The Best of Aspen Ideas

Big ideas, bold ideas, brave ideas — in the seven days of the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival, all types of ideas on all types of subject matter were discussed, debated, tossed around, and hopefully absorbed. This is a second in a two-part series looking back on the festival and plucking out its best parts. In the last post, we focused on Spotlight Health, three days’ worth of panels, discussions, lectures, and interactive sessions focused solely on health. Here, you’ll find notable nuggets and thought-provoking quotes drawn from the myriad themes of the broader Ideas Festival. Enjoy.

Traditionally, Aspen Ideas Festival kicks off with a welcome session in which several speakers give their big ideas, and while this year’s opening session was no exception, it added an extra element: an interview about the future with Astro Teller, captain of moonshots (or, CEO) at X, the moonshot factory of Alphabet (formerly Google X). Here are some big ideas from Teller — a man whose job is to shepherd big ideas — and other festival speakers.

Astro Teller_DBAstro Teller:

“Everyone has hundreds of great ideas. We beat it out of each other over time. People do not have to be trained to have big ideas — you are self-filtering big ideas. And everyone needs a context in which those big ideas can come out.”

“We (at X) are not trying to be the gamblers of innovation, we’re trying to be the card counters of innovation. We have to keep in balance the raging optimism and have to have the scathing paranoia that goes with that.”

“Creativity comes from love and humor.”

“The world has more than enough problems; you can’t steal them all from me. So please, start your own moonshot factory, take really big bets.”

KC Hardin is, among other things, a McNulty Prize laureate for a gang reintegration program he co-founded: “To listen to someone, you have to get close, and when you get close, people can hear you as well.”

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations: “So little about history is inevitable. The good news is people can make a difference; the not so good news is people can make a difference.”

Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev, who runs a website called The Noodle Remover, speaking on a panel about the dire situation of true journalism in Russia, in an ominous way: “They will take your liberties not all at once but piece by piece, so you gradually get used to it.”

Simon Sinek, author and inspirational speaker: “Happiness is something that is fleeting: You hit your numbers, or you see a movie. Happiness doesn’t last. But deep fulfillment, love, meaning, purpose … is more lasting. You don’t like your kids every day, but you love your kids every day. You don’t have to be happy every day, but you can be fulfilled every day.”

Gillian Tett, US managing editor of the Financial Times, speaking on a panel about women’s experiences in America: “Life isn’t a career ladder; it’s a jungle gym.”

David Brooks_Ian WagreichNew York Times columnist and perennial Aspen Ideas favorite David Brooks:

“The most important things in life are not learned; they’re experienced.”

“To be at peace, to be really happy, is to be wholehearted. And your self gets in the way of being wholehearted.”


Teller set the tone for more than one theme of the festival, which explores the latest in technology, cyber, genetic engineering, and more. How do those manmade marvels promise to change our world, and how do they intersect with humanity — for better or for worse?

Astro Teller:

“Certainly, in our lifetime we’re going to have self-flying cars. Whether it’s cost effective or whom it’s cost effective for is another question.”

“When computers will get to the place where they can make themselves better faster than people can make them better, it’s hard to predict what can happen after that.”

“Technology is going to continue to increase the quality of our lives, but it will remove jobs and open up new jobs — every technology in history has done this. When new jobs open, it will be people who can use robots and computers to be levers for their minds and bodies.”

From left, Walter Isaacson, John Carlin, Howard Shrobe, and Milo Medin, discussing cybersecurity and the internet.

From left, Walter Isaacson, John Carlin, Howard Shrobe, and Milo Medin, discussing cybersecurity and the internet. Dan Bayer photo

John Carlin, chair of the Aspen Institute’s Cybersecurity & Technology Program and former attorney general for national security at the US Justice Department: “What we’re seeing today is not just ransomware, it’s ransomworm. It self-replicates. Now we’re seeing highly funded criminal groups developing these tools for profits and selling them to nation-states. This is huge global epidemic right now. A badly executed scheme by criminals is taking out governments and corporations throughout the world.”

Howard Shrobe, principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), where he’s worked since 1978: “Is the internet broken? No, it’s doing perfectly what it’s designed to do. Unfortunately, the computers it’s connecting to are broken. A network is cables and routers that move bits along. The internet is serving as an amplifier; were the things plugged in at the ends of the network secure, we would not be having this problem. But the machines we have today were designed in a way to maximize their performance, at the expense of everything else, especially security.”

