John Brockman & Marshall McLuhan’s Influence


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

   –   The Observer, Sunday 8 January, 2012

It’s interesting to note that while I was ostensibly at Columbia to study economics and finance, my interests and instincts were strictly cultural and I made the most of the resources of a great university and New York City to educate myself in the areas that interested me and also to situate myself in the milieu where the action was taking place.

JN How did you get involved in the arts?

JB I quickly realised, but did not articulate, something the anthropologist Gregory Bateson told me 10 years later: that of all our human inventions, economic man was by far the dullest. A friend suggested I come downtown at night and help out at Theatre Genesis, an off-Broadway theatre in St Mark’s in the Bowery, the avant-garde church that also was home to a bustling poetry centre.

So every night I would show up in my three-piece banker’s suit and help set up the theatre. Working with me were the 21-year-old Sam Shepard, a young playwright from the midwest, and his room-mate, Charlie Mingus Jr.

One of the artists I got to know was the poet Gerd Stern, who had, on occasion, collaborated with Marshall McLuhan, incorporating live McLuhan lectures into USCO intermedia performances. Gerd, with his unkempt hair and abundant beard, was an odd counterpoint to the buttoned-down classics professor from Toronto, but they got along famously. Through Gerd and other artists, McLuhan’s ideas had begun to permeate the art world, though it would be several more years before they hit the mainstream.

Gerd introduced me to the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, McLuhan’s collaborator, who in turn invited me to Fordham University in 1967 to meet McLuhan, Father John Culkin and other members of that charmed circle of communications theorists. The discussion centred on the idea that we had gone beyond Freud’s invention of the unconscious and, for the first time, had rendered visible the conscious.

JN OK, so you’re deeply immersed in the avant-garde scene and entranced by McLuhan. But how did you get from there to an involvement with science and technology?

JB It was McLuhan who turned me on to The Mathematical Theory of Communication, the book by Bell Labs scientists Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver that began: “The word ‘communication’ will be used here in a very broad sense to include all of the procedures by which one mind may affect another. This, of course, involves not only written and oral speech, but also music, the pictorial arts, the theatre, the ballet and in fact all human behaviour.”

He also pointed me to Oxford zoologist JZ Young’s 1950 BBC Reith lectures entitled “Doubt and Certainty in Science”. And I recall his quoting one memorable line that has stuck with me and informed my thinking since that day: “We create tools and mould ourselves through our use of them.”

John Cage had also picked up on all these ideas. He convened weekly dinners during which he tried them out, as well as his mushroom recipes, on a group of young artists, poets and writers. I was fortunate to have been included at these dinners where we talked about media, communications, art, music, philosophy, the ideas of McLuhan and Norbert Wiener. McLuhan had pointed out that by inventing electric technology, we had externalised our central nervous systems; that is, our minds.

Cage went further to say that we now had to presume that “there’s only one mind, the one we all share”. He pointed out that we had to go beyond private and personal mindsets and understand how radically things had changed. Mind had become socialised. “We can’t change our minds without changing the world,” he said. Mind as a manmade extension became our environment, which he characterised as “the collective consciousness”, which we could tap into by creating “a global utilities network”. In some ways in 1964 and 1965 he was envisioning what would become the internet, long before the tools became available for its implementation.

Inspired also by Buckminster Fuller and others, I began to read avidly in the field of information theory, cybernetics and systems theory. I also seized the opportunity to become the first “McLuhanesque” consultant and producer and soon had a thriving business working with clients that included General Electric, Metromedia, Columbia Pictures, Scott Paper and the White House.

I wrote a synthesis of these ideas in my first book, By the Late John Brockman'(1969), taking information theory – the mathematical theory of communications – as a model for regarding all human experience. A main theme has continued to inform my work over the years: new technologies = new perceptions.

An incident from those years stands out. During an evening at dinner, Cage reached across the table and handed me a copy of Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. Fast forward two years. Around 1967, I spent two days with Stewart Brand while he was assembling the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog and we sat and read the book together, underlining as we went along. Central to our interest was the notion of “feedback”, the non-linear relationship of input to output. It was apparent that the ideas in cybernetic theory were far more important than the applications for which the mathematical descriptions were designed……………

JN In a way, the shadow of Marshall McLuhan looms over the conversation. Two of his aphorisms in particular – “The medium is the message” and “We shape our tools and later they shape us” – seem particularly apposite. The first captured the thought that what’s important about a medium is not the content of the messages it carries but what the medium is doing to those who use it.

That seemed to me to emerge from lots of the responses. And the meme about our tools shaping us surfaced again and again in the essays.

JB McLuhan is certainly central to this crowd and to the book. This is interesting because for more than a decade his name was barely mentioned. He certainly was an influence on me in terms of my intellectual development and career. In one typical conversation, he recounted his ideas on how psychoanalysis had gone the way of the gods and we were in a new realm where we were looking at the evolution of patterns and information. A lot has been written about the differences between atoms and bits, but the first time I heard it was from Marshall. For anyone who met him during the 60s, his manner and the way in which he presented himself were remarkable and never to be forgotten. Sitting down at lunch, you would be faced with machine gun-like expositions of facts and ideas ranging from medieval classical literature to arcane scientific matters concerning the aural space of the native North American Eskimos, the focus of the work of his collaborator Edmund Carpenter.

It was Carpenter who explained to me what he thought was the secret behind Marshall’s brilliance. At the time, McLuhan was hospitalised after being operated on for the removal of a brain tumour. “And all those years we thought about the brilliance and we thought it was just Marshall,” Ted said.

“But it was the pills he was taking for symptoms of what turned out to be the tumour.”

Read the full article & interview at

EdgeTo arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

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