Thursday, March 19, 2009

brian eno speaking at "the convention on modern liberty"

in addition to being an extraordinary musician, visual artist, videographer, and thinker, brian eno has developed his social presence into that of a speaker - particularly on socio-political hotspot topics. i came across the text of such a speaking engagement recently and would like to share it here.

sure it's a little lengthy, but it's such worthy thinking and reflective of a very considered form of thinking that it really deserves your attention. the speech took place at what is referred to as "the convention on modern liberty".

brian eno: hello. i am sorry that i gave you a few bad moments anthony, but i was trying to get through, i couldn’t get through the back because the security was so tight. it is actually true, i was there for 10 minutes or so arguing with people

“i really am brian eno”.

- “no you’re not!”

most of the things i had intended to say have been extremely well said by other people so i won’t repeat them. instead, i will pull back the lens a bit and talk about something that does interest me and i think frames this discussion, which is about imagination.

what distinguishes human beings from all other creatures in the universe so far as we know is that we can imagine things. we can imagine things that don’t yet exist. we can invent a course of action and then we can play it out in our heads. we can entertain the future; several alternative futures. equally we can imagine alternative pasts so we can think of actions we committed and we can think of other things we could have done and how they would have played out. that is the basis of regret, which of course is a great feat of imagination and one of the things that make humans develop in the ways that they do: it makes them pull themselves up by their own boot straps.

we are able to imagine because we practice it all the time. we practice it by engaging in art forms, like novels and films, where we imagine ourselves to be in another world. we have professionals who help us do that: they are called artists of futurists or cosmic physicist or astronomers (not astrologers, who don’t help very much actually…). essentially, we conceive of our great creations with our imagination. we don’t do it empirically: a lot of time we do it in imagination.

we also have the great human talent of empathy. mary coldhurst, talking in a session this morning, said it was interesting that since the end of the last war we have really stopped seeing other people as the enemy in the way we used to. it is very difficult for us now to regard another bunch of humans as the enemy when what we see on our television screen are women and children who look like they are made of the pretty much same stuff as us, suffering in pretty much the same way we suffered. in a sense, our circle of empathy, which one imagines in the past extended to family, clan or tribe - or at best our nation - now sort of extends over the whole globe.

it expresses itself in other ways as well. we are concerned about the fate of people that we really have nothing whatsoever to do with. when there was a tsunami, a lot of us sent money to people that we would never meet in places we would never go, suffering in ways that we were not even concerned to particularly find out about, but we did in some way extend our circle of empathy, perhaps because it was christmas when it happened. nonetheless, if you track the contributions to charities over the last 50 years or so, they go up year on year. except if they are given by governments of course, when they go down year on year.

so whilst we have extended our circle of empathy, we have shortened our vision of the future, i think. what has happened is, because the rate of change is so fast, we do very few things with a very long view. businesses for example are revving themselves up into shorter and shorter cycles: they are terrified of the next shareholder meeting; they are terrified of what the financial times is going to say. the share-price oscillates wildly every day. unfortunately, governments have copied that model rather. governments are terrified of the next election - i don’t blame them - but they are equally terrified of the next by-election and the next edition of the sunday papers and the next opinion poll. this means it puts governments in the position of being extremely reactive and carrying out decisions that are dramatic and incendiary: they look good in the papers, and really plant the seeds of very very bad legislation.

in the longer view - which isn’t really encouraged by anybody, particularly the media - in the longer view, one would be thinking about what a systemic change causes in the long term, actually in the way chris was saying. we have to think about legislation, not in terms of how it plays on the front page of the daily mail but in terms of what it means in 20, or 30 or 40 years time. what we have succeeded in doing is an act of anti imagination actually: it is carefully taking apart what was a very, very beautiful structure, actually. the british law for all its bolted-on, ramshackle quality, was nonetheless a very effective structure. in ten or fifteen years we have managed to take a lot of that apart.

now it has not affected most of us directly, unlike the gentleman at the end of the line, i have not personally been arrested or harassed by the police. i have recently been told that at the demonstrations i have attended, i am no longer allowed to take photographs of policemen, which starts to get a bit disturbing. i have noticed since i have worked with stop the war coalition, every time we are organising a big demonstration, the computers go out before the demonstration. it is not a piece of paranoia, it actually happens. it happened in the gaza demonstration. i am starting to become aware that there are intrusions being made. you know about all of those, you have been listening to all of that all day.

what i want to argue for - one frame we should put this whole discussion in - is how we operate in a socially creative way? what is it that keeps the conversation of democracy going? what is it that keeps us renewing ourselves, rethinking things, looking at new situations, finding new ways of adapting to them, watching the changing flux of populations and technologies and so on; and being able to operate without becoming totally paralysed? the problem with the kind of legislation that we have been seeing, is that is so security oriented that, in fact, it is a form of paralysis. governments actually like paralysis because it is easy to deal with. they don’t really like a vigorous democratic conversation because it is messy; it is very unpredictable. you get a lot of nutters in those conversations. unpredictable, wild things happen. as dominic grieve said this morning, quality of life and security are not necessarily the same thing. if we want total security, we can have it and we will be hide bound. we will be in a straight jacket. total security was what was achieved in the soviet union in the thirties. i am sure it was achieved in maioist china. the khmer rouge probably did well. it is very clear that it is the stifling of the imagination: the place where people stop talking to each other - they stop trading wild ideas, stop tolerating the nutcases and become insular.

