There’s always a last-day-of-camp ennui that descends upon the Aspen Institute campus as the tents get broken down and the campers scatter to the far reaches of the globe – back to their laboratories, class rooms, board rooms, sound stages, penthouses and state houses. Whether attendees left with a sense of inspired purpose or paralyzing dissolution is hard to say. Unlike Aspen’s drought-stricken rivers, emotions were at a high-water mark. Frustrations and fears swirled with hope and inspiration in this new and scary world. Here are a few takeaways:
Photo by C2 Photography
Jordan Peterson photo by Ian Wagreich
“The history of American civil society is that of perpetual, unresolvable fights,” Eric Liu explained during the “Can We Debate Better?” session. “Equality versus liberty, federalism versus states’ rights, rugged individualism versus community.” If America has and will forever be in a constant state of intellectual battle, then we need to hone our skills.
Of the five tenants laid out for better argument, none were on display at the Jordan Peterson talk a few days later (the Youtube video already has over 500k views). The audience at the St. Regis ballroom was tense, but raptured by the, “most loved and loathed intellectual on the planet,” as he pontificated in 2,000-word chunks about patriarchies, pronouns and why all hierarchies tilt toward tyranny. For a moment, I thought the linguistics professor seated behind me might explode with indignation. Check out Peterson and the professor sparring during the last ten minutes.
Yeetoven photo by Riccardo Savi
It didn’t seem to matter what the topic of the lecture was, someone brought up either neural networks or West, or both. (“Artificial neural network” is the technical term for robot brains that can “learn” and perform tasks without being specifically programmed.) Whether it was the CEO of Reddit, Steve Huffman, talking about his “Anti-Evil” team that builds algorithms to snuff out hate speech, or talk of children’s creepy relationship with Alexa in another session, there’s no doubt that the robots are coming.
Not even Kanye is safe. In the Sundance Audience Award-winning documentary, Science Fair, (screened during the Spotlight Health portion of the festival) a 17-year-old creates a program that can write “Yeezian” lyrics. More recently, he has built a computer that paints original works of art. In other Kanye-related programming, Yuga Cohler, and Stephen "Johan" Feigenbaum, commandeered some Aspen Music students to perform their intriguing, Yeethovenconcert. Sort of a fanboy experiment, the two transposed West’s songs into orchestral arrangements and then compared them to various works by Beethoven.
Photo by Dan Bayer
National headlines just before and during the 10-day gathering included the debut of the border crisis, a handful of conservative SCOTUS decisions, and news of the Justice Kennedy resignation, dealing a body-blow for the left-leaning crowd. The idyllic setting did little to assuage the ever-darkening of what art critic Jerry Saltz calls, “The American Night.” Luckily, in Aspen, we have the four M’s: mountains, meditation, marijuana and martinis.
Laurie Santos photo by Dan Bayer
A little piece of trivia, the founder of TED Talks actually came up with his idea for snackable lectures from the Aspen Ideas Festival. With the explosion of online video content as well as the long-awaited tipping-point of podcasts (audio programs that download in seconds to your smartphone), a whole new world of the intellectual consumption has arrived. “For the first time in history, the spoken word is as accessible as the written word,” Jordan Peterson observed. “TV’s narrow bandwidth made us feel dumber than we actually are.” These new technologies have tapped a wellspring of intellectual curiosity.
Ironically, where intellectual curiosity seems to be in trouble is at universities. Trigger warnings, safe spaces and anti-free speech sentiments aren’t helping, but the real problem goes much deeper – culturally, financially, structurally.
“Kids are being sold a bill of goods that’s a lie. The system is broken,” Laurie Santos warned. A psychology professor at Yale University and director of its Comparative Cognition Laboratory, she designed a course on happiness that has gone viral. Her lecture at the festival was standing room only. Her biggest discovery? Just how completely miserable her students are.
“Should we abolish universities?” the moderator asked University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson. “No,” he responded. “They’ll take care of that on their own.”
Photography by: Courtesy of The Aspen Institute