The strong turnout to see Brian Eno at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco seemed to surprise the Englishman; he apologized to those who braved the line but couldn't get inside the chilly hall. This wasn't a performance — or even a talk about music, specifically — but a discussion about the Long Now Foundation, a think tank with the farsighted goal of establishing a permanent cultural institution to make society rethink its concept of time.
Starting with the ideas that inspired his early ambient music, Eno segued into the broader experience of time within society, in which most think of the future as a vague seven or eight years hence. To illustrate this point, he shared the story of his invitation by a socialite to her Manhattan loft. Dropped off by a cab in a dilapidated neighborhood, he rang the doorbell, certain this was a practical joke. Instead, he entered into an unbelievably opulent apartment whose residents, when asked how they liked the place, replied that it was the best real estate they'd ever occupied. They never spent time outside.
Recognizing the disconnect between their perception of living there and the reality of their neighborhood, Eno pointed out this culture's parallel view of time and the potentially negative effects that short-sightedness might have on this and following generations. To cure this chronological myopia, the Foundation started a project to create a clock that will sound a unique set of bell tones every century for the next 10,000 years. Another project is the addition of a zero to the beginning of the calendar year — as in 02004 — to reflect a shift toward long-term thinking.
In all, Eno's knack for making big ideas accessible was in full effect, and his dry charm made the whole thing less of a lecture and more of a conversation. If only college lectures were this interesting.