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Humankind's Big Questions

Literary agent and networker John Brockman on scientists as the intellectuals of the twenty-first century.

Humanities and sciences have traditionally been seen as "two cultures", though as early as 1959, in his book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, physicist and novelist C.P. Snow was calling for them to close the communication gap to answer the big questions facing human kind. Some 30 years later, literary agent John Brockman coined the term "the third culture". Over the past few years, his network of scientists and thinkers has been tackling questions that have traditionally been the preserve of religion and philosophy: the origins and meaning of life and what human nature—and human ethics—really are.

IT’S NOT EASY to find a single player who illustrates a phenomenon  as  complex  as  convergence,  but  if  you  try, the  name  that  will  rapidly  come  up  is  that  of  New  York literary  agent  John  Brockman.  Brockman  has  his  office in  the  heart  of  Manhattan,  and  the  69-year-old’s  desk  is dominated by his computer, giving few clues to his work with  manuscripts  and  papers.  A  vast  photograph  of  a flower  hangs  on  the  wall,  a  scanner  image  created  by  his wife  and  business  partner,  Katinka  Matson.  And  if  you step  out  on  to  the  balcony  high  above  59th  Street,  the view below is of Grand Army Plaza, embodying on three sides  the  cultural  history  of  New  York:  to  the  right  is  the Plaza  Hotel  on  Central  Park,  where  Hollywood  met  pol- itics  in  the  twentieth  century,  while  the  CBS  Tower dominates  to  the  left.  And  in  the  middle  sits  the  glass cube  that  is  the  Fifth  Avenue  Apple  Store.

This  thumbnail  cultural  history  of  New  York  City  is also  John  Brockman’s  history.  Originally  an  actor  and artist,  Brockman  rose  from  the  political  sub-culture  of the  1950s  and  1960s  to  be  a  successful  media  professional  and  is  now  the  most  powerful  literary  agent  of  the digital  age.  It’s  important  to  note,  though,  that  the  term “most  powerful”  has  nothing  to  do  with  Brockman’s business  success  and  everything  to  do  with  his  place  in contemporary intellectual history. It’s true that as a literary  agent,  Brockman  has  singlehandedly  secured  advances  for  science  writers  of  the  kind  normally  reserved for  authors  of  best-selling  detective  novels  or  fantasy. And,  of  course,  his  clients  include  all  the  key  figures  in new  science  writing  –  psychologist  Steven  Pinker,  for example,  anthropologist  Jared  Diamond,  evolutionary biologist  Richard  Dawkins,  and  genetics  researcher Craig  Venter.  But  with  his  circle  of  several  hundred  of “the  most  interesting  minds  in  the  world”,  Brockman has  created  not  only  a  new  genre  of  scientific  literature but  also  a  new  form  of  intellectualism.  He’s  even  coined a  term  for  it:  “the  third  culture”.


“The  third  culture”  is  nothing  other  than  a  concrete expression  of  what  philosophy  understands  by  ‘convergence’:  the  areas  where  epistemology  (the  part  of  philosophy  that  deals  with  knowledge)  and  the  natural  sciences overlap.  Convergence  is  widely  thought  to  be  a standard  notion  in  the  history  of  ideas,  yet  Brockman was  one  of  the  first  to  recognize  that  the  lack  of  it  represented  a  major  lacuna  in  the  intellectual  life  of  the  West. He  cites  a  1959  lecture  by  British  physicist  and  novelist C.  P.  Snow  at  the  University  of  Cambridge  as  a  “source of  inspiration”  for  his  own  work:  “C.  P.  Snow  predicted a  third  culture  in  which  literary  people  would  learn  science  and  communicate  it,”  he  says,  “but  they  didn’t,  so the  scientists  started  writing  books  themselves.”


