Conversations

John Perry Barlow (1947-2018)

[2.14.18]


John Perry Barlow (1947-2018)

The Barlow Knife
By George Dyson 

John Perry Barlow, one of the Internet’s founding provocateurs, was born on October 3, 1947 and died on February 7, 2018.

 Among my treasured works at the foundations of American history is the 1919 edition of The Tryal of William Penn & William Mead for Causing a Tumult, at the Sessions Held at the Old Bailey in London the 1st, 3d, 4th, and 5th of September 1670, with a dedication by Don C. Seitz “to the memory of Thomas Jefferson which needs frequent refreshing.” For the same reason, John Brockman’s 1996 interview with John Perry Barlow is reproduced below.

The bible of the 1960s, when Barlow gained prominence, was the Whole Earth Catalog, a direct progenitor of the personal computer and Internet revolutions that was subtitled Access to Tools. The Barlow knife was (and is) a rugged pocket knife with two blades, one large and one small. Inexpensive and understated, it was forged from the best American steel. It was no multi-tool but it held an edge like nothing else and was essential to life on the American frontier. George Washington owned one. I dropped my first Barlow knife overboard in 200 fathoms and it hurt.

John Perry Barlow took after the knife. With the small blade he stayed in the background as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. With his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, issued at Davos in February of 1996, he opened the large blade and sliced into the emerging Internet, carving out an entire territory for himself and his brain-child, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The remarkable thing about Barlow’s wild warnings and prophecies is that they weren’t wild enough. He warned that the Government would step in to control the Internet under the guise of controlling pornography, whereas pornography turned out to be one of the greatest and least regulated drivers of the Internet’s uncontrolled growth. He reminded us that “there has always been a relationship between the performer and the audience that hasn't been well mapped,” and that “you would never claim to own your friendships.” Then two of the currently wealthiest plantation owners on the Internet stepped in and became so by doing just that.

In a mere twenty years, we have gone from fears of the Government controlling the Internet to fears of the Internet controlling the Government. 

Keep one hand on your Barlow knife.

—GD


Edge Questions

What drives the brightest minds
[2.7.18]
 
Edge Questions: What drives the brightest minds
By René Scheu 2.2.2018
 
If you were left with the chance of asking only one fundamental question about the future of humanity, which one would it be? That's exactly what legendary American literary agent John Brockman wanted to know of freethinkers, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs moving at and across the very borders of modern thought. We present their best answers – in question form.
 
What is a philosopher? Philosophers are people who formulate questions in a way that they can’t be answered unequivocally. This may sound problematic but is undoubtedly a high art. The classical example, in Leibniz's words, is as simple as it is beautiful: Why is there something and not nothing? Later, Immanuel Kant called the art of such questions metaphysics and recognized in it the opposite of science – namely a "natural system" of man. Reason is beset by questions that it cannot reject and just as little can answer. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant draws a clear line between knowledge and speculation. But it is precisely this line that has become fragile with the life sciences, with information theory and digital technology.
 
Thought at the interface
 
The philosophical trait of the border crossers between science and fiction is due to their will to ask questions without restraint. They see themselves as adventurers at the interface between the natural sciences and the humanities, in the experimental gray area where something new is created. From the new – incredible as it may seem to the non-expert – there is no turning back. What distinguishes these freethinkers from good old philosophers like Kant is, in fact, the conviction that specific answers to speculative questions can be found. Truth made and established is Truth.

In their laboratories and experimental systems, the boundaries between discovery and invention, thinking and acting, designing and realizing become blurred. What is frightening to some – because suddenly everything seems programmable and thus reprogrammable – is a source of pure intellectual joy to others: man, this creature of nature, makes himself the creator of his own nature and nature around him. Yet – what exactly is he doing with his new magic powers? Can he keep them under control? And even if he does, can he really know what he's doing?

