Edge in the News

3 Sat Online [2.7.01]

Who explains the world to us? Priests, psychoanalysts, and other prophets no longer serve this purpose. The sciences are becoming more important, especially biology and physics. Most recently the map of the human genome was revealed, and our knowledge of the world has become immense. But who can see through it all?

Ten years ago a New York literary agent promoted popular science, accessible science for everyone, as an alternative to arcane, discipline-specific language and an unenlightened intellectual climate. John Brockman promotes a Third Culture: "The Third Culture is a name for those people who, through empirical work in the natural sciences - as well as in other subjects, such as feminism, architecture, etc. - transform our thinking about who and what we are. This is very different from other thinkers, whom we call the Second Culture, who construct pyramids of thought, dispense opinions, and spy on the opinions of others."

How did the cosmos and our own world come into being? What does is mean to be human? What does our future look like? Within disciplines such as genomics, computer science, robotics and artificial intelligence the authors of the Third Culture look for new answers to the great, perennial questions. Neither the scientific method nor animated speculation are excluded from this. Brockman, however, expects no help from classical intellectuals and literary types: "The fact that someone is a gifted writer no longer means that his ideas are any better than those of my butcher. To put it bluntly, it really doesn't matter to me what literary people have to say about these themes. This isn't to say that I'm disinterested, but it doesn't mean anything to me that someone has written 30 books on philosophy."

Although Brockman's polemic has caught on, it doesn't reach far enough. The fission of uranium and plutonium nuclei is surely a scientific achievement of the past century, but at the same time it has made possible the most horrifying weapons of destruction of all time. How, then, are we to reckon with nuclear fission? Scientific answers to moral questions don't help. But Brockman, whose polemic is directed more towards the narrow mindedness of the lions of intellectual salons than artists, knows this as well, because it was artists like John Cage who made him aware of the natural sciences. His critique goes for the conditions in America as well, where despite the New York Times there is no widely publicized forum for the popular dissemination of knowledge about scientific progress. Brockman's Third Culture seeks to close this gap: "If you want to know about the most recent developments in psychology and computer science, that is, to be among the most important thinkers, then you have to buy their books. You can't get that from the newspapers, because it's not published there."

Through this attempt to create a counterweight to the entertainment industry, he has become the most successful literary agent specializing in nonfiction in the world. He negotiates advances in the millions of dollars for authors such as Marvin Minsky, Richard Dawkins, or Stephen Pinker. In the meantime, he has created a network of authors from which Frank Schirrmacher, who has committed the FAZ arts pages to the sciences, has also profited. The Third Culture has reached Germany: "Today it really is self-evident." says Brockman. "It is good that it is now a topic of debate in Germany. It hasn't been the case for long, but things really have changed. Frank Schirrmacher deserves the credit for this. But here in America it is no longer a big issue. It is a part of our everyday culture."

Popular science and the Third Culture have established themselves in America. They are not a replacement for either hard science or the humanities. But they are a platform for a creative, unconventional, and interdisciplinary thought. For this reason they can't be done without.

The Aventis Magazine [1.31.01]

John Brockman wants to be at the frontier of knowledge. That’s why his online magazine is called Edge (www.edge.org): “What questions shall we ask today?”

The New York Times [1.8.01]

Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on his mailing list to answer it.

At the end of 1998, for example, he asked readers to name the most important invention in 2,000 years; the question generated 117 responses as diverse as hay and birth control pills. This year, Mr. Brockman offered a question about questions: "What questions have disappeared, and why?"

Here are edited excerpts from some of the answers, to be posted today at www.edge.org.....

John D. Barrow, THE NEW YORK TIMES [1.8.01]

Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on his mailing list to answer it.

At the end of 1998, for example, he asked readers to name the most important invention in 2,000 years; the question generated 117 responses as diverse as hay and birth control pills. This year, Mr. Brockman offered a question about questions: "What questions have disappeared, and why?"

Here are edited excerpts from some of the answers, to be posted today at www.edge.org.....

Frankfurter Allgemeine [1.7.01]

Auch die Zukunft kommt nicht ohne Traditionen aus. Selbst eine mit Mlle. de Scudéry zeitreisende Mme. de Sévigné müßte sich nicht gar zu sehr wundern, wenn sie beim Netzsurfen auf ein Internetmagazin stieße, das sich unerschrocken preziös "Salon" nennt. Wo immer aber ein Salon zum Verweilen, Sinnieren und Brillieren lädt, kann eine Preisfrage nicht weit sein.

Elektronisch funktioniert sie nicht viel anders als zu Zeiten der Aufklärung und ihrer Debattierzirkel. In seinem Internetsalon (www.edge.org) verführt der Verleger und Literaturagent John Brockman zum Anfang des Jahres gelehrte Koryphäen gern zu Antworten auf solche Fragen. Diesmal hat er den Ritus selbst thematisiert und fragt nach Fragen, die keiner mehr stellt. Wir drucken heute auf den folgenden Seiten, gleichzeitig mit der "New York Times", eine Auswahl der oft in Wahrheit weiterfragenden Antworten ab. An die hundert Wissenschaftler, Philosophen und Publizisten der sogenannten "Dritten Kultur" nehmen am Spiel teil, haben aber die Spielregeln nicht alle gleich verstanden. Warum eine Frage verschwindet, kann schließlich viele Gründe haben. Vielleicht ist sie beantwortet, vielleicht auch nicht zu beantworten, was freilich in der Regel den intellektuellen Spieleifer um so heftiger stimuliert, vielleicht aber war die Frage auch von Anfang an nicht fragenswert.

NEW YORK [1.7.01]

Auch die Zukunft kommt nicht ohne Traditionen aus. Selbst eine mit Mlle. de Scud»ry zeitreisende Mme. de S»vign» m½œte sich nicht gar zu sehr wundern, wenn sie beim Netzsurfen auf ein Internetmagazin stieœe, das sich unerschrocken preziñs "Salon" nennt. Wo immer aber ein Salon zum Verweilen, Sinnieren und Brillieren lîdt, kann eine Preisfrage nicht weit sein.

Elektronisch funktioniert sie nicht viel anders als zu Zeiten der Aufklîrung und ihrer Debattierzirkel. In seinem Internetsalon (www.edge.org) verf½hrt der Verleger und Literaturagent John Brockman zum Anfang des Jahres gelehrte Koryphîen gern zu Antworten auf solche Fragen. Diesmal hat er den Ritus selbst thematisiert und fragt nach Fragen, die keiner mehr stellt. An die hundert Wissenschaftler, Philosophen und Publizisten der sogenannten "Dritten Kultur" nehmen am Spiel teil, haben aber die Spielregeln nicht alle gleich verstanden. Warum eine Frage verschwindet, kann schlieœlich viele Gr½nde haben. Vielleicht ist sie beantwortet, vielleicht auch nicht zu beantworten, was freilich in der Regel den intellektuellen Spieleifer um so heftiger stimuliert, vielleicht aber war die Frage auch von Anfang an nicht fragenswert......

Kevin Kelly [12.31.00]

New "High concept all the way. Brockman seeks out the brightest scientists and thinkers today and engages them in heady interviews and serious discussions centered around ideas. The content is unfashionable and orthogonal to the media news. It's deep and refreshing like six-feet of rich topsoil. Of all the lists I am on this one is the most conversational." Kevin Kelly (Editor-at-large, Wired)

Die Welt [11.20.00]

Manifestos have to exaggerate. It is no surprise, then, that FAZ co-publisher Frank Schirrmacher reported six months ago that he would turn the arts & letters pages of his paper into the central organ of the "Third Culture." He sells the shift as an epoch-making "post-education" for the sleeping European intelligentsia content to be "clumsy or stubborn," mired in "identity crises, loss of purpose, despair, and occidental melancholy," incapable even of coming to grips with a word processing program, while young American natural scientists write the "program of the future."

What Schirrmacher calls the "Third Culture" is the brand name of the nearly 60-year-old New York literary agent John Brockman. In order to understand what Brockman is promoting one must go back to John F. Kennedy. Kennedy saw America's new frontier in science and technology. Everything seemed possible, and Kennedy's goal was to send a man to the moon within a decade. JFK was, however, not the prophet of a new age, but represented old dreams of the flexibility and managability of society, matter and consciousness. In Behind Freedom and Dignity, the most influential scientific work of that year, B.F. Skinner proposed the idea of the programmability of people. Emblematic of the end of these illusions was Kennedy's murder, carried out by a solitary gunman with a cheap gun purchased through mailorder.

John Brockman was caught up in the visions of the sixties. Until then he had been a left-leaning student for whom magazines like Encounter and intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and Stephen Spender were most interesting. Today he says that these "reactionary literary people" stole the title of honor, "intellectual," from natural scientists like Einstain and Heisenberg. If one is to believe Brockman, his revelation took place in 1964, when he realized that "Warhol, Nam June Paik, Rauschenberg, Cage, all of the artists," in whose proximity the 20-year-old attempted to further his artistic career, read Norbert Wiener and Marshall MacLuhan, and instead of Eichmann in Jerusalem, discussed cybernetics and the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy.

Others identify the transformation before 1965, when Brockman developed an advertising campaign for the tampon "Scott's Confidets" and overnight became one of the most sought-after advertising people in America. In 1968 the world-famous rock group The Monkees hired him to publicize their film Head. Brockman had his own head printed on a poster and plastered it all over New York. At this time he became friends with the activist Abbie Hoffman (the spitting image of Dieter Kunzelmann), whom the media-savvy Brockman advised in his dramatization of revolt without engaging or compromising himself. When, at the beginning of the seventies, he sold a proposal for a book by LSD-pioneer and dolphin expert John Lilly, "it was clear to him that he was a literary agent," says Stuart Brand, whose Whole Earth Software Catalog became a bestseller in 1983.

Once the market for computer books was saturated, Brockman turned to scientific non-fiction. Among his more than 400 authors, the personnel of the "Third Culture," belong respected scientists such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), physiologist Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel), physicist Murray Gell-Mann (The Quark and the Jaguar), computer expert David Gelernter (The Muse in the Machine), astrophysicist Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe), but also Michael Drosnin (The Bible Code), Rupert Sheldrake (Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home), and Frank Tipler, who postulates a Physics of Immortality.

The multi-talented Brockman has, while being a multimillionaire, maintained a likable pose of sixties-era rebelliousness that becomes apparent, for example, in his interview with Der Spiegel. When asked how humanists and scientists can communicate with one another, he answers, "Blow up all your statues. These monuments in Berlin or Munich say only, 'Behave yourself. Live in the past.' Who will be wild and visionary enough to bring forth new ideas?" (Later he tones down his recommendation, saying instead "Tear down all the statues!")

Brockman himself is honorable enough to attribute the origin of his slogan: In 1959 the writer C.P. Snow complained of the falling-out of the educated in the "two cultures" — humanists and natural scientists — and suggested in 1963 that this divide could be bridged by a "third culture" in which humanists and natural scientists exchange ideas. "I have borrowed Snow's argument," says Brockman, "but by this I do not mean the third culture that he prophesized." According to Brockman the "literary types" have failed at the task. Now "the natural scientists communicate directly with the public."

The problem with this is that they carry over every positivistic self-image that C.P. Snow diagnosed as dangerous. According to this image, natural science is a pure story of success, progress from darkness into light, from thesis A to argument B to improved thesis C, from superstition to rational knowledge of the real. Philosophy on the epistomological stage and politics on the empirical are left only to complement the claims of the leading culture of the natural sciences. But science isolated from the humanities knows nothing of its own dependence on the zeitgeist and its own self-created mythos.

In any case, "Schirrmacher's third culture is not my third culture," said Brockman after he met the FAZ editor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In fact, after his manifesto received criticism in his own house, Schirrmacher changed his argument. Now the reason for his occupation with the natural sciences was not — as for Brockman — the desire to speculate over the riddles of the world, but rather the danger that results from technology. The prophetic tone, however, remains: "What has fallen onto our shoulders is to make socially understandable that which science has discovered." This, however, does not reach far enough.

Why does science always confuse its methods — the reduction to simple principles — with the workings of nature, its models with reality, its philosophical questions with answers? Why does it believe, after its global prophecies are repeatedly proved false — fictional — although they seem to be true, that the world should react to them? What the Arts & Letters pages can and must bring to the discussion are the historic and philosophical dimensions, without which even science does not know what it is doing. 
 


 

To: Mr. Weimar, Editor in Chief, Die Welt 
From: John Brockman

LETTER TO THE EDITOR 

Dear Sir:

In his article "Brockman's World: How the advertising slogan of the 'Third Culture' makes careers in the Feuilleton", Alan Posener attributes the following quote to me regarding Frank Schirrmacher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

"Schirrmacher's third culture is not my culture."

Mr. Posener takes this quote out of context, leaving it open for the reader to believe that I may be critical of Mr. Schirrmacher's efforts.

This is not the case. Mr. Schirrmacher is advancing the third culture idea by bringing new perspectives into play from his own background and experience. The fact that there are many ways to approach the third culture idea, and that there is no central canon of truth, is evidence of the strength of the concept.

I am very much in favor of Mr. Schirrmacher's initiative and consider it a remarkable accomplishment that due to his efforts there is serious debate among German thinkers today concerning this set of ideas.

Sincerely,

John Brockman

iReview [11.8.00]

Edge is the online incarnation of The Reality Club, a big-brain discussion group that began convening in New York in the late '80s. Contributors to this online publication, who tend to hail from the worlds of technology and science, offer their musings and responses to cutting-edge ideas

Berliner Zeiting — Magazin [9.8.00]

The media loved Abbie Hoffman, the clown among the revolutionaries on the streets of America in the late 1960s. He delivered protest as free entertainment for families sitting around their dinner tables. At the famous Woodstock Festival he called out to the "Woodstock Nation" until an agitated Pete Townshend of the rock band The Who kicked him off the stage. In 1967 he and his comrades threw dollar bills from the visitors' gallery of the New York Stock Exchange onto the heads of well-dressed traders, who greedily fought over the money.

A little later the revolutionary surrounded the Pentagon with 50,000 sympathizers in order to drive out all of its evil spirits. During the 1968 presidential campaign his Youth International Party nominated "Pigasus for President" — a pig — which, however, failed to win. Finally, at the investigation into whether or not he had hatched a conspiracy to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the political leader said only, "Conspiracy? We can't even agree on lunch."

Hoffman's lively staging of media spectacles was not the result of chance. A close friend often roamed with him through the canyons of New York City, debating how to excite public awareness after the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy and thereby to affect politics. "Abbie's public service was a revolutionary practical joke — it was provocative political theater," explains his former accomplice looking back. He is John Brockman of New York, America's most famous literary agent. The memory of the strange rebel, who took his life in 1989, affects this businessman visibly. In the middle of a conversation that we shared on his farm north of New York, the 59 year-old manager interrupts his generally monotone litany of the story of his success, leans back and reflects on his old friend.

Just a few days ago, Brockman watched the sentimental film Steal This Movie, which covers the life of this specter of the bourgeoisie. He then drove back to his idyllic farm, which sits like a white crown on a hill between a pond and a tennis court in Connecticut. "I was Abbie's technician," jokes Brockman, wearing a fine straw hat and arranging his fashionable jacket under a 200 year-old maple tree. "I shared Abbie what I learned from Marshall McLuhan, the philosopher of media."

Although playing intellectual midwife for political practical jokes is no longer a part of Brockman's program, he hasn't lost his sense of drama. He's merely moved onto other stages: the book business, an intellectual internet salon (www.edge.org), and his annual "Billionaires Ball" in California. Just as in the past, the agent prefers playing the role of an intelligent impresario, leaving others to take the stage in new zeitgeist-tickling plays. At the most the agent has a catch phrase at the ready. His name for the approximately 150 natural scientists among his over 400 authors has taken on a life of its own within science departments and in the German arts and letters pages (most importantly the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung): the "third culture."

Brockman takes the term from the British novelist and physicist C.P. Snow. In a 1959 essay, he argued that the intellectual culture of the western world had been split into two camps — the natural sciences and humanities — that would not communicate with one another. Snow's hope was for a third culture in which academics in the humanities would succeed in mastering the lingua franca of physicists and biologists through a sort of continuing education.

Brockman has seen the third culture enter the public consciousness since then, as there has been an increasing interest in the continuing successes in the natural sciences and technology, and in the sales figures for popular science books. However, the new protagonists do not occupy a natural place within cultural life. He sees natural scientists and thinkers working outside of their disciplines, taking over the role of the classical intellectual by "making visible the deeper meanings of our lives and redefining who and what we are."

The leading writers of Brockman's natural scientist avant garde introduce themes to their readers that were previously reserved for philosophers, historians, or ethicists. Among them are Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at MIT and superstar among pop science writers, whose book Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (appearing this fall in German translation) explains the most recent discoveries concerning the neuropsychology of language acquisition. Californian physiologist Jared Diamond achieved fame in the States for his investigation into the influence of geographic factors on cultural developments. And the Nestor of popular science journalism, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, created excitement in more than the scientific world with his 1976 bookThe Selfish Gene, which argues that the gene uses the human as a host in order to proliferate itself as broadly as possible.

