Optimism and the Long Now

Brian Eno, Art Gallery Of Toronto, 21 April 2005

One of the high points of my trip to Toronto (and there were many; more posts to come) was a lecture by Brian Eno. It’s hard to explain Eno to people who don’t know his work; to say that he was a founding member of Roxy Music, or the producer behind some of the best work by people like David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2, or an innovator whose ambient music would be turned into commercial pap by New Age labels everywhere, is to completely short-sell him. He’s a conceptual artist, a designer, and a fascinating thinker.

His lecture, at the Art Gallery Of Toronto, was part of the exhibit Massive Change: The Future Of Global Design. Curated by Bruce Mau (co-author with Rem Koolhaas of the architecture book S,M,L,XL), it is “not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world.” The exhibit’s reach considerably exceeds its grasp, but it’s interesting nonetheless: A catalog of innovations in transportation, information technology, materials design, energy, and more, all of which are thoughtful design solutions to many of the supposedly intractable problems we face.

Eno said that the exhibit inspired him to discard his prepared lecture. Instead, after seeing the exhibit and reading some apparently negative reviews, he said the optimism of the show inspired him.

“In a sense, bad news is easier to deal with,” he said. “You can be sarcastic about it. It’s too difficult to do anything with it. But this show has a different feel: actually, not only can you do something, but something is being done and you might want to be a part of it.”

From there he went on to talk about the role art plays in changing the world. The title of his original, unheard talk was “Third Culture: Where Art Meets Science,” and I suspect he ended up using large parts of his thinking in the extemporaneous lecture he delivered.

“We all know what scientists do,” he said. “They make discoveries by generalizing and testing, seeking to manipulate and control reality.” But it’s not so simple with art.

I never made music because I wanted to listen to music. I made music because I wanted other worlds to be in for a while.
–Brian Eno

“If you ask 20 artists what they do, ten of them will say ‘Piss off,’ and the others won’t agree.” But, he said, what artists do is imagine other worlds. “It’s less obvious with musicians and abstract painters,” he said, “But they ask you to imagine what it would be like if things were this way.” Jackson Pollack, he said, “asks you to imagine a world of spontanaeity and mess, where there’s no interface between you and your feelings.”

Artists, he said, “offer a new way of thinking about things.” I was happy to see that he has a better understanding of science than many artists, and doesn’t see that much of a difference between how artists work and how scientists work:

“Scientists imagine other descriptions of the world and test them against reality. They work from an excitement of some kind of vision, and then they check the world, to see whether it holds up.”

But it’s not easy to use this approach to make practical changes in the world, because both artists and scientists need an open-minded, curious approach to the world — to do the work properly requires the kind of “relativism” that our new Pope inveighs against so frequently.

“In both fields, the practitioners must be aware that they will experience drastic changes in opinion,” Eno said. “These are always decried politically, but we welcome it in thinkers. Changing the mind with further evidence: artists and scientists have to do this all the time.”

The Long Now

But how does one make use of this approach in commerce or politics, where the thinking is very short term? He told a story about going to a party in the depths of Soho back in the early 1980s, riding in a cab through an increasingly run-down and dirty area, wondering if the cab driver was having him on. They finally pulled up in front of a filthy graffiti-scarred building on Wooster Street, and he got out apprehensively and rang the bell. Sure enough, that was the place, and he went upstairs into a million-dollar loft.

Look out for the slow things being tended to well.
–Stewart Brand

He asked the woman who owned the place, “Do you like living here?” meaning, in such a desolate neigbhorhood. And she said, “Oh, I love it,” pointing out all the beautiful furniture in her loft.

“For her,” Eno recalled, “‘Here’ meant what she could lock behind her. It didn’t include the neighborhood. It was a very small ‘here.'” Similarly, he said, asking people in New York in those days “What are you doing now?” was likely to prompt conversations about the immediate task at hand. These small heres, and short nows, he said, “made for an irresponsible citizenry.”

Instead, he believes we’d be better off realizing that “it’s all now,” meaning that there’s no magical future into which you can push problems and hope someone else can deal with them. And there’s no “outside” into which you can discard things.

So along with Danny Hillis, a parallel-processing pioneer, and environmentalist Stewart Brand, he founded the Long Now Foundation, which is attempting to encouraging longer-term thinking.

“The length of time in which you think conditions what you do,” he said. “We chose a frame to think in of 20,000 years,” positioning the present in the midpoint of a line that begins at the very dawn of civilization and goes forward ten millenia into the future. The foundation is constructing a “non-electrical digital mechanical clock” that’s intended to last 10,000 years.

Life is nasty, British and short.
–Brian Eno

“It’s a monument to the idea that we might really exist for another ten thousands years,” he said. “We might just pull it off.” Once you begin to consider that possibility, you might begin to think differently about the world and your place in it.

“A good-news subculture”

Which brought him back to many of the ideas in the Massive Change exhibit: real solutions that could be applied to common problems. Whether it’s creating cheap and fast public transit systems by applying a few basic rules to buses (exclusive lanes, boarding at the same level as the bus itself, and prepaying fares) as Jaime Lerner is doing in Brazil, or taking an ecological approach to construction in which “waste equals input,” or using techniques from nature to build superstrong materials without expensive toxic manufacturing methods, there are technologies out there right now that, if massively applied, could go a long way towards “changing the world.”

“There’s a good-news subculture,” he said. “But they somehow don’t connect with what governments are doing.” Democracies, he said, are not functioning very well, as evinced by the fact that the U.K. went to war in Iraq despite overwhelming public opiknion against the move. Citing Chomsky’s division of the modern world into two superpowers: the United States, and public opinion, he said that the rise in non-governmental organizations could be viewed as the organization of the “other superpower: us versus U.S.”

However, the modern media engages in what he calls “propagenda,” which is much more sophisticated than the almost comical propaganda of the old Soviet Union. “You solicit opinions, let everyone be heard, butjust make sure they’re all talking about the same thing.” I was very pleased to see him cite Thomas Friedman’s execrable work as an example of this.

We knew it was propaganda. You didn’t.
–Leonid Brezhnev’s surgeon’s son, to Brian Eno

“The biggest change you can make in your life is to stop watching TV,” he said. I really appreciated this because his reasoning about this is much like mine: not that television is inherently evil, but that it simply presents too many options.

“One of the most important jobs in music is reducing variety,” he said. “You have to decide what you don’t want to do. Television presents you with so many options — I don’t have a TV because I am a potential addict. It’s so easy to convince yourself that it’s interesting. I decided to leave some of these options out of my life.”

Science does this as well, serving as a “reality check,” telling us what works and does not work. Meanwhile, culture, which he defines as “everything we don’t have to do,” is “how we change our minds about how things are.”

Starting four CD players, each with a simple piano track slightly out of synch with the others, he said that his experiments in generative music (in which rather than making music, musicians make systems that make music) are an illustration of how complex systems can be spawned by simple rules. “The believe that only complex things can create complex things is one of the arguments against evolution, but complexity can come out of simplicity.”

And so, looking at the various scientists, designers and artists represented in the Massive Change show, he said that perhaps we are seeing “the growth of an organism of intelligence. It’s not what we’re led to believe is leading us, and it’s an act of faith to think this unsynchronized mess can coalesce into something that makes a difference.” But perhaps it can.

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