Jeez, I’m beginning to have some sympathy for all those people tangled up in the Epstein mess — that man inveigled himself into the New York science scene rather deeply, and I was tangentially involved with another character who was the recipient of Epstein’s beneficence. John Brockman was my agent, too. I published in a few of his annual question books, he got me a good advance on The Happy Atheist, I met him a few times in his office, he was always professional and cordial. He is a terrific agent. But also…
John is also the president, founder, and chief impresario of the Edge Foundation, which has earned a stellar reputation as an eclectic platform for conversations that involve scientists, artists, and technologists. There is more than one Edge Foundation, though: There is the one meant for public consumption, with its “annual question”—e.g. “What are you optimistic about?”—answered by famous intellectuals and thinkers; and one meant for private consumption by members of Brockman’s elite network. The former exists primarily online. The latter has a vibrant real-life component, with sumptuous dinners, exclusive conferences, and quite a bit of travel on private jets—it functions as an elaborate massage of the ego (and, apparently, much else) for the rich, the smart, and the powerful.
Over the course of my research into the history of digital culture, I’ve got to know quite a lot about John’s role in shaping the digital—and especially the intellectual—world that we live in. I’ve examined and scanned many of his letters in the archives of famous men (and they are mostly men), such as Marshall McLuhan, Stewart Brand, and Gregory Bateson. He is no mere literary agent; he is a true “organic intellectual” of the digital revolution, shaping trends rather than responding to them. Would the MIT Media Lab, TED Conferences, and Wired have the clout and the intellectual orientation that they have now without the extensive network cultivated by Brockman over decades? I, for one, very much doubt it.
Lately, John has been in the news for other reasons, namely because of his troubling connections to Jeffrey Epstein, the so-called financier who reportedly hanged himself earlier this month while facing federal charges of sex-trafficking. Epstein participated in the Edge Foundation’s annual questions, and attended its “billionaires’ dinners.” Brockman may also be the reason why so many prominent academics—from Steven Pinker to Daniel Dennett—have found themselves answering awkward questions about their associations with Epstein; they are clients of Brockman’s. Marvin Minsky, the prominent MIT scientist who surfaced as one of Epstein’s island buddies? A client of Brockman’s. Joi Ito, the director of the elite research facility MIT Media Lab, who has recently acknowledged extensive ties to Epstein? Also, a client of Brockman’s.
I was briefly part of the “public consumption” side (my alienation from his good buddy Richard Dawkins explains the “brief” part, I think), but was never invited to those “billionaire’s dinners”. Darn. I probably missed out on a chance to be photographed with Epstein.
Brockman and Epstein were deeply entangled, though.
A close analysis of Edge Foundation’s (publicly available) financial statements suggests that, between 2001 and 2015, it has received $638,000 from Epstein’s various foundations. In many of those years, Epstein was Edge’s sole donor. Yet, how many of Edge’s contributors—let alone readers—knew Epstein played so large a role in the organization?
At least one author is now distancing himself from the Brockman agency.
Yet, I am ready to pull the plug on my association with Brockman’s agency—and would encourage other authors to consider doing the same—until and unless he clarifies the relationship between him, the Edge Foundation, and Epstein. If such an explanation is not forthcoming, many of us will have to decide whether we would like to be part of this odd intellectual club located on the dubious continuum between the seminar room and a sex-trafficking ring.
Excessive networking, it appears, devours its own. Brockman is already many months too late to what he should have done much earlier: close down the Edge Foundation, publicly repent, retire, and turn Brockman Inc. into yet another banal literary agency. The kind where authors do not have to mingle with billionaires at fancy dinners or worry about walking in on Prince Andrew getting his foot massage. The un-network.
Well, to me it was always another “banal literary agency”, just a very good one.