According to Brockman, such researchers writing for a popular audience completes a development that had its beginning over four hundred years ago. Since the beginning of the modern age, scientists have taken piece after piece of the natural world into their possession. First the astronomers and physicists gathered the cosmos and earth to themselves. Later, during the industrial revolution, mechanization appeared to be a greater blessing than metaphysics ever was. Today those who explain the world are generally no longer minds schooled on philosophy and literature, but are natural scientists who have grown up in laboratories over formulas. Geneticists explain without any irony that the human grows out of the endless salad of the four letters of DNA. It may be that one segment of the alphabetical construction plan of Homo Sapiens says nothing about the person. One glance at the confused genetic alphabet, however, is enough to leave one astonished, because if the rows of letters were mixed up, even just a little, one human being would collapse in death, another would find his sickness healed, and still another might be reborn as an ape.

In earlier times, the educated classes drew their conception of the world from Thomas Mann, or later from Theodor W. Adorno. Today, however, the wind blows in another direction. Although, for example, Jacques Derrida's name is known in well-read circles, only a small minority would be able to explain the significance of the philosopher's work. On the other hand, the debate over the influence of genetics on human behavior is known to nearly everyone, whether or not everyone knows the Harvard-educated ant researcher E.O. Wilson, who founded the discipline of socio-biology in the 1970s.

Philosophers prepared the mental foundation for the trail of success of the natural sciences. In the seventies, when intellectuals were still wearing enlightenment, emancipation, and justice on their sleeves, Francois Lyotard served as an emissary. He argued that we should no longer believe in great projects and that everything is breaking into the randomness of the "postmodern." However, one cannot live without a narrative that creates sense. The third culture of engineers, physicists and evolutionary biologists dove into this breach in order to show us how our world and our knowledge of it changes through our own handiwork.

But at the same time, the new pop-scientists surrounding Brockman sometimes reach far beyond this goal. Several fantasize about the basis of Moore's Law, according to which the computational power of computers doubles every 18 months, in fantastic visions of a robot society — here the scientific construction of a picture of the world turns to science fiction. Roboticist Ray Kurzweil seriously predicts a detailed plan for the arrival of the robot society: In just 2019 an average computer should think as quickly as the human mind; in 2029 it will possess its own consciousness and by 2099 all differences between human and machine will fall away. But such prophecies speak more about the love of a computer scientist for his machines than a healthy understanding of the completely unique architecture of the human brain.

The natural sciences, which later brought him success and wealth, fell into Brockman's lap somewhat coincidentally. In the sixties, shortly after completing a degree at the Columbia Business School, he ran with the cultural avant garde of New York. It was not only with Abbie Hoffman that he spent his evenings. He knew Andy Warhol as well as John Cage, who one day pulled from his bag a book that Brockman had never heard about — Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener: "The artists I knew read scientific books. They saw the really interesting and progressive ideas, not so, the intellectuals of the old guard."

At that time the man who would become an agent composed several wild collections of aphorisms, the first of which carried the simple title By the Late John Brockman. Among them could be found such meaningful terminal statements as, "The choice is between the present and the past. The choice is between choice and no choice. There is no choice." And, "Who's crazy? Mankind went out of its mind. There is no mind out of which to go. Who's crazy?" Or, "Give him a name. It is dead. It is real." As fuzzy and inconsequential as the aphorisms sound, the book found a loyal following and got him off the ground with publishers and book contracts. It was here that the young writer immediately showed his enormous talent. Because of this, friends of his book such as John Lilly, the researcher of dolphins and of consciousness, and the cultural anthropologist Gregory Bateson asked him to take over their burdensome negotiations with publishers.

Brockman is known for being a hard-edged literary agent: "I carry on this business in order to make money. It's not my job to help people. But my authors earn a lot of money through my work, and I do pretty well because of it." One glance at his stately property, the garden, the tennis court, and the red horse stable are testimony to this.

The agent introduced a completely new set of customs to the publishing business. Typical of Brockman's work style is the story of the book Wrinkles in Time. Passing a newsstand on the way to a Japanese airport in 1992, he noticed a headline reporting sensational new developments in research about the universe. When he arrived at the airport, he hurried to a telephone to tell George Smoot, the leader of the experiment team, that the time was ripe for a bestseller on his discoveries. He asked the physicist to assemble a proposal quickly, and he would take care of the rest. When he arrived in New York, the proposal lay on Brockman's desk. He edited the text and sent the concept to sixty publishers in twelve countries and initiated an auction. In the USA alone, William Morrow and Co. paid a $400,000 advance for the rights to publish the book.

But such nimbleness can also cause problems. In May 1998 science journalist Gina Kolata published a story on the front page of the New York Times about a cure for cancer that was supposed to turn away the blood supply flowing to malignant tumors. Brockman didn't delay in asking Kolata for a book proposal that could be turned into a sensation. The concept was red hot, and the article quoted Nobel Prize-winner James Watson's statement that the method would deliver a medication for cancer within two years. The next day, the first offer from a major New York publisher already lay on the table. But then Watson made a statement to the press saying that he had been misquoted. In fact, the method had until then only been tested on lab mice, and a practical drug lay in the distant future.

If fax transmissions weren't enough to make readers at publishing houses break out in a sweat, Brockman expects even more of them. He submits proposals using an "extranet" designed by the firm rightscenter.com: "It's become the marketplace of the future for authors, publishers, and agents — a sort of online auction house for the written word." It is no wonder that Brockman also invested his own capital in the company, even if it is "only in the lower six-figure range." Publishers are sent an e-mail containing a password that enables them to view and consider valuable book ideas on their computer monitors. Brockman demonstrates the most recent offering with a few mouse clicks on his streamlined laptop, connected to the Internet using no cable while he sits at his garden table over croissants, butter, and coffee.

