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Summer Camp for Grown Ups

Aspen Ideas Festival 2010

This week in the resort town of Aspen, Colorado, global leaders in politics, industry, science and the arts have come together for a week of forums, debates and discussions.

In the scenic town of Aspen, nature is never very far. The mountains, the rivers...and of course the Aspen trees, which gave the city its name. Even when indoors, the rugged beauty and cool mountain air of the Rockies pours in through open windows. It's a town that takes the out-of-doors seriously, and the perfect setting for some serious thinking.

Which is why it's no mistake that each year in early July, the town of Aspen becomes the setting for a unique event: the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Hosted by the public policy think tank the Aspen Institute, in cooperation with the Atlantic magazine, the Ideas Festival brings leaders and innovators in politics, science, industry, the arts - and too many other disciplines to list - together for a week of conversations. The idea is to bring people with diverse ideas into face-to-face conversation, and see what new ideas are born as a result.

But the Ideas Festival isn't just for the accomplished; the just-plain curious are also invited to spend a week strolling the wooded campus, stopping here and there to engage with speakers, turning the campus into something of an intellectual playground.

"There's a distance between buildings where people walk and they're very approachable and you can talk to them," says photographer Lynn Goldsmith. "I think there's something about being in Aspen in the summertime which makes Ambassadors and other really high ranking political individuals feel very at ease, unlike many of these conferences that take place in cities."

Goldsmith is chatting with fellow photographer David Hume Kennerly - a Pulitzer Prize winner - and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. There are no suits or ties to be seen anywhere; Kennerly, who is about to talk about his idea - "visual literacy" - is dressed in T-shirt and sandals.

"You can talk to anyone here," says Kennerly. "You get the feeling everybody's gonna go hit the hottub after they're through talking. Maybe they are, I don't know," he says to Goldsmith's knowing laugh. It's clear he is enjoying the setting, and the ease of conversation here, adding, "I'm a native Oregonian and so I feel really at home here, in Aspen, and I'd like to come back...Walter." Laughter and nods follow, before the group breaks up.

Walter, in this case, refers to Walter Isaacson, President of the Aspen Institute and founder of the event. An invitation to speak at the Ideas Festival is a prized commodity, with good reason. [Disclosure: Isaacson was recently named Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the entity that oversees VOA.]

"Ideas are magic," says Isaacson. "In a digital age when people communicate by email or on Facebook, when they come together physically, face to face, and just start talking, a serendipity happens. Ideas get exchanged by people who would not normally talk to one another either because they don't agree politically, or they're in different fields of endeavor," he says.

The festival is designed to encourage exactly that kind of exchange. But still Isaacson says he finds the process surprising. "It leads to people saying 'Yeah, this is much better than just posting comments on a bulletin board on the Internet."

Many of the faces here are instantly recognizable, yet it's ideas - not fame - that are the currency of this event. There are hundreds of panels and presentations on every imaginable subject. "Shakespeare's Wily Women", "How Google Sees the World", "A New Approach to Cancer"; these are just a few of the hundreds of panels and presentations happening over the week.

Everyone has an idea, it seems, and is ready to share it and hear what others are thinking.

National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller's idea, "news literacy", provoked more than an hour of animated discussion and debate. "I have been completely blown away here at Aspen Ideas Festival," she volunteers. "I feel like I'm in Disneyland. Only instead of Mickey and Goofy it's every great newsmaker and every great intellect and every great inventor is here and it's just like, I am like a kid in a candy store. And of course, who could beat this location."

The founders of Twitter were here, debating with the author of "The Facebook Effect", David Kirkpatrick. "Facebook is based on genuine identity," says Kirkpatrick; "Twitter is not." But what might seem a provocative statement in a different setting is met with laughter and good spirits at Aspen.

The comments are almost all off-the-cuff, and frequently surprising. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor sat in on a panel on education reform, and let many of the educators in attendance have it. "You have to take a test to become a citizen of this country," she prods, "but 75 percent of Americans can't pass that test! We are hopeless right now!" she exclaims, slapping her hands against her legs in animated fashion.

In meeting rooms, in tents, and especially outdoors, it's ideas that are getting traded freely at the Festival. Which is exactly the way Walter Isaacson wants it.

"You know one of the things we've had ever since there were coffee shops in Enlightenment England, is places where different people got together and shared half-formed ideas and came up with new ideas," he notes. "We lose some of that in the digital age when people are just emailing each other. I think what comes out of here is when you actually meet people, you can carry thought into action."

Although there is no one thematic focus here, there are larger ideas that seem to thread through many of the discussions. One of those ideas is that America, and perhaps the world, have reached a certain tipping point - a point beyond which it may no longer be possible to make things better for future generations.

This gloomy theme, first articulated in the opening panel by Harvard University professor Niall Ferguson, is that the United States is an empire "...on the edge of chaos."

"My working assumption is that the financial crisis that began in the summer of 2007 has accelerated a fundamental shift in an economic balance of power," he told a packed hall of more than 700. "If you really want to see when an empire is getting vulnerable, the big giveaway is when the costs of serving the debt exceed the cost of the defense budget." That point, he estimated, is no more than six years away.

But sobering thoughts like this don't seem to be taking any of the joy from attendees. Perhaps it's the mountain views and bright sunshine. Or perhaps, as retired energy executive Lou Peeples sees it, new ideas are always hopeful.

"I guess it's intellectual summer camp for adults," he says, walking on a trail to another lecture. "And it's a lot of fun, keeps you intellectually active, and as a retiree I stay intellectually active by serving on a number of boards and occasionally writing for publication. So this just supplements that general body of knowledge that's useful."

An intellectual summer camp for adults? No wonder so many think the Aspen Ideas Festival is something special.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.