we need to do the job. we are facing humanity’s biggest challenge. we have a few years to respond to it. what we need to be doing is creating a climate of completely unrestrained public discussion, social experimentation of a kind never seen before because we are going to need every hand on deck to deal with climate change. it is the biggest issue. we are going into it with exactly the wrong set of social tools. that is to say, governments are trying to do that, or our government. what we ought to be doing is looking at what is happening now with younger people. younger people are starting to have conversations with each other through the social networking sites, which are really unparalleled. they are starting to do things with exactly the same technology the police are suing to paralyse the situation. we should be helping them. governments, as i say, like the tools of control. technology: boys trust technology and like dealing with it more than humans. what we have now is a vast technology which is so much more complex and detailed than you can imagine and has two possible futures.

one is the future of the kind of total control that some people would like. the other is the future of possible total chaos, because the software won’t work. if we can’t even get a national health service piece of software working even at double the original budget, we won’t be able to get this kind of software working. vince cable was saying he was very reassured by the fact that nobody will ever get it all to work. (laughter) i am sort of reassured by that as well, but what i am also very aware of is that they will still carry on using it even though it does not work (applause).

i will finish very shortly. education ought to be the place where children are taught to swim in liberty, to be able, for once in their lives, to try any experiment so long as it does not directly hurt somebody else. unfortunately education has also adopted the business model and gone in exactly opposite direction (applause). i endorse what you said, that this is something we should be talking about at schools: we should be preparing a generation to be able to use liberty to understand what it means and to be able to use their creativity, freely and without the kind of constraints we are seeing now.

sorry did i go on a long time?"

if you nip over here you can watch and listen to the plenary.

a very big thanks to guy aitcheson who dropped by to let me know about the presence of a cleaned-up version of brian's talk as well as the existence of the podcast.


Anonymous said...

Hi Steven,

Yes these remarks of Brian Eno's do indeed come from the Convention on Modern Liberty, but you have reproduced the original unedited version of Brian's words which were produced by a palantypist.

We tidied it up sometime ago - in fact the version you link to is the tidied up version:

It would be better if you could reproduce this, the edited version, for the sake of accuracy.

There is also a video and podcast of Brian Eno speaking on the panel:



steven said...

hello guy and thanks for dropping by. a special thanks for the heads-up regarding a "better" version of brian's words. i'll spend some time later today redoing this post to more accurately represent your fine work!! thanks also for the link to the video and podcast which i'll add to this post.

Goldenrod said...

It has taken me a while to comment on this post, Steven. While I knew that it would take some thought, I didn't really imagine how MUCH thought it might take!

Anyhoo, for what they're worth, here are my thoughts on Mr. Eno's speech. (You have another commentor on this post. I'll wait to read his comments until I've written my own.)

"We can imagine things that don't yet exist. We can invent a course of action, and then we can play it out in our heads. We can entertain the future, several alternative futures. Equally we can imagine alternative pasts so we can think of actions we made and we can think of other things we could have done and how they would have played out. That is the basis of regret ... ..."

My singular comment on this particular thought is, "If you would have taken another action, the events that ensued would have been altered in such a way that the end results would have been unimaginable!" And so, I guess my best comment would be, "Don't try and overwhelm yourself with feelings of guilt. The past has passed. Let it lie. C'est la vie!"

"... the great human talent of empathy ..." I guess I'd have to disagree with the premise that empathy is a 'human' talent. I've been too much involved almost my entire life with cats and dogs to think otherwise.

That next whole paragraph ... begins with "So whilst we have extended" and ends with "very bad legislation" ... ... couldn't agree more, Steven. Staying away from politics in general or even specifically, I have to say, "Not good."

The next two paragraphs are scary ... very scary, because they're (imo) true.

"Socially creative way", a phrase I find personally objectionable, appears in Mr. Eno's next paragraph. He goes on to describe a sort of Marxist society, which he seems to deplore.

Generally speaking, Steven, I found Mr. Eno's speech to be sincere, heartfelt, and full of his fears and concerns for our children's (and subsequently all of society's) future.

His closing statement, I thought, was particularly strong.

steven said...

hi goldenrod, thanks so much for your considered comments.

my own sense of what is being said here has much more to do with reestablishing the natural tendency of human beings to create. to be "socially creative" suggests to me a model of interaction that is more along the lines of a dispersed intelligence than an organized or mandated creativity. there are things we need, places we need to go, and ways we need to be that won't happen or appear as the result of any form of mandated creativity. i work inside education - which as you may know from your own experience - is modelled on the business model. which makes sense as it this point in time, it's ostensible product is a person who will work in business.

what is wrong with that is it's simply a reprehensible waste of human talent and creativty to box students inside the strictures of education as it is presently being delivered.

in order for humankind to move on and address the world that is being presented to us even as i write we need people who can think out of the box.

yes goldenrod, his closing statement was especially strong "we should be preparing a generation to be able to use liberty to understand what it means and to be able to use their creativity, freely and without the kind of constraints we are seeing now."