A colorful photo of a bearded motorcyclist sitting weightily on his heavy machine appears in the browser window. He is John Patrick, Vice-President of internet technology at IBM. He plans to write a book about the future of the internet,"and it is bound to sell well," surmises Brockman. He has already sent e-mails to publishers worldwide in order to make them aware of the project. Besides the large photo, they can view the proposal, a table of contents, press articles, a short biography, the planned length of the work, and the delivery date — all online. And the bidding war has already begun.

But Brockman does not invoke the third culture merely as a marketing strategy. It is much more the case that he has a nose for the zeitgeist. "When something interests me," he says self confidently, "then there is usually a market for it." And what interests him are the natural sciences and technology, not the passé exclusive forum of New York intellectuals, the Partisan Review: "They would continue to discuss today who was a Trotskyist sixty years ago and who wasn't." But instead of making a long speech about the effects of the Internet, biotechnology or robotics, he simply recommends the story of a life-changing experience: "For anyone who looks at Dolly and thinks about it for just a minute, the meaning of the new technology speaks for itself." Naturally, Brockman has already meditated over Dolly as if she were the first sheep he had ever seen. This year Brockman will travel to Edinburgh in order to be further enlightened. He will pay a visit to the first cloned pig, which was born in March.

Brockman's third culture is admittedly no novelty. The dynamic agent teased the concept out of the writings of C.P Snow in a 1991 article for the Los Angeles Times, and hung a wreath of science authors around his neck. The growing impact of popular science became recognizable at the end of the 1980s, when the wheelchair-bound, Cambridge astrophysicist Stephen Hawking sold several million copies of his book A Brief History of Time — the highest selling science title ever. Renowned authors like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have already been known within science departments for decades. But the transformation in the discourse of the German arts and letters pages is something new. Many see there a realization of C.P Snow's hope that the new third culture might join originally literary minds with brilliant thinkers from physics and biology.

But in reference to such nuanced differences Brockman just waves his hand and remarks nearly as apodictically as ever, "The third culture is simply culture. It's what's happening now." Such intellectual generosity suggests that Brockman in no way counts himself among the academic purists. He also remains open to higher-level nonsense. Among his stable of authors are, for example, Frank Tipler, whose book title The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead requires no comment. Another is Rupert Sheldrake. He believes in "morphogenic fields" that cause a clairvoyant dog to run to a house's front door with its tail wagging just as his master turns around the corner two blocks away.

Brockman smiles when one brings up these black sheep among his collection of scientists. He explains amusedly that many at Oxford stand up and leave the room as soon as Sheldrake enters. This calmness would in no way surprise the blessed Abbie Hoffman. At the end of the sixties he told the young Brockman "You just want to be the technician. you ain't got heart!", meaning that political activism and the anti-Vietnam movement were just not his thing. Brockman, who at that time provided advice without any particular pangs of conscience to the White House and General Electric, never shared Hoffman's moral convictions. But that didn't stop him from using his sixth sense for "happenings" to lasting advantage — witness the many who have already benefited a realization of C.P. Snow's hope for a third culture based on literary minds well tuned with physics and biology.

Prospect [8.31.00]

Edge.org is not Nature, a place where original research is presented to the scientific community. It is not driven by news and reviews, like the New Scientist. It is instead an informal salon, a forum for eminent scientists, members of the digerati and science journalists from all over the world to wrangle, show off, provoke and explain themselves. A marvellous showcase for the internet, it comes very highly recommended.

THE VICTORY OF THE THIRD CULTURE (DER SIEG DER DRITTEN KULTUR)
Die Woche [7.31.00]

The record occurred during the Frankfurt Book Fair. The company run by the vibrantliterary agent John Brockman negotiated a $2 million contract between US publisher Knopf and an American astrophysicist, author of pop-science books. This was the highest sum ever paid for a science book.

The deal comes as no surprise, since natural science and technology are in vogue like never before. Apocalyptic visions of a coming world takeover by nanorobots (which currently don't exist) or promises of a genetically prolonged life to 150 years receive critical attention not only in the science departments. In contrast with the USA, the arts pages here also taken notice, above all the FAZ, which has been fascinated by and concerned with the meaning of the fruit fly, the strange choice of the Internet-governing ICANN or the lack of promotion of German research. A paradigm shift has taken place that will not find a solution anytime soon.

During the Cold War it appeared that destiny was to be decided in politics. Enlightenment, emancipation, and justice were the most important themes to be written about by intellectuals interested in improving the world. Today, because democracy is sitting more comfortably in the saddle, many contemporaries still engaged in studying historical conflict or taking part in the debate over the holocaust memorial have noticed that gene patents and the Internet will also decide our human future.

Neither Jürgen Haberbas nor Hans Magnus Enzensberger land in the garbage because of this. Only the greying mandarins have little advice when it is necessary to explain how technology and natural science are changing our world with seven league boots. In order to understand something about cloning, genetic selection in embryos raised in test tubes, or the feelings of the expressive, red-lipped robot head Kismet at Boston's MIT, the classic canon of education alone does not help any longer. The old circles of intellectuals must allow the agents of the technological revolution to deliver the building blocks of a new world image.

The unavoidable requirement of education has promoted into prominence a new type of intellectual: the representative of a "Third Culture." The PR-genius Brockman fished the catchy formula out of an old book by the British novelist and physicist C.P. Snow. Snow suggested in 1959 that Western culture had been split into two irreconcilable camps, the natural sciences and humanities, that had not been successful in communicating with one another. Snow's hope was therefore for a "third culture" in which those humanistically educated minds should communicate the work ofphysicists and biologists in the lingua franca.

