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 Literature, Science, Inc., 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.