Ideas Festival kickoff: opening "Big Ideas" session

Along with several other members of the Atlantic staff, I am at Aspen this week for the fifth annual "Ideas Festival." If past practice is a model, the contents of most of these sessions will eventually appear in one form or another online. But as in past years, we'll try to provide slightly-longer-than-Twitter-scale real time summaries of what is going on.

On Monday evening, the co-hosts -- our own (beloved!) David Bradley of the Atlantic and Walter Isaacson of Aspen -- introduced a session in which a series of speakers gave "brief" summaries of the one Big Idea they wanted people to bear in mind. The intros by Bradley and Isaacson are worth finding on video when they eventually go up, rather than my attempting to summarize. (Actually funny, in both cases.) The subsequent presentations were "brief" in the 差不多 sense as we used to say in China -- chabuduo, "more or less," "close enough for government work." Some poetically terse, others not so much.

An overall list of the speakers and their ideas is after the jump. I won't try to summarize all of them, but let me just mention three that caught my interest as reflecting angles or approaches I hadn't heard much about or thought much about before.

From Sean Carroll, a molecular biologist at U Wisconsin, a proposition that "soon" (next 50 years? some relatively near time) human beings might be able to say, for certain, whether there was other life in the universe. Background was other fairly recent fundamental steps forward in understanding mankind's background and the workings of science. One hundred fifty years ago this year, Darwin's discoveries; 50 years ago, the first discoveries by Leakey of mankind's ancestors at the Olduvai Gorge;  40 years ago, the landing on the moon. Carroll said that he liked the chances of the answer to the "other intelligent life?" question being Yes, based on the "trillion billion" planets likely to be somewhere in the universe. ("If it's just us, what a waste of space!") And he suggested some of the implications that might come if other forms of life were more complex, older, more diverse.

From Robert Socolow, an engineering professor from Princeton, a teaser about a new proposal intended to break the logjam between rich and poor countries in climate-change negotiations. The poor countries all say: It's unfair to make us do too much, since (a) we are poor and (b) you had so many centuries to mess things up yourselves. The rich countries say: it's unfair and ineffective to have Europe, the US, and Japan go to great lengths to reduce their emissions, if China and India are merrily steaming away. Socolow said that a paper to be released next week will propose a new ethical, diplomatic, and geostrategic way of dividing the labor of reducing emissions. It will be based on assessing duties-to-clean up on the basis of rich and poor individuals, rather than rich and poor countries. More to come next week!

From David Fanning, producer of "Frontline," a proposal on the ever-more-agonizing question of how to keep actual reporters in business when newspapers around the world are in economic freefall.  His plan was based on a "good idea," and a "bad idea" -- both of which happened to be today's public broadcasting establishment -- which he said could evolve into a "new idea," of the public broadcasting system as the linchpin for a new sort of broadcast/print/online news establishment. What made this different from mere institutional self-serving (for a public broadcasting guy): his emphasis that the public broadcasting establishment already had two things that would be hard for some hypothesized new-media system to create from scratch. One is a very dense nationwide network of local stations and reporters; the other was an established funding model in which individuals, corporations, philanthropies, and public institutions were already used to contributing money. Details later, but an interesting start.

Full list below. Then off to the morning's events.

1) Sean Carroll, biologist: that we'll soon have definite proof about whether other life exists.

2) Marina Pisklakova, human rights and anti-domestic-abuse activist from Russia: that big ideas grow from small ideas, in this case involving protecting women from violence.

3) Robert Socolow, engineer: that there is a way around the climate-change logjam.

4) Marian Wright Edelman, Children's Defense Fund: that the test of a society's success must be how it treats its children.

5) Paul Ryan, Republican Congressman from Wisconsin: that it is time to end fiscal excess.

6) Elisa Massimino, Human Rights First: that America's "new" policy on rules of war and treatment of prisoners should be its original policy, created by George Washington and expressed in the Geneva Conventions and saying that there are certain lines that can never be crossed.

7) David Fanning, Frontline: that public broadcasting can be the basis for a new reporting establishment.

8) Sandra Day O'Connor, "unemployed cowgirl": that it is time to reinvigorate public education, and that everyone should go home to his or her state (all 50 plus DC represented here) and push hard for the same.