If I had to guess the Big Idea communicated by the Atlantic Ideas Festival in New York City yesterday, it would be: wear a blazer, but not a tie. That seemed to be the key to getting on stage on the Atlantic Ideas Festival.
The annual thinkpiece-in-event-form was held on three levels of a large concrete-floored event space in Chelsea—each one absolutely packed to gills with Ideas. The reception area was ringed with tables from a collection of groups and people random enough to provide the ingredients for a good riddle? (Q: What do Doctors Without Borders, the consulting firm Doblin, a folk band, and a lone guy with a sign reading “Hi There! I’m Collecting Your Stories” have in common? A: Ideas.) The execrable robo-coffee company Keurig was a sponsor, so instead of being able to simply pour yourself a cup of coffee, you had to select a coffee pod flavor from a large rack with the help of a Keurig coffee consultant, then put it in the machine and wait for a long minute as your tepid brew dripped out into the foam cup below. “Are you looking for more caffeine, or less?” a Keurig employee asked one befuddled woman.
More, please. And some heroin, if you have it.
When I arrived, Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum, was discussing the museum’s gleaming new building in the Meatpacking District. The Idea: the public should “feel ownership” over a museum, but not to the extent that the admission price is free.
Next, two esteemed robot scientists were interviewed about artificial intelligence and its threats and promise. Eric Horvitz, director of a Microsoft research lab, had spent years building a virtual secretary that was capable of answering his phone calls, keeping his schedule, reminding him of directions, even anticipating things he might forget—all of the things that a human secretary could do, but at thousands of times the cost. “I’ve become accustomed to the warmth” of his robot assistant, Horvitz said, puzzlingly. He, at least, was willing to concede the many potential downsides of AI’s growth, such as putting great swaths of humans permanently out of work. But Cynthia Breazeal, an entrepreneur and MIT professor, had a brighter outlook. “There’s a huge role for these technologies to help educate and retrain people” she said, meaning that after a robot secretary takes your job, it can help to train you how to do something else, like be a prison guard. The Idea: the future is bright (for robots).
Steve Bock, the South African CEO of Shinola, the watch company that has become an instant media darling thanks to its innovative idea of being made in Detroit, took the stage for an interview, to explain, as they said in his introduction, “how he believes that luxury goods could save the city.” This seems a bit bold, given the fact that Shinola is four years old and has only a few hundred employees. After Bock described the runaway success of Shinola’s Detroit retail store, The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons put his hand on his chin and asked, “Who can afford it, in your Detroit store?” The Idea: luxury watch manufacturing may not save Detroit, but if the city can figure out a way to monetize media fascination it will have it made.
The Atlantic has mastered the “Slate pitch dressed up in a tuxedo” style of thinkpiece cover story. These exist not so much in order to be rational and sober as to cause much “buzz” about a bold and often meaningless assertion, like “Women can’t have it all!” One of the magazine’s most buzzy of these in the past year was Gabrielle Glaser’s attack of Alcoholics Anonymous as unscientific and unsuccessful. Glaser stood up to give a speech, in the manner of a slightly nervous school presentation, entitled “The False Gospel of Alcoholics Anonymous.” It was explained that she would critique “AA’s highly religious approach” (AA explicitly does not endorse any religion).
AA is “portrayed in popular culture as a sure-fire fix,” Glaser said. (Why, just think of the dozens of movies about people solving their problems with AA and living happily ever after.) She spoke disparagingly of celebrity rehabs that are unregulated and may accomplish little—surely a worthy target, though, of course, AA does not run any rehabs, or make any money. Many rehab centers, by the way, “don’t require a high school diploma for these jobs, even though clients can be suicidal.” (Contact with non-college graduates has been known to drive people to suicide.)
Glaser makes the reasonable point that science and medications should be a bigger part of addiction treatment. Any reasonable AA member would certainly agree with that, and probably with far more authority than Glaser, who admitted “I’m not a big drinker myself.” (Though she tried the anti-alcoholism drug Naltrexone for ten days for her story, and—surprise—it worked!)
The Idea: attention is the best drug.
She was followed on stage by Sean Rad, CEO of the hookup app Tinder, who said that he “hates” when Tinder is referred to as a “hookup app.” The Idea: the CEO of Tinder has both the name and the appearance that you would expect the CEO of Tinder to have.
Next was a highlight: a talk with doughty New York Times columnist David Brooks, a man whose writing now consists purely of “Daily Inspiration”-style paeans to “character.” Brooks was introduced by a fella from The Walton Family Foundation, a sponsor, who proclaimed that he looked forward to “a conversation about character, something we care a great deal about.” The Walton Family Foundation is funded by paltry donations from the single greediest family on the face of planet Earth.
David Brooks talked about the internal and external parts of human nature and how one is contemplative and one is fame-seeking and how “you gotta balance them out” and how it is important for people to “try to be better.” The fact that David Brooks is not considered a “young adult” writer is his most remarkable feature. At one point, Jeffrey Goldberg asked Brooks how someone could live a life compatible with all of these great values and still be, for example, a “Wall Street titan.” Brooks’ answer: 1) “keep a journal,” and 2) “get a little better each day.”
The Idea: character is easy.
This would have been great news for the next man on stage: Steven Schwarzman, multibillionaire head of private equity firm Blackstone and the embodiment of “self-righteous rich motherfucker.” If anyone is in a position to comment on America’s class war from the point of view of the rich, who are winning, it is Steve Schwarzman. And to the credit of Steven Rattner, who was interviewing Schwarzman, he asked him about income inequality. “It’s part of globalization,” Schwarzman said vaguely. “It’s part of an education issue.” (If only you get an education, you too can accumulate $13 billion by buying and selling companies.) On the topic of soaring CEO and Wall Street pay, Schwarzman was even more farcical: due to a shift in compensation in some fields from cash to stock, he said, “you end up with different kinds of outcomes for people who get stock.” As if payments in stock options were something forced upon unsuspecting financier, who woke up one day and found to their delight and amazement that the stock market had made them rich. Schwarzman then suggested a simplification of the tax code with only “two or three” tax brackets paying “between ten and 20 percent,” on the basis that it would enable regular people to avoid paying for professional tax preparation services like H&R Block. It would also save him hundreds of millions of dollars, a point that went unmentioned.
“I love making change that helps people,” the evil billionaire said.
At that point, I left the Atlantic Ideas Festival. I did not stay to see “Can Starbucks Save the Middle Class?” or “The Bro Whisperer: Changing the Role of Men on Campus” or “What if Captain America Were Muslim and Female?”—many of which may have been quite provocative. But the overpowering idea that would not leave me was that if all of us who attended the Atlantic Ideas Festival were, at that moment, wiped out in a building collapse, the quality of the world’s ideas would probably improve.