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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Next stop: Aspen, for a mass meditation on memes

ASPEN, 3:47 MST -- The first thing that strikes you as you fly into this town during the summer is the span of mountains, tinted like Christmastime green velour, variegated with Kelly green, interspersed with laces of snow. To the far left, on the horizon, are the purple cascades of the mighty Colorado Rockies, forever capped and streaked with snow, hulking anchors for the entire state. As prehistoric and dusty as the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains of California are, these stand in full opposite, lush and brimming with life.

Well, those visuals and the fact that the wind, even on a sunny, blue cloudless day, enjoys bumping around propeller planes, such as the Frontier number on which yours truly and a host of other attendees for the annual Aspen Ideas Festival arrived.

A festival to generate and explore ideas. In a world of flooding with terabyte information and squeezed by millimeter attention spans, the concept of stealing away to some quaint hamlet for a week to leisurely discuss, argue, and champion approaches to issues great and small seems luxurious if not impractical for most. In some ways, both the premise and setting bespeak to the nature of those likeliest to attend. Festivals of this sort have started creeping up as the latest "in" thing for the wealthy and well-connected craving to challenge their intellectual and cultural assumptions, and have a good time doing it.

Think TED. The Milken Institute Global Conference. The World Economic Forum, shorthanded simply to its location in Switzerland -- Davos. And so forth.

Even if these gatherings aren't mainstream, they're far from secret. Technology and altruism provide some equalizing elements for this festival and others of its kind, but first-hand beneficiaries tend to be able to shell out thousands of dollars in admission costs (and tickets sell out within weeks) in order to rub shoulders with those assembled. The monied, in essence, get first crack at whatever trend, policy movement or "it" item moving toward the masses, as is generally the case in life.

So that makes Aspen the perfect setting, a tucked away playground largely for the rich and super rich. A place where houses can be seen nearly full scale aboard an incoming plane, median single-family listings averages around $6 million and outlets such as Dior and Sotheby's have permanent locales in a town about as big as 8 square city blocks.

But this isn't a sudden setting. The Aspen Institute has been gathering Big Think folks together since its founding decades ago, to explore ideas, deepen dialogue and inspire action -- powered by monied folk. In more recent times, it formally partnered with The Atlantic magazine and others to further circulate its findings through this festival, inspiring actual and virtual attendees and presenters, an alumni roster that ranges from U.S. secretaries of state and Supreme Court justices to Bill Gates to Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers to school reform crusader Geoffrey Canada. The list of political, corporate, philanthropic and artistic movers and shakers is vast, as is the overarching goal -- distilling The Big Idea.

And The Big Idea, much like the little idea, can become infectious. Some scholars contend that ideas are organisms in their own right. Richard Dawkins pioneered this research, coining the phrase "meme" (rhyming with "seem") -- a culturally-based idea or reference that voluntarily spreads from person to person.

(Think of the number of people who challenge assertions with the retort "Really?" now vs. five years ago.)

Memes arise, live and breathe, based on the viral energy they get from, for lack of better terms, their hosts. Slang and colloquialisms are quick examples, but so are chain letters, old wives' tales and conventional wisdom of every shape and size, positive and negative, truthful and false.

They can be as vast or small-minded as the person who conceives them.

So what about memes on the structure, size and funding stream for modern American public education? What a decade post-9/11 has really meant, devastated and elevated -- and why? Uplifting an American economy in totality, not just corporate profits? The overall healthy of America, the Democratic Ideal? That defines this week's work, split into two three-day sessions, poses to mull these memes, to uncover Big Ideas to address these and their myriad interrelated theories and scenarios -- the mini-memes.

Of course, equally sound questions will be which among them can grow legs, become "sticky" and lead to implementation. Because a Big Idea without execution is just air, as Darwinistically doomed as a species without mates.

Therein lies the challenge. Let's see how poised the all-star cast of speakers, moderators and attendees are in meeting it.

Stay tuned.

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