Milo Medin, vice president of access services at Google: “Our challenge is how to think of a world where literally everything is connected.”

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and CTO of CrowdStrike and the computer security expert who revealed the suspected Russian intelligence agencies’ hacking of the Democratic National Joy Buolamwini_RSCommittee: “As long as we have bad guys out there, we’ll have cybercrime.”

Joy Buolamwini, founder and leader of the Algorithmic Justice League, which fights bias in machine learning, during a talk called “Machines and Morality”: “Because we know bias can be embedded into technology, let’s do better.”

Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, during a fascinating talk on the roots and future of populism (which can be viewed here: “These two forces, technology and globalization, are depressing your wages because everything you can do can be done by someone in China or a machine.”

Drew Endy, a bioengineering professor at Stanford, spoke on a panel about the morals of altering the course of evolution through advances in genetic engineering. Here’s some food for thought from that session:

DoerrHosier_aspenleaf_LV“With genetic engineering showing up a generation ago, there was the rise of a third perspective. Now, we can code our intent into natural living systems. … As soon as I go in there and say, ‘that nucleotide should have that letter,’ I’m transmitting my intention into that organism, and that leads to all sorts of cultural responsibilities, and people are nervous about making that transition.

“We can anticipate being able to create species. We are about five years out from reproducing microbes that are not descended from natural examples, that are just new.”

Arts and culture permeate Aspen Ideas, including talks with cultural greats and sessions that pair performances with discussion. The words of such artists, who are accustomed to showing rather than telling, often strike a chord …

Jeff Koons, visual artist: “Art lets you be involved with all the different disciplines. It opens up life to you to self-educate. That’s how art functions every day; it lets us be involved in all these dialogs. It’s about our interests, viewers’ interests, and it’s about potential.”

Jon Boogz

Boogz and Buck onstage at Aspen Ideas. Photo by Dan Bayer.

Jon Boogz is movement artist and co-founder — with Charles “Lil Buck” Riley — of Movement Art Is, a nonprofit that inspires positive change through dance. Boogz and Buck showed their latest project, The Color of Reality, about the senseless violence of the world we live in, at Aspen Ideas. “We use our artistry, our bodies to tell people what we believe in.”

Veteran TV producer Norman Lear (who is 94), spoke of serving as a radio operator and gunner on a bomber in World War II: “I recognize as part of my humanity, which is our common humanity, that I am capable of the worst behavior.”

Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson gave a talk on Leonardo da Vinci, the subject of his latest book, making the case that the source of the great painter’s talent was in his insatiable curiosity: “Genius is a function not of intelligence, but of creativity,” said Isaacson. “We can try to observe like Leonardo, we can try to be curious like Leonardo. We can’t be Newton, we can’t be Einstein, but we can be like Leonardo.”


Yvonne Rolzhausen_RSThere was a big focus on truth and lying, and their place in today’s civil discourse. Yvonne Rolzhausen, head fact checker for The Atlantic, introduced the topic at the opening session with a call to action: “We all need to be fact checkers. Together we must hold all sources accountable, expose fake news and alternative facts. We all have a moral responsibility to call out liars and their lies.”

Truth and lying were analyzed in a legal framework:

Attorney, law professor, and former solicitor general Neal Katyal: “What makes America great is our system of truth seeking.”

Constitutional law expert Geoffrey Stone: “If you allow false statements to be punished, it will chill people from making statements that they are not sure are true. The Supreme Court has taken the position that even false statements of fact cannot be restricted, unless there is substantial damage.”

… and in a political framework:

Geoffrey Stone: “People are increasingly fragmented and we’re polarized in our sources of information, hearing only one side of the debate — in that context false statements can have an incredibly powerful effect. This poses a dire problem for democracy. The solution should be figuring out how to give people access to information that’s different from what they get now. We need to educate people of dangers from getting all their information from highly polarized media.”

Galina Timchenko, a Russian journalist who was fired from her job at a Russian newspaper and now runs Meduza, a Riga, Latvia-based news site: “We dealt with fake news when it was not so fashionable, for decades. We’ve been working with a fake agenda for years. The Kremlin’s idea is there’s no truth at all, everybody has their own truth. But there is truth, we know it.”

