The Edge Annual Question 2010: How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

[ Sun. Jan. 10. 2010 ]

"Love Intermedia Kinetic Environments." John Brockman speaking -- partly kidding, but conveying the notion that Intermedia Kinetic Environments are In in the places where the action is -- an Experience, an Event, an Environment, a humming electric world." -- The New York Times

On a Sunday in September 1966, I was sitting on a park bench reading about myself on the front page of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section. I was wondering whether the article would get me fired from my job at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where I was producing "expanded cinema" and "intermedia" events. I was twenty-five years old.

New and exciting ideas and forms of expression were in the air. They came out of happenings, the dance world, underground movies, avant-garde theater. They came from artists engaged in experiment. Intermedia consisted more often than not of unscripted, sometimes spontaneous theatrical events in which the audience was also a participant. I was lucky enough to have some small part in this upheaval, having been hired a year earlier by the underground filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas to manage the Filmmakers' Cinémathèque and organize and run the Expanded Cinema Festival.

During that wildly interesting period, many of the leading artists were reading science and bringing scientific ideas to their work. John Cage gave me a copy of Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics; Bob Rauschenberg turned me on to James Jeans' The Mysterious Universe. Claes Oldenburg suggested I read George Gamow's 1,2,3...Infinity. USCO, a group of artists, engineers, and poets who created intermedia environments; La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music; Andy Warhol's Factory; Nam June Paik's video performances; Terry Riley's minimalist music -- these were master classes in the radical epistemology of a set of ideas involving feedback and information.

Another stroke of good luck was my inclusion in a small group of young artists invited by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins to attend a series of dinners with John Cage -- an ongoing seminar about media, communications, art, music, and philosophy that focused on the ideas of Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and Marshall McLuhan. Cage was aware of research conducted in the late 1930s and 1940s by Wiener, Shannon, Vannevar Bush, Warren McCulloch, and John von Neumann, who were all present at the creation of cybernetic theory. And he had picked up on McLuhan's idea that by inventing electric technology we had externalized our central nervous systems -- that is, our minds -- and that we now had to presume that "There's only one mind, the one we all share." We had to go beyond personal mind-sets: "Mind" had become socialized. "We can't change our minds without changing the world," Cage said. Mind as a man-made extension had become our environment, which he characterized as a "collective consciousness" that we could tap into by creating "a global utilities network."

Back then, of course, the Internet didn't exist, but the idea was alive. In 1962, J.C.R Licklider, who had published "Man-Computer Symbiosis" in 1960 and described the idea of an "Intergalactic Computer Network" in 1961, was hired as the first director of the new Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency created as a response to Sputnik. Licklider designed the foundation for a global computer network. He and his successors at IPTO, including Robert Taylor and Larry Roberts, provided the ideas that led to the development of the ARPAnet, the forerunner of the Internet, which itself emerged as an ARPA-funded research project in the mid-1980s.

Inspired also by architect-designer Buckminster Fuller, futurist John McHale, and cultural anthropologists Edward T. ("Ned") Hall and Edmund Carpenter, I began to read avidly in the field of information theory, cybernetics, and systems theory. McLuhan himself introduced me to The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Shannon and Weaver, which began: "The wordcommunication will be used here in a very broad sense to include all of the procedures by which one mind may affect another. This, of course, involves not only written and oral speech, but also music, the pictorial arts, the theater, the ballet, and in fact all human behavior."

Inherent in these ideas is a radical new epistemology. It tears apart the fabric of our habitual thinking. Subject and object fuse. The individual self decreates. I wrote a synthesis of these ideas in my first book, By the Late John Brockman (1969), taking information theory -- the mathematical theory of communications -- as a model for regarding all human experience. I began to develop a theme that has informed my endeavors ever since: New technologies beget new perceptions. Reality is a man-made process. Our images of our world and of ourselves are, in part, models resulting from our perceptions of the technologies we generate.

