The Roots Of Digital Thinking

The Roots Of Digital Thinking

John Brockman, Net Avantgardist, Purveyor of Knowledge, Literary Agent and Founder of Edge Turns 70
Andrian Kreye [2.16.11]

... Brockman's seeds of a new intellectualism have bloomed in the culture of ideas that has become so popular in the past years in the pages of magazines such as Atlantiic and New Yorker, in numerous nonfiction bestsellers or in the various incarnations of the TED conference. ...

Digital culture, pop and protest politics in its early days: John Brockman (left) in 1966 with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan in "Factory" [Photo: Nat Finkelstein]


Recently, I visited DLD, the annual congress of the digital elite, in Munich. In it was one of those moments that describe a man better than his official biography. Shortly before the gala dinner on the first day of the congress, I was in a small group in the ballroom in the company of John Brockman, the key figure in so many scientific debates that often take place on his website and who is not nearly as well known as the stars who he represents as a literary agent: The evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, for example, or the genetic scientist Craig Venter, the pioneers of digital debates like Clay Shirky, Jaron Lanier and David Gelernter.

It's difficult to make comparisons of different people, but if you want to try, John Brockman would be something like the Siegfried Unseld of the sciences, a man with an unerring sense for the important themes of his time who also has a tremendous business acumen. Anyway, Brockman encountered Sean Parker, the young billionaire who first revolutionized the music industry with Napster and then went on to take on social relations with Facebook. Parker's arrogance is legendary. But in front of Brockman he has respect. "Edge is the only thing I read, when I read anything," Parker said, smiling awkwardly.

Brockman did not respond to the compliment, but it was not meant as a compliment. Rather it was as meant as recognition of the pecking order of those involved in the great debate about how our lives and our society are changing due to the breath-taking speed in the development of digital technology and the natural sciences.

Brockman did not begin to think about electronic culture with the triumphant advance of the Internet. He started in 1965, on one of those legendary evenings when the composer John Cage cooked for friends and acquaintances. John Brockman was 24-years old and not involved in science, as was the case with so many of his generation in the wake of New York’s downtown culture. He organized multimedia performances and film festivals, operated alternative theaters, and he was one of the regulars that gathered daily at Andy Warhol's Factory.

He wanted to win the intellectual debate on the sovereignty of the natural sciences

During one evening Cage handed Brockman a book entitled "Cybernetics," by the mathematician Norbert Wiener. Wiener's cybernetics was one of the first comprehensive theories of control systems of machines, organisms and social organizations. In the book, you can still find answers to many questions posed today by the digital society. Brockman was thrilled by it.

Together with his friend Stewart Brand, he plowed through the book in a manic reading rush of two days, driven by the notion that the understanding of the non-linear nature of reality proposed by Wiener, went far beyond the importance of the mathematical descriptions themselves.

Both men were changed forever by those days. Brockman was in New York when MIT asked him to organize meetings between scientists and artists. He became the East Coast link between the arts and the sciences. Brand, in California, founded The Whole Earth Catalog, a catalog of alternative products and innovative technologies. Apple founder Steve Jobs later described his Catalog as a "precursor to the World Wide Web".

The role of the intermediary is still John Brockman's forte. Surely, he, with his wife and partner Katinka Matson has earned a great deal money as a literary agent. Not least because he promoted a new genre of science literature that has often made it onto the best-seller lists. 

"Third Culture", he called this genre, borrowing from C.P. Snow's phrase "the third culture", which Snow introduced as in sequel to his legendary lecture on the "two cultures" in 1959 in Cambridge. In it, the British physicist complained about the disconnect between the history of ideas in the humanities and natural sciences.

Brockman saw this as an opportunity. With the rise of interdisciplinary research, scientists were forced to write books that were not aimed at the usual market for "popular science", but written for their colleagues in adjacent fields. It was a different kind of audience. Biologists had to be able to understand the books by computer scientists and computer scientists had to understand the work of chemists. And thus, as a byproduct, these "third culture" books were understandable to the general educated American reader.

Brockman wanted more than just negotiating good contracts. He wanted to win the intellectual debate on the sovereignty for the natural sciences. Nothing bored him more than the endless subtleties of the humanities, which arose from nothing more than the internecine machinations of insider cliques. And he hit a nerve. The tangible nature of his thesis was embraced by a far-reaching range of scientists who went on to write about undefined topics such as faith, morality and humanity. This led to enormously contentious debates.

Brockman's seeds of a new intellectualism have bloomed in the culture of ideas that has become so popular in the past years in the pages of magazines such as Atlantiic and New Yorker, in numerous nonfiction bestsellers, or in the various incarnations of the TED conference. Brockman has stayed away from all forms of hype though. He still makes money with books, the very medium that has been declared dead so many times in recent years. He also refused to allow his website to fall into lockstep with the euphoria of Web 2.0. It is still a tightly edited forum of unique voices, not just a network open to anybody who wants to join the debate. That is one of the reasons Edge has remained one of the purest outlets of intellectual thought on the Web. Together with his friend, the late philosopher Dennis Dutton, whose website Arts & Letters Daily is another of the few purist intellectual forums, he held onto the origins of the Internet, when texts stood for themselves and weren't launchpads for endless streams of debate, and when links where first and foremost references to texts worth delving into. 

On Wednesday, John Brockman celebrates his 70th Birthday at the New York restaurant Le Cirque. On the list of invitees are friends and companions, some of whom are Nobel Laureates, others who have accumulated billions of dollars in assets. Even if only half of the guests show up, it will be another one of those evenings, the kind Brockman has organized repeatedly since he attended the dinners parties organized by John Cage — a networked world of sparkling  new ideas.