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
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?
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.
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. . . . .
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.
The New York literary agent John Brockman, 58, and Spiegel science editors Jörg Blech, 33, and Johann Grolle, 38, pursue a similar handiwork: they bring readers stories about cloned sheep, dangerous epidemics, and the origins of the universe. The indomitable Brockman has fought to reach the leading position in the world market for scientific books; many important manuscripts pass over his desk in the heart of Manhattan before they are sold to publishers for high sums. When Blech and Grolle met the literary agent for an interview with Der Spiegel, he quickly asked, "Don't you have unpublished manuscripts in your desk?" The editors rejected this unreasonable demand, which wasn't meant in all seriousness.
[SPIEGEL: Grolle's history of evolution is already in book stores; Blech's book about creatures that live in the human body will appear in July.]
"Tear down all of the statues!"
The New York literary agent John Brockman on the business of books about science and scientists who as writers become stars.
Speaking about himself John Brockman declares, "Every ten years I have an idea." Turned down by 17 universities because of miserable grades, he has with luck found a true place to study. Just after receiving a business degree in the mid-sixties, Brockman, now 58, went to New York with the idea of becoming an art producer and impresario, and he began to organize film festivals. In 1967 he, with some friends, opened a multimedia disco in an airplane hangar, worked as a promoter in a company making feminine hygiene products, and became a groupie of Andy Warhol. A little later the man with the Italian felt hat dove into an attempt to become an author, with only moderate success. Still, writing brought him to his best idea: to become a literary agent. On the difficult market for books about natural science he often secures his clients, writing scientists or science journalists, advances of six figures. Many of his authors become stars, like Daniel Goleman, whose Emotional Intelligence has up to this point sold more than 5 million copies. Whether it be evolution, cosmology, artificial intelligence, or the question of consciousness, if a book from the empire of science becomes a bestseller Brockman is almost always lurking in the background. Because the internet is useful for his interests, he opened a virtual salon three years ago in which scientists debate (www.edge.org). At the end of 1998, Brockman asked what the most important invention of the last 2000 years was. He compiled a few of the answers into a book that is now being published by the Ullstein-Verlag. Many of his publishing successes, however, have not been repeated in Germany. Many a book that local publishers have bought from him for 200,000 Marks found hardly more than a thousand buyers here.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Brockman, what advice would you, as a literary agent, give to a German scientist, say a biologist or physicist?
BROCKMAN: Go to Stanford! But not to study biology or physics there.
BROCKMAN: In order to become familiar with other sciences. Whoever wants to know what is important today must go to America. Those insitutes are as busy as beehives. Everyone exchanges information. Even before Daniel Dennett sends his newest manuscript to his publisher, at least 50 colleagues have already read it — and not only philosophers, but also neuroscientists, robotics developers, psychiatrists, and linguists. The authors with whom I work write their books for colleagues in many, many other disciplines. And for that reason, they must use a language that most everyone can understand.
SPIEGEL: And such a situation is successful only in the USA?
BROCKMAN: Such an exchange never takes place in Germany — at the very least because one is not permitted to ask questions before he turns 40 years old.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean that you find German scientists to be uninteresting as authors?
BROCKMAN: It may be that many German scientists are capable of writing a bestseller with an edition of one million. But not many do so because they are anxious to pursue their academic duties.
SPIEGEL: Don't many American scientists find popular science disreputable and un-serious?
BROCKMAN: My goal is not the popularization of science, but to contribute to making scientific research understandable to a wide audience. These books, unlike textbooks, are intellectual adventures. They touch on the most important questions of our times.
SPIEGEL: But many of your authors don't even do research anymore, but just philosophize.
BROCKMAN: OK, so Richard Dawkins doesn't work in a laboratory anymore. But he expresses more than just opinions about old opinions, as happens in the literary world. Because in research, real work is accomplished. At the end, for example, stands a cloned sheep. And Dawkins has something to say about that, even if he himself didn't carry out the experiment.
SPIEGEL: Does science through people like him become a sort of pop-event?
BROCKMAN: Why not? I went to Scotland to meet the cloned sheep Dolly — a very moving moment. Changes caused by science are unbelievable. Soon it might be possible to sew a high-performance calculator into my shirt and to activate it by the warmth of my body. My authors are concerned precisely with such changes.
SPIEGEL: What was it that sparked your interest in science?
