievably lost.

The two books represent a basic tension within the field between those who want to build the future externally and those who want to transform it from within. Glenn has seen the necessity of transcending this dichotomy but he has failed to achieve it. Harman has taken a more productive route and his book should be read by all who care about the future of humankind.

Richard A. Slaughter, University of Melbourne, 25 July 1989.

Published in Futures, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1990, pp. 101-5.


[1] See Berman, M. The Reenchantment of the World, (New York, Cornel Univ. Press, 1981) for a fine example of this kind of work.

[2] The six factors identified by Glenn are: the merger of the human body with technology; the built environment becomes a conscious partner; the dynamic relation between technical advances and growth of consciousness; the merger of the mystic’s attitude with the technocrat’s methods of organisation; the “CT” way of viewing things and finally, a condition of civilisation when the majority of people and intelligent technology are an interrelated whole. (P 6-7)

[3] See Laughlin, C. and Richardson, S. The Future of Human Consciousness, Futures 17, (2) 1986 401-419, for an outstanding essay on this area. Huxley’s masterly The Perennial Philosophy (London, Chatto and Windus, 1945) is also an essential source.

[4] Mumford, L. The Pentagon of Power (London, Secker & Warburg, 1971).

[5] See Fraser, J.T. Time As Conflict (Basle, Birkhauser Verlag,1978) for a rich discussion of temporality and a fine exposition of the “integrative levels of time.” Also Fraser. J.T. Time, the Familiar Stranger (Washington, Tempus Books,1987).

[6] Polak, F. The Image of the Future (San Francisco, Jossey Bass/Elsevier, 1972) Translated and abridged by Elise Boulding.

[7] I have discussed some of their possible benefits in Slaughter, R. Cultural Reconstruction in the Post-Modern World, Journal of Curriculum Studies 21 (3), 1989, 255-270.

[8] See Slaughter, R. Future Vision in the Nuclear Age, Futures 19 (1), 1987 54-72 for a fuller discussion of this view. This and the paper in note 7 are both reprinted in Slaughter, R. Recovering the Future, (Melbourne, Graduate School of Environmental Science, Monash University,1988).

[9] Hill, S. The Tragedy of Technology, (London, Pluto Press, 1988).

[10] Rexroth, K. in the introduction to The Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, (Wildwood House, London, 1981).

[11] Wilber, K. Eye to Eye: Quest for the New Paradigm (New York, Anchor/Doubleday, 1983), p 10.