Exploring the edge

by New Idiom

What's Your Dangerous Idea book cover

A couple years ago I surfed upon a strange little publication called Edge.org. Edge is both a non-profit organization and a publication, organized by “literary impresario” John Brockman, a literary agent who represents more of the world’s leading scientists, philosophers, artists and cutting edge thinkers than probably anyone else. The ostensible mission of Edge is to promote the existence of a “third culture” of thought between the historically separate sciences and the arts communities:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

Later in the mission statement, Brockman writes

The wide appeal of third-culture thinkers is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called “science” has today become “public culture.” Stewart Brand writes that “Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he- said- she- said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.” We now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change. Science has thus become a big story.

In addition to publications they hold conferences and symposia, and post a lot of the video.

So why should designers care? As designers we are the ultimate generalists, sitting at the chaotic intersection between business, culture, society, technology, and science. Good design requires a lot of specialized skills, but great design requires these and much more: an awareness of all those intersecting disciplines, and how they relate to and can help each other.

Since 1998, every year on January 1st Brockman asks all 200+ people in his network to answer, usually in less than 200 words, a single provocative question. The World Annual Question for 2008 was “What have you changed your mind about and why?” The past few years’ questions and answers have been published in print, including “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”, “What is your dangerous idea?”, and, probably the most well-publicized, “What are you optimistic about?”

Among the contributors for World Question 2008 are many who will be familiar to designers and “planners of the new” — Chris Anderson (of WIRED), Stewart Brand, Nicholas Carr, Esther Dyson, Ray Kurzweil, Tim O’Reilly, Paul Saffo, Peter Schwartz, Craig Venter. The other 150 you may not have heard of, but all are people whose work, past or future, will affect us all.

Reading Edge is like stepping out of a well-insulated cave of human-centered speculation and seeing, with invigorating clarity, what’s going on in the world of science, technology and human understanding. This cannot be anything but useful for tomorrow’s design and innovation leaders.

In some future issues, I’ll try to review some of the more provocative specific articles and thoughts coming out of Edge. In the meantime, I urge you to subscribe to the e-mail digest. They send an e-mail about once a month (no RSS as of yet); easy to ignore if you’re busy, but if something interesting to you comes along and you have a few minutes, it is always a fascinating read.