INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian NOVEMBER 10, 2009 - by Aditya Chakrabortty
BRAIN FOOD: BRIAN ENO AND STEVEN JOHNSON IN CONVERSATION
The professor of pop and the technology writer talk about innovation, Twitter and the Enlightenment.
Where do big ideas come from? One way to find out is to ask someone who's had a few, which must be why London's ICA is packed out on a mucky November evening for an audience with Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno - or Eno to his friends.
For the rest of us, he's the self-described non-musician who as good as invented ambient music and terrorised a synth in Roxy Music while wearing more slap than Pat Butcher. Tonight, however, Eno is in his professor of pop garb - chocolate velvet jacket and designer specs - although the old stagecraft shows when he starts impersonating a recording studio. Joining him on stage is Steven Johnson, the American technology writer whose books have just the right sprinkling of pop-cultural references, light controversy and free-market optimism to make them quotable. He's also expert at titles with cute punchlines and serious explanatory clauses, as with his latest paperback, The Invention of Air: An Experiment, A Journey, A New Country And The Amazing Force Of Scientific Discovery. It's the story of how Joseph Priestley, eighteenth-century scientist and resident of Leeds, discovered oxygen and, Johnson believes, a case study in innovation. For him, the Enlightenment comes down to the spread of coffeehouses, in which clever young men from different disciplines got to share cool ideas. In this telling, the eighteenth century comes out a bit like Silicon Valley - only without pictures of cats asking, "Can I haz cheese burger?"
This is Johnson all over: great soundbites, poor follow-through. Technology is all about being open - except that Apple, as he admits, fiercely guards its designs.
Less grandly, Eno argues that rock'n'roll took off in the '50s because of three factors: it was easy to play ("Learn three chords and you've mastered ninety-eight percent of the canon"); lots of little record studios sprang up; and thousands of new radio stations wanted stuff to play. Johnson, who has one-point-three million followers on Twitter, moans about its one-hundred-and-forty-character limit, but Eno counters that arbitrary constraints can be far more conducive to innovation. And so the evening draws towards its end, with the former glam rocker telling an American that benevolent dictators can be good for a culture.