The Uncouth Question at Aspen: Are Americans Smart or Dumb?

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In the terraced and dim Aspen music club, the Belly Up, Strauss Zelnick, media impresario, noted during Tuesday night's panel on social media and journalism that his job as a businessman has never been easier.

"It's never been easier or cheaper for me to market." Thanks to social media, Zelnick said, he can spend $2 million marketing a game like Red Dead Redemption instead of $24 million buying ads in the New York Times and on CBS. And fewer journalists doing less journalism, he noted, makes it easier for unscrupulous types to deceive people. 

Vivian Schiller, NPR's CEO, responded, "I think you underestimate the intelligence of the American public." 

Almost reflexively -- and for the first and only time of the night -- the crowd erupted with laughter, hisses, boos, and "oohs." 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, at least that group of Ideas Festival attendees didn't think the American public was quite so smart. 

Was it a nasty show of elitism? Maybe. But I've been in plenty of less privileged places and heard the same sorts of hoots when a solid belief in the smarts of our citizenry is expressed. 

It got me wondering: in the least nuanced way possible, do you think the American people are Wall-E idiots or underrated intellects? And is your view specific to Americans, or part of your more general view of human nature? On what evidence do you condemn or uphold the intelligence of a 350 million person nation? 

Image: The night's panel from left to right: David Kirkpatrick, Vivian Schiller, Charles Firestone, Arianna Huffington, and Strauss Zelnick. Credit: Alexis Madrigal.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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