An interview with John Seely Brown

By Linda Naiman

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being co-author of Orchestrating Collaboration at Work, was interviewing some of the leading researchers and pioneers in the world of art in business. My phone interview with John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox, was a breathless rapid-fire stream of consciousness exchange that at times seemed like an un-punctuated beat poem. Much of the interview was cut for the book (due to space limitations) so I offer you an expanded–and punctuated– version here.

First some background on what the Xerox PARC Artist-in-Residence (PAIR) Program was all about, as described by John Seely Brown.

The PAIR program invites artists who use new media into PARC and pairs them with researchers who often use the same media, though often in different contexts. The output of these pairings is both interesting art and new scientific innovations. The artists revitalize the atmosphere by bringing in new ideas, new ways of thinking, new modes of seeing and new contexts for doing. This is radically different from most corporate support of the arts, where there is little intersection between the disciplines. It takes a bit of faith on both sides, and a belief that both science and art can use a little shaking up, to engage in such a partnership.

In his open letter to a young researcher (Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb91) he describes the kind of spirit they expect in the research room at Xerox PARC:

At PARC, we attempt to pose and answer basic questions that can lead to fundamental breakthroughs. Our competitive advantage depends on our ability to invent radically new approaches to computing and its uses, and then bring these rapidly to market.

If you come to work here, there will be no plotted path. The problems you work on will be the ones you help invent. When you embark on a project, you will have to be prepared to go in directions you couldn’t have predicted at the outset. You will be challenged to take risks and give up cherished methods or beliefs in order to find new approaches. You will encounter periods of deep uncertainty and frustration when it will seem that your efforts are leading nowhere.

That’s why following your instinct is so important. Only by having deep intuitions, being able to trust them, and knowing how to run with them will you be able to keep your bearings and guide yourself through uncharted territory. The ability to do research that gets to the root is what separates merely good researchers from world-class ones. The former are reacting to a predictable future; the latter are enacting on a qualitatively new one.

This call to adventure has attracted the best talent in the world, and as John Seely Brown pointed out to me in our interview, his letter speaks to artists almost more than to researchers:

Collaboration at the Intersection of Art and Science

JSB: It takes courage to open up a new frontier, to do what people think is crazy, and to push the boundaries of a genre; be it in art, or research. You need both passion and courage, because when you go out on an edge, you really don’t know if you’re just being crazy, (because everybody else around you thinks that you’re just insane). I mean that figuratively not literally. In fact almost every major breakthrough we’ve done at PARC initially seemed absurd. Almost everybody was against it, including even at times myself .

LN: So as director of PARC, you had to create a context for this kind of courage and passion to take shape.

JSB: If you’re really going after what I call radical research — radical in the original Greek meaning of the word ‘to go to the root of an issue’– and follow the problem to its root. You must be willing to bend your lenses accordingly, (your conceptual lenses) and your belief structures, as you follow this problem into virgin territory. There you must be willing to re-frame the emerging issues in ways that may seem pathological, bizarre, or crazy according to the wisdom of the day.

When you are pushing the boundary, what do you have to count on? Well, on one hand, (and this differs a little bit from the artist) you have to be deeply grounded in the issues of the day; you have to be a shrewd reader of the world. In that sense, you have to have marinated in a more nuanced way in what’s going on around you. Then you have to construct your own vision of what could make a difference — and you fall back on something that might be called taste; your own personal aesthetic, because you don’t have any guideposts. There are few guideposts when you are pushing the boundaries—this is the very grist out of which the avante-garde is born.

LN: For example, Picasso studied as a classical artist before he ever went into Cubism. He wouldn’t be able to do that with any kind of proficiency if he didn’t have the grounding of being steeped in art history.

JSB: Absolutely. Being steeped in the past is critical, but so too is being steeped in the mastery of the current, and then to have a passion to go beyond. That ability to go beyond, to re-frame and to invent is guided by your own internal aesthetic. And no one in the research field has ever talked explicitly about a research aesthetic. So, one of the kinds of things that I’m really striving for, is to bring good avante-garde artists and real researchers together around this issue.

LN: You’ve just described what I would call the ‘ideal’ as a researcher, but in reality, they’re not really like that, right?

JSB: Right

LN: Did you decide this ideal fits with the character of an artist? Is that what made you decide to bring artists into the mix of scientists?

JSB: Yes. And so it just struck me this may be an opportunity to bring a certain class of artists who may excel in this capability and become a role model, but it has to be a form of role model where both people are working closely together. It can’t just be some abstract role model. It can’t just be reading about or seeing an artist in the hallways.

LN: Do you mean they were sitting next to each other at the computer?

JSB: Well, I mean they would find a joint project to work on. Now this is where the game gets really interesting and this is where Rich Gold enters the scene, because I already hired Rich to come to PARC. Rich is the father of the PARC Artists in Residence Program, the PAIR program, as we call it.

LN: So this is actually a person and not a metaphor for extracting the gold — you’ve created this alchemical mix and you’ve got “rich gold,” which is a great metaphor.

JSB: Yes, the person is real but he also became the alchemist that enabled this very rich mixture to produce gold. He is an artist, a computer scientist, and a musician. I mean a computer musician, and I had discovered him down at Mattel, as a toy designer.

It was Rich who proposed building the formal program for the PARC Artists and Residence Program, PAIR. The challenge was how to build a new kind of institutional mechanism: How do you find the artists, how do you create a jury, how do you match up the artists’ interests with the researchers’ interests, how do you find the right pairing, how do you pair an artist with a scientist so that it is a natural chemistry? If it is isn’t there, you don’t do it at all. So there’s a whole set of interesting institutional mechanisms that underlie making this work. He designed and drove the whole program for a three or four year period.

LN: How did you get permission from your boss to actually do this?

JSB: Well, first of all, I am the boss.

LN: Okay, well that helps.

JSB: I mean, I was the director of the whole operation out here.

LN: You didn’t have to answer to the CEO of Xerox then?

JSB: No, I informed him we were doing this, but I never asked him for permission.

LN: In your PAIR program, do the artists and scientists also look at marketplace applications relative to what they’re experimenting with, or inventing? Or that doesn’t come into the conversation.

JSB: That doesn’t come into the conversation very much. Again, we expect our researchers to be incredibly familiar with the marketplace of whatever they happen to be doing. Our purpose is not to design products; our purpose is to create almost new waves of looking at the world, new industries, and so on. We were also striving to create a knowledge ecology within Xerox.

LN: So it’s an opportunity to carve out space and time for pure art, creativity and invention without worrying about consequences at that point.

JSB: Right. Although, it’s coupled with technical and scientific work at the same time. I mean we don’t just sit there and build anything. We don’t build sandboxes. Xerox, being the document company, is our rallying flag. What we were doing here was experimenting for example, with fundamentally new genres. What might the newspaper of the future actually look like? What might be the way television and newspapers morph together? What would be both the artistic and human experience? How might you go about thinking about this fundamentally new type of media? What might it look like? What might be the way people experience it? What would you do with it? That’s just one example, but it was a very interesting consequence of the interplay between a couple of artists and some computer scientists.

LN: Can you tell me more about this metaphor of “Rich Gold” even though he’s a real person? This is how I describe my own work when I’m working with people in organizations. I personally find that when I take them through a painting experience, it creates a crucible for conversation, out of which group gold is derived. It’s the richness of the experience of art that takes them into a different dimension, and out of that it’s easier to extract the inherent genius that resides in the group, so amazing conversations take place. I do believe that there is an alchemical response to art when you put people together and you combine the art experience with the business talent.

JSB: Right. There are three ways I look at [the impact of an art experience]. One is the notion that engaging in these types of activities evoke deeper responses, deeper emotions. It brings forth many of the tacitly held beliefs and assumptions that you have. So think of it as evocative of the tacit knowledge.

The second is that focused conversations are built and fused together around evocative objects that concern problems that the researcher has on his or her mind. I have said very often, it was the researcher that had the real problem, but the interaction with the artist actually made a big difference. Now that’s a complex interplay, ‘cause it takes over; it’s like a conversation that unfolds over many months.

The third concerns the power of simplicity. Simplicity prior to complexity doesn’t mean much. But simplicity, after you pass through the wall of complexity, after you have marinated in a fully nuanced reading of the situation and then rendering it in very simple ways is extraordinarily powerful.

LN: That’s where genius comes from.

JSB: Absolutely. And so, my favourite saying is that “Picasso can say more with five lines than most of us can say writing an entire book.” Picasso does not traffic in commas, and parentheses. When you’re doing a painting or sketch, you do not have qualifiers. You have to be crystal clear about matters, and that’s one of the beauties of art as a primary language, primary in that you can’t make caveats and qualifiers around everything. Also note that the image you construct is meant to be an evocative object for both you and others. You’re conversing with yourself as well with others.

LN: I find also that art is a way to tell the truth, about issues in society or in organizations, in a way that is palatable, and safe.

JSB: Yes. The power of multimedia lies in its ability to use rich media to construct narratives. Narratives comprising text, images, sound and context that can play off each other can provide powerful ways to help scaffold meaning. In today’s increasingly complex world, this is becoming a big topic.

LN: Earlier you were talking about an approach to creating a knowledge ecology…

JSB: Well, helping to nurture a knowledge ecology. I think of PARC itself as being a knowledge ecology, where the cross-pollination and creative abrasion of diverse points of view, diverse disciplines, etc. creates the vibrancy of the place. And in that sense, a role for somebody like me as the “executive director” is not a role of management, but rather a role of husbandry. I believe this applies to all the corporations of the 21st century. We could call this leadership, but I think a better term is husbandry — how you nurture a garden or a complex ecology. If done right it can take on a life of its own and it can grow in directions you never thought of. Given that, you begin to see how throwing artists into this rich bed of diverse interaction of people or projects makes intuitive sense.

LN: And you would have to have a capacity for chaos too, and that’s the problem I think in most corporations. There’s a fear, well, first of all, a fear of art, a fear of chaos, and a fear of losing control, yet you were orchestrating all of this.

JSB: But out of that mixture, as long as you can provide the right — what I call gradient — the right field forces that cause things to grow in certain directions, like the Sun ‘pulling’ plants in a certain direction – if you can honour the context — then you can produce great things collaboratively.


John Seely Brown is the former director of PARC and chief scientist of Xerox Corporation. He retired from Xerox in April 2002.

Related Books:

PAIR is examined in detail in Art and Innovation:The Xerox PARC Artist in Residence Programedited by Craig Harris and published by MIT Press 1999.
PAIR was in operation from 1993-1999.

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age
by Michael A. Hiltzik