Literary agent John Brockman, himself a border crosser between business and the arts, has long been rallying researchers, thought acrobats and entrepreneurs who tease the boundaries of their disciplines. Brockman described his own virtues – courageously – as embarrassment, confusion and the will to question and contradict. He and his friends met in restaurants, museums and lofts to discuss their findings outside academe. Their concern was a profoundly Kantian one, but with the difference that speculation, explicitly, should be allowed: they dealt with the "starry sky" above them and the "law" in them. Nothing should, could, be safe from human knowledge.

Stephen Jay Gould attended the first meetings, as did Isaac Asimov, John Searle, Daniel Hillis. The meetings eventually became a semi-institutional community called the Reality Club. Brockman changed the club’s name in 1997 to Edge, the cyberspace for science-savvy entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial scientists at the height of the technological age.

The last question

Without a doubt, edge.org is one of the brightest, most stimulating websites today – visitors experience the thinking, actions and lives of modern intellectual adventurers in actu. The pleasure factor is great, as is the gain in knowledge. Every month there is news – but that's not all. Every year John Brockman sends a question out to the "Edgies" and makes the answers accessible on his website; afterward he publishes them in an anthology for bibliophiles. Life – what is it? How is the internet changing the way you think? What is your dangerous idea? Now, after 20 years, the American cultural impresario, who still looks young at the age of 76, has decided that enough is enough. And he asks his community one last question: what's your last question?

It is a question to inspire the individual – to quote Kant one last time – with "admiration and awe." The last question is always a question about last things. These last – and first – things are the true protagonists of the following pages. They will pursue you into your dreams and nightmares. Hopefully.

Where (or What) Is Today's Frontier?

Danny Hillis's 1991 EDGE Special Project, Reprised
[11.22.17]

Edge originated in 1980 as The Reality Club. Beginning in September 1990, Edge #1, the first of five printed editions, was privately published to a limited audience. This continued through Edge #5, which was published in April 1992. At that point we switched to an email format and, eventually, in 1997, to the web-based Edge of today.

I ran into Danny Hillis recently, who asked, "Do you remember the postcards I sent out to the Reality Club list in 1991 asking 'Where (or What) Is Today's Frontier?' You published the answers in Edge #3. Wouldn't it be interesting to ask the same question 27 years later?"

On further discussion, we both quickly realized that the postcard format would be a problem because (a) many people have forgotten how to write, and (b) does anybody today know how or where to buy a stamp?  

So, here again, in its entirety, is a downloadable PDF of the 16-page Edge #3with all kinds of interesting material...

• Stephen Jay Gould on eohippus, Kentucky Derby winners, human history, 18th-century castrati, Ted Williams, and Mozart;

• Howard Gardner on the problems he encounters while studying creativity;

• Howard "always ten years ahead of his time" Rheingold on THE WELL, the Internet, virtual reality, and filters; 

• Danny Hillis's question "Where (or What) Is Today's Frontier?" with dozens of responses from the Edgies;

• "Deep Desert" on Southwestern ecology and bovine imperialism;

• Alan Guth, the father of inflationary theory, on "What's new in the universe"

And, of course, the Edgies' responses to Danny Hillis's question, including his own prescient and optimistic response:

"I finally realized that the frontier had been sitting in my office all along—on the other side of the computer screen. That's basically where the cowboys are today. First, fortunes are being made and lost; second, it's where new law is being made, and third, new territories are up for grabs for anyone with the courage and imagination to take them. I didn't think this way when the project started."

So, here we are 27 years later: Where (or what) is today's frontier?

John Brockman
    Editor, Edge

Coalitional Instincts

[11.22.17]

A daunting new augmented reality was neurally kindled, overlying the older individual one. It is important to realize that this reality is constructed by and runs on our coalitional programs and has no independent existence. You are a member of a coalition only if someone (such as you) interprets you as being one, and you are not if no one does. We project coalitions onto everything, even where they have no place, such as in science. We are identity-crazed....