Brockman  published  his  “third  culture  manifesto”  in the  early  1990s,  at  the  dawn  of  the  digital  age.  He  says on  his  website,  “Traditional  American  intellectuals  are, in  a  sense,  increasingly  reactionary  and  quite  often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of the truly significant intellectual  accomplishments  of  our  time.  Their  culture, which  dismisses  science,  is  often  non-empirical.  The third  culture,  by  contrast,  consists  of  those  scientists  and other  thinkers  in  the  empirical  world  who,  through  their work  and  writing,  are  taking  the  place  of  the  traditional intellectuals.  They  are  communicating  the  deeper  mean- ing  of  our  lives,  redefining  who  and  what  we  are.”


Key debates play out in books

The  third  culture  has  little  in  common  with  popular  science  and  much  more  with  the  notion  of  convergence. “Take  Daniel  Dennett,”  says  Brockman:  “He’s  one  of America’s  best  philosophers.  If  he  were  an  academic, he’d  have  to  publish  in  philosophy  journals,  but  their referees would reject his articles because he writes about psychology,  artificial  intelligence,  computer  science, neuroscience  and  psychiatry.  Yet  he  wouldn’t  be  able  to publish  in  any  of  the  journals  in  those  fields  either,  be- cause  he  has  no  academic  qualifications  in  them.”  Dennett’s  reply  to  Roger  Penrose’s  The  Emperor’s  New Mind (1989), in which Penrose makes the scientific case for  an  unbridgeable  divide  between  consciousness  and mathematics,  proved  a  scientific  milestone,  though;  his Consciousness  Explained  (1991)  triggered  a  debate  that would  have  far-reaching  scientific  impact.  That  was over  20  years  ago  now.  The  whole  debate  would  have been  too  complicated  for  the  mass  media,  and  the  academic  journals  wouldn’t  have  taken  it,  so  “it  very  quickly  became  clear  that  the  debates  about  our  future  would be  played  out  in  books”  says  Brockman.


The power of interdisciplinary science

Brockman  was  also  quick  to  realize  that  science  writing could  be  effective  in  taking  debates  across  traditional disciplinary  boundaries.  As  a  student  at  Columbia  Busi- ness  School,  he  spent  his  evenings  in  south  Manhattan, where  the  sub-cultures  and  artists  hung  out.  He  recalls that  “the  artists  were  all  reading  science.  Robert Rauschenberg  turned  me  on  to  James  Jeans’  The  Mysterious  Universe,  and  Claes  Oldenburg  was  reading George  Gamow’s  One,  Two,  Three … Infinity.”  But even  more  influential  was  a  series  of  dinners  organized by  John  Cage,  at  which  the  composer  introduced  his ideas  to  young  artists:  “Luckily,  I  was  part  of  the  group, and  one  evening  –  it  must  have  been  in  1965  –  Cage said,  ‘Here,  this  is  for  you’  and  handed  me  a  copy  of Cybernetics  by  Norbert  Wiener.  Everything  I’ve  done since  goes  back  to  that  moment.”


At  the  time,  Brockman  was  managing  the  art  house movie  organization,  the  Filmmakers’  Cinémathèque,  so shortly  after  this,  he  was  invited  by  Wiener’s  colleagues to  bring  avant-garde  artists  from  New  York  to  Cam- bridge,  Mass.,  where  they  met  with  leading  scientists  at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was on one of  these  trips  that  the  young  John  Brockman  saw  for  the first  time  one  of  the  machines  that  fascinate  him  to  this day.  “They  showed  us  one  of  the  very  first  computers. There  was  a  huge  room  behind  glass,  and  inside  were  all these  people  with  white  coats  and  white  gloves.  It  was cold,  so  they  all  had  scarves  on.  I  think  I  was  25,  I  had my  nose  pressed  up  against  the  glass,  and  I  fell  in  love. Since  then,  everything  I’ve  done  has  been  inspired  by the  notion  of  ‘computation’.  And  I’m  not  talking  about computers;  I’m  talking  about  the  cybernetic  ideas  that Wiener  developed.”


