THE ÉMINENCE GRISE
As a New York agent, John Brockman manages the star authors of science, as a visionary behind the scenes, he creates a new image of man for the 21st century. By Georg Diez
Who is John Brockman? Even in New York, the world capital of people who know just about everybody, they are uncertain.
"Brockman, Brockman?" Shake of the head. "I don't know", says the reporter from the New Yorker. Says the colleague of the New York Review of Books. Says the young writer who cofounded the magazine n + 1.
In the literary milieu where he is ignored more than despised, John Brockman is about as well known as the first three digits of the number Pi.
"This crowd sees everything through the lenses of culture and politics," he says. "But an understanding of life, of the world, can only come through biology, through science."
Ebola, stem cells, brain research—Who needs the new David Foster Wallace, the new Philip Roth?
"The great questions of the world concern scientific news," says Brockman. "We are at the beginning of a revolution. And what we hear from the mainstream is: "Please make it go away."
"He is a key figure of the late 20th and early 21st century, the éminence grise and major source of inspiration for the globally dominant culture, which he himself named as the 'third culture'."
And there you are—this is how it goes with John Brockman who doesn’t like to waste time in the midst of the contradictions of the present. "Come, let's start," he says in a good mood and puts a recording device on his desk. "I'm turning it on, you don't mind?"
He is charming, without hiding his own interests. He is proud of his life, his intelligence, without that he would have to apologize for it. He is a key figure of the late 20th and early 21st century, the éminence grise and major source of inspiration for the globally dominant culture, which he himself named as the "third culture".
It is not Brockman, but his authors, who are well-known: Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Daniel Kahneman. Physicists, neuroscientists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists, fixed stars of the science age, superstars of nonfiction bestseller lists, the reason for Brockman's financial success and good mood.
"To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."
In September a group of social scientists gathered for HEADCON '14, an Edge Conference at Eastover Farm. Speakers addressed a range of topics concerning the social (or moral, or emotional) brain: Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: "The Teenager's Sense Of Social Self"; Lawrence Ian Reed: "The Face Of Emotion"; Molly Crockett: "The Neuroscience of Moral Decision Making"; Hugo Mercier: "Toward The Seamless Integration Of The Sciences"; Jennifer Jacquet: "Shaming At Scale"; Simone Schnall: "Moral Intuitions, Replication, and the Scientific Study of Human Nature"; David Rand: "How Do You Change People's Minds About What Is Right And Wrong?"; L.A. Paul: "The Transformative Experience"; Michael McCullough: "Two Cheers For Falsification". Also participating as "kibitzers" were four speakers from HEADCON '13, the previous year's event: Fiery Cushman, Joshua Knobe, David Pizarro, and Laurie Santos.
We are now pleased to present the program in its entirety, nearly six hours of Edge Video and a downloadable PDF of the 55,000-word transcript.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Edge Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Please feel free to use for personal, noncommercial use (only).
Related on Edge:
The reason why that letter is nice is because it illustrates what's important to that girl at that particular moment in her life. Less important that man landed on moon than things like what she was wearing, what clothes she was into, who she liked, who she didn't like. This is the period of life where that sense of self, and particularly sense of social self, undergoes profound transition. Just think back to when you were a teenager. It's not that before then you don't have a sense of self, of course you do. A sense of self develops very early. What happens during the teenage years is that your sense of who you are—your moral beliefs, your political beliefs, what music you're into, fashion, what social group you're into—that's what undergoes profound change.
SARAH-JAYNE BLAKEMORE is a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore's Edge Bio Page
What can we tell from the face? There’s some mixed data, but data out that there’s a pretty strong coherence between what is felt and what’s expressed on the face. Happiness, sadness, disgust, contempt, fear, anger, all have prototypic or characteristic facial expressions. In addition to that, you can tell whether two emotions are blended together. You can tell the difference between surprise and happiness, and surprise and anger, or surprise and sadness. You can also tell the strength of an emotion. There seems to be a relationship between the strength of the emotion and the strength of the contraction of the associated facial muscles.