JOHN TOOBY is the founder of the field of Evolutionary Psychology, co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Barbara. John Tooby's Edge Bio Page

Introduction

One of the joys of Edge, the incredible wealth of important ideas from leading thinkers, also presents a unique challenge. The 2017 Edge Question (What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to Be More Widely Known?), published this past January, consists of essays by 206 contributors comprising a manuscript of 143,000 words. It would be completely understandable for readers to have missed or skimmed over John Tooby’s seminal essay, “Coalitional Instincts.” What Tooby, the father of Evolutionary Psychology, has to say about coalitions, identity, tribalism, could just as well be on the front pages of today's leading newspapers. We are pleased to present "Coalition Instincts" with the hopes that it sparks a wide science-based conversation.

John Brockman
Editor, Edge

This Idea is Brilliant

On Sale Now!
[1.16.18]

CONTENTS: author of The God Delusion RICHARD DAWKINS on using animals’ “Genetic Book of the Dead” to reconstruct ecological history; MacArthur Fellow REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN on “scientific realism,” the idea that scientific theories explain phenomena beyond what we can see and touch; author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics CARLO ROVELLI on “relative information,” which governs the physical world around us; theoretical physicist LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS on the hidden blessings of “uncertainty”; cognitive scientist and author of The Language Instinct STEVEN PINKER on “The Second Law of Thermodynamics”; biogerontologist AUBREY DE GREY on why “maladaptive traits” have been conserved evolutionarily; musician BRIAN ENO on “confirmation bias” in the internet age; Man Booker-winning author of Atonement IAN MCEWAN on the “Navier-Stokes Equations,” which govern everything from weather prediction to aircraft design and blood flow; plus pieces from RICHARD THALER, JARED DIAMOND, NICHOLAS CARR, JANNA LEVIN, LISA RANDALL, KEVIN KELLY, DANIEL COLEMAN, FRANK WILCZEK, RORY SUTHERLAND, NINA JABLONSKI, MARTIN REES, ALISON GOPNIK, and many, many others.

barnesandnoblebamindieboundamazonibook

EDGE Books

[7.25.17]

Know This: Today's Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments

Edge Annual Question Series

 

CONTENTS: Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond on the best way to understand complex problems * author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics Carlo Rovelli on the mystery of black holes * Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker on the quantification of human progress * TED Talks curator Chris J. Anderson on the growth of the global brain * Harvard cosmologist Lisa Randall on the true measure of breakthrough discoveries * Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek on why the twenty-first century will be shaped by our mastery of the laws of matter * philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on the underestimation of female genius * music legend Peter Gabriel on tearing down the barriers between imagination and reality * Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson on the surprising ability of small (and cheap) upstarts to compete with billion-dollar projects. Plus Nobel laureate John C. Mather, Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill JoyWired founding editor Kevin Kelly, psychologist Alison GopnikGenome author Matt Ridley, Harvard geneticist George ChurchWhy Does the World Exist? author Jim Holt, anthropologist Helen Fisher, and more. 

Edgy Summer Reads

Master of Ceremonies in the Cyber Salon

[3.11.17]
 


 
 Edge.org
Master of Ceremonies in the Cyber Salon 
By Andrea Köhler 11.3.2017

For more than half a century John Brockman has been inspiring artists and scientists to ask innovative questions. His website Edge.org has established itself as a forum for forward-looking ideas. 

 
What is a "cultural impresario"? The expression is frequently used to describe John Brockman, as is the curious term "intellectual enzyme." The latter was created by a friend of Brockman—probably to signify that he is not quite what he seems to be: a shrewd book agent, feared by publishers for his capacity to negotiate amazingly profitable contracts for his clients. After all, he got acquainted with the trade in the banking sector.
 
What makes Brockman a "major player" in cultural matters is not, of course, his involvement in the book business—although his bright, minimalist-style offices with a view of the Empire State Building prove without a doubt that his agency gives him financial leeway. He uses it to pursue his passion, the "third culture"; but more on that later.
 