Brockman is referring here to the idea of communica- tion  as  a  control  mechanism  for  machinery,  people,  and systems.  And  these  were  the  ideas  that  would  lead  to  the computer  rapidly  evolving  into  more  than  just  a  number cruncher. “The work on the first computers was undoubt- edly  a  prime  example  of  the  power  of  interdisciplinary research,  because  it  brought  computer  scientists  together with  designers  and  sociologists.  And  now  it’s  informing the  debate  headed  by  Nicholas  Carr  and  Clay  Shirky,  the two  leading  visionaries  in  the  field  of  new  media.”


It  goes  without  saying  that  Internet  analyst  Carr  and Shirky,  a  social  and  technology  network  researcher  at New  York  University,  are  clients  of  Brockman’s  agency,  and  that  he  has  made  their  books  best-sellers.  But ivory  towers  tend  not  to  produce  much  new  thinking. Carr  and  Shirky  aren’t  just  Brockman’s  clients,  they  are also  part  of  his  global  circle  of  scientists,  thinkers  and entrepreneurs,  the  people  he  calls  the  ‘digerati’  in  a  nod to  the  ‘literati’  of  the  twentieth  century.

Intellectual sparring on the Internet


The  Internet  forum  is  where  Brockman’s  circle ‘meets’  and  where  experts  trade  ideas  and  opinions:  critics  of  the  Internet  and  Internet  gurus,  philosophers  and biologists,  psychologists  and  economists,  astronomers and  artists,  radical  thinkers  and  pioneers  from  a  host  of different  areas  of  culture  and  science  all  find  that  they have  more  to  say  to  each  other  here  than  they  are  able  to get  across  through  conventional  publishing.  John  Brock- man has 3,000 thinkers on his list, and it is to these people that  he  sends  his  ‘question  of  the  year’  each  December.


The  questions  are  extremely  short:  “What  now?”, “What  do  you  believe  is  true,  even  though  you  cannot prove  it?”,  “What  is  your  most  dangerous  idea?”,  or “What  will  change  everything?”  But  precisely  because the  questions  are  so  short  and  focused,  they  provoke these  radical  thinkers  into  scintillating  answers  that  of- ten  spawn  independent  research  projects.  For  example, psychologist  Steven  Pinker’s  answer  to  the  2006  question  “What  are  you  optimistic  about?”  –  that  we  live  in the  least  violent  period  in  human  history  –  provoked such  an  overwhelming  response  from  other  scientists that he devised a four-year research project out of it. The findings  are  due  to  be  published  in  the  fall  of  2011.


The  relevance  of  these  issues  has  proven  itself  time and  time  again;  just  take  the  most  recent  question,  “How is  the  Internet  changing  the  way  you  think?”  In  the  first week of January 2010, Brockman published 172 answers on The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote about the intellectual “net gain” the Internet offers. Neurologist  William  Calvin  talked  about  the  Internet’s “enhancement  of  the  thought  process”.  And  anthropologist  Scott  Atran  was  positively  enthusiastic  about  the “fourth  phase  of  homo  sapiens”.  Others  were  more  skeptical, though. Physicist Lisa Randall’s response was “The plural  of  anecdote  is  not  data”.  Paleontologist  Scott Sampson  mourned  “the  extinction  of  experience”.  And software  pioneer  Kai  Krause  pronounced  gloomily,  “A million  lemmings  can  be  wrong.”























In  Brockman’s  network  of  converging  ideas,  edge. org  also  operates  as  a  virtual  nucleus.  Brockman  finds this  way  of  linking  people  and  ideas  “more  efficient”, though  only  as  a  starting  point:  “The  Internet  is  not  a replacement  for  people,”  he  says,  “it  just  wouldn’t  be fun.”  This  has  led  him  to  create  a  physical  but  global ‘salon’,  regularly  bringing  together  the  elite  of  the  digital  and  biotechnology  age  in  New  York,  Boston,  California  or  London  or  at  Brockman’s  summer  retreat  at Eastover  Farm,  Connecticut.


