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Aspen Ideas Festival: long on swag, light on ideas

During my four days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I smiled during a panel only once. This happened when, before the speakers even began, I overheard a woman in a white shirt say to her friend, “I keep attending all these panels on ‘the turning point in medicine,’ but I don’t think I’ve seen the turning point yet.”

The festival, which I attended on scholarship, promises “deep and inquisitive” intellectual discussion. What I got were vague buzzwords, branded gifts, and a fine assortment of interesting snacks.

Before I got to experience ideas, I received a sturdy canvas swag bag. I am now the proud owner of a water bottle from the America’s Pharmaceutical Companies, an umbrella from Mount Sinai that is the same quality as the $5 umbrellas you buy from the man outside the subway when it rains, a Brigham Young Hospital rechargeable battery, tea, a knitted hat, and Dignity Health headphones with packaging that says “listening to our communities.” The headphones were the only gift that seemed useful, but they fell apart immediately, exposing the wires. Undaunted, I attempted to use these “listening to our communities” headphones anyway so I could listen to the dulcet tones of Selena Gomez, but I kept feeling twinges of pain in my ear, like little shocks. This proved to be one of the festival’s most stimulating moments.

Eager to prepare my brain, I tried freeze-dried edamame (“more protein than an egg!”) and “paleo-inspired” ManCave brand chicken jerky which looked like knuckles but tasted okay. I drank the free Pom juice, even though I remembered that the company had been sued for misleading its customers. At lunch, even the paper plates were fancy. They were sturdy and shaped like squares — none of the flimsy round things from summer picnic parties. Everything could be composted.

The campus is lovely, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with a small lake in the middle. There are little reflective aspen trees statues everywhere, and huge blocks that spell IDEAS in official festival colors (pink, blue, green, yellow). The first panel — about the future of health care — was held in a room where the roses on the table matched the festival colors. The speakers were projected onto a large screen and their words were broadcast not only in the room itself, but through speakers all inside the building. Even in the bathrooms I could hear the expert voices opining.

I was ready for the ideas.

Unfortunately, a panel was the least effective form of public communication. It had neither the eloquence of a prepared speech, nor the educational density of a direct lecture. Well-constructed panels help the audience hear many different viewpoints at once, but these panels included superficial remarks and lots of people agreeing with each other. The true purpose of a panel is efficiency. It allows those in the audience to brag that they have seen three different high-status speakers, without making them go to three different talks.

In my first panel, I learned that the average electronic health record for a one-week stay is over a thousand pages. I learned that patient compliance is a problem, and something like 20 percent of cancer patients don’t take all their medications. I learned that many people who have mental illness are in denial and do not choose a health policy that covers mental health, and then are worse off for it. I didn’t learn anything else.

The one-person talks turned out to be more worthwhile. I enjoyed one by Anita Goel, a Harvard-trained physicist, about “bridging technology and physics” — using light to stretch out molecules of DNA and then mechanical forces to change it — though I was distracted by the fact that she kept talking about how her business is not “well-behaved.” Her PowerPoint presentation had one slide featuring circles that said “physics,” “biology,” and “ICT,” but 10 minutes into her talk, I was still not exactly sure how she made those three intersect. During audience questions, someone asked Goel how a project by a separate Harvard professor is doing; the audience member didn’t know the name of either the project or the professor.

The highlight of the festival was the Spotlight Health closing session, where Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services. Price has promised that the new Senate health care bill will not leave people uninsured. (It will.) For the first time, I was at an event that was clearly not a PR vehicle, so it was surreal to watch the editor of a major publication ask a government official about the president’s tweet calling the health care bill “mean.” Goldberg repeatedly pressed Price, citing statements Price has made in the past. He asked Price why he would support cutting funding to the NIH.

At one point, Goldberg asked Price to tell the audience something we might not know about Donald Trump, which might assuage the worries of those who are worried. Price said, “He has a great intellect.” I’m still not sure why I was the only person who laughed.

The main pavilion on campus looks like an IKEA-furnished kindergarten room — all short tables with orange and green metal legs — so I headed to the town of Aspen instead. The town has the feel of SoHo, if SoHo had the star-spangled facade of Main Street. There’s a Dolce & Gabbana store near a Ralph Lauren store near a Gucci near an arrangement of tasteful jewelry stores. Even the thrift shop had beautiful, and obviously expensive, silk blouses displayed in the window. It seemed like every other storefront was for a “wealth management” company like Merrill Lynch, or advertising “premier properties.” I was also the only non-white person as far as the eye could see. Thankfully, I am used to this. I was always the youngest person in every room and one of the few non-white people at the panels.

Though most of my fellow attendees seemed happy, I was not the only person confused by the purpose of this conference. On the first day, a journalist named Deborah asked me why I was there, hoping to capture the perspective of a millennial. I explained that I was there on a fellowship and wouldn’t be good for a quote, but Deborah sat next to me anyway.

I asked Deborah if she attended any good panels. All she had done was go to a “lovely” 7AM yoga session.

She asked why I thought everyone else is here. Her theory? Access. Deborah just ran into Walter Isaacson, the biographer who is also CEO of the Aspen Institute, and he explained that people come here to be in the room, to be around people they ordinarily couldn’t talk to.

Prestige and signaling, too, I said. Attending the Aspen Ideas Festival can’t truly be about ideas, since the talks are live-streamed and most people don’t ask questions. It’s about being able to rub shoulders with all the well-credentialed CEOs and show that you’re the kind of person who cares about intellectualism and prefers freeze-dried edamame to McDonald’s. It’s like voluntourism, except instead of fetishizing your own compassion, third-world people and your ability to help them, you fetishize valuing intellectualism, “thought leaders” and your ability to breathe the same rarefied air. The topics were interesting, but there was a lack of challenge. The panelists were well-spoken and smart, but I could have learned any of the facts from a 600-word article.

That tote bag, however, was quite nice. I’m happy about that.


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