Brian Eno + Will Wright

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Earlier this week music composer/producer Brian Eno and computer game composer/producer Will Wright met in San Francisco as part of The Long Now Foundation’s ongoing series of talks. It was one of the most enlightening, jovial, and entertaining talks I’ve seen in a long time. Wright joked about the fact that LNF flubbed the date in its promotional materials (“Friday, June 26th” - it could be Friday or the 26th, not both), since LNF’s “sole charter is to think about time.”

To call it a “talk” or a “lecture” is to not really do it justice. It was more like a conversation between old friends, though the two hardly knew each other, it seems, outside their respective creations. For a while I thought Wright was humoring Eno, but he obviously had a long-term familiarity with Eno’s work, and offered his own insights and interpretations of it that were clearly not off the cuff. Much the same was true of Eno.

It quickly emerged that there were strong parallels between their individual efforts, the common thread being using small sets of simple rules to generate unpredictable complexity. Wright demo’d his new game, Spore, while Eno played ad hoc music in the background and the two bantered back and forth.

Spore is stunning in its scope and audacity, literally having a whole universe with millions of worlds that players create and can then move between. He showed the effortless and visually stunning ways that one creates new creatures and how the game automatically modifies their movements and behaviors based on the arbitrary combinations of body parts the user selects. He quipped “I’ve just done in three minutes what a Pixar animator takes a week to do,” full knowing that several Pixar animators would have been in the audience.

The talk helped crystalize some things I’ve been thinking about with wicked problems, and issues of emergence and how one can use seeds (in Eno’s words) to generate and test ideas, rather than trying to build forests. This is a key aspect of dealing with wicked problems: rapid iterations of probing and testing to further understand the problem. Haven’t finished thinking it through yet, but some lightbulbs went off.

Steve Portigal also has a writeup. I largely agree with what he says: “This was the best presentation I have ever seen. My brain was just ready to explode about a million times.”

You can get a longer summary and mp3 on the Long Now website.