In Warhol's "Factory"
 
To understand the term “intellectual enzyme” correctly, one has to go back a couple of decades, to the time when 23-year-old John Brockman pursued his financial business during the day and at night dived into the fermenting New York art scene of the Sixties. Together with Sam Shepard and Charlie Mingus Jr. the banker stacked chairs at the legendary Theatre Genesis at St. Marks in the Bowery. Then he met with Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg or Dalí at the "Cedar Tavern," and ended up in Andy Warhol's Factory. "It was a period of incredible creativity," says Brockman. "I practically flew through the streets."

"The world of money, says Brockman,
never really interested him.
'My interests were always strictly cultural.'"

One day when Brockman was in Central Park playing his banjo, the avant-garde director Jonas Mekas followed him around filming him—then he offered the banjo player an attractive job. Brockman was to organize a festival. The “New Cinema I” Festival (aka “Expanded Cinema”) in which artists, composers, dancers and avant-garde filmmakers transcended the borders of traditional genres became a mega-hit. "A kind of event of a lifetime,"—the first of several more Brockman was to call into being.
 
"The art scene," he says, "was on the cybernetics trip at the time; they were all studying the mathematical theory of communication." He even underwent a special initiation into the subject when the composer John Cage handed a book to him during one of his legendary "Mushroom Dinners.” Brockman eagerly devoured Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, Control and Communication in Living Beings and Machines. Cage never talked to him again. A mutual friend explained: "Cage is a Zen master. You no longer need him." The book, Brockman says, still has a special place in his living room library.
 
It was the age of psychedelic counterculture, of Albert Hofmann and Timothy Leary. Brockman himself avoided drugs. Even Cage's mushroom dishes were of a purely culinary and highly intellectual nature; among the ideas explored at length was Marshall McLuhan’s notion of "the collective conscious." The world of money, says Brockman, never really interested him. "My interests were always strictly cultural."

KNOW THIS - On Sale Now!

Today's Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments
[2.15.17]


Image Map  

CONTENTS: Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond on the best way to understand complex problems * author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics Carlo Rovelli on the mystery of black holes * Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker on the quantification of human progress * TED Talks curator Chris J. Anderson on the growth of the global brain * Harvard cosmologist Lisa Randall on the true measure of breakthrough discoveries * Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek on why the twenty-first century will be shaped by our mastery of the laws of matter * philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on the underestimation of female genius * music legend Peter Gabriel on tearing down the barriers between imagination and reality * Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson on the surprising ability of small (and cheap) upstarts to compete with billion-dollar projects. Plus Nobel laureate John C. Mather, Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill JoyWired founding editor Kevin Kelly, psychologist Alison GopnikGenome author Matt Ridley, Harvard geneticist George ChurchWhy Does the World Exist? author Jim Holt, anthropologist Helen Fisher, and more. 

Katinka Matson's "Spiders" in "Plant: Exploring the Botanical World" (Phaidon)

[10.25.16]

“Imagine a painter who could, like Vermeer, capture the quality of light that a camera can, but with the color of paints.”  — Kevin Kelly  

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Phaidon has just published Plant: Exploring the Botanical Worlda visually stunning survey celebrating “the most beautiful and pioneering botanical images ever” from around the world across all media—from murals in ancient Greece to a Napoleonic-era rose print and cutting-edge scans. Included are botanical works by Carl Linnaeus, Leonardo da Vinci, Pierre-Joseph Redoute, Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Edge co-founder and resident artist, Katinka Matson.

"Spiders," first exhibited by Edge, is also featured in the first serial excerpt of the book, now appearing in major international news publications...to date, The Guardian and LiFO.com (Athens).

“This huge canvas by New York-based artist Katinka Matson uses magnification to emphasize the spider-like forms of petals of the spider chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium). At the start of the 21st century Matson developed a new way of portraying flowers by using a flatbed scanner, Adobe Photoshop and an ink-jet printer. Slowly scanning the flowers captures their exact appearance, without the distortion created by a single-lens photograph.” —The GuardianHer work has been featured on Edge since 2002.

[Further reading: Kevin Kelly, "Introduction to 'Twelve Flowers'"; "On Scanner Photography."]  

 

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