Clare Haney of our sister publication, Software Futures reviews a book of ‘interviews’ with some of the computer industry’s leading lights.
John Brockman is a New York-based literary agent with an interest in the scientific, and the contacts to go with it. In between clients, he’s written quite a few of his own books. In The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution,for instance, a kind of answer to C.P Snow’s famous 1950s essay The Two Cultures, Brockman sought the opinions of such scientific luminaries as Marvin Minsky, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and Stuart Kauffman on the latest theories, an argued that science, rather than literature or philosophy, had now taken center stage in the debate over human nature and the nature of the universe. In his latest tome, Digerati: Encounters With The Cyber Elite, Brockman again raids his Rolodex, but this time moves away from the big questions to concentrate on the computer industry. The book is high on style and delights in an idiosyncratic layout and chapter headings. For example, all the computer industry luminaries ‘interviewed’ are given their very own titles. So, Microsoft Corp’s Bill Gates is labelled ‘The Software Developer’ and Sun Microsystems Inc’s Scott McNealy is ‘The Competitor’, while Internet rights activist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation John Perry Barlow is derogatorily known as ‘The Coyote.’
In case, you’re wondering, author Brockman styles himself as ‘The Connector’. Not only that, but each ‘interview’ is topped and tailed by comments, not always complimentary, about the interviewee by their fellow ‘Digerati’. Brockman defines the Digerati as a group of people who are re-inventing culture and civilization. Also, almost all of these people are Brockman’s friends, or at the very least, he works with them professionally. John Brockman has an uncanny way of knowing people who know something important, and a talent for putting those people together claims a blurb on the dust-jacket. That results in a fair amount of self-indulgence, particularly the introductions in each section to the interviewee. And watch out for some not quite accurate ‘facts’. For example, Thinking Machines Corp still exists as a company and Borland International Inc, though in bad shape, is still very much an independent entity, thank you very much. But it’s not as though you weren’t warned about the kind of the book Digerati is. To his credit, Brockman issues a kind of disclaimer in his Note To Readers at the start of the book, where he explains, This is not a general survey or a work of journalism, but rather an oral presentation of a culture. The book is an exhibition of this new community in action, communicating their ideas to the public and to each other. You may have noticed the way we’ve been using quote marks around the word ‘interview’: that’s because the author admits to having taken editorial license in creating a written narrative in the voices of the digerati from my videotape. In fact, he goes on to add that There is no intention that the following chapters in any way represent the participants’ writing. For that, read their books and articles. So, why bother reading Digerati at all? Maybe, precisely because it may incense you. By the way, if you feel like quizzing the ‘Cyber Elite’ on a particular topic, check out their virtual discussion roundtable at the Web site https://www.edge.org/. Actually, the book does suffer from presenting all its characters’ views in isolation – a debate section would’ve been a terrific idea. Well, perhaps that will form the basis of Brockman’s new book. Mostly, you should invest in a copy of Digerati, because you’ll find yourself wildly alternating from nodding sagely in response to various passages to grabbing your pen and fiercely annotating some comment that seems completely off the wall about the Internet and its likely effect on our daily lives. There’s some great stuff in the book – whether the participants actually said it or not! Take this from Denis
e Caruso, ‘The Idealist,’ New York Times columnist, talking about Spotlight, the annual conference she organises for interactive media industry executives. I’m trying very hard to build a community in this industry, even though it’s in the middle of a tornado, which is kind of how I see the Web and interactive media in general right now – a lot of hot wind and a high likelihood that when things settle down, the wreckage that’s left won’t be pretty.
And how about this comment on Bill Gates from David Gelernter, ‘The Conservative,’ a Yale University computer scientist specializing in the field of third generation artificial intelligence and author of the parallel programming language Linda. I have a feeling that Bill Gates is unsatisfied by who he is. When I read his book, The Road Ahead [since revised to include the Internet! – Ed], I was reminded of Marilyn Monroe and her need to marry intellectuals; she felt she needed to switch identities in order to get the respect she deserved, but she didn’t, or at any rate shouldn’t have. I wish Gates had written a book about business instead of the future of technology. We would all have learned a lot. As a businessman, Gates is a phenomenon and an original. What’s wrong with that? That’s a remarkable thing to be. As a technology visionary, he does nothing for me. Well, until that seminal book on business from Bill Gates hits the streets, you could well find Brockman’s Digerati an absorbing if simultaneously irritating read.
Digerati: Encounters With The Cyber Elite, John Brockman, HardWired 1996, ISBN 1-888869-04-6, $24.95.