John Brockman: A Portrait : The World Mind That Came In From the Counterculture

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At the Esalen Institute, the personal growth laboratory on California’s Pacific coast, he listened to talks by scientists and madcap geniuses whose names hardly anyone on the East Coast knew. A treasure trove just waiting to be opened. An awakening. In 1973 this gave rise to his literary agency, albeit circuitously. Once again he found himself promoting something that interested him. Slowly but surely he realized that he had struck gold. Or, as he prefers to say, he discovered an oil well that has never stopped bubbling. Since then Brockman has been keyed to the Third Culture from head to foot. Famous scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs and sponsors are drawn to him like moths to a light bulb. At his desk in New York he clicks on the invitation to a party he is flying to in San Francisco the following day. The hosts include the co-founder of Google Sergey Brin, the Russian billionaire Yuri Miner, the co-founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, and Art Levinson, Chairman of the Board of Apple Inc. and the former CEO of the biotech company Genentech. It is safe to assume that Brockman also enjoys get-togethers with such distinguished names.

But even more he evidently enjoys the gatherings at his picturesque farm in Connecticut with its numerous nooks and crannies. For one day or weekend every summer, he affords himself the intellectual pleasure of transforming his New England idyll into a swap meet for the latest scientific research and ideas. From Princeton and Yale, Harvard and MIT, Silicon Valley and New York’s executive suites, he invites thinkers, movers, shakers and clients—all of them friends—to discuss the hottest topics in their various fields. The most recent edition of these bucolic conferences held beneath ancient maple trees began with an up-to-date tour d’horizon by the economist Sendhil Mullainathan, who mused that the excessive volumes of data might threaten the qualitative character of science. The social scientist Fiery Cushman reported on the failure of algorithms in complex calculations, the experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe on the elusively ephemeral nature of the self, the psychologist June Gruber on the problem of positive emotion and the initial solutions.

In total 10 scientists gave talks on this perfect summer’s day, which now, thanks to Edge, no longer has to end. Since November Brockman has been posting the videos of the contributions on the Web. By February the day’s entire program should be accessible. Those online, however, can only guess at the pleasure John Brockman feels as he observes the mind games he has staged. „Edge,“ says its creator, „for me that means ideas, for me that means culture.“


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