These  are  very  exclusive  gatherings.  There’s  the  Billionaires’  Dinner  held  during  the  TED  conference  in Long  Beach.  There  are  other  dinners  and  evening  gatherings.  And  most  importantly,  there  are  Brockman’s Master  Classes  and  conferences  at  Eastover  Farm.  A few  years  ago,  for  example,  the  leading  thinkers  in  bio- technology met there one glorious summer weekend in a marquee  erected  on  the  lawn  of  the  beautifully  restored farmhouse. Among those present was Craig Venter from California,  the  man  who  sequenced  the  human  genome, his  colleague  George  Church,  legendary  science  critic Freeman Dyson, and astronomer Dimitar Sasselov. They spent a day thinking about the origins of life and why we know so little about it. And in the course of their conversations,  they  talked  about  their  work.  That  work  was  to make headlines in the scientific press over the next three years:  Craig  Venter  created  the  first  cell  with  an  artificial  genome,  George  Church  launched  the  Personal  Genome  Project,  Freeman  Dyson  challenged  the  use  of climate  change  theory  for  ideological  purposes,  and Dimitar  Sasselov  discovered  in  our  galaxy  hundreds  of thousands  of  planets  similar  to  the  Earth.


Brockman  loves  to  recall  such  occasions,  which sometimes  make  history.  He  calls  to  mind  the  weekend when  he  invited  key  players  in  behavioral  science  to Eastover;  this  young  research  discipline  has  revealed more  about  the  financial  crisis  than  conventional  eco- nomics  has  been  able  to.  Or  there  was  his  most  recent   coup,  in  summer  2010.  “I  organize  these  meetings  every year,”  he  says,  “but  this  year,  I  was  scratching  my  head, I  couldn’t  come  up  with  anything.  Then  I  realized  that seven  new  books  on  moral  psychology  had  just  been published.  Seven!  And  I  am  working  with  all  seven  au- thors.  So  suddenly,  the  question  emerged:  what  is  moral psychology  as  opposed  to  psychology  and  morals?”


The  top  thinkers  spent  two  days  thrashing  out  the  is- sues.  And  once  again,  Brockman  was  breaking  new ground  in  encouraging  the  debate.  Admittedly,  it  didn’t take much effort. He got on the phone and invited friends and clients and afterwards, from his desk high above 59th Street,  he  uploaded  the  transcripts  and  videos  from  the weekend onto his website. By hand. “Of course by hand” he  says,  “It’s  all  pretty  automatic  now.  I  upload  a  text file  to  the  computer,  and  because  I  code  it  myself,  I  am really  reading  it  and  really  thinking  about  these  things. I’m  learning.”  Then  he  sends  the  new  ideas  off  to  the network  that  feeds  them  into  debates,  media  discourse and  scientific  narrative.  He’d  love  this  to  produce  yet more  books,  but  Brockman  is  even  more  interested  in bringing  ideas  together.  “My  work  with  Edge  reminds me of being at graduate school. I’m learning. Except that now,  I’m  the  only  student.  And  that’s  a  huge  pleasure”. 

First published by Egon Zehnder's The Focus, Vol. XIV/2.

"Third Culture thinkers redefine who and what we are."


John Brockman


John Brockman was born on February 16, 1941, the son of a wholesale florist in Boston, Massachusetts. While an MBA student at Columbia University, New York, in the early 1960s, Brockman joined the emerging cultural scene in downtown Manhattan. He was active as a multimedia artist and was part of the circle around the leading figure in the pop art movement, Andy Warhol. His friends also included composer John Cage. In 1973, he founded the literary agency Brockman, Inc., using it to transform science writing and taking complex issues into the best-seller lists. His clients include evolutionary biologist and combative atheist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, anthropologist Jared Diamond, and geneticist Craig Venter. Brockman and his clients founded the Edge Foundation, Inc. in 1988; with its Internet forum and regular conferences, it spearheads a new intellectualism of empirical thinking.

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