Imagine we could develop a precise drug that amplifies people’s aversion to harming others; you won’t hurt a fly, everyone becomes Buddhist monks or something. Who should take this drug? Only convicted criminals—people who have committed violent crimes? Should we put it in the water supply? These are normative questions. These are questions about what should be done. I feel grossly unprepared to answer these questions with the training that I have, but these are important conversations to have between disciplines. Psychologists and neuroscientists need to be talking to philosophers about this and these are conversations that we need to have because we don’t want to get to the point where we have the technology and then we haven’t had this conversation because then terrible things could happen.
MOLLY CROCKETT is Associate Professor, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford; Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page
One of the great things about cognitive science is that it allowed us to continue that seamless integration of the sciences, from physics, to chemistry, to biology, and then to the mind sciences, and it's been quite successful at doing this in a relatively short time. But on the whole, I feel there's still a failure to continue this thing towards some of the social sciences such as, anthropology, to some extent, and sociology or history that still remain very much shut off from what some would see as progress, and as further integration.
HUGO MERCIER, a Cognitive Scientist, is an Ambizione Fellow at the Cognitive Science Center at the University of Neuchâtel. Hugo Mercier's Edge Bio Page
Shaming, in this case, was a fairly low-cost form of punishment that had high reputational impact on the U.S. government, and led to a change in behavior. It worked at scale—one group of people using it against another group of people at the group level. This is the kind of scale that interests me. And the other thing that it points to, which is interesting, is the question of when shaming works. In part, it's when there's an absence of any other option. Shaming is a little bit like antibiotics. We can overuse it and actually dilute its effectiveness, because it's linked to attention, and attention is finite. With punishment, in general, using it sparingly is best. But in the international arena, and in cases in which there is no other option, there is no formalized institution, or no formal legislation, shaming might be the only tool that we have, and that's why it interests me.
JENNIFER JACQUET is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary? Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page
In the end, it's about admissible evidence and ultimately, we need to hold all scientific evidence to the same high standard. Right now we're using a lower standard for the replications involving negative findings when in fact this standard needs to be higher. To establish the absence of an effect is much more difficult than the presence of an effect.
SIMONE SCHNALL is a University Senior Lecturer and Director of the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory at Cambridge University. Simone Schnall's Edge Bio Page
What all these different things boil down to is the idea that there are future consequences for your current behavior. You can't just do whatever you want because if you are selfish now, it'll come back to bite you. I should say that there are lots of theoretical models, math models, computational models, lab experiments, and also real world field data from field experiments showing the power of these reputation observability effects for getting people to cooperate.
DAVID RAND is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Economics, and Management at Yale University, and the Director of Yale University's Human Cooperation Laboratory. David Rand's Edge Bio page
We're going to pretend that modern-day vampires don't drink the blood of humans; they're vegetarian vampires, which means they only drink the blood of humanely-farmed animals. You have a one-time-only chance to become a modern-day vampire. You think, "This is a pretty amazing opportunity, but do I want to gain immortality, amazing speed, strength, and power? Do I want to become undead, become an immortal monster and have to drink blood? It's a tough call." Then you go around asking people for their advice and you discover that all of your friends and family members have already become vampires. They tell you, "It is amazing. It is the best thing ever. It's absolutely fabulous. It's incredible. You get these new sensory capacities. You should definitely become a vampire." Then you say, " Can you tell me a little more about it?" And they say, "You have to become a vampire to know what it's like. You can't, as a mere human, understand what it's like to become a vampire just by hearing me talk about it. Until you're a vampire, you're just not going to know what it's going to be like."
L.A. PAUL is Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Professorial Fellow in the Arché Research Centre at the University of St. Andrews. L.A. Paul's Edge Bio page
What I want to do today is raise one cheer for falsification, maybe two cheers for falsification. Maybe it’s not philosophical falsificationism I’m calling for, but maybe something more like methodological falsificationism. It has an important role to play in theory development that maybe we have turned our backs on in some areas of this racket we’re in, particularly the part of it that I do—Ev Psych—more than we should have.
MICHAEL MCCULLOUGH is Director, Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory, Professor of Psychology, Cooper Fellow, University of Miami; Author, Beyond Revenge. Michael McCullough's Edge Bio page
FIERY CUSHMAN is Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University. JOSHUA KNOBE is an Experimental Philosopher; Associate Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Yale University. DAVID PIZARRO is Associate Professor of Psychology, Cornell University, specializing in moral judgment. LAURIE SANTOS is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology; Director, Comparative Cognition Laboratory, Yale University.
This year's Edge-Serpentine Gallery collaboration took place in London at part of the Serpentine's "Extinction Marathon: Visions of the Future" event, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery's extension, designed by Zaha Hadid, on Oct. 18, 2014. The 2-hour event, which was live-streamed, is presented, here, in its entiretly, on Edge.
The first hour was a converseation between Stewart Brand and Richard Prum on whether of not the prospect of "de-extinction" changes how we think about extinction. For the second hour, Molly Crockett introduced four Edgies—Helena Cronin, Jennifer Jacquet, Steve Jones, and Chiara Marletto, who gave 10-minute talks with their perspectives on the subject of extinction. This was followed by a panel.
NEW—COMPLETE VIDEO AND TEXT
Part I: "DE-EXTINCTION": STEWART BRAND & RICHARD PRUM
With Hans Ulrich Obrist and John Brockman
Does the prospect of "de-extinction" change how we think about extinction? Conservation science is shifting from being species-centric to function-centric, focussing on the overall health of ecosystems. Does the extinction of a species leave a "gap in nature" that can only be filled by returning the species to life and to the wild? Or will a functionally close relative serve? Is a de-extincted species really nothing more than a functionally close relative anyway? If it is too difficult and expensive to revive every extinct species, what are the criteria for deciding which ones to work on? Humans are the ones deciding. What ethics and aesthetics should guide those decisions?
STEWART BRAND is the Founder of the "The Whole Earth Catalog" and Co-founder of The Long Now Foundation and Revive and Restore; Author, Whole Earth Discipline.
Stewart Brand's Edge Bio Page
RICHARD PRUM is an Evolutionary Ornithologist at Yale University, where he is the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He is working on a book about duck sex, aesthetic evolution, and the origin of beauty.
Richard Prum's Edge Bio Page
Part II: "EDGIES ON EXTINCTION"
Molly Crockett introduces and moderates an event of four 10-minute talks by Helena Cronin, Jennifer Jacquet, Steve Jones, and Chiara Marletto, followed by a discussion joined by Hans Ulrich Obrist, and John Brockman.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: When we spoke with John Brockman about the Extinction Marathon he suggested, as a second part—as I mentioned in previous marathons we got the Edge community to realize maps and different formulas, and John thought today it would be wonderful to do a panel with UK based scientists who are part of the Edge community. We are extremely delighted that we now will have four presentations by Helena Cronin, by Chiara Marletto, by Jennifer Jacquet, and by Steve Jones. We welcome Steve Jones back to the Serpentine because he was part of the 2007 Experiment Marathon with Olafur Eliasson. The entire panel will be introduced by Molly Crockett. Molly is an associate professor for experimental psychology and fellow of Jesus college at the University of Oxford. She holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Cambridge and a B.S. in neuroscience from UCLA. Dr. Crockett studies the neuroscience and psychology of altruism, of morality, and self-control. Her work has been published in many top academic journals including Science, PNAS, and also Neuron. Molly Crockett will now introduce Helena, Chiara, Jennifer, and Steve. We then, together with Molly and all the speakers and John, give a panel after that.
