When It Comes to Tough Problems, Do Ideas Really Matter?


ASPEN -- What's the point of college? Can you sum up your race in just six words? Do players, not owners, really own the game? These questions formed part of the procession of interesting provocations that graced the stage last night here at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

The opening ceremony runs quickly as a series of speakers are given three minutes a piece to deliver their biggest idea to the assembled crowd. The afternoon began with remarks from Sal Khan of the Khan Academy, an educational startup, about the real value of education and ended with President Obama's domestic policy advisor, Melody Barnes, and her call for more "impact investing."

The desire to create jobs served as the predictable backdrop for the occasion, and several speeches touched on the economy. But other things are happening in the world aside from an anemic recovery. Michel Martin and Michele Norris, both of NPR, delivered talks that spoke to the persistence of race in a post-Obama world. Not just race as a classification, but as a organizing principle for psychologies and societies.
The Ideas Report
We'll be serving up the details of all the solutions proposed for the world's big problems over the course of the week.

These problems can seem intractable, but as always, the mood was optimistic here in Aspen. It's easy to be cynical about that. Of course people at the Ideas Festival believe that ideas can change the world for the better. They are part of the nation's thinking class, after all, so mutually reinforcing the frame that minds, not money, push the world forward is an easy sell.

And it may be naive to expect that ideas can change the world or reverse the structural problems that face Detroit, the United States, or the world. But the country faced even tougher times when The Atlantic was founded in 1857. (Yes, believe it or not, I think about our founders and their mission every single day I open up Movable Type and start blogging.)

Back then, the horrible institution of slavery bitterly divided the country and war was on the horizon. Yet our founders created a magazine that was dedicated to the exploration of the American idea, not just as a means to abolish slavery -- though that was certainly part of the mission -- but as an end in itself. The answer to difficult circumstances isn't to bury our heads solely in economic or political details. We need a vision for what we're working towards, too. We need the type of animating idea that we sometimes call purpose.

Our own Jim Fallows tends to put things best and he did it again last night.

The American idea has never been more powerful and 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 and our realities reflect its limitations...

The actual work of American society -- the melding of peoples and nurturing of ideas, the creation of a style accepted as local by people in much of the world -- has only become more influential.

As of the latest rankings, nine of the top 10 most recognized and respected brands in the world, 16 of the top 20 are from the united States. The list starts with Apple, Google, IBM.

This is not about consumer gizmos or consumerism. It's about American institutions' success as arenas in which diverse people collaborate, innovate, and dream up products that are seen not just as one country's achievements, but the worlds...

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 ideal, are appealing in ways that they had not been before.

Aspen, for all the kneejerk snark that we can shower on a gathering of wealthy people in one of the most beautiful places in the world, is about shoring up that ideal. To bring it back down out of the mountains to the places where people live and work is up to us.

Image: Sal Khan. Alexis Madrigal/The Atlantic
What's your big idea? I'm wandering around Aspen looking for the most interesting ideas. Feel free to stop or tweet your ideas to @alexismadrigal.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. 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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