Where Avant-Garde Thinking Reflects The Present

Where Avant-Garde Thinking Reflects The Present

Tobias Sedlmaier [6.30.17]

20 years: Online platform Edge.org
Where Avant-Garde Thinking Reflects The Present
By Tobias Sedlmaier 6.30.2017

The online platform Edge has been looking for the big questions for twenty years - and for the even bigger answers of life. A critical appraisal.

Internet Presence of Edge (photo: screenshot)

In the beginning is the question. Born out of restless nights and ingenious inspirations, it is examined in cold daylight, perhaps focused more precisely, and sent out by its ingenious creators into the ignorant world.

What sounds like a diffusely romantic myth of origin is in fact the recurrent practice of finding Edge’s Annual Question. On this online platform, major contemporary (mostly American) scientists and a selection of trendsetters have been formulating answers to more or less urgent questions of our time for twenty years.

How does the world work?

These can be very vague, for example: What Now? Or they can be leading questions: What Scientific Idea Is Ready for Retirement? Almost always the notion of big ideas—either brilliant or dangerous ones—resonates here; and of course, life, the internet, and all the other themes come in.

The answers, which are first published on the website, later in book form, can be long essays with examples and formulas that run five print pages. Or they are as aphoristic as Brian Eno's response about the value of the Internet:  "The great promise of the Internet was that more information would automatically yield better decisions. The great disappointment is that more information actually yields more possibilities to confirm what you already believed anyway.“

Master of Ceremonies of this sophisticated debate forum is John Brockman, author and literary agent, who is called a giant by some. The industrious intellectual impresario has himself written a handful of books, edited around fifty more and performed in an inter-disciplinary  program of avant-garde events with John Cage and Jorge Luis Borges in New York. He was also a Godfather for the think tanks "Reality Club" as well as Edge.

At a moment in history when borders are erected more quickly than torn down, you can imagine the larger than life Brockman with his characteristic wide-brimmed hat as an iconoclastic breaker of barriers. He is equally at home in the role of the business-minded entrepreneur as in the role of the theorist well aware of the sensitive changes in the Zeitgeist, oscillating between Andy Warhol and Norbert Wiener, at the intersection of art and cybernetics.

Productive Collision
Establishing a dialogue between disciplines was also the intention of British physicist Charles Percy Snow, another source of inspiration for Brockman. At the end of the fifties, Snow bemoaned the ignorance of the humanities regarding even the most mundane basics of the natural sciences. He called for a productive collision of two opposing research cultures, which long had nothing to say to each other.

Brockman, for his part, took up this “third culture” in a book of the same name, and has since sought a popularization of the natural sciences. The direction of his thrust is clear: the neverland of philosophy needs to be entered with robust, down-to-earth tools—you can’t understand the ways of the world from the vantage point of an ivory tower.

Exemplary for this pragmatic sally against the allegedly retrograde discipline of ​​the humanities and literature is the preface of the Edge anthology on the question What DYou Think About Machines That Think? Here, Brockman writes with perceptible relief that none of the essays included invokes popular works of science fiction: he reads this as a sign of intellectual adulthood. If his implicit critique of juvenile immaturity aims at the media-trimmed body of comic-strip nerds and amateur space dreamers who confuse hard science with Star Trek, one may agree with him.

But on the other hand, this attitude consciously eclipses the importance of fiction which may, even for some of the contributors to this volume, have operated as a spark igniting the passion for science; this notwithstanding the fact that the technical developments described in fiction may have but a short half-life period. The attempt to describe the present is, after all, a race of hare against hedgehog.

Performance science
The lofty claim to be avant-garde on the one hand, and generally understandable on the other, requires a risky balancing act. And at any rate, the well-known problem of making scientific literature accessible to a broadaudience remains to be solved: renowned experts have to express their theses in a way that even people without an academic degree can find food for thought—whether from the works themselves or from their reception in the feuilletons. This encourages, however, a semi-precise or speculative approach, which occasionally collides with strictly scientific ambition.

This makes for a kind of slugfest
between scientists, an entertaining
spectacle, full of flashes of genius.

Moreover, there is the performative approach to writing which Brockman so appreciates: pointed, compact, inconclusive, and formulated from the author’s point of view. This makes for a kind of slugfest between scientists, an entertaining spectacle, full of flashes of genius. Everyone can throw in a thought, that might be reaffirmed immediately or harshly contradicted a couple of contributions further in. This smorgasbord of texts, varying in length, shortness and density, constitutes the specific value of the Edge project, which, due to the prominence of the participants, has long since been transformed from an experimental playground into a world class arena.

In the volume about artificial intelligence which now has been published in German translation, the responses range from affirmation to skepticism to rejection of the term “Artificial Intelligence”. Some authors put forth the unconditional belief that biological material is doomed to evolutionary retreat by the progress of high-tech engineering. Others express doubt that machines "think" at all.

In between, there are reflections on how AIs would see their builders, whether they are able to serve as caregivers or to demand rights of their own, whether they are incompetent, have ulterior motives, can develop creativity, merge with people organically or even relieve our conscience by killing autonomously. In the end, therefore, are questions. Many of them.

First published in German by Neue Zürcher Zeitung, June 30, 2017. English translation by: Angela Schader