John Brockman and Digerati at the Writers House

An open discussion of the new digital culture

Tuesday, January 12, 1999 -- 4 PM

Links to materials:

Listen to the discussion, Part 1 and Part 2, using Real Audio or here on MP3. Click here for highlights and excerpts.

John Brockman

In the 1960s, John Brockman, "the only denizen of New York's bohemia with a business degree," backed Andy Warhol's underground movies and organized many happenings; published "By The Late John Brockman", an early mix of cybernetic theory & philosophy, and smuggled such intellectual contraband as "The Whole Earth Software Catalog" into the techno- illiterate Manhattan publishing world. (More on Brockman below...)

bridging the gap between science,
technology, and the humanities
in contemporary culture

Joining John Brockman at the Writers House will be these digerati:

John Brockman is the author/editor of nineteen books, including By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture, Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite and (with Katinka Matson) How Things Are: A Science Tool-Kit for the Mind. He is founder of Brockman, Inc., a literary and software agency, President of Edge Foundation, Inc., founder of The Reality Club, and editor and publisher of Edge, a website presenting The Third Culture in action.

From an interview with Brockman published in Wired:

Wired: You write in your introduction to The Third Culture that literary Intellectuals are "reactionary and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of science, an attitude that has pushed science into cultural invisibility in the last few generations. How does the smug, anti-science, anti-technology attitude you write of manage to dominate American culture?

Brockman: The literary culture I talk about is pretty well finished. Let me emphasize that I'm not talking about all literature but about a specific culture of literary commentators that became dominant about 50 years ago, In periodicals like The Partisan Review, Commentary and Encounter, it was an establishment that dictated fashionable discourse and prided itself an its indifference to science. It favored opinions and ideology over empirical testing of ideas -- commentary spiraling upon commentary As a cultural force, it's a dead end. When I first came to New York 30 years ago, it was important to get the latest issue of the literary journals to read, say, Hannah Arendt on Adolf Eichmann or Harold Rosenberg on contemporary art. Nowadays, most of those journals are still doing the same-old same-old; it's not about anything real, just facile opinions of other facile opinions. That doesn't stop journalists and New York media people from worshiping at its altar, though.

Wired: What damage has the "hijacking" of intellectual media wrought?

In a culture shaped by truly critical thinking and scientific method, being proven wrong, being constantly challenged to prove your most cherished concepts, is understood as part of intellectual evolution. In the mainstream literary world it's not. Serious critical thinking about new technology is what's at a premium. Clifford Stoll's book Silicon Snake Oil is foolishly dismissed as "luddite" but he's merely trying to establish balance. Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television taught me as much about technology in 1977 as Marshall McLuhan did in the 1960s. It didn't convince me to smash my television set. It did enable me to see for the first time what television really Is, We need to cultivate a critical perspective toward the tools we use.

Wired: Who are the prime enemies of the Third Culture?

It's not about personalities but about cultural attitudes that reward ignorance. In Europe, for instance. an editor or journalist will have studied physics and will be able to hold a reasonably informed dialog with scientists. Here, the deeply ingrained attitude that still dominates most media is that "welleducated" people needn't have a clue about such "technical" matters. Thankfully, the reading public knows better, and that's why so many serious science books have done so well in the last decade, despite the incomprehension and downright befuddlement of those supposedly in the know.

Wired: You've said that when yet, started out, publishing was run by "white boys from Harvard in the '50s." How has It changed?

About 10 Years ago, I went to a party held by Richard E. Snyder, then-chair of Simon & Schuster. Instead of a pub- lishing crowd, his guests were invest- ment bankers or real estate moguls. Snyder presented a chilling vision of publishing. He said that instead of 50 companies there would be six, vertically integrated. He predicted that the power would shift from the agents to these new conglomerates.

Wired: Sounds pretty prophetic.

It turned out to be mostly true. What Is publishing today? it's Newhouse, the Hearsts, Time Warner. viecom, Bertelman, Pearson, Murdoch, and now Holzbrink. Snyder was right, but be missed one thing. At the highest level, everybody knows each other and It's a Same. They're enormously Wealthy conglomerates, and they play to win. So my strategy is to be the mosquito that makes the elephants dance.

Wired: What was your purpose Ii bringing together two dozen scientists in The Third Culture?

I tried to reproduce for the reader the experience of dynamic complex systems, a notion the scientists in the book explore in various ways, it's a kind of "oral history" in which I try to stand aside and convey the rich dialogues taking place between such frontiers as molecular biology and artificial life, all the while letting the top people speak in their own singular voice.

Wired: You're also "serializing" the book on the Internet, on GNN.

Yes. The physical book becomes the table of contents for an exchange between author, collaborators, and readers -- one that I hope will continue far into the future. Tell me about your Internet publishing enterprise. On you moo the Web replacing books? Not in the short run. The most interesting fact about the Net is that people there enjoy reading and writing.'s first major site is going to be called BookChannel -- a multimedia-rich, interactive electronic bazaar devoted to books and readers, It will be the place for anyone interested in new ideas. The book is still the best delivery system for new Ideas we have. though that will eventually change.

