This is the future

An interview from The Observer Preview, 12th-18th May 1996, by Jim McLennan.

For quick access to particular areas of interest, click on the appropriate subject heading below.

Government out of touch
Eno as futurist
A Year With Swollen Appendices
Koan Pro and Generative Music 1
What Eno would do if he were in charge

Jim McLennan finds Brian Eno is ahead of his time.

Have you ever wondered why we have a government department for the past in this country (the Heritage Ministry), but nothing similar devoted to the future? Brian Eno has. In fact, he wouldn't mind the job of Minister for the Future if it ever became available. If this sounds a somewhat unlikely appointment, the 47-year-old artist/musician would, as he says, be better suited to looking ahead than many currently in office.

'We have a political class that are groomed in such peculiar circumstances,' he suggests on the phone during a break from recording sessions. 'They cultivate a very narrow group of social relationships and continue those right through their lives from public school to university to club to House of Commons. They must live in a world that seems much more stable than the one the rest of us inhabit. They are living in the past as far as the rest of us are concerned.'

Eno, on the other hand, is celebrated for being ahead of his time. Back in the 1970s, his experiments with ambient soundscapes and his promotion of the modern recording studio as an instrument in itself established a musical gameplan which was adopted wholesale by the post-'88 generation of electronic musicians.

More recently, he has become something of a professional futurist. He's appeared on the cover of Wired, has talked enthusiastically about E-mail and computer networks and is a member of the Global Business Network, the influential futurological think tank. He has even tried his hand at science fiction, in the series of Unlikely Futures he constructed with Wired editor Kevin Kelly - little thought experiments which conjure improbable scenarios in the hope that they might throw some light on the present.

The Unlikely Futures appear in Eno's new book, A Diary With Swollen Appendices, which is a daily journal from 1995 plus related essays and letters. He was commissioned to write something more than six years ago and says he spent a long while trying to find a way not to write something academic. That wouldn't really be his style. Though he has become the ideas guy for art rockers, he's a world away from jargon-slinging theoryheads.

In a way, he handles ideas like an engineer, trying them out in different areas, seeing if they work, trying them somewhere else. This lack of ideological rigour upsets some critics, but it seems one of Eno's main virtues, along with his ability to move between art, commerce, science and pop culture, mixing and matching ideas as he goes. Given that, the unfinished, conversational diary form seems perfect for him.

'It can accommodate any level of detail, so you can think about quite complicated things and not conclude the thoughts if you don't want to, or you can just write about simple things. This seemed to me much more in keeping with the way thinking actually happens - that ideas arise sometimes out of very humble considerations, rather than from sitting down in a Rodin-like pose.'

Much of Eno's official work is covered in the book (production for David Bowie, U2, various art installations, his efforts for the Bosnian charity War Child). But just as much space goes on what he cooked for dinner. Similarly, though the Diary records his thoughts on serious subjects, it also has much random moaning and occasional details on his habit of creating pictures of women with absurdly large bottoms. Despite his reputation as honorary wired guy, the book is critical of much new computer technology, from multimedia CD-ROMs to the general hype about interactivity. 'I am interested in new technology, but not uncritically. All of these processes need two things - the boosters who've got the enthusiasm to get things going, but also the grumblers who have the stubbornness to want to improve them and say: "No that isn't right."'

One thing he thinks is right is the Koan music programme developed by SSEYO (detailed in the Diary), which generates infinitely changing music based on rule sets inputted by the user. The first results of Eno's experiments with this have just been released on a CD-ROM called Generative Music 1. When the user puts the disc on, the computer improvises within the limits he or she has set.

Eno thinks the results suggest the potential future for music, something different from both live and recorded music. 'Generative music enjoys some of the benefits of both its ancestors,' he writes. 'Like live music, it's always different. Like recorded music, you can hear it when you want and where you want. I really think it's possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say: "You mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?"'

So now he's sorted out a possible musical future, what about politics? Say he was invited to head up a Ministry of the Future, what would he do? 'Persuade people that thinking is a good idea. So I would create a place for almost uncensored discussion of new and outrageous ideas. There's so much intelligence around and it's so completely unused, which is a tragedy.'

For more info on Generative Music 1 and the SSEYO Koan software (costing about £45), check the Web page at A Diary With Swollen Appendices is published tomorrow by Faber & Faber, £9.99.

Transcriber's notes: Generative Music 1 is a floppy disk, not a CD-ROM. Eno's book is entitled A Year With Swollen Appendices.