One aspect of the Featured Sessions at SXSW this year has been the description of trends. For each of the sessions I have attended in the first three days, rooms have been at capacity. The largest ballroom at the Convention Center holds 2,400 people, and it was packed on the first day to hear the futurist Rohit Bhargava, who has written 10 books on marketing and trends. One of his biggest books was not just about trends, but Non-Obvious Megatrends.

“I love SXSW because it’s a trusted place: it’s a place of belonging. It’s a place where we can go and share new ideas. That’s why I’m going to done something I have not before. I’m going to share with you the ‘secrets’ of non-obvious thinking.”

“Obvious thinking,” he declared,” is all around us. “It leads to an inability to pay attention to what matters.” To succeed, he took the audience on an exploration of how to flip that.

He first noted the rise of loneliness and anxiety, pointing to a study that revealed 90% of inter-generational or inter-racial friendships start at work. “So in a world where we all start doing virtual work, those relationships start to become harder.” Laughter greeted his take on science fiction these days. “Sci-fi stories today promise us that in the future we’re all screwed. All of this rage is inside us and we need stuff we never needed before like punching bags on the street.” I should note that Star Trek, which is now very visible in several TV shows including Discovery, is an uplifting vision of the future. While its characters are confronted with huge problems, Star Trek shows how to overcome that. I thought that cherry-picking dystopian futures was unfortunate.

Instead of choosing with tech we might really need, Bhargava said the choice overload leads to a big problem. “We think that we want all of these things, all-in-one, but when we do get all of this stuff we don’t know what to use first, and technology makes it worse because we need every choice presented to us – even the idiotic ones.”

Bhargava also warned we are in the middle of a modern believability crisis, so we are unwilling to trust anyone or anything. Trust is so low people don’t believe anything, so they won’t believe the deepfakes in the upcoming UK and US elections (I will report more on this topic based on a SXSW panel discussion held at UK House on March 9). Even Kate, the Princess of Wales, got in trouble this week for ‘editing’ of photo of her with her children, which was released as a Mother’s Day gift to the nation.

On the topic of annoying and prevalent messages, Bhargava was quite blunt. He singled out this one: Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed. “No they fucking haven’t! They’re the same menu options they’ve always been. Why do we have these messages?”

Obvious thinking also leads to an inability to imagine a better life or work; and a lack of belonging.

To break free of this, Bhargava gave the audience four elements of non-obvious thinking: (1) Create Space for New Ideas. He recommended two books in this regard Breath by James Nestor, showing how important it is to breathe properly, and Imaginable by Jane McGonigal, who imagines a world where the weather forecast is actually the ‘Asteroid Forecast’ to see if you are likely to be hit by an asteroid today!

The other three are: (2) Uncover Insights by Observing; (3) Find the Focus with Curation and (4) Define a Twist to be Unique. Bhargava said that a big part of the work he has done is to curate trends. He offered one example of that by giving the audience several menus of sessions they could attend. Such things as “image the future,” “tell me something new,” and “entrepreneurial thinking.”

I found this to be a slick and amusing presentation whose valuable content was padded by a lot of superfluous matter which I did not get into here. I have been practising non-obvious thinking for a long time, which is how I’ve been able to make major discoveries in the history of science. Anything that can nudge others to think critically, which is what is really at stake here, is useful.

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By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.