A strange loop involving Brian Eno and the nature of time

13.03, Wednesday 5 May 2021

In 1962, Douglas Engelbart writes his paper Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, his theory of human progress based on human-computer cooperation. In 1968, Engelbart and his team present The Mother of All Demos where, famously, in 90 minutes, they show off bitmapped graphics, hypertext, video conferencing, modern office furniture, and the mouse, thus inaugurating the era of the personal computer.

Look to the side (search for “The ARC team rehearses” on that page for the photo): operating the camera is Stewart Brand.

In the 1960s and over the following decades, Brand starts a number of projects and organisations dedicated to thinking and working collectively. The Why haven’t we see a photograph of the whole Earth yet? campaign, to help us think as a planetary level; the Whole Earth Catalog, to share knowledge and tools across the countercultural communes of North America; the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, one of the first online social spaces; and in 1996, the Long Now Foundation.

The Long Now Foundation is building a clock which will last 10,000 years, and is named for the concept of the “long now” coined by Brian Eno, one of its co-founders, in an essay in January 1995: The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you’re in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future.

(Eno is a theorist and musician and pioneered ambient music after being hit by a taxi in 1975. Recuperating, he couldn’t stand up and adjust the volume on the stereo – music became part of the environment, a new thing.)


Engelbart’s colleagues go on to Xerox PARC. The Xerox Alto becomes the first commercial computer with a mouse; the Xerox Star the first with the modern desktop user interface. Steve Jobs sees the Star, and then the Apple Macintosh popularises both the desktop interface and the mouse. Catching up, Microsoft releases Windows 95 with massive publicity in August 1995, it is a huge success, and the mouse finally goes mainstream.

The startup sound for Windows 95 is six seconds long. It is iconic. (Here it is, with some other interpretations.)

The startup sound was composed by Brian Eno.

After the project, which started in 1994, Eno says:

I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

I don’t know of any published link between Brian Eno’s two experiences of time, these two juxtapositions of micro and macro, both holding up a single moment against the unfathomably larger ocean of time, other than they both occur in 1995.

But it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the same mind, preoccupied with the notion, should be involved in both.

And it’s neat that these two moments, almost simultaneous in the scheme of things, came about as a result of a single event almost 30 years earlier.

A strange loop in the history of the modern world.

I’m working on a talk at the moment: a parallel history of computing, one that follows the exceptions and the tangents and the forgotten ideas. I’m running it once next week and again in early June. It’s long! Right now the plan for the one in June is to spread it out over three successive evenings, as part of a larger conference.

(I’m going to keep presenting this talk for a while, and keep developing and iterating the material. At a certain point I’ll publish… but not yet. Do get in touch if it sounds like a fit for an event in which you’re involved.)

One of the joys of researching the talk, and joining the dots, is discovering for myself coincidences like this. New ways to tell old stories. So I wanted to share this one.

More posts tagged:
Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.