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Curator of the Future

By Philipp Holstein 8.22.2018

Initiator of the "Third Culture"

Photo: Robert Schlesinger

Mastermind who coined the term: John Brockman

On his homepage, US networker John Brockman lets the brightest minds of today think about the world of tomorrow.

If John Brockman does not like death, it's the cultural fuzzies who think they're intellectuals just because they read one novel more than others. This aversion may seem puzzling at first, because Brockman has made his fortune with books. His agency resides in New York on Fifth Avenue. There, however, the 77-year-old sold no fiction, but Science. Brockman's sheep are the wisest minds in popular science literature. As mighty flock, they regularly occupy the top spots in the world's non-fiction best-selling lists: Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman ("Thinking, Fast and Slow"), Jaron Lanier ("Who owns the future?"), Steven Pinker ("How the Mind Works" ), Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion") and Jared Diamond ("Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies"). These people, Brockman says, are the real intellectuals of our time.

 

Brockman is a piper, key character and mastermind. He has coined the term "third culture" because he wants to bridge the gap between the humanities and natural sciences. The relevant questions of humanity, he says, today constitute the natural sciences. Science makes our world irreversibly different. Yes, she is the new par excellence. New knowledge must be made fruitful by means of philosophy and brought into people's consciousness. Empiricism instead of imagination.

Brockman runs side by side the site edge.org, and that is something like a wormhole into the future. Brockman acts there as curator of the future, as a correspondent of the morning. The man, who imagines himself in a think-tank with Goethe and Alan Turing, is modest enough, despite all certainty, not to report on what is coming. He prefers to ask questions, one each year, and he lets the brightest spirits in the world answer. And because Brockman has also worked as a smart networker since the 1960s and is well known with genome sequencer Craig Venter, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and the British writer Ian McEwan, they leave in Silicon Valley, in Princeton, at MIT, at Harvard, Yale, and everywhere, people like to smoke their heads for him.

 

Each year, the best answers appear as a book, and each volume is a guide to continuing, an invitation to awareness, moving on, and getting started. Last year's question was: "What do you think is the most interesting news of our time, and what is its meaning?" The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers answered very succinctly: The melting of the glaciers, "try to live with a sea level which is on average five meters higher than today ". The physicist Richard Muller from Berkeley called the air pollution; and a remarkable number of his colleagues rated the latest findings about the dwarf planet Pluto as the hottest news. He is geographically more active than he is supposed to have an active inner engine that always changes the shape of his surface. The mountains unimagined possibilities. Conventional knowledge, including Newtonian physics, would now have to be reconsidered.

 

The scientists pleaded to observe news from their fields over a longer period of time. Often something is reported and then quickly forgotten. At the same time, advances in the natural sciences can only be understood in their magnitude later. The CRISPR technology, for example, with which one can computer-edit genome, re-edit and thus create designer humans. In general, bioinformatics, it is considered a discipline of the future. With it you could possibly create microbes that extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Another important idea: The use of 3D printers in medicine could make it possible to individually rebuild organs. And so-called synthetic learning enables things and things to become better during use because they automatically adapt to the respective user behavior.

 

Brockman wants to bring about a radical restart of human communication ideology with edge.org. He has other such pithy sets in stock. The one here: "I want to reach the edge of the world's knowledge." Or the one: "My best friends are called discomfort, confusion and contradiction." And who: "When I saw the first computer in Harvard in 1965, I immediately fell in love. "Brockman is a son of Jewish parents, he grew up in Boston. At 19, he came to New York, where he studied economics and later worked in the financial industry. It was the 1960s, Brockman lived in Greenwich Village, he met Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Andy Warhol. He was a buddy of John Cage and friends with Sam Shepard. He married the artist Katinka Matson, a tall daughter from the East Coast nobility, whose photos of flowers are very beautiful.

 

At some point, avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas asked Brockman if he wanted to direct the cinematheque for underground movies with him. Brockman wanted and brought Godard and Fellini to America, promoting the young Scorsese, and because that was not enough for him, he let scientists of the Ivy League universities give lectures between the films. Basically, he organized the first interdisciplinary symposia at that time.

 

In 1973 he founded his agency and mediated his friends as authors to publishers. The friends became stars, Brockman an impresario. Legendary are his annual meetings on his farm in Connecticut. On a weekend, the IQ elite comes to him and provides answers to these questions: What is the human? What is the brain? What is the free will? What is intelligence? Questions are the most important thing, says Brockman, they form the pillars of his thought-building, his empire. Questions are inherently transcendent, they want answers, they want future. And that is exactly what Brockman is all about: the fleas cough.

 

John Brockman is now nearly 80 and he thinks he has given enough food for thought. He has already asked 20 edge questions. The Edge question of this year is supposed to be the last. "What's your last question?" She is called. One of the first contributions comes from the musician Brian Eno.

 

It says, "Have we left the age of reason without being able to return?"

[Originally published in German August 22, 2018 in Saarbrücker Zeitung.]