La Stampa
January 20, 2010

INTERVIEW: "The Revolution of the 21st century and the Internet: the logic of the canoe is substituting for that of the kayak"

Ideas to Change The World

Brockman: Scientists think. Everyone else is forced to play catch up


His name is John Brockman and he is a special type: he queries the best scientists, asks them to pose their most pressing questions, brings them together on his site to converse about everything and sometimes they also meet in the flesh, in California or in Paris. He often encourages them to write about their visionary ideas, which become best-selling books.

Brockman is much more than a publishing and cultural impresario. He is unique, someone who is not replicable in the universe of science where replicability and falsifiability are notoriously non-negotiable rules.

That is why his posing questions, like a petulant boy genius, to the world's greatest thinkers is disorienting. Guest of the Festival of Science in Rome, he has distributed his provocations there too, ranging from the subject of Alan Turing, the unfortunate and mythical English scientist who founded the digital world which led to his new Question of 2010, which has inspired a group of American thinkers: "How does the Internet change the way you think?" He explains: "I stress the "you" instead of "we". After oscillating between the two, I chose the "you" because Edge is a conversation. The "we" would have suggested a public voice instead, of experts on stage."

"The question," he adds, "is based on the idea of my friend and former collaborator James Lee Byars.

What did Byars do?

Photo of John Brockman
Role literary agent and author of popular science books
Book: "This Will Change Everything. Ideas That Will Change The Future, HarperCollins

"In 1971, he went to Harvard Square and there founded the "World Question Center". He was convinced that to reach the edge of knowledge, it was not in fact necessary to read 6 million volumes in the university library: he believed it was enough to collect the most sophisticated minds in one place and lock the door until they asked each other the questions they were asking themselves. This idea is in perfect harmony with the logic of today's digital environment, in which everything can be assembled with the power of algorithms: it is the reality of the Petabyte Revolution.

Explain what this is.

"The accumulation of data is such that instead of starting an argument and then testing it with a series of experiments, the data already stored may be investigated in order to discover what is hidden."

Does this mean that the scientific method, which is sacrosanct, is about to change?

"In any case, yes, there is someone who has already made this hypothesis. I think of Craig Venter, who is deciphering the Genome: he is the greatest advocate in the private sector of a continuing growth in computational power. He collects billions of pieces of genetic information from various sources, including the oceans and processes them using computers: it is a scale of data never dealt with before."

And the responses to the "Question"? What is currently the one that has intrigued the most?

"George Dyson's response: "kayak vs. canoe." It refers to two opposite approaches to achieving the same result, the construction of boats. The first entails the assembly of a skeleton from bits and pieces, and the latter involves carving out of whole trees. The Internet has produced a similar gap: we were manufacturers of kayaks, used to seeking any information that could keep us afloat, and now, instead, we must learn to shape the canoe, removing everything that is not necessary and bringing to light the hidden heart of knowledge. Whoever doesn't acquire the new skills will be forced to row his crudely carved tree trunks."

He never tires of prodding scientists: his latest book, This Will Change Everything, is dedicated to ideas that will shape the future. Are you sure to have discovered the best?

"In another career I acted as an impresario. I was the guy who ran the theatre, standing in the back, turning the lights on and off. This is my role and in this case, the basic concept I present is that new media creates new perceptions: science creates the technology to use and we recreate ourselves in its image. Until recently no one had ever thought of this process. It was unconscious. No one has voted on the printing press, electricity, radio, tv, cars, airplanes. Nobody voted for penicillin, nuclear energy, space travel. No one voted for computers, Internet, email, Google, cloning. Now we move towards a new definition of life and a condition in which science is not only news, but The News. Politicians can play catch up and and chase the developments. James Watson, the man who was co-discoverer of the double helix of DNA and who is currently only only one of two people to have posted his genetic code on the Internet, is said to oppose any interference. The other person, Craig Venter, is preparing to create artificial life: And even now, he can move a drop of genetic material from one dish to another and...your dog can become a cat. The result is that everything will change and therefore, the question for the new book was: What game-changing scientific revolution do you expect to live to see?

You had 151 responses: reveal your favorite.

"Kevin Kelley impressed me: he spoke of a new type of mind, amplified by the Internet, evolving, and able to start a new phase of evolution outside of the body. And so many others... Ed Regis and "molecular manufacturing", about the production of new molecules as one of the frontiers of nanotechnology. William Calvin and our vulnerability to climate and our intellectual capacity to react. Nicholas Humphrey and rebellious impulses of human nature: as we transform ourselves, we nevertheless remain the same, distracted by violence and politics. Freeman Dyson and telepathy, with the possibility of direct communication from one brain to another. And finally, a novelist, Ian McEwan. He confessed to wanting to live long enough to witness the final triumph of solar technology.

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

Alexandra Zukerman, Assistant Editor
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