Brockman turned the key word around: The third culture is for this businessman the scientists whom he represents — more than 150 in number. They make, as Brockman says, "the deeper meanings of our lives visible and define who and what we are." Among them are to be found such renowned names as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), psychologist Daniel Goleman with his worldwide bestseller Emotional Intelligence, or the MIT cognitive psychologist and researcher Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works). Also among Brockman's clients is Rupert Sheldrake, a highly controversial physicist in scientific circles who believes in the clairvoyant powers of dogs through means of "morphogenetic fields."

It is no coincidence that the majority of the scientific avant garde does not come from German laboratories, but comes blaring from the USA. America lays claim not only to the invention of the Internet, a subscription of annual Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and the world's most research-rich paradise, attracting to the States the leading researchers from around the world. The well-spoken US scientists are also able to push the buttons of the media with much more virtuosity than their European colleagues. They astonish us elequently with insights into the genome, the mind, and the nano-world, assembling a mosaic of the future out of the hard facts of technology and natural science.

The authors in Brockman's stable are well prepared for this assignment. The talent of self-representation — a rare ability for German professors still occupied with the faults of the trivial - is also necessary to survive the wild course of holding academic office. In the States if one is not successful in attracting the public for a particular subject, one is often not financially in demand. At state organizations such as the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation or at the Defense Department (which is always interested in innovation) researchers from around the country are clamoring after the pot of gold; a little show can never hurt.

Sometimes these scientists aim openly and powerfully at this goal in their books and magazine articles. Robot-builder Ray Kurzweil fantasizes about the foundation of Moore's Law, according to which the computing speed of computers doubles every 18 months, in the push of exciting visions of a future robot society. Here the line becomes blurred between the scientific reconstruction of our world view and more daring science fiction. Kurzweil prophesizes that an average computer in the year 2019 will think as quickly as the human mind; in 2029 it will possess its own consciousness; and in 2099 all differences between the human and the machine will have collapsed. Here speaks more the love of one's own calculator than a profound understanding of the completely different architecture of the human mind.

Still, in general, just as genetic engineering or computer science makes lasting changes in the world in which we live, our image of ourselves changes irreversibly. The influence of such an academic superstar as Jacques Derrida in the '80s and '90s was the other side of the limited, disappearing influence of the ivory tower. The thought paths of the French philosophers were too abstract and alienating. The still recent debate over the influence of the gene on our behavior, however, is now familiar to everyone. For this one does not need to know the behaviorist Edmund O. Wilson, who lifted social biology out of the depths in the 1970s.

Are we now seeing lab reports or utopain visions of the future? Researchers satisfy the need for a metaphysical authority, because they explain to us what we are made of, where we came from, and what lies in front of us. In this respect, a 1958 statement by the physicist and natural philosopher Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker achieves validity only today: "The scientist moves unwanted into the role of a priest in this secular culture. He administers its mysteries, its prophecies, and its wonder."

After decades of a lack of interest due to the bespectacled freaks in lab coats, there blossoms around natural scientists a holy sheen, which lifts up daring prophecies into the rank of a promise. But unlike priests, scientists must accompany their serious proclamations with experimentation in order to remain beliveable, or to carry out those applications that should so radically change our lives.

Whether superstring theory comes out with only ten dimensions, or maybe needs eleven, in order to bring the four elementary forces of nature under one, unifying formula for which physicists have sought for so long hardly affects our everyday life. The popular representatives of the third culture carry out the necessary clarification as they include us in the deep-reaching technological change announcing itself around us: microchips that network nerve pathways and begin to transform us into cyborgs; chimeras created from human and animal cells that should supply us with organs; genetically manipulated plants on all fields of the world; and one day maybe even nanobots that race through our blood system like bacteria. These visions stir our impending future. And it would do us well to take interest in them.

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John Markoff, The New york Times [6.18.00]

Mr. Gelernter's argument is spelled out in "The Second Coming -- a Manifesto," an essay published last week in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and posted on the Edge, a technology forum on he Web (www.edge.org).

As Microsoft prepares to announce its Next Generation Windows Services initiative this week, an influential computer scientist is circulating a thesis that challenges William H. Gates's vision of the future. .......

.Microsoft has based its reputation on refusing to lead and always following, and once again they're behind the wave here," said Mr. Gelernter, a respected Yale University computer scientist. "More and more people are coming to understand that the power of desktop machines is enormous and is largely wasted when you spend your time browsing on the Web.

Mr. Gelernter's argument is spelled out in "The Second Coming -- a Manifesto," an essay published last week in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and posted on the Edge, a technology forum on he Web (www.edge.org).

Mr. Gelernter's critique has some influential supporters, including including Danny Hillis, a computer scientist who recently left Walt Disney's Imagineering research group to form a new company, Applied Minds; David Ditzel, a computer designer who is the founder of Transmeta Inc., a Silicon Valley microprocessor company; and Rodney

Brooks, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory."David's criticisms of our current computing environments are eloquently stated, and I think widely shared," Mr. Brooks wrote in a recent comment posted on the Internet.

But Microsoft's head of research, Rick Rashid, countered that Mr. Gelernter was taking a long-term view of computing that might have little relevance for the current software market. "It's fairly predictable that David would be saying this," said Mr. Rashid, a Microsoft senior vice president. This has been his mantra throughout his career. ........

Click here for the article on "THE NEW YORK TIMES on the Web"

The New York Times [6.18.00]

Mr. Gelernter's argument is spelled out in "The Second Coming -- a Manifesto," an essay published last week in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and posted on the Edge, a technology forum on he Web (www.edge.org).

THE HINDU [4.11.00]

‘Sixth Sense’ unveiled at TED conference

This invention is spearheaded by Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry of MIT

CHENNAI: Trace a circle on your wrist with a finger and a watch appears to tell you the time. As you read the newspaper, you touch the photo above the main news item. The latest video with all the updates plays in place of the photo. This is not Harry Potter’s sequel we are talking about, but a wearable device with a projector called the Sixth Sense.