Wired: How are traditional publishing companies Waiting to the Web?

The corporate owners and A few of the top trade publishing executives are looking seriously at new technologies, but the trade publishers are still mostly techno-illiterales. Many trade editors have e-mail addresses. The problem is that most of them don't have computers and modems.

Wired: So what's the content of

Solely digitizing texts is not what it's about. It's about creating intellectual community, where people come for the compelling subjects and then stay for each other. We're trying to create a place that users searching for state-of-the-art knowledge will rind reliable and credible.

The people I work with are mainly university people or specialists at the absolute top of their fields. In many cases, they've invented the field. But they are effective public thinkers, the true public Intellectuals of our time -- in spite of academia, not because of it.

Wired: Computer scientist Denny Hillis says In your book that the term "popularizer" is still an epithet among many academic scientists. You were recently criticized In The New Republic as a purveyor of "soft science.' How do you respond?

John Cage once told me to weigh my publicity rather than read it. The New Republic weighs very little.

An essay by executive editor of Wired Kevin Kelly published in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Essays on Science and Society: The Third Culture

Kevin Kelly is the executive editor of Wired and author of Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World.

"Science" is a lofty term. The word suggests a process of uncommon rationality, inspired observation, and near-saintly tolerance for failure. More often than not, that's what we get from science. The term "science" also entails people aiming high. Science has traditionally accepted the smartest students, the most committed and self-sacrificing researchers, and the cleanest money--that is, money with the fewest political strings attached. In both theory and practice, science in this century has been perceived as a noble endeavor.

Yet science has always been a bit outside society's inner circle. The cultural center of Western civilization has pivoted around the arts, with science orbiting at a safe distance. When we say "culture," we think of books, music, or painting. Since 1937 the United States has anointed a national poet laureate but never a scientist laureate. Popular opinion has held that our era will be remembered for great art, such as jazz. Therefore, musicians are esteemed. Novelists are hip. Film directors are cool. Scientists, on the other hand, are ...nerds.

How ironic, then, that while science sat in the cultural backseat, its steady output of wonderful products--radio, TV, and computer chips--furiously bred a pop culture based on the arts. The more science succeeded in creating an intensely mediated environment, the more it receded culturally.

The only reason to drag up this old rivalry between the two cultures is that recently something surprising happened: A third culture emerged. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but it's clear that computers had a lot to do with it. What's not clear yet is what this new culture means to the original two.

This new third culture is an offspring of science. It's a pop culture based in technology, for technology. Call it nerd culture. For the last two decades, as technology supersaturated our cultural environment, the gravity of technology simply became too hard to ignore. For thibs of science.

Techno-culture is not just an American phenomenon, either. The third culture is as international as science. As large numbers of the world's population move into the global middle class, they share the ingredients needed for the third culture: science in schools; access to cheap, hi-tech goods; media saturation; and most important, familiarity with other nerds and nerd culture. I've met Polish nerds, Indian nerds, Norwegian nerds, and Brazilian nerds. Not one of them would have thought of themselves as "scientists." Yet each of them was actively engaged in the systematic discovery of our universe.

As nerds flourish, science may still not get the respect it deserves. But clearly, classical science will have to thrive in order for the third culture to thrive, since technology is so derivative of the scientific process. The question I would like to posit is: If the culture of technology should dominate our era, how do we pay attention to science? For although science may feed technology, technology is steadily changing how we do science, how we think of science, and what it means to be a scientist. Tools have always done this, but in the last few decades our tools have taken over. The status of the technologist is ascending because for now, and for the foreseeable future, we have more to learn from making new tools than we do from making new concepts or new measurements.

As the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson points out, "The effect of concept-driven revolution is to explain old things in new ways. The effect of tool-driven revolution is to discover new things that have to be explained" (p. 50 ).3 We are solidly in the tool-making era of endlessly creating new things to explain.

While science and art generate truth and beauty, technology generates opportunities: new things to explain; new ways of expression; new media of communications; and, if we are honest, new forms of destruction. Indeed, raw opportunity may be the only thing of lasting value that technology provides us. It's not going to solve our social ills, or bring meaning to our lives. For those, we need the other two cultures. What it does bring us--and this is sufficient--are possibilities.

Technology now has its own culture, the third culture, the possibility culture, the culture of nerds--a culture that is starting to go global and mainstream simultaneously. The culture of science, so long in the shadow of the culture of art, now has another orientation to contend with, one grown from its own rib. It remains to be seen how the lofty, noble endeavor of science deals with the rogue vernacular of technology, but for the moment, the nerds of the third culture are rising.


  1. C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 1959).
  2. J. Brockman, The Third Culture (1996). Available at
  3. F. Dyson, Imagined Worlds (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997).

The author is at Wired magazine, 520 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA 94107, USA. E-mail: