Originally appeared in the December 1999 “Future” issue of Urb

Human beings are born into the world almost as wired for music as we are for talk. From lullabies and rope-skip chants to national anthems and pop tunes, music is one of the primary ways that consciousness get shaped by the culture around us. In the postwar world, when the “teenager” was invented and the commodification of music kicked into overdrive, music became the raw material out of which budding adolescents helped define their bodies, their pleasures, and their selves. The modern tribe was invented, as young people congregated around their own sound, look, and slang.

But music does more than shape our social or cultural selves. Of all the arts, music comes the closest to mimicking the form and structure of consciousness itself. Though music can be measured or objectified as soundwaves or waxy grooves or notes on a page, it arises within an essentially invisible world “inside” our field of awareness. Similarly, though we find ourselves embodied in a world of bodies, that inner world, which is the “place” where we hear, also unfolds as an invisible flux, a virtual tapestry of pattern and vibration, thinking and feeling, memory and desire.

Like us, music expresses itself through time, but that linear motion also conceals a more complex temporal field, a nest of beat cycles and refrains and eternal returns. When we are enraptured or deeply moved by music, or tranced out on the club floor, we shift away from clock-time. Music reveals time itself as a mystery, a mystery that is perhaps the most basic condition of consciousness. Perhaps this is why music remains the most ‘spiritual’ of arts, even as it keeps hot young bodies pumping across the globe. Music models the invisible world.

But if music can be seen (or rather heard) as a mirror of consciousness, then its also fair to read the changing forms of music as maps of the changing shapes of human consciousness. Indeed, the development of the Western idea of the individual, of which our own experience of the self is partially the product, can be mapped against the development (or, more properly, mutation) of Western music from plainchant to the twelve-tone series. Similarly, an extraterrestrial anthropologist who wanted to get a grip on the current state of human consciousness and culture — in both their creative and corroded modes — could certainly do worse than prowl the clubs, the bins, and the radio dial.

Today’s underground scene can be seen a petri dish for emerging forms of human consciousness (which doesn’t mean all of them are necessarily worth pursuing). Take the mix, perhaps the single most novel and revolutionary element of the dub/hip-hop/disco inferno. In contrast with more rock-based genres, which allowed people to bond around identities like “Deadhead” or “punk,” DJ culture gestured toward a dissolution of such identities. Immersed in the mix, from freeform radio and Grandmaster Flash to Cornelius and Q-Bert, we grow to expect and enjoy a world of sudden ruptures, odd juxtapositions, and fragmented snippets of things we once encountered whole. The mix gets inside us, and changes the way the world arises before us.

From turntables to samplers, technology helped bring this “mix mind” into being. But the mix also prepares us for the world of technology, a world where everything is interconnected, where every sound, image, and word imaginable can be translated into the universal lingo of the bit — and then spliced anew. Indeed, music’s role in the future of consciousness is hard to separate from technology’s role in the future of consciousness — not to mention technology’s role in the future of music. At the most basic level, the emotions and desires of human beings probably do not change all that much, but you’d have to be a knucklehead not to see how email, brain drugs, and genetic engineering are changing our contemporary sense of self. And though you wouldn’t know about it from reading Wired magazine, music technology has bred and continues to breed many of new mutations of the virtual age.

Music has done so by making a pact with electricity, electronics and electromagnetic waves. These forces, at once technological and utterly cosmic, have shifted music into more abstract and virtual realms. The growth of the soundscape, from tubular bells to dark ambient drones, has everything to do with electronics and its relationship to the emergence of new virtual spaces. Most “virtual realities” today are constructed primarily with polygons and animation, but in the future we will tune into VR through 3D soundwaves as well. Sonic navigation. Resonance as gateway.

The widespread electrification of music following World War II also came coupled with the rapid spread of rhythmic memes whose code could be traced back through slave-routes to the motherland. Roots became waves, propagating in echo-pulses through the electronic diaspora. Today, billions of people across the globe explore heightened states of pleasure and consciousness by throwing themselves into intensely rhythmic dance. As the Brazilian ethnomusicologist Hermano Vianna told me: Africa won. And though Brian Eno famously complained that computers do not have enough Africa in them, we have heard, in drum’n’bass, snippets of a digitally-concocted future beat science that multiplies rhythms the way the Internet multiplies connection. Hardcore digital-electronic polyrhythms are the seeds of future dance consciousness, but drum’n’bass has to evolve beyond its adolescence to get there.

Dancing is probably one of the most ancient modes of generating altered states of consciousness. Over the last few decades, popular music has been exploring and refining the technology of modern trance (with a little help from drug technology as well). Our “future-primitive” moment is captured by the electronic, sample-driven, video-saturated trance dance, which uses beats and drones to secretly rewire the bodymind beneath the ego’s supposed control center. As we continue to refine sound technology and the science of psycho-acoustics (not to mention nanochemical neuro-stimulation), music will become one part of an assemblage of forces whose effects will work their magic through the interface of our nervous system. Music will plug directly into the invisible world of vibrations where subjectivity (and visions) arise.

This world of vibrations is the world of resonance, a world that both music and electronics usher us into. Resonance brings very different systems into sympathy, and amplifies their power, almost magically. Growling bass drones resonate the cavities inside our chests, but music can also set whole groups resonating in like mind. Celebrations like EarthDance, during which dozens of DJs across the planet played the same trance track simultaneously, incarnate the deeper intuition that the DJ’s ability to get a crowd “in sync” might give way to even more powerful modes of collective resonance in an era of instantaneous global telecommunications. Future tribes will vibrate together across spacetime, their groupmind overtones sprayed like graffiti onto the shifting surfaces of the noosphere.

Future pundits are still called “visionaries” because the market for future consciousness is still dominated by the meat-media of vision. But the future is more intimately known through sonics than images on the eye. We do not foresee the future; we sound it out, like a toddler trying our a new word, or a mariner plumbing the depths of an unknown and infinite sea.