Cheap Chic at Aspen

As Jeffrey Goldberg and Alexis Madrigal have reported, an Atlantic contingent is in Aspen this week for our annual Ideas Festival. More on the topic from me as time, event-obligations, and thin air permit; meanwhile Atlantic updates here and on Twitter at #AspenIdeas.

Whole different topic for the moment. This morning I was on a panel with the legal luminaries Jeffrey Rosen, Jonathan Zittrain, and Lawrence Lessig, moderated by Richard Wilhelm (formerly of the NSA, now Booz Allen Hamilton). The topic was "Freedom of the Press in the Age of Wikileaks," etc.

Lessig was sitting to my immediate left, and he started to laugh as he looked at my wrist. What he saw is below, photographed just now after I took it off. (Not that easy, I discover, to take an acceptable picture of a watch while you're wearing it.)


Yes, it's my beloved $25 Timex Indiglo watch, model T20041, the kind I have sworn by for years. It's known by its big black numbers, its faux silvery case, its red second-hand, and its elegant brown pleather strap. I love this watch because it's easy to read in the day; because it lights up (gently) at night, if you push the stem button; and because I can buy backups in bulk, so that I never have to worry if I lose a watch or leave it in the car or in the pocket of my other coat or on my desk. I have an inventory of three or four in various places and reorder when the stock runs low.

Lessig pointed at my watch with his right hand, brought his left hand over to show that he was wearing the identical model, and said, "I've got twenty of 'em at home." He explained that his watch philosophy was the same as mine -- if carried out with a more thorough backup-in-depth policy.

By similar accident I found out recently that the Atlantic's deputy editor Scott Stossel has come to the same conclusion about the ideal watch. I therefore declare this a trend: the official watch of Aspen and the Atlantic. (Maybe.) Even though I see that the price has now shockingly risen to $28.43.

Now, back to "Ideas": At the opening session yesterday, ten people each presented a nominee for a Big Idea, with a no-exceptions time limit of three minutes on stage. My nominee(s) after the jump.

J. Fallows "Idea" candidate, Aspen opening session:

 >>   My Big Idea is a Bonus Idea. Or a different idea from what I presented in the current "Ideas" issue of our magazine.

    I stand behind that idea - that the Next War Will Be Digitized - and explain in the magazine why it counts as an "idea," not a mere downer comment. Some misfortunes and threats to national wellbeing are strictly that, misfortunes - unpreventable, and no one's fault. The lament about Mexico's fate attributed to Porfirio Diaz - "so far from God, so close to the United States" - describes a misfortune. So too with Poland's unlucky placement in the flatlands between Russia and Germany.

    The more interesting, threatening "tragedies" are, of course, the vulnerabilities that arise directly from strengths. The open, absorptive, unmonitored nature of Western societies is their - our -- greatest long-term asset, but it's been considered our vulnerability during the age of terrorist attacks and the resulting Great Fearfulness. Exactly the same tension applies to the version of society now being created in the internet cloud. The borderless, omni-accessible, un-sheriffed availability of the cloud is why is so valuable, and so constantly under attack. This Big Idea winds up with the challenge: that we do a better job in the virtual world of preserving an open system's virtues, while dealing with threats, than we have done in the material world.

    And now here is the Bonus Idea, which I add because of several recent trips outside the country. It is that the American idea has never been more powerful, yet rarely more in need of shoring up.

    Of course the American Idea has always been our glorious burden. Our ideals reflect humanity's hopes; our realities reveal its limitations. I cannot remember a time when the country's standing in the world was not rocketing wildly up and down - up with pizazz of the Kennedys and moral standing of King, down with their deaths, up and down with all our wars and scandals, up with the booms of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s and down with all the subsequent busts, up and down with each new political start and each familiar political disappointment.

    Yet day by day the actual work of American society - the melding of peoples and nurturing of ideas and creation of a style soon accepted as local in much of the world - has only become more influential. As of the latest rankings, nine of the ten most recognized and respected brands in the world, 16 of the top 20, were from the United States, a list starting with Apple, Google, IBM. This is not about consumer gizmos or consumerism; it is about American institutions' success as arenas in which diverse people collaborate, innovate, dream of products seen not as one country's but the world's. Our great universities are the world's great learning institutions. The main counterpart big idea, from China, is staggering in its material output but less appealing as a rival vision these past few months than it has been in years.

    We know our problems - governance, inequality, polarization, stagnation. The big idea is that it's worth addressing them, because our system -- battered, fractious, unworthy, struggling -- and our idea are appealing in ways they had not been before.<<

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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