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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.

Comments

  1. thirdmill says

    I’ve been thinking a lot about all of these Epstein’s tainted money threads, and I have a question: Given the nature of capitalism, probably most money is tainted, at least if you trace it back far enough. Tax dollars come from corporations that do horrific things. Most large scale philanthropy comes from the uber rich, who either did horrific things to become the super rich or are the heirs of those that did. Even the tools used to acquire money were often made through slave or child labor in third world countries. I just looked, and the shirt I’m wearing has a tag that says “Made in Bangladesh”, which means there’s a good chance it was made by child labor in deplorable conditions at starvation wages.

    So yes, Jeff Epstein was pretty awful, but was he awful in such a way that taking his money becomes odious in a way that taking other tainted money does not? Where exactly does one draw the line?

    I’m reminded of the story of the head of a Christian charity that took money from bootleggers during Prohibition. When he was criticized for taking “the devil’s money”, his response was, “I think that money has belonged to the devil long enough.” I’m not entirely satisfied with that response, but he does have a point.

  2. PaulBC says

    I am increasingly tired of rich people getting away with shit. I’m pretty suspicious at this point of any “celebrity academic.” Considering yourself part of an elite is mentally corrosive.

  3. leerudolph says

    Would the MIT Media Lab, TED Conferences, and Wired have the clout and the intellectual orientation that they have now

    I’ve tended (with increasing dubiety) to give the Media Lab a pass since its beginning (because I had had a glancing relationship with the AI Lab when I was a mathematics Ph.D. student at MIT at the very beginning of the 1970s—my first journal publication was as a coauthor of the first public airing of “Turtle Geometry”, I got summer money for helping to write the first LOGO manual, Seymour Papert wrote me a recommendation letter when I was applying for academic jobs [which I got], and I may even have exchanged a few words with Marvin Minksy). But surely “intellectual orientation” has never been appropriately applied to either Wired or TED Conferences (for all their, sadly real, “clout”)!

  4. PaulBC says

    thirdmill@1

    So yes, Jeff Epstein was pretty awful, but was he awful in such a way that taking his money becomes odious in a way that taking other tainted money does not? Where exactly does one draw the line?

    Taking his money might be no different than taking anyone else’s money. I think the corrupting part is making contacts through his organization and accepting invitations to special events–not for the illicit part, but just to leverage your network. Yes, we’re all complicit in the evils of capitalism and imperialism, but when you start basking in it, it goes from acknowledging the existence of privilege to internalizing the idea that you really are superior to those who don’t have as much.

    It’s just the old idea of selling out, I suppose. I’m not even thinking in terms of the ethics. I just find it disgusting.

  5. anthrosciguy says

    It’s like military contracts in the USA, with the spending spread out over as many congressional districts as possible. Some recipients will be corrupt, some won’t, but the key is getting enough of them to hesitate before denouncing the project. Then the corrupt ones have a shot at winning. So I think the answer is to try not to get roped in (which might not be possible because you might get roped in before you learn it’s corrupted money) and if you’re already in when you learn about it just speak out anyway.

  6. robro says

    It’s possible that people who received donations from Epstein didn’t know about his offenses. Even his 2008 guilty plea in Palm Beach county was not widely known. The whole point of Accosta’s deal for him was to keep it on the down low. I stumbled on that accidentally while looking into some of the campaign finance connections between the Trump organization and the Florida AG in 2016. Accosta’s name came up, his possible position in a Trump administration, and then his role in getting a serial child sex offender a sweet deal with the Florida AG’s office. However, when I read that public personalities made winking allusions to Epstein liking young women and often having them around him, I found it difficult to believe these people didn’t know what was going on even if they weren’t part of the party.

  7. sdeinbinder says

    It seems that all of the academics and allied professionals involved are men. Didn’t anyone notice that women (well, women who were academics and professionals, at least) were not invited?

  8. leerudolph says

    sdeinbinder@7: “Didn’t anyone notice that women (well, women who were academics and professionals, at least) were not invited?”

    It’s amazing how hard it can be to notice the absence of something that you barely notice when it’s present…

  9. JustaTech says

    leerudolph@3: I love LOGOwriter! Best intro to programming ever written.
    Thanks for making my childhood awesome!

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