… in a biological and sociological framework by writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee:
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee_RS“Lying is a very common human trait. It’s both universal and it is done frequently — people on average lie at least two or three times a day. So most of us lie and we lie frequently. The day-to-day lies are polite lies that lubricate social interactions. But we flex the same muscles when we tell bigger lies. We have the capacity for bending the truth in ways big and small. … It’s a paradox of human nature: We all lie, but we are also inherently very trusting of the information we get. Society would collapse if you didn’t believe a word I said. And because we’re so trusting of others, it makes us very poor as lie detectors. It’s the result of our trusting nature that people get away with so many lies, especially in political discourse.

“President Trump’s lies are a Hurricane Katrina in the lying landscape, and they have shaken the boundaries of how much lying is acceptable. Then you have social media, where all you need is an army of believers to peddle lies and for the same lie to live on forever. We’re in an unprecedented kind of era, and unless we reflect on what’s going on and be more vigilant about what kind of information to believe and to pass on to our social networks, we won’t be able to solve this problem.”

… and finally, in a cultural framework:
Kurt Andersen, writer and radio host: “We need less squishiness of a certain kind that’s been indulged since the 1960s. It’s harder for people to stigmatize crazy falsehoods than it used to be, because it’s inclusiveness.”


Another major theme running through the festival was the concept of America: what it means for different people, citizens and others, and trying to put a finger on the pulse of the nation.

Khizr Khan_Ian WagreichKhizr Khan is a constitutional rights advocate best known for his speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, during which he brandished a copy of the US Constitution as he speculated whether Donald Trump had read it. At Ideas, he talked about his fascination with American governance, particularly the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, while going to law school in Pakistan: “I used to dream when reading those documents, are there people on this earth with these rights and privileges guaranteed to them, that government will not interfere, that religion is kept totally separate from the rule of law? When I became a citizen of the United States, I took the oath and every word to my heart, and my dream has come true. I became a citizen of the most dignified nation on the earth.”

Khan also expressed his gratitude for civil rights leaders of the past: “When you see a blossoming tree, always think of those who have watered this tree, think of those who have nurtured this tree, those who have planted this tree. It is all our past civil rights leaders, the leaders of this country who have sacrificed their lives, their liberties, their families for us to have these dignities, for us to have these rights.”

CNN host Fareed Zakaria, in his talk on populism, gave his assessment of the mood of the country running up to the 2016 election: “The most sad thing about this last year has been to see the loss of optimism in the United States. When you see a country that’s lost interest in its future and is fixated AndersonPark_balls_LVin the past, that’s often a very bad sign. If you think about returning to some garden of Eden that never was, it begins to worry you at a very deep level.” But, on the other hand, “There’s no other place in the world where people can go to and really try to make themselves anew. We as a society and country will encourage it, people will celebrate it, and people really do care more about your destination than your origins. I’m still very hopeful about America.”

Conservative commentator, writer, and radio host Charlie Sykes suggested that, “There’s a tremendous hunger to have a conversation that’s not vicious. When we have respectful conversations, it assures me that we don’t have as many differences. Our politics brings out the worst in us; we are all fundamentally decent people.”

Gillian Tett, US managing editor of the Financial Times (and a British national), observed: “Embrace one of the things that makes America great, and that’s reinvention at any age. You live in a country where it’s not only possible to reinvent yourself, but it’s celebrated.”

Author Kurt Andersen was more cynical: “We may have reached our imperial sell-by date, as empires do.”

Hurd and ORourke_DBTwo congressmen from Texas held a spontaneous town hall on wheels via Facebook live when their flight to Washington, DC was cancelled by a snowstorm. It was an eye opener for them and their audience as to how the system was working against bipartisanship, and how Americans are, in general, fed up with the bickering and eager for real solutions.

Beto O’Rourke (D): “We need to call out bad behavior, but we also need to show the alternative. I’ve never seen people so fired up, engaged, involved. Because they recognize that in a democracy, the highest calling is your level of civic participation and there is a consequence when you’re not engaged.”

Will Hurd (R): “More unites us than divides us, but we only focus on the 20 percent that divides us. We have to shine a light on the issues that we all agree on and move the country forward. People want to focus on people working together to get things done.”

Columnist David Brooks: “We may be right, we may be left, but we’ve got a million other identities and we have to engage with each other in these other identities.”


