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Thirteen Recommendations

“If the creation of contemporary culture had a global hero, his name would coincide with that of John Brockman.”

[EDITOR'S NOTE: On March 11th, the Sunday magazine of La Repubblica (Italy's largest newspaper) featured Edge in its cover story, translating excerpts by Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Alison Gopnik, Ian McEwan, June Gruber, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Richard Thaler and Brian Eno, from This Idea is Brilliant, the recently published Edge Question book, plus a new interview, "Don't Fear Digital: Use It," with the editor of Edge (yours truly) by the Italian writer Gianluigi Ricuperati, who is also active in the Edge community. —JB]

Thirteen Recommendations

Scientists and artists. Called to answer a simple, so to speak, question: "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?" From the thinkers of Edge to books by other writers, here's 13 (lucky number) answers. 

The Book


This Idea is Brilliant (Harper Collins). Published in the United States in January, It is the latest anthology curated by John Brockman for the site Edge.org. Every year, in December, Scientists and humanist members of the Edge community receive an email with a question. In 2017 the question was: "What Scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?" The following texts are published here (translated byIsabella Zani): Richard Dawkins ("The Genetic Book of the Dead"), Jared Diamond ("Common Sense"), Ian McEwan ("The Navier-Stokes Equations"), Alison Gopnik ("Life History”), Hans Ulrich Obrist ("The Gaia Hypothesis"), June Gruber ("Emotion Contagion”), Brian Eno (“Confirmation Bias”). Richard Thaler (“The Premortem”); Interview with John Brockman ("Don’t Fear Digital. Use it.”). They were selected by Gianluigi Ricuperati, himself a member of the Edge community. The previous Brockman/Edge books are published in Italy by Il Saggiatore: What Will Change Everything? and What Do You Believe is True but Cannot Prove?   

"Science is not an answer, but a method, which, being based on falsifiability, is an endless process."

JOHN BROCKMAN

Don't Fear Digital: Use It

If the creation of contemporary culture had a global hero, his name would coincide with that of John Brockman, the seventy-seven-year-old driver of the Edge.org site, a community of scientists and humanists among whom are the most relevant figures of today’s culture. Brockman's other job, as agent, allowed him to earn the confidence of Nobel laureates, while writing essays such as “The Third Culture.” It is Brockman, who has collected the brilliant ideas that we are publishing in these pages.

When did this adventure begin?

 

In 1965, I was managing the avant-garde Filmmakers' Cinematheque in New York, founded by the great Jonas Mekas. I was twenty-four years old. I had founded my own financial leasing company and during the day went to my Park Avenue office wearing a three-piece Brooks Brothers suit. But at night I went down downtown to Theatre Genesis at St. Marks in the Bowery, where I helped set up the theatre along with a recently arrived playwright Sam Shepard, and his roommate, Charlie Mingus, Jr.

 

I started a film program at St. Marks which caught the attention of Mekas who asked me to manage the Cinematheque, where I commissioned works by artists such as Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, with a $50 budget for each. During that period, John Cage organized series of dinners every month or so at the home of Fluxus co-founder and poet Dick Higgins, where Cage cooked mushrooms for a small group of artists and thinkers, and talked about the ideas of people like Claude Shannon, Marshall McLuhan, Norbert Wiener. I was surrounded by ­­­unique people: scientists, and also, artists like Cage who were obsessed with science, especially cybernetics.

 

What sparked your interest in the digital revolution?

 

In 1984, as the personal computer revolution came of age, I had an interesting idea: US law dictates that whatever you write, you own. And software is, in effect, a text. Since I already ran a literary agency I realized that I could also represent authors of software, the people who wrote code. Within a year I had 60 software clients and landed 7-figure deals for a few of them. This caught the attention of the press, and after I held a dinner for my clients in Las Vegas in 1985, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article entitled “Entrepreneur Hosts Millionaires’ Dinner.” This dinner became an annual event and was avidly covered in the press as “The Millionaires’ Dinner.” That changed in 1999, when some of the reporters in attendance made note that 11 of the dinner guests flew in for the dinner in their own private jets. Thus, “The Billionaires’ Dinner” came into being. People at the most recent dinner calculated that the net worth of the 40 guests equaled the combined wealth of 60% of all Americans. That’s when I realized that it was time to retire the dinner.

 

By the way, aren't the Silicon Valley billionaires also reshaping our mental ecosystem?

 

Yes, of course. One of the unforeseen consequences of the Digital Revolution are the enormous challenges we face due to the concentration of power and market dominance of the major internet companies and the malign societal effects of their products and business practices. We need to come up with fresh ideas of how to begin to think about how we deal with the profound changes to our human condition in this era.

As to the individuals driving these changes, I've known all of them since they began their careers, and many are my friends. I believe that they all started out as well-intentioned, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, for example, were sincere when adopted the motto ‘Don’t be evil’.  I sense that the people running these companies have lost control. Certainly, Evan Williams, founder of Twitter, did not anticipate that Donald Trump, with 45 million Twitter followers, would weaponized the platform.

 

There are those who define the world of Edge as "neopositivist," with an unshakable belief that science is the answer to all problems.

 

I disagree. Science is not an answer, but a method, which, being based on falsifiability, is an endless process.

 

Isn't this also a cultural enterprise that has economic implications? Does money improve or worsen the quality of research?

 

I have always tried to maintain a balance between my ‘business’ side and the obsessive intellectual curiosity that drives me. By 1973, my trilogy, By The Late John Brockman, had been published and I decided that I could start a literary agency for the kind of books that interested me which weren’t even on the radar of the so-called New York ‘intellectuals’ whose 1950s education in Freud, Marx and modernism, left them clueless in a rapidly changing world  But business has its own imperatives and a company either grows or dies. Within a year I was working 12-hour days and not thinking about writing.

Later that year, my friend and first client, the evolutionary biologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, came for lunch and expressed concern about my maintaining my dual roles. And then he gave me some advice that I still think about every day, forty-five years later: "Of all our human inventions, Homo economicus is by far the dullest." ■

First published in Italian by La Repubblica's Robinson, 11 Marzo 2018