The Spreading of 'The Aspen Idea'

Alexis C. Madrigal

In the late 1970s, a group of MIT nerds in the Architecture Machine Group came to Aspen with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Cybernetics Technology Office. They mounted four 16mm cameras on top of a car and drove carefully down every street in the city, snapping photos every 10 feet. The photos were catalogued and assembled into a kind of virtual Aspen, which you could navigate using the then-brand new technology of the laserdisc. While the military thought the process, called moviemapping, might help in virtual wargaming, its creators, many of whom went on to work in Nicholas Negroponte's famous MIT Media Lab, imagined that "surrogate travel" through this city perched at 8,500 feet in the Rockies might one day be a new form of leisure.  

The pioneering experiment in interactive computing and virtual environments was another in a string of attempts reaching back to the 1950s to bring a bit of the city to the world. 

Aspen itself has often seemed like an idea worth spreading

Today, another virtual attempt to spread Aspen around kicks off: the sixth edition of the Aspen Ideas Festival, sponsored by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, will run all week on a beautiful campus in the shadow of Red Mountain. Bringing together more than 300 luminaries to discuss the biggest issues of our time, sessions from the Ideas Festival will be blogged here and elsewhere, Tweeted with the hashtag #aif2010, and occasionally livestreamed. There's even a mobile app.

Taking place in a town with some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and with tickets coming at the cost of a used car, the Ideas Festival raises the same question that the moviemapping anecdote does: what's so special about this place? Why Aspen? 

"Because it was Aspen," remarked Michael Naimark, who directed cinematography for the MIT project, "an intensely beautiful mountain town with a single traffic light and a lively local community. Why fib? Aspen was a cool place and we all wanted to go." People wanted -- and still want -- to know what happens in this rarefied air. 

If you run up the switchbacking road out of town and up Red Mountain, you get a tremendous look out across the valley in which Aspen is nestled, the ski runs for which it's famous, and the huge sky that presides over all. It's easy to believe that it is a property of the soil, the terroir of Aspen, or its convenient proximity to the heavens, that has given the town such grand aspirations. Even the thunderstorms that blow through the valley seem meant for deep contemplation: the setting western sun tends to give even the darkest clouds a bright silver lining. By the end of any (possibly altitude-sickness-induced) Aspen reverie, it almost seems natural that this tiny piece of non-coastal America would receive former presidents, media moguls, and generals.
But, of course, it's not. Aspen's intellectual climate -- what became known as "the Aspen idea" -- was shaped by one energetic and wealthy couple: Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. To the humble post-mining town, the Paepckes brought tons of Chicago money and a peculiar dedication to ideas to the Roaring Fork Valley. Beginning in 1949 with a 20-day long celebration of Goethe, the Paepckes set about making Aspen a place with a mission statement. They founded institution after institution dedicated to the life of the mind: The Aspen Institute, The Aspen Music Festival and School, and International Design Conference in Aspen

Walter Paepcke saw his goal as cultivating the mind of the American businessperson. In 1955, he went on CBS News to say, "It's been said that the average American businessman is so busy with the urgent that he never has time for the important... He runs a good business, but he has a little bit of trouble deciding what are the important things in life, what he believes in, and why he believes it." 

In the aftermath of World War II and in a newly superaffluent America, Paepcke and his Chicago humanist cohort wanted to heal the world by educating its elite. Aspen's various activities were like a supercharged TED before there was a TED. (For the full story, check out historian James Sloan Allen's book on the birth and importance of Aspen, The Romance of Commerce and Culture.) 

And so it continues today. The Institute soldiers on with its almost quaint-feeling mission to promote human beings (even corporate bigwigs) acting like decent people. Meanwhile, the very technologies and structural trends that were just coming together in that Aspen Moviemap project have accelerated the decline of the generation of institutions that were birthed after World War II. Newspapers are failing. Congress is reaching mid-19th century levels of rancor. Fears of a double-dip recession loom. Even the preferred post-war form of housing, the suburban development, which bloomed over an area the size of Rhode Island every year after the war for decades, are seeming like a societal cul-de-sac in the age of "tough oil." 

The Institute's response to the rather distressing state of the world is, as always, to call attention to humanity's bases of understanding. Integrity and ideas can hold the line against the more destructive forces at work in this country.

"With vitriol, spin, sound-bites, fact-free arguments, and a media landscape more characterized by speed and entertainment than depth and candor, it is easy to lose sight of some basic truths: that we all have much more in common than not and that we have formidable challenges that we can only meet collectively," wrote Elliot Gerson, the institute's executive vice president, to open the Ideas Festival catalog. 

Over the next week, I'll be covering how well this year's Ideas Festival lives up to its lofty goals. And I'll be helping out, too: I'm moderating two panels during the week. You can follow me on Twitter at @alexismadrigal, and I'll have posts, videos, and slideshows here on the Ideas blog. 

And in case you're wondering at the new byline: this is my first official day as a senior editor here at After this week, you can expect me to cover technology, mostly, and how it's shaping our world. 

Images: 1. The Aspen Moviemap playing at MIT/Bob Mohl. 2. A panorama of Aspen's idyllic setting/Alexis Madrigal.

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