Many of these new words suggest the dissolution of a certain quality of public discourse that we have taken for granted since the Enlightenment, which hinged on the possibility of reaching evidence-based concensus — albeit even temporary — about what constitutes reality. The post-modern scepticism of any distinction between ideologically derived value systems and evidence-driven science is now grasped at gratefully by libertarians, populists, identitarians and tax evaders the world over: “Why shouldn’t there be a special reality just for me?” they demand. An early warning sign of this attitude creeping into politics was when a member of Dubya’s entourage, questioned about the veracity of some claims he’d made in support of the Iraq war, said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
It’s interesting to watch that kind of hubris crash up against a little strand of RNA — and conspicuously lose the battle. As I write this, we’re five months into the Covid pandemic, and it turns out that even an empire can’t change biological reality. I wonder if it will make any difference to how we view the role of leadership in the future, when we evaluate the various national responses to Covid and notice that the people who dealt with it most successfully were not the macho braggarts, not the “we-make-our-own-reality” brigade, not the “man-up” populists, not the Panglossian libertarians, but the people who had the humility to listen to the science and the humanity to care enough to act upon it.
Those words are taken from the new introduction to a 25th anniversary edition of A Year with Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno’s diary of 1995, and form part of a commentary on a list of words and terms created since the original publication: AI, Airbnb, Alexa, algorithm, alt-right, alternative facts, Amazon and so on — several pages of them, fact, all the way to zero-hour contract, zero-tolerance, Zooming and zoonotic.
The original diary, written in a different world, records collaborations with David Byrne, Dave Stewart, U2 and the band James, conversations about drugs with an Eritrean taxi driver and presenting the Turner Prize with Nicholas Serota, outings to judge Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World competition and to lunch with Bono and Eve Hewson at the Colombe d’Or in the hills above Nice, digressions on stuff like the art market, the Bosnian conflict, the language of car horns and the three principal debts to African music (pushed rhythm, flattened scales and call-and-response), chat about buying a computer for his young daughters and looking at Dan Flavin’s neon tubes in the Guggenheim, repeating a very good Tommy Cooper joke, and then another.
He’s a serious thinker but his sense of humour is never far away, along with a gentle self-mockery (17 April: Lou Reed, Lenny Henry and David Bowie all called. Enjoying Tricky CD. He didn’t call… 21 December: At the party, Rob Partridge said to me: ‘You gave hope to other balding men.’ My new epitaph: ‘Co-wrote a couple of decent songs and went bald shamelessly’).
All this makes it well worth reading, or re-reading, today, for both entertainment on trivial matters and the application of critical thinking and common sense to some of the big problems of our time. And it prompts me to wonder how different our lives would be right now, had Brian Eno spent 2020 as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Failing that, I hope he’s at least been compiling another diary.
* The new edition of A Year with Swollen Appendices is published by Faber & Faber.