This invention, spearheaded by Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was unveiled at the annual TED Conference held in February.

Available online

“The annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives [in 18 minutes],” describes the TED website www.ted.com. But you do not need to catch a flight to listen to these talks, as they are available online at the site.

“Video has become a favoured means of consuming content primarily because of the growth of broadband … else it is too painful to stream and view,” says N. Udhay Shankar, who founded one of India’s earliest web companies and helped to kickstart the Linux movement in India.

While TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is the most well-known of its kind, you can listen to Salman Rushdie talk on the Enchantress at Authors@Google, of Florence or Brian Cox talking about the God Particle at Edge.Org.

Beware

But beware; these videos could change your life. “Dean Ornish’s talk has led me to live a healthier lifestyle. Perhaps it was the tipping point, but all the same a well-argued cause can find new followers,” says Srini Ramakrishnan, a technology manager.

You do not always need to make sure your grey cells are charged up while clicking on the play button.

“Two friends, forty takes, one adventure across continents,” is the tag of fortylove.tv. Started by Adrianna Tan and her friend May Yee, this site is lets you travel through different cities.

“On one trip, I covered the Rath Yatra in Puri, Orissa, and it blew my mind,” says Ms. Tan, describing the start of fortylove.tv.

She took some video footage and showed it to people, who were amazed at the scale of the festival. “I felt that I was on to something... that maybe you didn’t need to have high-end camera equipment to do a travel show.” Her friend had shot a one-minute video of people buying food in Amsterdam and this led to fortylove.tv – “a video-driven site of the quirky places we loved, to tell the great stories you never heard of.”

Unexplored territory

An unexplored territory is video’s older avatar – radio. “There are thousands of hours of radio programming available on the Internet that is commonly referred to as ‘Old Time Radio.’ These are often out of copyright and are freely downloadable, and can be found on archive.org or other OTR websites on the internet,” says Mr. Ramakrishnan.

Laboratories against the literati John Brockman is the agent who made top scientists sexy – and he loathes the ignorant literary world
The Independent [3.23.00]

The John Brockman who welcomes me to his suite in a Belgravia hotel is not the John Brockman I have been led to expect. He is just off the plane from the States, he explains, and thus neither here nor there. It is surely not just jet lag, though, that makes his manner seem seasoned and reflective. 
 

If you didn't know who he was, you might take Brockman for a professor on the high plateau of his career. But this is a man legendary for forcing a publishing culture with its spiritual home in Bloomsbury to do business the Wall Street way. A striking picture had emerged from my background inquiries: he is brusque, aggressive, ruthless and proud of it; he makes editors feels bullied; he doesn't care about authors, only the next deal. And that was from people who work with him.

The man himself delivers a similar verdict. "I run my agency as a business," he says. "There's nothing literary or genteel about it. I'm in business to make money. I don't pretend I'm there to help people. If I make money, my clients make a lot of money. If they want somebody to hold their hands, let them go somewhere else.

"It's a very refreshing message for the clients, because it depersonalises it. They're the geniuses, they write the books; I do the best I can to get them what they're worth. It's very simple: it's a bullshit industry, with a bunch of phoneys in it, and I'm just a business person."

The tone is matter of fact, as though he is describing the décor of his office. But he seems to relish the opportunity to insult his customers. I mention one frequent criticism: that he sells books on the basis of sketchy synopses, often knocked up on the fly. "Absolutely," he agrees. So it's fair criticism? "Fair compliment," he replies. "Why give lazy people too much to do?"

Nowadays, he provides text aplenty, but requires publishers to visit a Web site called rightscenter.com in order to read it. It's like buying a car, he explains. If you want a Rolls-Royce, you have to go to a Rolls-Royce dealership.

Brockman picked up the basics of business from his father, a Boston flower trader. "I used to be sitting talking to publishers in less than a genteel manner and realising that it was my father's voice coming out." It was, he observes, a direct business. You looked your trading partner in the eye; you didn't refer his proposals to a committee. And flowers don't keep. You pick up the habit of closing deals quickly.

Ideas are not flowers, but the strategy works. Perhaps scientists are reassured by the attitude of an agent for whom "literary" is a dirty word; who spurns membership of a club from which they are excluded. He has helped make some of them, such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, winners in the winner-takes-all market that publishing has now become. What, I ask him, does he consider he has done for his scientists?

"I've gotten some of them one tenth the amount of money the Pope gets for writing a book," he answers. Is that what they want, though? "No. I've never encountered a group of people less interested in material things."

And that's the odd thing about Brockman's relationship with the many scientists among his clients. His reputation rests on his ability to obtain the highest price in the marketplace, but he obtains these prices for authors who appreciate them less than most.

If scientists really wanted money, then they wouldn't have set out to be scientists. Likewise, if Brockman was only interested in money, he would presumably buy and sell the pure stuff, without the nuisance of manuscripts.

He does like the taste of it, judging by the coverage he gives on his Edge webzine to the "billionaires' dinner" he gave for associates in the computer industry. But a postscript to the interview suggests a degree of sensitivity on the money question. He sends me two e-mails, both asserting that it's the journalists, not his clients, who are obsessed with advances.

The real significance of the money lies in the fact that it has consolidated a genre. While a few authors hit the big time, the rest get more modest sums that make writing books a reasonably attractive proposition. Brockman has brought about this state of affairs because he sees that science is a global genre, and because he recognises that "we're in a science world; we're in a software world".

He is also a partisan. "We have this bifurcation in the States where you have the business pages, which are filled with new technology and new exciting advances, and then you have the arts and books section, where people seem to have been brain-dead for 50 years."

This feeling dates back to the mid-1960s, when Brockman began to hang out with artists, and "found that the artists were all reading science. They weren't reading the literary people. The literary people were still fighting the same fights – who was a Trotskyist in 1937? They're still doing it today. These are the people that hi-jacked the word 'intellectual' in the Thirties from the scientists."

Brockman recalls how, as a graduate student back in 1963, he "used to run to the news-stand to get the latest Encounter, to see what people like Stephen Spender and Hannah Arendt were arguing about." It might have been the case of Adolf Eichmann, or something like that. Now the arguments that excite him are the kind that take place between the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and philosopher Daniel Dennett, the latter a Brockman author, over the nature of evolution.

His anecdote prompts me to suggest that science has largely replaced politics in shaping world-views. "I'm not equipped to compare it to politics, which I find enervating," he replies.

He simply is not a political animal. Although he recognises that science will raise increasingly political questions, about human nature and social equality, the ideas that appear under Edge auspices tend to be upbeat.

Brockman's vision of the future is of a human intelligence unified by digital technology, rather than of a humanity divided by genetic classification. While he has a stake in both sides of the Gould-Dennett clashes, he backed only the liberal side in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, an implicit riposte to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's conservative book on IQ and destiny,The Bell Curve.

Brockman's idea of the Third Culture is based on the conviction that scientists are the new public intellectuals. "C P Snow talked about a third culture. He wrote an addendum to his 'Two Cultures', and he said eventually the literary people will learn science and explain science to the people. It didn't happen. What happened is the scientists went direct, writing their own books."

Brockman's Third Culture was anticipated by British scientists like J B S Haldane and Julian Huxley in the 1930s and 1940s. But, for Brockman, the slim blue Pelicans of the time were mere popularisation. The Third Culture, he says, is about scientists writing for their peers in other disciplines.

"When a physicist like Brian Greene [author of The Elegant Universe] writes a book, he knows that if he wants his colleagues in biology to read it, he has to write it in English. And if he writes it without the jargon of his field, then I can read it." Science becomes a spectator sport, in which the elite conducts conversations "and the public gets to look over their shoulder".

So does Brockman himself. As a Web publisher, he's a one-man band with a PowerBook and a Dreamweaver editing package. He does his own links.

"It will take me three or four hours to get a new edition out, "he says. "While I'm doing it, I'm thinking about these ideas, and whose ideas are they? Well, you could argue that it's as good a list as any of thinkers in the world today. To me it's a graduate school; it's the best one in the world, and there's one student. So while I'm sitting there doing HTML coding, I'm thinking about evolutionary biology or the human genome, and learning about stuff at 59 that most people stop thinking about when they leave college.

"But I do have a 19-year-old who scorns this activity, and says 'Dad, you couldn't even get a 14-year-old to do this'."

  • Marek Kohn's book 'As We Know It: coming to cerms with an evolved mind' is published by Granta

Published in The Independent, March 24, 2000. Copyright©2000 by Marek Kohn


Marek Kohn's Edge Bio page
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John Brockman's Edge Bio page.

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New York Magazine [3.12.00]

The weather, though, from San Francisco down the coast to Monterrey, where TED is held, turned bad, and it suddenly started to look like Brockman's dinner might be short a few billionaires.

It used to be the millionaires' dinner, but in the enthusiasm of the bull market, Brockman upped it a thousandfold (certainly, among the guests, there were a lot of millionaires -- maybe everyone). Of course, the point is not the billionaires per se but the good fellowship that the idea of proximity to billionaires engenders. Does that fellowship disappear just because some billionaires don't want to take a chance on the weather?

New York Post [3.1.00]

It was billed as the "Billionaire's Dinner" and was described earlier in the week as a modest gathering of people who happen to be gosh-darn rich. But literary agent John Brockman's dinner for some 60 people in Monterey last week was more of a press-fest than anything else. There were more people who type the word "billionaire" in the room than people who actually hold the assets.

But with cameo appearances by Conde Nast editorial director James Truman, Time Out New York's Cyndi Stivers, Fortune'sPeter Petre, Powerful Media's Kurt Anderson, news anchor Forrest Sawyer and Industry Standard columnist James Fallows, this was the year when chic New York media met the geeks.

Boom Town: At the Growing Billionaires' Dinner, Tech Stars Move to Grown-Ups' Table
The Wall Street Journal [2.27.00]

MONTEREY, Calif. — Like a lot of things in the frothy Internet world, it didn't take long for an annual get-together at one of the industry's trendiest conferences to show mindboggling growth —in this case a change in its name from the Millionaires' Dinner to the Billionaires' Dinner.

And why not? Sure, precious few of the people at the dinner supping on ahi tuna and shrimp scampi on Thursday at Cibo restaurant actually had billions in net worth. But the crowd was sprinkled generously with those who had amassed wealth beyond imagining in a historical eye blink. The muscle and money behind tech stars such as Microsoft, America Online, Sun Microsystems and others had gathered at the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference here. 

When the host, New York literary agent John Brockman, added three zeros to the dinner last year, there was more than a bit of giggly discomfort among the attendees. The general agreement was that the provocative Mr. Brockman, who also runs a discussion Web site called Edge.org, was poking fun more than offering a description. . . . .

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"Digits" Column
The Wall Street Journal [2.23.00]

You don't have to be a billionaire to get invited to the "Billionaire's Dinner" tonight in Monterey, Calif. But you do have to know literary agent/author/entrepreneur John Brockman, who makes it his business to know who is among the digerati. The dinner coincides with the 10th annual Technology, Entertainment, Design or TED, conference, which brings together Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Last year's dinner guests included confirmed billionaires Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com Inc. and Steve Case of America Online Inc. as well as likely contender Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft Corp. "It's just a fun gathering for a few of my friends," Mr. Brockman says. The stock market has made new billionaires out of some previous centimillionaire guests, so Mr. Brockman doubled the size of the dinner but claims he still has to turn people away. To add suspense to this year's event, Mr. Brockman promises two surprise billionaires who prefer to remain unidentified. Hint: at least one is unmarried.

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