MOLLY CROCKETT: I'm very, very pleased to introduce Helena Cronin. She's the co-director of the Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the director of Darwin at LSE at the London School of Economics. She has many notable publications including the edited series, Darwinism Today, and the award winning, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today, that has been featured in the New York Times' Best Books and Nature's Best Science Books of the Year. Her current research interests focus on the evolutionary understanding of sex differences. Let's give a very warm welcome to Helena and welcome her to the stage. ...
... A strange thing happened on the way to a better world in pursuit of an admirable quest, that is, a world free of sex discrimination where you’re judged on your own qualities and not your sex. Truth and falsity went topsy-turvy. The truth—the silence of sex differences—became dangerous, unmentionable, and in its place the conventional wisdom, which is a ragbag of ideas that have long been extinct but are kept ghoulishly alive by popularity, became the entrenched orthodoxy influencing public thinking, agendas and policy-making, and completely crowding out science and sense.
My aim is to show you why the current orthodoxy should be abandoned and why, if you really care about a fairer world, the science does matter. It matters profoundly. I’m going to take two examples, both about the professions, because they very well epitomize the orthodox litany: how society systematically discriminates against women, and how at work they are victims of pervasive sexism. ...
HELENA CRONIN is the Co-Director of LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science; Author, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today. Helena Cronin's Edge Bio Page
There is a new fundamental theory of physics that's called constructor theory, and was proposed by David Deutsch who pioneered the theory of the universe of quantum computer. David and I are working this theory together. The fundamental idea in this theory is that we forumlate all laws of physics in terms of what tasks are possible, what are impossible, and why. In this theory we have an exact physical characterization of an object that has those properties, and we call that knowledge. Note that knowledge here means knowledge without knowing the subject, as in the thoery of knowledge of the philosopher, Karl Popper.
We’ve just come to the conclusion that the fact that extinction is possible means that knowledge can be instantiated in our physical world. In fact, extinction is the very process by which that knowledge is disabled in its ability to remain instantiated in physical systems because there are problems that it cannot solve. With any luck that bit of knowledge can be replaced with a better one. ...
CHIARA MARLETTO is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Materials Department, University of Oxford. Chiara Marletto's Edge Bio Page
I dream about the sea cow or imagine what they would be like to see in the wild, but the case of the Pinta Island giant tortoise was a particularly strange feeling for me personally because I had spent many afternoons in the Galapagos Islands when I was a volunteer with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Lonesome George’s den with him. If any of you visited the Galapagos, you know that you can even feed the giant tortoises that are in the Charles Darwin Research Station. This is Lonesome George here.
He lived to a ripe old age but failed, as they pointed out many times, to reproduce. Just recently, in 2012, he died, and with him the last of his species. He was couriered to the American Museum of Natural History and taxidermied there. A couple weeks ago his body was unveiled. This was the unveiling that I attended, and at this exact moment in time I can say that I was feeling a little like I am now: nervous and kind of nauseous, while everyone else seemed calm. I wasn’t prepared to see Lonesome George. Here he is taxidermied, looking out over Central Park, which was strange as well. At that moment realized that I knew the last individual of this species to go extinct. That presents this strange predicament for us to be in in the 21st century—this idea of conspicuous extinction. ...
JENNIFER JACQUET is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary? Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page
What I wanted to talk about is somewhat of a parallel of that in human populations. If you were to go to a textbook on human biology from the time of Darwin or a bit later, you would certainly get an image that looked a bit like this. This is an image of the so-called races of humankind—racial types, as they called them. I’m not going to go into the question of whether there are real races of humankind because there aren’t. It’s interesting to note that until quite recently people assumed, and scientists assumed too, that the human species was divided into distinct groups that were biologically different from each other and had been isolated from each other for a long, long time.
Well, to some extent that was true. Until quite recently, human populations were isolated from each other. That’s changing quite quickly. ...
