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."
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 TheAtlantic.com. 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.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
Four hours after learning about Saturday's devastating earthquake in Nepal, I received a Facebook notification I had never seen before: Sonia, a journalist friend based in northern India, was "marked safe." An hour later, the same notification about a different friend popped up. Then another. Soon, several of my friends wrote that they, too, had learned via this strange new notification that their friends in Nepal were okay.
A few hours later, the mystery was solved. On Saturday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on his timeline that the notifications came from Safety Check, a service the company launched last fall. "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe," he wrote, "It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters."
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Lots of conservatives talk a good game about how citizens should resist federal control and devolve power to local governments. Few of them are willing to put their convictions into action in quite the same way that Sheriff Joe Arpaio is.
The man who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff" was already in trouble with Uncle Sam, on trial for contempt of court in a U.S. district court. It was only once that was under way that Arpaio and his lawyer apparently had the idea to sic a private investigator on the wife of the federal judge hearing his case. That shows toughness. It shows a willingness to use unorthodox tactics to resist federal interference. It's also not especially bright.
Reporters in the courtroom describe a somewhat shocking scene. Lawyers had completed their questioning when Judge Murray Snow announced he had some questions for Arpaio. After a series of queries, Snow asked: "Are you aware that I've been investigated by anyone?"
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a prime-time interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how they shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his gender identity.
During the interview, Sawyer made a conspicuous point of discussing broadly unfamiliar ideas about gender and sexuality to its audience. It didn't always go smoothly; her questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf. But she showed no lack of empathy.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 1,100 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
Our patient—we’ll call him W.B.—is a 56-year-old father of three who, until last year, had always been healthy. He had worked his entire life, in jobs ranging from automotive repair to sales, taking great pride in providing for his family, even though doing so had recently meant combining three part-time positions. All of that ended in February 2014, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness, ALS leads to the loss of all voluntary movement, difficulty breathing, and, in the end, death.
W.B.’s life was turned upside down by the diagnosis. But once the initial shock passed, he began researching his condition intensively. He learned that he was unlikely to survive five years, and that in the meantime his quality of life would diminish dramatically. With limited options, many patients retreat. But, quite bravely, W.B. had other ideas. After much consideration, he decided that if he was going to die, he would like to try to save another person’s life in the process, even if that person was a stranger. And so last May he approached the University of Wisconsin’s transplant program, where we are surgeons, as a prospective organ donor.
There is a tendency, when examining police shootings, to focus on tactics at the expense of strategy. One interrogates the actions of the officer in the moment trying to discern their mind-state. We ask ourselves, "Were they justified in shooting?" But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, "Were we justified in sending them?" At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one's children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can't be every place.
Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.