BROCKMAN: When I was in my mid-twenties I spent a lot of time together with artists in New York. And they read books by natural scientists. When I first encountered these researchers I noticed, "They have an even greater thirst for knowledge than any famous intellectual whom I met at the important New York parties." I remember especially well an evening with the composer John Cage. At some point he pulled a book on cybernetics by Norbert Weiner out of his bag and suggested, "You have to read this." This book was central for the development of computers and had a great impact on me. Science was full of ideas and questions; the literary world wasn't.
SPIEGEL: Why should one read about science? Does doing so make humanity better, or smarter?
BROCKMAN: No. The researchers don't offer any answers about life that the guy at the sausage stand wouldn't be ready to offer. But they ask incredibly interesting questions.
SPIEGEL: For example?
BROCKMAN: About the history of humanity, for example. One of my authors, Christopher Stringer in London, says that modern man spread out across the world from Africa beginning 100,000 years ago. Another, Milford Wolpoff from Michigan, suggests in contradiction to this idea the so-called Multiregional Hypothesis. According to this theory the original humans had already settled several continents a million years ago and began then to develop into the different races.
SPIEGEL: Fine, but what does this controversy matter?
BROCKMAN: Such debates change the world. A few leaders of the black community in New York, for example, side with Christopher Stringer, since his theory challenges the notion that there are natural differences among the races.
SPIEGEL: What is your roll in such a debate?
BROCKMAN: I don't assume a solid opinion. I love the debate; that's the real story.
SPIEGEL: In 1994 the book The Bell Curve created a great outrage by postulating the thesis that blacks have genetically determined lower intelligence quotients as whites. Would you take on such a book as an agent?
BROCKMAN: I have not yet turned down an idea for politcal reasons. Naturally I would have supported it. In response several wonderful books appeared like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Or take Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence: It was a huge success only because it said no to the concept of race, and because it revealed the IQ to be a false, artificial measure.
SPIEGEL: What do you think of "metaphysical" books. Frank Tipler's The Physics of Immortality, which is on your list, but doesn't have a lot to do with science.
BROCKMAN: Tipler extrapolates the laws of physics, and already other physicists have come and shot him down. Another example is Rupert Sheldrakes, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home.
SPIEGEL: In which he in all seriousness argues that dogs are clairvoyant.
BROCKMAN: A friend of mine, a physicist said to me, "If you take on this book, I will never speak with you again." Also, Sir John Maddox, the former editor of the magazine Nature condemned Sheldrake's assertions — even though Sheldrake has a background as a reputable scientist. He studied at Cambridge.
SPIEGEL: And whoever studies there can profess any sort of nonsense?
BROCKMAN: I don't play judge. Sheldrake's book is fascinating, and that's what counts for me. He presents experiments.
SPIEGEL: that were absolutely never published in a scientific journal worth taking seriously.
BROCKMAN: Because of this he also encounters problems in the academic world. In Oxford people leave the room when he comes in. Many researchers develop an almost religious attachment to their work.
SPIEGEL: Is science indebted to you in some way?
BROCKMAN: I don't think so. But it's different with authors. Before I came along, they earned almost nothing. Now they reach a much larger audience and earn real money. Many scientists in Europe don't have that pleasure. If that's really a mistake then I hereby apologize before the entire continent .
SPIEGEL: Do you have a recipe for success? What are the ingredients of a bestseller?
BROCKMAN: No one knows, and no one can find out until he has one. Now, for example, we have another: "The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene. Every publisher, except for one said no. It deals with so-called superstring theory, a kind of formula for the universe that is so complicated that most of the experts themselves don't understand it. So why should I try to understand it? Brian is not only a physics professor, but also a very good-looking type who also still acts. The New York Times Magazine published six pages about him. Then he was invited onto television — and suddenly his book stood at the top of the bestseller lists. The theme is new, and that is most important.
SPIEGEL: The book has also brought about much frowning among his colleagues. Many people believe that he must decide: either a serious scientist or a celebrity.
BROCKMAN: Don't forget: What we're discussing here is a house. Greene now lives in a nice house.
SPIEGEL: How many proposals do you turn down?
BROCKMAN: Nearly all of them. I receive about ten packages a day. But only 50 to 60 books per year come out of it. We find new authors often at the recommendation of older ones. Or I happen across something interesting in the newspaper. An example was George Smoot with Wrinkles in Time. When I heard that he had made a kind of snapshot of the big bang with satellites I jumped right on it. I was sitting in a hotel in Tokyo, read the headline and thought, "Here goes my day." I called Smoot up and flew directly back to New York. By the time I arrived, the proposal was already lying on my desk. Above all, it is important to be quick.
