What's The Big Idea? Searching For Meaning at the 'Ideas Festival'

Media companies love to wrap themselves (ourselves) in the cloak of "ideas" just as much as advertising firms love to burnish themselves with the patina of "creativity." In both cases, it is self-flattery disguised as public celebration. We the media are not simply engaged in telling you stuff that happens; we are in the more lofty business of propagating ideas. Ideas! Who doesn't love ideas? What sort of ideas? Oh... all types of ideas!

The New Yorker perfected the "Festival Sponsored by a Magazine" formula years ago, and its days-long extravaganza of expensive public chats continues to be the leader in the category. The Atlantic has to satisfy itself with a single day-long "New York Ideas Festival," which held at the New York Historical Society on Central Park West yesterday. The phrase "Ideas Festival" perfectly embodies the sort of vague, superficially intellectual pastime that would draw in the crowd that was present: not quite alpha enough to be a straight business crowd, not quite nerdy enough to be a straight tech crowd, not quite disheveled enough to be a straight media crowd. It was a well-to-do crowd of enlightened capitalists in search of ideas. Some kind of ideas.

The long stage inside the building's Smith auditorium was decorated in Commercial Architecture Firm Lobby chic. In the background were three vertical video screens showing the festival logo. Between the screens were tall green cardboard rectangles printed with faint scenes of New York rooftops. In front was a curving crescent-moon-shaped couch flanked by two useless end tables. The day's agenda consisted of a procession of 25-minute sessions in which a moderator and an interviewee, or interviewees, would sit together chatting on the couch, like a couple who'd decided to have their first date at a lounge. Some sessions were interesting and some were not, but they all had in common the fact that they did not add up to any discernible theme— or, indeed, idea. It was like picking a university classroom at random and spending a day sitting through every single class held in that room, whether business or art or cooking.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin mused about the gun control bill in the sort of professionally genial tone that can only be honed by years in national politics. His big idea: Gun Owners Are Just Regular Folks. Then The New Yorker's permatanned media writer Ken Auletta (a rival!) chatted with Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas(!) guy Jared Cohen at the same time, their knees almost touching on the curving couch. All three wore nice suits, but Schmidt, the richest, wore no tie.

Schmidt's optimistic view of the future included one day soon when you will all wake up to "a set of screens around your room that will summarize what you have to do, and whether you can go back to sleep." He seemed to find this prospect exciting. "You can opt out..." he acknowledged in a skeptical tone, "but most people will (use it)." Cohen, meanwhile, looked forward to the near future when someone—NATO, presumably—will be able to respond to global atrocities by "sending in the digital equivalent of NATO" to protect beleaguered minorities from a government that is "trying to wipe them off the web." How this might help them avoid being wiped off the earth remains unclear. This will be the same dystopian near future in which Cohen predicts that parents will be forced to sit down and talk to their kids about online security "years before you talk to them about sex." (Try to lock yourself in your room that day, kids.) Their collective big idea: Technology Sure Does Have Some Perils As Well As Promises.

A certain portion of the crowd left when the Google guys left, even though they were succeeded on stage by NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, who commands a bigger army than even Google. He was gently handled by a deferential Campbell Brown, and he spoke of the 16 terror plots that had been "twarted" in his post-9/11 reign. "There is a constant stream of individuals trying to come here and kill us," Kelly said pleasantly, adding that the threat level NYC faces "hasn't changed since the aftermath of 9/11." One might surmise that this failure to improve underlying conditions of danger might call for some policy changes, but that point was left unexplored.

Kelly has a knack for making the most terrifying Big Brother-esque proposals sound like reasonable precautions, no more eyebrow-raising than a school crossing guard. Like, you know, the "smart cameras" currently deployed across NYC, which sound an alarm inside the NYPD if they spot a package being placed on the ground for more than three minutes. Or the modest proposal of searching every single container that enters American ports. Or, best of all, the NYPD's racial-profiling Stop and Frisk program and its prolonged spying on New Jersey mosques, both of which Kelly dismissed as mild "tools in the toolbox" here to keep everyone safe from the omnipresent threat of those who have fallen prey to "jihadization." The liberal Atlantic crowd broke out in cheers when Campbell Brown raised the prospect of Kelly running for mayor. There were not very many black people in the crowd.

Kelly's big idea: It's Dangerous Out There.

The sessions rolled on, one after the other, pausing only for short, wooden remarks from executives at firms who had paid be be advertisers... er, "underwriters." (Advertising is such a gauche idea, for an Ideas Festival.) Education reformers talked education reform. (The big idea: There Are Better Ways to Learn.) A session entitled "The Girls Club: Women and Wall Street" featured Sallie Krawcheck—who lost her Wall Street job in 2011—and Alexa Von Tobel, a youthful entrepreneur who'd founded her own personal finance website. In other words, no women currently hailing from Wall Street. The panel's moderator was a man. The big idea, I suppose: It Might Be Cool If There Were Some Women on Wall Street. The "Start-Up Snapshots" panel featured three white guys sharing their big idea: The Tech Company of Which I am the CEO Is Good. I drank coffee in the lobby during most of this panel.

The next panel, on fashion and the internet, consisted mainly of the Atlantic's Derek Thompson gushing about his love of Warby Parker glasses to Warby Parker CEO David Gilboa, as the other panelist sat by meekly. "I'm not supposed to say this as an impartial journalist, but..." said Thompson, before explaining his abiding affinity for the designs of Warby Parker. "I see it on friends who don't even care about design," he said. After Gilboa spent several minutes discussing the financial aspects of the eyeglass industry, Thompson stopped him. "Why do the glasses look so good?" he asked. "You've found a very distinctive design aesthetic." (If you're looking for the Warby Parker showroom, it's "right by the Atlantic's offices," Thompson noted. "I have visited.") The big idea: Hey, Are Those Warby Parkers You're Wearing? Me Too!

Immediately before lunch, an academic and a Bit.ly scientist and NYC's "Chief Digital Officer" talked about data, and how big it's been getting lately. (The humanoid sponsor representative introduced the panel with the thrilling promise, "If you think that having a chief digital officer is cool, having to shorten web links into bit length is really cool.") They cheerfully discussed various ways in which technology corporations know every last secret detail of all of our lives, and agreed on the big idea: Sure Is a Lot of Data Out There. After lunch—grilled vegetables, pasta, sandwiches, and the enforced close-quarters dining with strangers familiar from the first day of middle school— Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed loudmouth Baohaus chef and gifted storyteller Eddie Huang in a legitimately interesting conversation ostensibly about "Race, the Next New York, and America," but more accurately about "Race, Immigrants, How Eddie Huang Found Hip Hop, Good One-Liners From Eddie Huang, and RZA Should Probably Stick to Making Beats Because What Is He Really Doing With All That Fake Kung-Fu Shit?" The big idea: Hip Hop Is The American Culture.

Were you to mix up every one of these sessions in a blender, you'd get a mild taupe-colored TechBizMedia vanilla smoothie, flavored with mild bits of culture. What you would not get is a Big Idea. Perhaps a coherent Big Idea is too much to expect from an Ideas festival, but it seemed imperative to at least try to come up with something close to it. Some people had paid to listen to all this, after all. As I stood in a line of a half dozen men waiting to get into the men's room, a female attendee walking by crowed, "Well, this is something new. Ha ha!" before breezing into a completely unoccupied women's bathroom.

This just might be the type of Big Idea The Atlantic has been waiting for.

[Image by Jim Cooke.]