Motivational speaker and author Simon Sinek gave a talk, Leadership through Inspiration, about building a work culture of trust and loyalty:

Simon Sinek_DB“Leadership has nothing to do with rank, it’s responsibility. It’s not being in charge, it’s taking care of people in your charge. And leaders are not necessarily the ones in charge, they’re the ones willing to go first. Because when they do that, others follow.”

“Human beings are social animals — they respond to the environment they’re in. Get the environment right and you get trust and cooperation, get the environment wrong and you get cynicism, mistrust, and paranoia.”

Psychologist and researcher Paul Bloom made a case against empathy at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Paul Bloom_RSDrawing on his research that focuses on morality, among other things, Bloom built an argument that reason and compassion are more effective. Listen to the entire session here — here are a couple of highlights:

“I see empathy as a spotlight, but spotlights have certain problems: they have a narrow focus.”

“A high desire for punishment corresponds to a high degree of empathy. Empathetic people are punitive because they’re more sensitive to the suffering of victims.”

“Empathy is a moral train wreck, it leads to bias, poor decisions, and cruelty.”


Racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and more — bias in this moment is always a point of pointed discussion at Ideas Fest. Who better to kick off the salient quotes than Harvard prof and author Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose documentaries explore African American history and the issues that have run throughout it:

“We have a class divide in the black community. For some of us it’s the best of times, for some of us it’s the worst of times. … Under segregation, all blacks were equal under the law. It didn’t matter if you were doctor or janitor, you couldn’t sit at the counter at Woolworths. … With affirmative action, the doors opened and let some of us in … . What happened? It’s a shrinking of the pie. We used to think poverty was a medical condition, that we could fix it. We didn’t realize it was structural.”

Clarence Jones VERT_IWOne of the true highlights of the festival was a conversation with civil rights hero Clarence B. Jones, who served as counsel, political advisor, and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. Jones, who made his entrance to the session singing a medley of spirituals and gospel songs, held the audience in rapt attention for over an hour. Particularly fascinating was his first-hand account of the writing of the Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“So he’d use whatever he could — paper towels, toilet paper — and I would crunch them up and put them in my pocket. And it happened for about five days that I came in twice a day, and I’d come in with a piece of paper under my shirt and took out what he wrote under my shirt. … “Six weeks later … I read the letter. I knew the circumstances under which it was created — the brother is quoting verbatim from poetry, from Hagel, from Schopenhauer, John Donne — and he had nothing to refer to.”

Jones also spoke about the power of peace: “Why nonviolence is so powerful politically: If you have a powerful movement and a powerful message, the first thing people opposed to you are going to do is to provoke violence because they want the violence to obscure the substance of your message. That was the genius of Martin Luther King Jr.”

In another session, Muslim American leader Abdullah Antepli and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg discussed the relationship of Muslims and Jews in America:

Abdullah Antepli: “My community’s challenge is to see Israel and Zionism in a different light. Your challenge is not to confine 1.6 billion people to the lens of security and terrorism.”

Jeffrey Goldberg: “The alliance between American Muslims and Jews should be a natural alliance. When you’re a minority, you need allies.”

Another session focused on what it’s like to be a woman in America in this moment:

Jean Case_LVJean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation and chair of National Geographic: “This is the best of times, and the worst of times … the best of times because there are unprecedented opportunities that were never available to generations before. It’s the worst of times because it’s laid bare the barriers women have to overcome to achieve those same roles — it’s still not a level playing field. We’re the cherished gender because we have the privilege of raising our next generation. And today, we face so many challenges, while we try to achieve great things while raising the next generation.”

Pamela Reeves, a gender strategy advisor: “We’re in a moment when we are finally recognizing that there have been entrenched disparities and divisions in our country. We’re there, we’re present, we’re an important part of the fabric of our nation, yet women face unique barriers. Women bear the cost of their reproductive health, yet we cannot get or hold a job if we can’t control our pregnancies.”

Wajahat Ali is an op-ed writer, playwright, and former TV host who has focused a lot of his work on Islamophobia and marginalized communities: “What we’re witnessing is either the death march or the death rattle of white supremacy in America,” he said on a panel about hate on the rise. “We need equal standards, not double standards. We need to create a multicultural coalition of the willing, where you carry each other’s water. You have to become the protagonist of the narrative of the American dream you want to see.”


Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass gave a talk on the current world order, America’s place in it, and how to get a grasp on it for the future. Here are some highlights:

Haass_DB“The Cold War was a concentrated world with two centers of power, and it led both the United States and the Soviet Union to act with considerable caution. When the Cold War ended, that discipline ended. Now there are multiple centers of power. We’ve always had globalization, but the scale of it, the intensity of it now is truly staggering.”

“Putin doesn’t want Russia to be great again, but he wants Russia to be seen as great again. He doesn’t want a United States that pushes back at him, and that’s one of reason we should push back at him.

“This is a really interesting moment in history not because of what’s going on in the world, but because of what’s going on in societies. There are probably bigger questions about where we’re going to be in a generation than almost any time I can remember.”

I have two rules about the Middle East: the enemy of your enemy is still your enemy, and things need to get worse before they get a lot worse.”

“We need a new world operating system to help the world deal with these global challenges. None will happen by itself, none will happen without the United States. If Trump is not going to do it, we will have to wait for his successor or hope that others step up. No other country is willing and able to play our role and the world is not a self-ordering system. We will not survive in a world that keeps unraveling.”


The thread of climate change through the festival is explored through both science and policy. This year, there was a heightened focus on the economics of a changing world climate.

Varun Sivaram directs a program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations: “There’s a strain of thought that says climate change is happening, but that it’s not going Ruth Gates_DBto be that bad. That’s why we need economists to be part of the conversation.”

Ruth Gates, research professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology: “The idea that we need to push our planet so close to the edge to respond to a problem we know how to solve is mind blowing. Renewable energy is easy, it’s fun. This is a house of cards, and we are in line, and we will not be the last species on this planet. So do it for ourselves, for future generations of us.”

Bina Venkataraman, director of global policy initiatives for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard: “This is a fiscally conservative issue. Every dollar spent in natural hazard mitigation saves about $15 in disaster relief. That should be something we should be able to really get behind and stands outside the politics around climate change. … Climate change is not a little silo issue where you’re thinking of particles in the atmosphere or polar bears on thin ice. It’s a threat multiplier for all the core issues you care about: it threatens economic and national security, and it’s already threatening our health. There should be multiple doors for people to come into this problem.”


Ideas Fest is called “DC summer camp” for good reason — escaping the swamp for the crisp mountain air of Aspen every summer are hundreds of politicians and former politicians, journalists, policy wonks, and others who work in or are associated with presidential administrations or Capitol Hill. Not surprisingly, the president was one of the hottest topics of conversation; perhaps more curious was that even the self-described conservatives did their fair share of critiquing.

Richard Haass: “This is a decentralized informal administration. If I had to describe Trump’s decision-making style, I’d call it adhocracy.”

Neal Katyal, attorney who regularly argues before the Supreme Court: “We are seeing an unprecedented threat to the rule of law by this president. It’s not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue; this is a pure constitutional civics issue.”

Sally Yates_DBFormer deputy attorney general, Sally Yates: “It shouldn’t be whether you committed a felony or not; it should be whether or not you’re observing the kind of norms that honor the rule of law. There are facts here that should be alarming to us as country that fall short of facts that establish a basis for impeachment or prosecution.”

Fareed Zakaria: “Working-class people like rich people a lot because they want to be like them. Trump’s home is a working-class person’s fantasy of what you would live like if you hit the jackpot. And they despise professionals, because they perceive them as coming from a different world. But here’s a guy who builds building and spends money the way they fantasize about doing it. Trump is sending the message, ‘I’m just like you, only richer.’”

Charlie Sykes, conservative commentator: “Forty percent of the public has been programmed to reject, discount, or never even see great journalism. When Trump calls out the media, you have a kind of air cover which no president has ever enjoyed.”

Julia Ioffe, reporter for The Atlantic: “This is a president whose decisions depend on who charmed him last.”

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations: “We’ve got a person in the president of the United States that’s engaged in a full, all-out assault on truth. It’s demonstrable truth. What’s incredibly troubling to this conservative is that it doesn’t matter to a lot of conservatives and Republicans.”

Want more? Go to the Aspen Ideas Festival website to search for full videos of many sessions (also found on the Aspen Institute’s YouTube channel) and audio recordings of many more. You can also subscribe to the Aspen Ideas to Go podcast and find transcripts of select sessions. All photos by Dan Bayer, Riccardo Savi, Ian Wagreich, and Leigh Vogel, courtesy of the Aspen Institute.










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