Profile of a man's head and a translucent brain with an inner glow

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I attended the World Future Society’s annual conference this past weekend at the Washington DC Hilton Hotel. Seminars and panel discussions ranged on a variety of topics (PDF of the conference program), from examinations of emerging energy technologies to the future of the religious right. One panel in particular, the End of the Written Word, was especially interesting. Four experts discussed the recent shift away from traditional writing, and its implications for, well, the future.

Since the digital age has transformed how we seek and consume music at least as much as it has impacted the written word, I contacted one of the panel members. I asked Futurist magazine senior editor and WFS Communications Director Patrick Tucker his opinion on the future of music consumption. His generous and insightful response is below:

Within the next thirty years, we’ll become more comfortable incorporating wireless technology into our biological functioning. The success of the today’s cochlear implant provides a great example of how willing we already are to explore electronic enhancement related to auditory stimulation. Cochlear implants are small devices that doctors surgically insert near the skull to improve hearing in the impaired. Today, Cochlears are used solely for medicinal purposes, but there’s no reason why a similar gadget couldn’t be wired to receive phone calls, email, or download music. Because most of what we call hearing occurs not in the ear but in the brain this music wouldn’t have to pass through the ear, it could be directly targeted to new neuron groups [my emphasis].

In the future, we’ll become more adapt at targeting our sound (music) neurons and getting them to fire and spark in all sorts of interesting ways. The notion of making “music” by sending sound waves from radios, through the air to peoples’ ear drums will come to seem as quaint as using a coffee can and fishing wire to make a telephone call. Instead, we’ll send sound or music over a radically-improved version of what we today call the Internet in the form of data. In other words, future downloadable music will contain notes, sounds, and rhythms that would be imperceptible to us today.

We literally cannot even imagine what it might sound like, but some recent neuroscience breakthroughs may give us a clue. According to a study performed by Lizbeth M. Romanski and Patricia Goldman-Rakic, there are three types of auditory neurons. One type (phasic) responds only at the onset of noise and then resets; on a line graph this would look like a spike. Another type of neuron (tonic) has a long sustained response to stimuli; this would look like a wave. A third type of neuron (phasic-tonic) has a strong initial response, followed by a less intense, wave response. Most classical music, unbeknownst to the people that composed it, primarily affects the second type of neuron. If it’s successful, it creates a modulating emotional response in the listener. Dance music targets the third neuron type. What is the 4 on the floor beat pattern, after all, except a series of high intensity jolts re-arranged into rhythmic wave? Now imagine being able to hear, distinguish, and appreciate a dozen different types and pieces of music all at once, along with liner notes and visual displays. In terms of what the liner notes might look like, the outtakes and bonus features that come packaged with todays DVDs will serve as an ancestor.

Curing a hearing disorder, however, is entirely different than improving upon otherwise perfect hearing. For all our technological cleverness, we understand very little about the miracle of the thinking organ, least of all how to augment a design that’s far superior to anything humankind has ever come up with. We are, however, learning more all the time and in the next thirty years, we may finally be able to put our vastly improved neurological understanding to the test.

Heady stuff indeed. And Phasic-Tronic is just lying out there for an aspiring DJ or group to appropriate as a band name…album title…

Soon, I’ll post our conversation regarding the future of music marketing.