Mind meld

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[ Sun. Nov. 7. 1999 ]

Now that AOL's mass-market muscle has taken over the online world, it's easy to forget that the Net has long been a forum for intellectuals to exchange ideas. The problem is that many of these ideas are debated on exclusive, invitation-only mailing lists. But on Edge, the brainchild of New York literary agent John Brockman, the musings of some of the world's most prominent academics, artists and scientists‹on topics as varied as genetics and affirmative action‹are available to anyone. Getting on the list can be tough (you have to know Brockman), but mere mortals can access edited archives of his high-minded monthly e-mail newsletter at Edge's website.

Brockman launched the Edge list in 1996 as an online incarnation of the Reality Club, a group of intellectuals who began meeting in 1981 in real-world salons. "I started the Reality Club because it's almost impossible to sit down in New York and think deeply," says Brockman. "This is a market town‹it's hard to get a group together to focus on serious works." Now Brockman gathers minds from around the world for online discussions and writings about such topics as relativity theory and Plato. In Edge's 52 monthly editions thus far, surfers can find, for example, transcripts of lectures given by Darwinian theorist Richard Dawkins and interviews with MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky and musician Brian Eno.

Probably the most stimulating and attention-grabbing content has resulted from the site's periodical posing of portentous philosophical questions. In a recent edition from January, Brockman asked his mailing-list members to identify the most important invention of the past 2,000 years. Among the responses were the eraser ("because it allows us to go back and fix our mistakes," according to Ecstasy Club author Douglas Rushkoff), the clock ("It converted time from a personal experience into a reality independent of perception," writes Disney Imagineer Danny Hillis) and Copernican Theory ("It took a lot of intellectual courage and taught us more than just what it said," writes the Monkees' Michael Nesmith). Such answers, along with 600-odd postings on the same topic from visitors to Edge's discussion area (run separately by New York-based e-zine Feed at www.feedmag.com), prove that shopping and fucking are hardly the only reasons people go online.

Brockman started Edge in response to the notion of the "third culture," an idea described by C.P. Snow in his 1959 book The Two Cultures. Snow identified two types of intellectual cultures: literary and scientific. In the future, Snow posited, members of these groups would come together and form a third culture to disseminate intellectual concepts to the public. According to Brockman, however, the third culture that has emerged is more the result of scientists' becoming increasingly literate. "The literary world, which hijacked the word intellectual, has been brain-dead for 30 years. Now it's the scientists who are asking the big questions," says Brockman, citing the success of Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, a book about string theory that hit No. 1 on Amazon.com's best-seller chart this past February.

Although it covers weighty scientific issues and has a recipient list that reads like a who's who of the digerati (including Bill Gates andVersion 2.0's Esther Dyson), Edge is remarkably low-tech and text-based. The irony of this is not lost on Brockman. "[Even though I'm] someone who has been pushing the envelope for digital communication, I keep coming back to books," he says. "The power of the printed word is amazing."

Why the elite mailing lists? Brockman chalks it up to lack of manpower. "I try to do everything myself," he says. "If I started to read a bunch of [unsolicited] e-mails, then I wouldn't have time to do Edge." And since the site's content is available for free, the greater public doesn't really miss out. According to Feed founder Steven Johnson, in some cases, the clearly focused discourse of closed lists can be preferable to the sometimes incoherent and rambling nature of open forums.

Whether or not Edge visitors decide to chat intelligently about issues on Feed won't change the distinctive content of Brockman's salon. Visitors are guaranteed a look into the minds and theories of people who make a living lecturing around the world and writing books. And for the intellectually curious who don't have the time or money to attend thought-provoking symposia and conferences, Edge is easy on the wallet. At least Brockman thinks so. "I think I've created the best graduate school in the world," he says.

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