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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17 Responses to Optimism and the Long Now

  1. That was really great to read, thanx.

    Talk about something with too many options that you can convince yourself are interesting – the web. X also said last month that he discovered he had a lot more free time when he quit doing those damn Scrabble puzzles for a week. There are a lot of things we could throw away to free up time, if time is what we want. But time for what?

    • ken says:

      I was doing the Scrabble puzzles when I was on long conference calls. Now that I’m working at home, I clean the house instead, so the puzzle isn’t getting done anymore.

      But I honestly have never understood the “time for what” question. I read about people winning the lottery and quitting their jobs and getting bored. I cannot even begin to understand that. I have so many things I would like to be doing and I cannot imagine, in a world of so many books and songs and languages and things to learn and people/organizations who need a helping hand, how anyone could possibly be wondering what to do with his or her time.

      • My point wasn’t that cutting things out would leave us bored with too much time on our hands. It was that cutting things out leaves more time for – things. Like the things we just cut out.

      • I think I do understand the boredom that would hit after quitting one’s job. Jobs are usually structured. You know what your goal is. Someone is telling you what to do. Without someone telling you what to do, you’re making it all up. Sometimes I feel “bored” when I have a lot of free time in the sense that I don’t think anything looks particularly fulfilling because I’m not convinced anything is worthwhile. At work I never have to worry about that. The goals have been set by someone else. Oh the angst of modern life…

        • bobhowe says:

          I think “bored” is a kind of shorthand we all use for what’s really a much more excruciating experience: being thrown back on yourself. Torture, for the average person, is being forced to be alone with yourself—really be alone, no books, TV, sex, food, or other distractions—for more than a few minutes at a time.

          The contemplative orders and the Zen practitioners are onto something, I think, in that they seek transcendence by looking inward. But boy damn, it’s uncomfortable.

          • ken says:

            Well, I wouldn’t be very happy being thrown back on myself in the sense you describe. I’d last about five minutes in a Zen monastery and four of them would be spent looking for my shoes. But I don’t need someone to tell me what to do to stay motivated. And conversely, no amount of assigned tasks can prompt me to rouse myself if I’m depressed; I’ll procrastinate and dither no matter how much structure surrounds me.

  2. bobhowe says:

    This was a great read. Thanks.

    I think you can make too much of the similarities between artists and scientists. For one thing, art is largely a machine for evoking emotions in its consumers. Art without emotion is sterile. Science, on the other hand, evokes emotions in its consumers only as a byproduct of intellectual discovery. The point of science is knowing; the point of art is feeling. Yes, art can inform and science can move the emotions, but those aren’t their respective goals.

    Also, artists tend to do art for their audiences; scientists tend to do science for themselves. Yes, both want the approval of their peers; both dream of having the approval of a wider audience. There’s an overlap of motivations between the two groups, but the most brilliant scientists in the last hundred years aren’t as well known, or as well compensated, as a single “American Idol” winner.

    Both art and science require creativity and a certain intellectual ability, but I don’t think that artists and scientists work the same way at all (even excluding the publicity-driven poseurs of the visual arts). They both require a degree of arcane knowledge and the ability to concentrate, but so does being an airline pilot or a stockbroker.

    Finally, in today’s New York Times Crossword, the clue for 7 Down is “Brian of ambient music.”

    • ken says:

      I don’t think he or I meant to imply artists and scientists do the same thing. I think he was saying that the traditional “scientists deal in facts, artists deal in imagination” dichotomy isn’t really true.

      And yeah, having a three-letter name with two vowels will endear you to crossword-makers everywhere.

  3. Excellent write-up, thank you.
    I was beginning to feel the first tingles of Worry that I’d lose references, misheard mentions, to the uncatalogued library of My Time.
    I came across your journal through Enoweb, are you a writer by trade as well as personal passion?

  4. Anonymous says:

    thomas hobbes

    thanks for the report on eno’s talk at the AGO. one thing, though: i suspect the pull quote you’ve included, and attributed to eno, “life is nasty, british, and short,” is mis-transcibed. likely eno was quoting thomas hobbes’ famous description of modern life as “nasty, *brutish*, and short.” eno is not likely to have equated being british with being either short or nasty.

    chris keep

    • ken says:

      Re: thomas hobbes

      Eno was humorously misquoting Hobbes, and got a big laugh doing so. I attributed it to him because I’d never heard that twist on the Hobbes quote before.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Brian Eno at Olivia’s Restaurant

    Right after his lecture, it was awsome to see Brian Eno and his friends hanging out at Olivia’s on Clinton Street and laughing until the wee hours. It’s incredible to me how this reletively new place attracts the epitome of culture. It felt like I was invited to the coolest party of all time being in the same room as Eno.

  6. A referential question:

    Do you happen to recall the name of the 1970’s [60’s?] Notting Hill-area alternative urbanism project that Brian mentioned during his talk?

    I’ve been driven mad trying to figure this out for the last week, or so.

    • Anonymous says:


      Yep –
      I was at the lecture as well. Eno was mentioning Nick Ehlbry’s ‘Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia’. To people who aren’t aware of this project, it began with a few squatters and eventually expanded into a loose, hilarious sort of political independence. They printed their own postage stamps as a source of revenue, and the whole thing became so intriguing to the public eye that News channels began to approach them for their unique, alternative perspective on current issues.

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