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John Brockman: the man who runs the world's smartest website

Since the mid-1960s John Brockman has been at the cutting edge of ideas. He is a passionate advocate of both science and the arts, and his website Edge is a salon for the world's finest minds


John Brockman: 'Any attempt to describe myself would end in awkwardness, confusion and contradiction.' Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe

To say that John Brockman is a literary agent is like saying that David Hockney is a photographer. For while it's true that Hockney has indeed made astonishingly creative use of photography, and Brockman is indeed a successful literary agent who represents an enviable stable of high-profile scientists and communicators, in both cases the description rather understates the reality. More accurate ways of describing Brockman would be to say that he is a "cultural impresario" or, as his friend Stewart Brand puts it, an "intellectual enzyme". (Brand goes on helpfully to explain that an enzyme is "a biological catalyst – an adroit enabler of otherwise impossible things".)

The first thing you notice about Brockman, though, is the interesting way he bridges CP Snow's "Two Cultures" – the parallel universes of the arts and the sciences. When profilers ask him for pictures, one he often sends shows him with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, no less. Or shots of the billboard photographs of his head that were used to publicise an eminently forgettable 1968 movie, . But he's also one of the few people around who can phone Nobel laureates in science with a good chance that they will take the call.

Cynics might say that this has something to do with the fact that Brockman has a reputation as an agent who can extract massive advances from publishers. (There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, that he regards books that earn out their advances as failures because it means he didn't ask for enough in the first place.) And he is indeed a hustler who spotted early on that there was a massive audience for writing about science, but there's more to it than that. Brockman is genuinely passionate about big ideas. He is fascinated, he told Wired magazine, "by people who can take the materials of the culture in the arts, literature and science and put them together in their own way. We live in a mass-produced culture where many people, even many established cultural arbiters, limit themselves to secondhand ideas. Show me people who create their own reality, who don't accept an ersatz, appropriated reality. Show me the empiricists – and not just in the sciences – who are out there doing it, rather than talking about and analysing the people who are doing it."
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TAGGED: MEDIA


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