SPIEGEL: Smoot doesn't exactly work like a born writer. In such cases do you look for a ghostwriter?
BROCKMAN: Yes, of course. That time the typing came from Smoot himself.
SPIEGEL: What is it that decides if a theme lends itself to public debate?
BROCKMAN: When something in the world of science happens, I either know the decisive person himself, or someone who knows him/her. Publishers, on the other hand, are only looking to repeat yesterday's successes. In doing so they forget the factor of time: what is sold today was thought of by an author three years ago. I'd rather concentrate on what's happening today.
SPIEGEL: According to your concept, is there a place for new, exciting debates about science among researchers in the humanities?
BROCKMAN: I don't have anything against literature and culture. But many literary people and philosophers are proud that they don't understand science. I hate the smug smiles, when certain people talk about science in certain New York circles. The physicist and Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann says, "Many scientists might not know Shakespeare very well, but at least they aren't proud of it." The affectation that any person assumes when he calls himself an intellectual is the problem.
SPIEGEL: Is there a way that the humanities and natural sciences might meet one another?
BROCKMAN: Tear down all of the statues! When one goes for a walk here in Munich, one sees all of these statues that remember death, violence, and war. All that these statues say to people in Munich or Berlin is, "Be careful to honor your history!" You are a product of this building or this statue. Who is supposed to be able to break out of this? Who is supposed to be free to postulate new and visionary ideas?
Original article by Jörg Blech and Johann Grolle
Translated by Chris Williams
A few TEDs ago, [The Technology, Entertainment, Design Conference] John Brockman began hosting an annual Millionaires' Dinner in honor of his acquaintances at the conference whose net worth exceeded seven figures. But rising equity values prompted Brockman to rename his party the Billionaires' Dinner. Last year, Steve Case, Jeff Bezos, and Nathan Myhrvold joined such comparatively impoverished multimillionaires as Barnes & Noble's Steve Riggio, EarthLink's Sky Dayton, and Marimba's Kim Polese. The dinner party was a microcosm of a newly dominant sector of American business.
UPS: In a networked world, Brockman's personal network in hard to beat.
BOTTOM LINE: .If you don't know John Brockman, you're probably not worth knowing.
PREDICTION: RightsCenter filesfor IPO, Steve Case and Bill Gates get into "it" at his annual Billionaire's Digerati Dinner, a "who's who" of the cyberworld.
ON THE COVER
The network has changed our
way of thinking? Meet artists, intellectuals and
Scientists around the world. From Kevin Kelly to Brian Eno, from
Richard Dawkins, to Clay Shirky, to Nicholas Carr
Don't assume for a second that Ted Koppel, Charlie Rose and the editorial high command at the New York Times have a handle on all the pressing issues of the day....when Brockman asked 100 of the world's top thinkers to come up with pressing matters overlooked by the media, they generated a lengthy list of profound, esoteric and outright entertaining responses.
New Calling all intellectuals. Borne from The Reality Club, an informal group of challenging post-industrial free-thinkers, the Edge Foundation was established in 1988 and now provides transcripts of its forums, seminars and opinions online. Among the many sharp minds that have been put to the test are scientist Richard Dawkins, social commentator Naomi Wolf, digerati David Gelernter, author Ken Kesey and shit-disturber Abbie Hoffman.
He's one of the best networkers, collectors and people promotors out there. His books and Edge Web site (www.edge.org) let him voice his belief in technology as popular culture for masses yearning to learn.
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.
John Brockman - the onetime hippie, Warhol groupie, feminine-hygiene marketing guru, "intermedia" performance artist, author, and, now, salon leader and literary agent to some of the world's most influential scientists and technologists - is barreling down 59th Street in Manhattan. Gaudily turned out in a wide-brimmed Borsalino hat and a royal blue double-breasted blazer, he's on a mission: He wants to be dull.
"Charisma gets you shot," Brockman says as he steps awkwardly over a puddle. "Nobody bothers to shoot bores. I like to say I'm 'post-interesting.'"
"You're not interesting?"
"Not not-interesting!" he snaps. "Post-interesting! Interesting doesn't pay. Well, it pays once, but not twice. I used to be interesting. I was, like, the It Boy. Being so interesting - well, it's not so interesting!"
www.edge.org A terrific, thought-provoking site put together by John Brockman and friends.
Recently, the author and literary agent John Brockman posed the question, "What is the most important invention in the past 2000 years?" He received thoughtful and often surprising answers from more than 100 leading thinkers, a fascinating survey of intellectual and creative wonders of the world.
Some people nominated inventions that were influential in bringing the world to where it is today, such as the printing press, calculus, the invention of the scientific method and effective contraception. Other interesting suggestions included anesthesia, plumbing and sewers, reading glasses, batteries, the concept of education, self-governance, and the notion that mathematics could be used to represent things.
Christopher Langton, a computer scientist, proposed the telescope, which "opened the doors to the flood of data that would resolve what were previously largely philosophical disputes."
James J. O'Donnell, professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, proposed modem health care — from antibiotics to medical techniques to the soap that doctors use to wash their hands.
Review your own life and imagine what it would have been like without late-20th-century heath care," he wrote. "Would you still be alive today? An astonishingly large number of people get serious looks on their faces and admit they wouldn't."
Douglas Rushkoff, a writer and teacher, proposed "the eraser. As well as the delete key, white-out, the Constitutional amendment, and all the other tools that let us go back and fix our mistakes."
Tor Norretranders, a Danish science writer, nominated the mirror, which became commonplace during the Renaissance. "Only with the installation of mirrors in everyday life did viewing oneself from the outside become a daily habit," he wrote. "This coincided with the advent of manners for eating, clothing and behavior. This made possible the modern version of self-consciousness: viewing oneself through the eyes of others, rather than just from the inside or though the eyes of God."
Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, proposed classical music. "Most inventions -- from nuclear energy to antibiotics -- can be used for good or ill," he wrote. "Classical music has probably given more pleasure to more individuals, with less negative fallout, than any other human artifact."
Other people nominated inventions for the promise they hold for the future. The computer, the Internet and biotechnology were leading candidates.
"The Internet will dissolve away nations as we know them today," wrote Clifford Pickover, an IBM researcher. "Humanity becomes a single hive mind, with a group intelligence, as geography becomes putty in the hands of the Internet sculptor."
Lawrence Krauss, who chairs the physics department at Case Western Reserve University, wrote: "While the printing press certainly revolutionized the world in its time, computers will govern everything we do in the next 20 centuries . . . The only other invention that may come close is perhaps DNA sequencing, since it will undoubtedly lead to a new understanding and control of genetics and biology in a way which will alter what we mean by life."
"Ultimately," added Robert Shapiro, professor of chemistry at New York University, "we may elect to rewrite our genetic code text, changing ourselves and the way in which we experience the universe."
Other nominations reflect seemingly simple things of life. Freeman Dyson, a professor of physics at Princeton, said hay was the most important invention. "In the classical world of Greece and Rome and in all earlier times, there was no hay," he explained. "Civilization could exist only in warm climates where horses could stay alive through the winter by grazing. Without grass in winter you could not have horses, and without horses you could not have urban civilization. Some time during the so-called dark ages, some unknown genius invented hay, forests were turned into meadows, hay was reaped and stored, and civilization moved north over the Alps. So hay gave birth to Vienna and Paris and London and Berlin, and later to Moscow and New York."
And Jeremy Cherfas, a biologist and BBC Radio Four broadcaster, nominated the basket: "Without something to gather into, you cannot have a gathering society of any complexity, no home and hearth, no division of labour, no humanity."
The entire list of nominated inventions is on the Internet atwww.edge.org/documents/Invention.html. Reading them reminds me of how wondrous our world is.
Edge is the electronic iteration of the Reality Club which started in 1980, which in a sense formalized what I did at these dinners. It celebrates thinking smart versus the anesthesiology of wisdom.
"Most of the people who are doing things on the Internet are interested in something called "everybody." They want to create some kind of monopolistic situation where you turn on your computer and type in your name, and it becomes their property. That's the antithesis of what the Internet provides in the way of possibilities."
[FROM THE EDITORS]: "The editor and literary agent John Brockman recently challenged the salon of scientists that he hosts on his EDGE Web site by asking, "What is the most important invention in the past two thousand years?" Luckily, my job buys me admission to that on-line gathering and the chance to kibitz with the professionals." .....
— John Rennie, EDITOR IN CHIEF
Monterey, Calif.'s delectable Cibo Ristorante Italiano was packed like sardines for John Brockman's annual Billionaires' Dinner at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Conference last week. Of course, there aren't enough billionaires on the entire planet to fill up the spacious dinning room at Cibo, but Upside Today counted six of them, and for every billionaire there was a gaggle of famous artists, writers, technologists, entrepreneurs and the like.