We create tools and then we mold ourselves in their image. Seventeenth-century clockworks inspired mechanistic metaphors ("The heart is a pump"), just as the self-regulating engineering devices of the mid-twentieth century inspired the cybernetic image ("The brain is a computer"). The anthropologist Gregory Bateson has characterized the post-Newtonian worldview as one of pattern, of order, of resonances in which the individual mind is a subsystem of a larger order. Mind is intrinsic to the messages carried by the pathways within the larger system and intrinsic also in the pathways themselves.

Ned Hall once pointed out to me that the most critical inventions are not those that resemble inventions but those that appear innate and natural. Once you become aware of this kind of invention, it is as though you had always known about it. ("The medium is the message." Of course, I always knew that).

Hall's candidate for the most important invention was not the capture of fire, the printing press, the discovery of electricity, or the discovery of the structure of DNA. The most important invention was ... talking. To illustrate the point, he told a story about a group of prehistoric cavemen having a conversation.

"Guess what?" the first man said. "We're talking." Silence. The others looked at him with suspicion.

"What's 'talking'?" a second man asked.

"It's what we're all doing, right now. We're talking!"

"You're crazy," the third man said. "I never heard of such a thing!"

"I'm not crazy," the first man said. "You're crazy. We're talking."

Talking, undoubtedly, was considered innate and natural until the first man rendered it visible by exclaiming, "We're talking."


* * *

A new invention has emerged, a code for the collective conscious, which requires a new way of thinking. The collective externalized mind is the mind we all share. The Internet is the infinite oscillation of our collective conscious interacting with itself. It's not about computers. It's not about what it means to be human -- in fact it challenges, renders trite, our cherished assumptions on that score. It's about thinking. "We're talking."

This year's Question is "How is the Internet changing the way YOU think?" Not "How is the Internet changing the way WE think?" We spent a lot of time going back on forth on "YOU" vs. "WE" and came to the conclusion to go with "YOU", the reason being that Edge is a conversation. "WE" responses tend to come across like expert papers, public pronouncements, or talks delivered from stage.

We wanted people to think about the "Internet", which includes, but is a much bigger subject than the Web, an application on the Internet, or search, browsing, etc., which are apps on the Web. Back in 1996, computer scientist and visionary Danny Hillis pointed out that when it comes to the Internet, "Many people sense this, but don't want to think about it because the change is too profound. Today, on the Internet the main event is the Web. A lot of people think that the Web is the Internet, and they're missing something. The Internet is a brand-new fertile ground where things can grow, and the Web is the first thing that grew there. But the stuff growing there is in a very primitive form. The Web is the old media incorporated into the new medium. It both adds something to the Internet and takes something away."

This year, I enlisted the aid of Hans Ulrich Obrist, Curator of the Serpentine Gallery in London, as well as the artist April Gornik, one of the early members of "The Reality Club" (the precursor to the online Edge) to help broaden the Edge conversation -- or rather to bring it back to where it was in the late 80s/early 90s, when April gave a talk at a "Reality Club" meeting, and discussed the influence of chaos theory on her work, and when Benoit Mandelbrot showed up to discuss fractal theory and every artist in NYC wanted to be there. What then happened was very interesting. The Reality Club went online as Edge in 1996 and the scientists were all on email, the artists not. Thus, did Edge surprisingly become a science site when my own background (beginning in 1965 whenJonas Mekas hired me to manage the Film-Makers' Cinematheque) was in the visual and performance arts.

We asked the Edgies to go deeper than the news, the "he said, she said", the tired discussion about the future of media, etc. The editorial marching orders were: "Tell me something I don't know. Explore new ideas about how human beings communicate with each other. As communications is the basis of civilization, this Edge Question is not about computers, not about technology, not about things digital: this is question about our culture and ourselves. The ideas we present here can offer a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the way we think, the world, and all of the things we know in it. ... Be imaginative, exciting, compelling, inspiring. Tell a great story. Make an argument that makes a difference. Amaze and delight. Surprise us!"

To date, 168 essayists (an array of world-class scientists, artists, and creative thinkers) have created a 130,000 document.

You can read the full document on The Edge.