Digerati - Prologue

Digerati - Prologue

Edge Editor [10.1.96]



"Love Intermedia Kinetic Environments." John Brockman speaking ­ partly kidding, but conveying the notion that Intermedia Kinetic Environments are In in the places where the action is ­ an Experience, an Event, an Environment, a humming electric world." 

 The New York Times

Intermedia Kinetic Environment? What is that? A Java Applet? An new OS platform from Microsoft's Advanced Technology and Research Division? A 4-D VRML file format?

Not quite. The date was September 4, 1966. I was sitting on a park bench on Labor Day weekend in Easthampton, Long Island, reading about myself on the front page of The New York Times Sunday "Arts & Leisure Section." I was wondering if the article would get me fired from my job at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where I was producing "expanded cinema" events. I was twenty-five years old.

New and exciting ideas and forms of expression were in the air. They came out of happenings, the dance world, underground movies, avant-garde theater. They came from artists engaged in experiment. Intermedia consisted more often than not of nonscripted, sometimes spontaneous, theatrical events by artists in which the audience was also a participant.

I arrived at this spot after managing the Film-Makers' Cinematheque, the home for underground cinema in 1965, where my mandate had been to produce a festival that expanded the form of cinema. I commissioned thirty performance pieces by world class artists, dancers, poets, dramatists, and musicians. They were free to do anything they wanted, the only stipulation being that their piece incorporate cinema.

The result was the Expanded Cinema Festival, and it received major media attention. Within a year there were two Life covers and a New York Times Magazine cover on derivative works. Intermedia, the word I had coined and used as my logo, was hot. A number of legendary art world figures became interested in the genre. Some of the people I worked with during that period included visual artists Les Levine, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Robert Whitman; kinetic artists Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik; happenings artists Allan Kaprow and Carolee Schneemann; dancer Tricia Brown; filmmakers Jack Smith, Stan Vanderbeek, Ed Emshwiller, and the Kuchar brothers; avant-garde dramatist Ken Dewey; poet Gerd Stern and the USCO group; musicians Lamonte Young and Terry Riley; and through Warhol, the music group, The Velvet Underground.

One of the artists I got to know during the Festival 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 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 centered on the idea that we had gone beyond Freud's invention of the unconscious, and, for the first time, had rendered visible the conscious.

McLuhan turned me on to The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Bell Labs scientist Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which 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 theater, the ballet, and in fact all human behavior."

The composer John Cage had also picked up on this set of ideas. He convened weekly dinners during which he 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 externalized 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." Cage pointed out that we had to go beyond private and personal mind-sets and understand how radically things had changed. Mind had become socialized. "We can't change our minds without changing the world," he said. Mind as a man-made extension became our environment, which he characterized as "the collective consciousness," which we could tap into by creating "a global utilities network."

Inspired also by architect-designer Buckminster Fuller, futurist John McHale, and cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, I began to read avidly in the field of information theory, cybernetics, and systems theory.

During this period I also seized on 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, and Scott Paper.

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 that has continued to inform my work over the years: new technologies = new perceptions.

New technologies = new perceptions. Reality is a man-made process. Our images of our world and of ourselves are, in part, the models resulting from our perceptions of the technologies we generate as products.

Man creates tools and then molds himself in their image. Seventeenth-century clockworks inspired mechanistic metaphors ("the heart is a pump") just as mid-twentieth-century developments in self-regulating engineering devices resulted in the cybernetic image ("the brain is computer"), a disturbing idea to some people that is now considered almost passé.

Some people can't even bear to think about this new epistemology. It tears apart the fabric of our habitual thinking. Subject and object fuse. The individual self decreates. As Gregory Bateson noted, it is a world of pattern, of order, of resonances in which the individual mind is a subsystem of a larger order. Mind is intrinsic to the messages carried by the pathways within the larger system and intrinsic also in the pathways themselves. 

Key to this radical rebooting of our mindsets is the term information, which, in this scheme, refers to regulation and control and has nothing to do with meaning, ideas, or data. Bateson explained to me that "information is a difference that makes a difference." A raindrop that hits the ground behind you contains no information. The raindrop that hits you on the nose has information. Information is a measure of effect. Systems of control utilize information if and when they react to change to maintain continuity.

These ideas laid the groundwork for my thinking about the current communications revolution. If Newtonian physics taught us that it is the parts that matter, we now inhabit a universe that interacts infinitely with itself, where importance lies in the patterns that connect the parts. This becomes problematic because how can a system describe itself without generating a spiralling ladder of recursive mirrors?

The answer? "Nobody knows, and you can't find out." The description of the plane of language is the plane that holds our descriptions. Language becomes a commission, a dance, a play, a song.

With the Internet and the World Wide Web, we are creating a new extension of ourselves in much the same way as Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein pieced together his creation. Only this creation is not an anthropomorphic being that moves through accretive portions of space in time. It is instead, an emergent electronic beast of such proportions that we can only imagine its qualities, its dimensions.

Can it be ourselves?

Edward T. Hall once pointed out to me that the most significant, the most critical inventions of man were not those ever considered to be inventions, but those that appeared to be innate and natural. His candidate for the most important invention was not the capture of fire, not the printing press, not the discovery of electricity, not the discovery of the structure of DNA. Mankind's most important invention was...talking.

To illustrate the point, he told a story about a group of prehistoric cavemen having a conversation. 

"Guess what?" the first man said. "We're talking."

Silence. The others looked at him with suspicion.

"What's talking?" a second man asked.

"It's what we're all doing, right now. We're talking!"

"You're crazy," the third man replied. "I never heard of such a thing!"

"I'm not crazy," the first man said, you're crazy. We're talking."

Talking, undoubtedly, was considered to be innate and natural until the first man rendered it visible by exclaiming, "We're talking," a moment of great significance in the process of evolution.

A new invention has emerged, a code for the collective conscious. I call it "DNI," or "distributed networked intelligence."

DNI, distributed networked intelligence, is the collective externalized mind, the mind we all share. DNI is the infinite oscillation of our collective conscious interacting with itself, adding a fuller, richer dimension to what it means to be human.

I am the Internet. I am the World Wide Web. I am information. I am content.

It's not about computers. It's about human communication. 

"We're talking." 

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.