STEVE JONES is an Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London. Steve Jones's Edge Bio Page
MOLLY CROCKETT is an Associate Professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford; Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST is the Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London; Author, Ways of Curating. Hans Ulrich Obrist's Edge Bio Page
JOHN BROCKMAN is the Editor and Publisher of Edge.org; Chairman of Brockman, Inc.; Author, By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture. John Brockman's Edge Bio Page
EDGE & SERPENTINE GALLERY
Previous Edge-Serpentine collaborations have included:
SPEAKING OF EXTINCTIONS....
Edge's own contribution to the conversation will be published in February:
The idea that computers are people has a long and storied history. It goes back to the very origins of computers, and even from before. There's always been a question about whether a program is something alive or not since it intrinsically has some kind of autonomy at the very least, or it wouldn't be a program. There has been a domineering subculture—that's been the most wealthy, prolific, and influential subculture in the technical world—that for a long time has not only promoted the idea that there's an equivalence between algorithms and life, and certain algorithms and people, but a historical determinism that we're inevitably making computers that will be smarter and better than us and will take over from us. ...That mythology, in turn, has spurred a reactionary, perpetual spasm from people who are horrified by what they hear. You'll have a figure say, "The computers will take over the Earth, but that's a good thing, because people had their chance and now we should give it to the machines." Then you'll have other people say, "Oh, that's horrible, we must stop these computers." Most recently, some of the most beloved and respected figures in the tech and science world, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have taken that position of: "Oh my God, these things are an existential threat. They must be stopped."
In the history of organized religion, it's often been the case that people have been disempowered precisely to serve what was perceived to be the needs of some deity or another, where in fact what they were doing was supporting an elite class that was the priesthood for that deity. ... That looks an awful lot like the new digital economy to me, where you have (natural language) translators and everybody else who contributes to the corpora that allows the data schemes to operate, contributing to the fortunes of whoever runs the computers. You're saying, "Well, but they're helping the AI, it's not us, they're helping the AI." It reminds me of somebody saying, "Oh, build these pyramids, it's in the service of this deity," and, on the ground, it's in the service of an elite. It's an economic effect of the new idea. The new religious idea of AI is a lot like the economic effect of the old idea, religion.
JARON LANIER is a Computer Scientist; Musician; Author of Who Owns the Future?
THE REALITY CLUB: George Church, Peter Diamandis, Lee Smolin, Rodney Brooks, Nathan Myhrvold, George Dyson, Pamela McCorduck, Sendhil Mullainathan, Steven Pinker, Neal Gerschenfeld, D.A. Wallach, Michael Shermer, Stuart Kauffman, Kevin Kelly, Lawrence Krauss, Robert Provine
by John Brockman
This past weekend, during a trip to San Francisco, Jaron Lanier stopped by to talk to me for an Edge feature. He had something on his mind: news reports about comments by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, two of the most highly respected and distinguished members of the science and technology communiity, on the dangers of AI. ("Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and fearing the machine" by Alan Wastler, CNBC 6.21.14). He then talked, uninterrupted, for an hour.
As Lanier was about to depart, John Markoff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning technology correspondent for THE NEW YORK TIMES, arrived. Informed of the topic of the previous hour's conversation, he said, "I have a piece in the paper next week. Read it." A few days later, his article, "Fearing Bombs That Can Pick Whom to Kill" (11.12.14), appeared on the front page. It's one of a continuing series of articles by Markoff pointing to the darker side of the digital revolution.
This is hardly new territory. Cambridge cosmologist Martin Rees, the former Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, addressed similar topics in his 2004 book, Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning, as did computer scientist, Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, in his highly influential 2000 article in Wired, "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us: Our most powerful 21st-century technologies — robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech — are threatening to make humans an endangered species".
But these topics are back on the table again, and informing the conversation in part is Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, the recently published book by Nick Bostrom, founding director of Oxford University’s Institute for the Future of Humanity. In his book, Bostrom asks questions such as "what happens when machines surpass humans in general intelligence? Will artificial agents save or destroy us?"
I am encouraging, and hope to publish, a Reality Club conversation, with comments (up to 500 words) on, but not limited to, Lanier's piece. This is a very broad topic that involves many different scientific fields and I am sure the Edgies will have lots of interesting things to say.
Related on Edge:
THE MYTH OF AI
A lot of us were appalled a few years ago when the American Supreme Court decided, out of the blue, to decide a question it hadn't been asked to decide, and declare that corporations are people. That's a cover for making it easier for big money to have an influence in politics. But there's another angle to it, which I don't think has been considered as much: the tech companies, which are becoming the most profitable, the fastest rising, the richest companies, with the most cash on hand, are essentially people for a different reason than that. They might be people because the Supreme Court said so, but they're essentially algorithms.
If you look at a company like Google or Amazon and many others, they do a little bit of device manufacture, but the only reason they do is to create a channel between people and algorithms. And the algorithms run on these big cloud computer facilities.
The distinction between a corporation and an algorithm is fading. Does that make an algorithm a person? Here we have this interesting confluence between two totally different worlds. We have the world of money and politics and the so-called conservative Supreme Court, with this other world of what we can call artificial intelligence, which is a movement within the technical culture to find an equivalence between computers and people. In both cases, there's an intellectual tradition that goes back many decades. Previously they'd been separated; they'd been worlds apart. Now, suddenly they've been intertwined.
The idea that computers are people has a long and storied history. It goes back to the very origins of computers, and even from before. There's always been a question about whether a program is something alive or not since it intrinsically has some kind of autonomy at the very least, or it wouldn't be a program. There has been a domineering subculture—that's been the most wealthy, prolific, and influential subculture in the technical world—that for a long time has not only promoted the idea that there's an equivalence between algorithms and life, and certain algorithms and people, but a historical determinism that we're inevitably making computers that will be smarter and better than us and will take over from us.
Despite their intense scientific depth, John Brockman runs these gatherings with the cool of an old school bohemian. A lot of these meetings indeed mark the beginning of a new phase in science history. One such example was a few years back, when he brought together the luminaries on behavioral economics, just before the financial crisis plunged mainstream economics into a massive identity crisis. Or the meeting of researchers on the new science of morality, when it was noted that the widening political divides were signs of the disintegration of American society. Organizing these gatherings over summer weekends at his country farm he assumes a role that actually dates from the 17th and 18th century, when the ladies of the big salons held morning and evening meetings in their living rooms under the guise of sociability, while they were actually fostering the convergence of the key ideas of the Enlightenment.
The artist Richard Hamilton once remarked that we only remember exhibitions that invent new rules of the game. This welcome new edition of Brockman's work is a thoroughly inspiring reminder of the fact that this observation can also be applied to books. —Hans Urich Obrist
HANS ULRICH OBRIST is the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London. He is the author of Ways of Curating.
Foreword to By the Late John Brockman: EVER BROCKMAN
Since the 1960s, John Brockman's pioneering activities have been diverse and multidirectional, marked by a fearlessness and fluidity of thought. He has been a writer, a literary agent, a junction-maker between science and art, a curator, an avant-garde-film programmer, has worked in industry, for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and for The White House. He is also the founder of Edge Foundation and editor of Edge.org, an important platform for the exchange of knowledge between different fields that aims "to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge".
Stewart Brand has called Brockman an "intellectual enzyme … an adroit enabler of otherwise impossible things". As Brockman himself puts it, "I look to … those who through their empirical work are changing the nature of ourselves and reality, whether they are scientists or not … people who are using technology and new communications ideologies to radically reboot the whole idea of human communication." First and foremost, he is driven by the question: "Who … will take us to the epistemological crossroads where everything has to be rethought? My entire career has been in pursuit of this vision."
Central to this approach is Brockman's fundamental opposition to the separation of art and science. Instead, he sees art as science and science as art. This way of thinking beyond the boundaries is a guiding theme that defines his activities, which focus on establishing networks. He "celebrates thinking smart versus the anesthesiology of wisdom", where experts ask questions not "in front of their peers in their academic discipline or their field, [but] in front of people who are their equals in other areas." This is why, when I first met him in the summer of 1998 at his farm in Connecticut, he became one of my great inspirations, reinforcing my conviction that pooling knowledge across disciplines is the future.
