Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival 1

I’m in Aspen for the Ideas Festival. I’ll write a daily note, updated now and then, on things that strike me as interesting.

One thing that already keeps coming up—in this environment rich in high-tech executives and entrepreneurs—is the unfathomable bone-headedness of a US immigration policy that discriminates against the skilled. Intel’s Craig Barrett railed against this at a session last night and University of Maryland’s Dan Mote picked the theme up again this morning. What other country, Dan asked, deports its freshly minted science PhDs? Every PhD should come with a green card attached, he said.

A session featuring Sean Wilentz on his new book about the Age of Reagan disappointed me. I wanted to know how a card-carrying liberal commentator came to conclude that Reagan was a great president. He dealt with this perfunctorily at the beginning—saying (a bit oddly, I thought) that he wrote the book as a historian, thus using only a part of his brain, and setting his prejudices to one side. Are we to conclude that he writes his political commentary with the other part of his brain, letting his prejudices rip and suppressing his sense of historical detachment and disinterestedness? Anyway, I came away with no sense at all of why he thought Reagan was a great president despite (on Wilentz’s view) being wrong about most things.

A session on “Where will the next technological breakthroughs come from?”, featuring the aforementioned Dan Mote, was valuable even though the panel ignored that interesting question entirely. The brilliant Danny Hillis (pioneer of parallel processing) described three levels of innovation: building blocks (lasers, microprocessors), products that bundle them together (iPods, etc), and adaptation to innovations of the second kind (think of the way the telephone transformed business and society). Intriguing to think of the third level as itself a kind of innovation. America has great strengths in this area of adaptation—a flexible and relatively lightly regulated economy, an ability to reinvent itself—but perhaps some weaknesses too, at least as compared with rising Asia. Installed infrastructure can make adaptation difficult. In some ways it helps to have a blank slate—the better to leapfrog a technology (think of the way rural India and Africa are moving directly from no phones to cellphones).

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