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Denis Dutton, Founder of Arts & Letters Daily, RIP

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Denis Dutton, the founder of Arts & Letters Daily and one of the first people to fully demonstrate the power of the World Wide Web as medium for serious intellectual exchange, has died. Born in California in 1944, he had a long and distinguished career as a philosophy professor at New Zealand's Canterbury University, whose faculty he joined in 1984.

As the editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, he castigated obscurantist prose among intellectuals and, more influentially, championed the use of insights from evolution in literary and cultural studies. His 2009 book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, was his fullest and most extended argument along those lines. The growing interest in such truly interdisciplinary work owes a huge debt to his scholarship and support over the years. Whenever Darwin and Dickens are mentioned in the same sentence—and they will be increasingly—Denis will be in the room in spirit. He had a great sense of the absurd too, which he displayed on a memorable Colbert Report appearance to discuss The Art Instinct.

Founded in 1998, Arts & Letters Daily was one of the first great aggregator sites, pulling together reviews, essays, studies, op-eds, and more from a vast array of sources that had suddenly become available at the click of a mouse. Only a dozen years on, it's hard to remember the excitement that such developments brought to those of us (read: all of us) who had been starved for content in ways that we didn't even understand. Back in 1994, Reason Editor in Chief Virginia Postrel surveyed the coming age of info-plenty and dubbed it "The Age of the Editor." More information, she argued, was going to drive the need for good editors—folks who could sift through the gush of material and deliver quality connections—through the roof. As important, she stressed that we were going to need new meeting places that crossed all sorts of firmly established lines.

Abundance of information and media creates a role for bridges between subcultures. Indeed, one of my most important roles as editor of Reason is to act as a translator among at least four wildly different subcultures: the various policy establishments of Washington; the economists, political scientists, historians, and natural scientists of the academy; the small business owners of middle America; and the techies of Silicon Valley and cyberspace. In other words, Reason is the place where the readers of The New Republic,The Journal of Economic LiteratureScienceInc., and Wired find common ground.

And Arts & Letter Daily was where the world went to find common ground and hear a good argument or 10. Denis and his original crew of grad students and other helpers sifted through all the Web had to offer and, day after day, posted interesting material from folks on the right, the left, and, most memorably for those of us at Reason, from that once-small portion of political spectrum reserved for libertarians. There were days when a link at Arts & Letters not only put the author on a cloud for the rest of the day (you knew you were being read by folks who otherwise never would have heard of you, your publication, or your crazy ideas) but would crash our servers with traffic.

Arts & Letters was later joined by other sites such Scitech Daily which similarly created and fueled conversations that were once impossible to have; in 1999, the Chronicle of Higher Education bought it but wisely kept Denis at the rudder.

In effect, Denis created the world's greatest coffee house and magazine rack, a place where interested customers could dawdle all day while reading an endless stream of fascinating material pulled from the far edges of the galaxy. His personal site was more idiosyncratic but brilliantly showcases the mind of a man who made the world a vastly richer, smarter, more interesting place.

He'll be missed but maybe more important, he'll be remembered every time someone points her browser to aldaily.com.

Update: Virginia Postrel interviewed Dutton for a 1999 column she wrote for Forbes ASAP. It's well worth reading (as is everything Virginia writes), especially as it reminds us all where our current taken-for-granted Web-based plenitude comes from. Here's a snippet (and note the old URL for ALDaily!):

"People used to say that the great thing about the Internet was that it had no gatekeepers. They were right, of course, except that the worst thing about the Internet is also that there are no gatekeepers," says one such boutique operator, Denis Dutton of Arts & Letters Daily (www.cybereditions.com/aldaily). "The wired world needs good editors more than ever!"

Founded in October 1998, A&L Daily combines an elegantly simple interface—the site includes just a home page, two pages of archived links, and a couple of info pages—with interesting writing. Dutton and three editors scour the Web and link to three new articles a day. Each piece gets a provocative blurb to draw in readers. The home page also lists publications, news services, "amusements," and other resources for people who want to do their own scouting. Most of the articles come from well-edited magazines and newspapers, whose staffs and regular audiences are usually much larger than A&L's.

Whole col here.

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29 responses to “Denis Dutton, Founder of Arts & Letters Daily, RIP

  1. As the editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, he castigated obscurantist prose among intellectuals

    This is enough to make him a hero.

  2. psst!

    smarter

  3. Tag fail. That’s what I get…

  4. The force behind what might be the best site EVER is gone…

  5. The world has lost a great and open mind. RIP Denis Dutton.

  6. I’ve been going to that site off and on for many years. Long enough that I feared what The Chronicle of Higher Education would do to it. Not much, as it turned out, which was a good thing.

  7. I believe he was also behind climatedebatedaily.com

  8. I always wondered what happened to the the dad

  9. I liked the selection of articles, but I LOVED the brief descriptions of the links that highlighted the most interesting quote or summarized the author’s main point, often better than the author himself could.

  10. RIP Prof Dutton. A&L Daily was a delight.

  11. I’ve been an aldaily fan since I got on the internet 10 years ago. It is pure mindfucking pleasure!

  12. Perhaps more to the point, Denis Dutton was a key figure in libertarian intellectual circles in New Zealand, such as they are (although he was never involved in actual politics).

  13. That’s not really more to the point, Kiwi. The point is that he left the world a richer place. Politics need not be a part of that observation.

    1. Interesting to know, though. Even today, one of the links is to a CATO piece by Matt Ridley. Of course, there are plenty of others to articles written by people of all political views.

      In any event, RIP Mr. Dutton. Thanks for leaving the world a slightly richer place.

    2. Quite right, that’s not what I meant – of course he was far more significant as a person and for his attachment and contributions to human knowledge than for his politics; rather I meant that his libertarian leanings are particularly relevant to readers of this site.

      1. Fair enough. I didn’t think we actually disagreed.

  14. one of the first people to fully demonstrate the power of the World Wide Web as medium for serious intellectual exchange

    No comment.

  15. I found Reason.com via an article on A&L Daily sometime in 2003. Thank you Denis Dutton.

  16. I’ve been a fan of aldaily.com since the late 90s. Still read it regularly. I hope the tone of the content doesn’t change now that Dutton has left us.

  17. Denis actually knew Reason from its very earliest days. He was in grad school at UCSB with Tibor Machan.

  18. Dennis was a friend and a good man. He was, as pointed out, a good libertarian as well. The last time I saw him was visiting his office with a friend who was horrified at my views on population. My friend informed me that Dennis would set me straight. Dennis listened to my friends description of our positions (mine and his) and then nodded and told him he agreed with me. It was a delightful shock (delightful for me and a shock for my friend). It really did shake up my friend that day as he was so sure that Dennis would back up his Erhlich-like fear. This was quite shocking. I visit the websites often but had not heard he was ill. This is very sad.

  19. Time has taken another step away from the renaissance with his passing.

  20. A truly tragic loss. The World has just lost one of the most intelligent, open minds one hopes still exist. One of the few giants among the oceans of insipid, mediocre intellectuals who infest academia and the Web these days.

    Vale Prof. Dutton.

  21. Tragic. ALdaily is still the best… and conspicously even handed as far as politics go. The academic ideal in practice.

    Thank you Denis Dutton!!!

  22. As Paul Harvey used to say, Someone will take his job; no one will take his place. Glad to know that the site will continue.

  23. There but for the grace of God go I

  24. A&L daily has been my homepage for the past 7 years. I have never been disappointed by the wealth of stimulating, thought provoking and polemical reading it offers. It is the best of the best of websites. Thank you Mr.Dennis Dutton. Your great idea will live on.

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