Denis Piel
began his photography career at age seventeen in Australia. He worked in Europe in the 1970s before moving to New York in 1979 where US Vogue offered him an exclusive contract. Denis is known as one of the top international fashion and advertising photographers of the 1980s, with work that launched Donna Karan and campaigns for Revlon, Phillip Morris, L’Oréal, Chanel, and Estée Lauder, among others. In 1985, Piel founded Jupiter Films, expanding into film production and development and has since then written and directed award-winning commercials in the United States, Australia, and Europe. Piel’s 1994 film Love Is Blind was presented at the Cannes Film Festival, and gained critical acclaim through international film festivals and TV distribution. Denis then launched Umbershoot.net, a conceptual ideas website with participants from around the world. Following the collapse of the dot-com, his present focus is on front2end (f2e.net), a group that specializes in branding and concept work–bringing together international creative teams to rapidly develop and implement emotion-led-branding campaigns. As part of an ongoing interest in creative collaboration and an ideal lifestyle Denis spends his time between New York and southwest France, where he and his wife, Elaine Merkus, are developing a center for creative exchange, with an emphasis on lifestyle, at the Chateau de Padiès (X11–XV11 century).

Melinda Davis
is the author of The New Culture of Desire (The Free Press), a book that chronicles both the adventure and the conclusions of The Human Desire Project. She heads the futurist think tank behind the project, The Next Group. Melinda also writes fiction, and has received a Pushcart Prize. She is currently at work on a novel.

He later describes the experience as a moment of cosmic astonishment. Like waking from one of those “walking naked on Main Street” dreams—with a sudden understanding of the meaning of life.

Let me quickly shift back to ten minutes before the epiphany in question.

We are twelve around the table and we are talking money. Our hero is a scientist turned venture-capital man. This is a deeply serious crowd: post-scandal accountants, Wall Street women, a man usually identified as an unidentified high-ranking economic advisor. There are two representatives from academe. A specialist in global buying and selling. An author of leatherbound books. Bankers. On the table are bottles of Deer Park and Pellegrino, fruit from the deli, and plates of cookies. There are also stacks of notes, multiple lap-top computers, recently Kinko’d reports, big egos, and very little banter. For this is a meeting of serious thinkers— and one in a series of sessions on the economy for THE HUMAN DESIRE PROJECT.

Fashion, needless to say, is not the lead of this story. Please ignore the pictures for the moment— if you can.

Let me step back slightly further to place this particular meeting in context. In simplest terms, The Human Desire Project is an ongoing study to address that heady question, What do we want? (We being the people of the 21st century.) Or perhaps, more strategically, what will we want—for the original project stakeholders are corporate marketers, investors, and a futurist—me. What will we love and why will we love it? What will we do and why will we do it? And ultimately: Where do we go from here? The premise of the study is equally straightforward: all human desire—beginning with the primal desire for the perpetuation of the species—is a response to changing threats and opportunities. We are drawn to those things that (1) defend us and (2) reward us. (In such a model, primal desire—the carnal original—can be expressed in two simple statements: “I don’t want to die” and “Let’s have sex.”) All other enthusiasms evolve from there. These meetings with the movers and shakers of the culture provide the HDP with very privileged intelligence: an advance look at the emerging threats and opportunities that will shape the future—and passions—of us all.

This session is doing little to make anyone feel optimistic. Most of the lines on the graphs go down. The number of threats on the list goes up. Opportunities are iffy. Nothing is certain. Our insiders fall silent, transfixed by Mint Milanos. The air becomes heavy with expert sighs — inflationary, deflationary, painfully congested.

When suddenly we reach the Bingo. “Let’s face it, none of this shit is real,” says a lofty academic reaching for the Pellegrino.

“I can make the numbers say anything I want.”

“We are dealing with figments of our own
imagination.”

“There is nothing to grab hold of—nothing concrete.”

“We are living in intangible times.”

Our hero begins to rub the back of his neck.

It might help relieve the general sense of cosmic imprecision if I were to give our hero a name. Jack. (Not his real name.)

The conclusion that stops the conversation is this: economics, like poetry and dressmaking, has entered the domain of dream and ephemera, of mysterious powers and devastating mood swings. The uncanny. The cosmic. What some call the woo-woo. It is no longer about counting real things with real numbers. Our fortunes move too quickly and too weirdly to be measured. Wealth has become the new hot air, expanding and contracting in vaporous space—inner space—an invisible universe of idea, expectation, consumer confidence, and investor courage. The economy, like so much else in our lives, has gone mental. Its gears churn uncertainly inside our own heads.

So what else is new, you may well ask. This switch from outer to inner reality is the defining phenomenon of our times. Whether we realize it or not, each of us is spending less and less time in the exterior, physical world and more and more time in an interior, imaginational world—a reality that cannot be seen or touched or counted, but that must be conjured up in the mind’s eye. The imaginational world is not an imaginary world, by any means, but an invisible, digitally accelerated, neuron-and-electron-spun world that exists—that can only exist for us, really—in the human imagination. A series of images projected on the walls of the skull. Inner vision. Thought. Plato’s got a brand new cave.

Consider this. Our entire socioeconomic structure is imaginational: information, intellectual capital, brand image, the power of innovative thinking and idea. We have moved from making things, Henry Ford–style, to dreaming things up, Bill Gates–style. Our jobs are imaginational: 80% of us are white-collar workers, processing words and numbers and images—deeply seated in the workplace of the mind. Our pleasures are increasingly imaginational. We escape into the stream of images provided by the ubiquitous screen: TV, the computer, movies, electronic games, video culture, and online lives that keep us always at least one degree removed from physical reality.