The author Steven Johnson, whom I've known for around thirty of my forty-odd years, has a bracing new book entitled Where Good Ideas Come From. Somehow, Steven has managed to write seven books in about the time it has taken me to write two, but I won't hate him for that. I thank Steven at the back of my new book, Listen to This, because sometime in the mid-nineties he got me hooked on Radiohead. I ignored the band when "Creep" appeared, but Steven made me realize that something had gone beautifully askew in the harmonies of The Bends. He also introduced me, for better or worse, to the Internet; "Anything Can Happen," my essay on New Zealand rock, appeared in the first incarnation of his and Stefanie Syman's pioneering web zine Feed (fl. 1995 – 2001).
For some years Steven has been talking about the "long zoom" — a concept that has influenced my way of writing about music. He got the idea when thinking about the cosmic self-positioning of the young Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "Class of Elements / Clongowes Wood College / Sallins / County Kildare / Ireland / Europe / The World / The Universe." In The Invention of Air, his book about Joseph Priestley, Steven defined long-zoom thinking as a manner of analysis that "jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline to discipline, to explain its object of study." In seeking a full explanation for any significant cultural or historical phenomenon, he says, you need to take into account various layers of explanation, none of which should dominate the conversation: neurochemistry, biography, social networks, information networks, technological platforms, political regimes, economic modes, and settlement patterns. Major events rarely unfold within a single layer, he writes. I see the Long Zoom as a practical application of pragmatist philosophy — a search for a language that reaches, wherever possible, outside of strict ideologies and specialized fields.
Sometime in Year 3 or Year 4 of writing The Rest Is Noise, when I felt overwhelmed by my subject, I had a long conversation with Steven about his Long Zoom idea, and it had a liberating effect. I realized that I could encompass the mass of material not by trying to subdue it under a single conception but by following the intersections of the layers. The zoom metaphor allowed me to make sudden shifts without unduly agonizing over them: if I moved from musical analysis to personal biography to political history to narratives of technological or social change, I was staying true to the intricacy of music’s engagement in the world. Indeed, that darting movement might reveal something that a fixed perspective might miss. As Steven says in his new book, "seeing the problem of innovation from the long-zoom perspective does not just give us new metaphors. It gives us new facts." For that insight, much thanks.