In one of our many conversations over the last fifteen years, Brockman remarked that "Life is the theatre of one chance." His life and work have been greatly informed by this idea. In 1964, he met the artist and filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who was running the Film-makers' Cinematheque for underground cinema. Brockman was already working with underground film-makers, and video artists, which was at this time a revolutionary art genre. In 1965 Mekas asked him to take over the Cinematheque and to initiate an Expanded Cinema Festival there. He invited many great New York artists working in all fields, including Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman and Claes Oldenburg, to make a work integrating film for a special performance. These activities led to an invitation from leading scientists in biophysics, computation and cybernetics to bring a group of New York artists, film-makers and musicians to MIT in Cambridge Mass., for what was probably the first art-science symposium—an event that would have a lasting impact on his thinking and methods.
It's the case that a lot of the SALT speakers are book authors, and sometimes we get them when they're on book tour. But usually I'm finding them because I want the same body of research and analysis that they’ve done at book scale. These are not tweets. They're not even TED Talks, brilliant as those are. Those are short form; these are the long form. For somebody to hold forth for the better part of an hour, whatever it is they have to say, they have to have mastered quite a bit.
Over the past few years on a nearly monthly basis, Stewart Brand gets on a stage in San Francsico to do a Q&A with an eclectic array of interesting speakers, ranging from world-famous bestselling authors to young researchers and thinkers still under the radar. "My job is curator," he says, "but also I find the people, I get in touch with them, I invite them; they're not getting paid. They do get visibility in a serious context and a fantastic audience. I give a Q&A with them on the stage and then I summarize, which for me is the hardest, in some ways most interesting part because when Steven Pinker or Elaine Pagels or Jared Diamond or whoever talks for an hour, how do you summarize what they said in a couple hundred words and send that out to everybody? It's a form of writing compression that is hard, but I think worth doing. People like it."
The summaries of the SALT Talks, emailed to the membership and then posted on the Long Now website, are a highlight of the program. Check them out, and watch the videos of the talks at the Long Now Seminar page.
Last month I sat down with Brand in San Francisco, at the new Interval Cafe near the Golden Gate Bridge, the latest addition to the many projects coming out of his Long Now Foundation. I was particularly eager to talk to him as it's coming up on the 50-year mark of our first meeting in 1965 at the USCO psychedlic/cybernetic tabernacle in a converted church in Garnerville, NY. We've been in touch regularly ever since, talking about ideas, working on an occasional project. It's always interesting.
STEWART BRAND is Founder of the The Whole Earth Catalog, Co-founder and Co-chair of The Long Now Foundation, author of Whole Earth Discipline.
SALT: Seminars About Long-term Thinking
For 12 years now we've been doing monthly talks to the public called "Seminars About Long-term Thinking" that the Long Now Foundation sponsors in San Francisco. I don’t have a rap about the SALT Talks—Seminars for Long-term Thinking—this is one of those cases where the acronym rules. SALT talks are an ongoing territorial exploration of people who are talking, writing, thinking about things that bear relation—sometimes tangential—to long-term thinking, bearing in mind that the Long Now, as defined by Brian Eno and Peter Schwartz for the Long Now Foundation, is the last 10,000 years and the next 10,000 years. So we're building a 10,000 Year Clock, we’re bringing back extinct species, we’re cataloging all the languages in the world, and we're giving a pretty highly visible stage to current thinkers.
When Steven Pinker writes his book, The Better Angels of our Nature—the book is incredible, his news is fantastic, that things are getting better in terms of violence and cruelty and injustice in a pretty constant long-term way—everyone wants to hear him say it and tell it with words and presence and slides and quizzing on the stage.
John Brockman, literary über agent and intellectual arbiter, wrote a trilogy of experimental, divisive books. Then, at age 32, he retired from writing ...more»