AGENT, editor and online salon founder John Brockman tells LEE RANDALL about his mission to bring together the world’s finest minds
Five or six years ago, literary agent John Brockman was soaking up sunshine and reading a client’s manuscript on the terrace of his Manhattan office which overlooks the Apple store then being built on Fifth Avenue. As Brockman’s client was Apple founder Steve Wozniak, and the book he was reading was Wozniak’s autobiography, Apple’s flagship glass cube store across the road was almost part of the story.
“I had reached the point in Steve’s autobiography where he was leaving his office at Hewlett Packard. He had a circuit board, and was trying to find his friend who had a cord, then they were going to try and bring the circuit board and the cord to a guy who had a monitor, and hook them all together. He was writing about 1977. Just then Fed Ex delivers four boxes to my office. Inside are new MacBooks from China. Now, think of that – in just 30 years!”
I’m commiserating with Brockman, 70, about the difficulties of staying at the forefront of a world changing at warp speed. “It’s an interesting life, that’s for sure,” he agrees. “I didn’t think when I was growing up that I’d be running the world’s smartest website.”
That site, www.edge.org, is a renowned intellectual salon attracting the best and the brightest minds, predominantly scientific, to an ongoing conversation about the ideas and innovations shaping the way we understand the world.
Anyone can visit and, as he puts it, “peer over the shoulders” of these great brains at work, but the actual contributors are hand-picked by a core team that includes Brian Eno, Steven Pinker, and Hans Ulrich Obrist (the director of the Serpentine Gallery who has been dubbed “the most powerful figure in the international art world”).
Edge asks more than 150 of these mighty brains an annual question, posting the answers online before publishing them in book format. The UK books are a year behind America’s, so How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? dates from 2010. That doesn’t make it any less fascinating, and for some, the book format increases their accessibility.
Past questions have included: what are you optimistic about? what do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? and what will change everything? The 2011 question was: what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive tool-kit?
Brockman’s voice is low, slow and soothing. It’s smoothed out his well-worn anecdotes until they’re so highly polished they roll, one into the next, making it hard to dam the stream of consciousness once you set him off. My first question elicits long references to his earlier books – The Third Culture, and Digerati – and he reels off names and philosophical concepts faster than I can absorb them. As Thomas Dolby nearly sang, he’s blinding me with science.
Originally from Boston, Brockman is one of those guys who’s always been where it’s at. In the 1960s, as a 20-something financial analyst, he spent all his free time in lower Manhattan hanging out with artists. Most of them were avid readers of science books. Cybernetics was all the rage, having been introduced in the late 1940s by Norbert Weiner. It is, Brockman decides, probably the most staggering of all the big ideas he’s encountered over the years. Asked to define it, he explains: “It was an engineering discipline dealing with the non-linear relationship between input and output, the feedback mechanism. As a discipline, it petered out, but the idea is what’s informing everything that’s happening today, vis-à-vis the internet and the culture that we’re in.
“It’s when you have a world of patterns and information and the information isn’t physical. Like a raindrop that falls behind you doesn’t have information, but one that hits you in the forehead and makes you wipe your head does have information, because you’re actioned. The cybernetic idea is based on this non-linearity, and in a non-linear world, there’s no subject or object and eventually this plays out into the idea of the person and the individual. I’ve always felt, for the last 30 years, we’re heading that way where we are this one mind – and I don’t want to get metaphysical here – but we’re all one mind.”
Be that as it may, not all minds – I’m holding my hand up – are created with the equal capacity to understand this fully.
Brockman had no innate interest in science. “I got into science through the art world. Everybody was focused on cybernetics, and they were reading physicists. People were handing me books.” At suppers hosted by John Cage, he learned about Weiner and Marshall McLuhan. Whenever the likes of Cage or Robert Rauschenberg recommended a book Brockman read it, then ploughed his way through its bibliography as well.
Soon he was organising events that drew an eclectic crowd. “We had this group called The Reality Club. This was pre-internet and it was much more catholic: many of the members were artists or poets or architects or feminists. On any given evening, Freeman Dyson would be there, Isaac Asimov, Betty Friedan, Ellen Burstyn, Dennis Hopper, Abbie Hoffman, etc.
“This was an opportunity to let somebody get up and present the questions they were asking themselves in front of a group of peers – though not people in their field – who would challenge them. We had one night when Benoit Mandelbrot [the French mathematician] showed up and it was probably the hottest ticket of the decade – artists were amazingly interested in his fractal geometry of nature. Those were very edifying evenings when they worked, and when they didn’t they were still pretty good.”
The Edge project, as such, began in 1997. Does Brockman think it helped bring about the current craze for science books and television programmes? “Well, other people think so. John Maddox, the editor of Nature, was a huge fan before he died. And Denis Dutton [the academic, web entrepreneur, and philosopher]. But it’s barely dented the mainstream, except, you will notice, that the New York Review of Books now regularly publishes Freeman Dyson [the theoretical physicist famous for his work on quantum field theory] on anything he wants to write about. And the New Yorker is filled with science now. So I think we’ve had an effect.”
Fewer than 20 per cent of Edge’s contributors are female. Is he making a concerted effort to rectify that? “You want to read the e-mails?” he chuckles. “I’m aware of [the disparity]. If we do a thing at a bookstore and there are four men and one woman on the podium with me, I’m going to get blasted afterwards. My first seven or eight years as an agent, I could not get a woman to write the kind of book that I was specialising in, where somebody throws down a gauntlet and presents the work and argues the theories. Finally Catherine Bateson [the cultural anthropologist whose parents were Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson] did, and then Lynn Margulis [the evolutionary biologist]. Now, there are quite a few .”
Given that his main occupation is literary agent, what’s his reaction to doom-sayers’ persistent prophecies about the death of the book? “I feel just the opposite, I’m very excited: people are reading more than ever. I love to walk through my dining room where I have a library and pick out a book and remember what I thought when I read it, and see it marked up.” Then he confuses me again, by saying: “And I can’t wait for the day that they’re just licenses and not even there in front of me. I’m not reminded by seeing the physical book, that I own it and I read it. Even now because I’m in the business, I have lots of different e-readers, and I don’t know what’s on them. Once you’ve read something, do you even know it’s there, is there anything to remind you?”
Erm, so does he like or dislike this? “I personally prefer books. One thing I terribly miss is wandering through bookstores. But it’s important to be nimble, and to go with the flow and not adopt a Luddite attitude towards everything.”
I think it’s safe to say that that, in a nutshell, epitomises Brockman’s design for living.
• How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future, edited by John Brockman is out now from Atlantic Books, priced £19.99.
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