Archive for the ‘Aspen Institute’ Category

Aspen Ideas Festival—The Founding Fathers of Blogging Discuss the End of Media

imagesI am at an early morning session where Jason Calacanis, CEO of, Nick Denton of Gawker, and Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine and the New York Daily News, discuss the challenges of printed media’s transition to online digital media. This topic and Twitter are big themes at this year’s Ideas Festival, with everyone from Steve Brill to Michael Kinsley, Norman Pearlstine and Katharine Weymouth discussing the former and Peter Hirshberg driving an army of Tweeters at #AIF09 to develop a use case for the latter.

What amazes me is that the discussion on the demise of the traditional media model amounts to a collective shrugging of the shoulders by these experts.  Given that the business model for traditional newspapers is so broken, the disagreements as to the way forward run very deep.

Some of the suggestions in this morning’s breakfast discussion include that every print article should disclose  metrics as to how many people have read it in order to establish popularity benchmarks—this becomes a way of judging market reach as well.  Risk: ‘The New York Times could become the Paris Hilton Times’.  This tension between the eroding credibility and gravitas of the “traditional press” and the “deep but unverified assertions” of many blogs is at the heart of the problem.  Building a business model that scales to capture the high ground of credibility at a large scale online is in the process of evolving.  100-journalist strong online media news organizations are now thriving (meaning profitable), per the panelists.

Chaos currently reigns. Jeff Jarvis recommends reading Clay Shirky’s Thinking the Unthinkable.

Commenting on Twitter— the speakers highlighted the asymmetry of Twitter between The Followed and Followers. Finally the discussion has turned to the fact that Twitter makes no money.  The speakers believe that the Twitter business model will turn into search-based advertising and feel that Twitter is so revolutionary that the successful business model for Twitter is at hand.

I’ve been a Twitter skeptic but am starting to see it as a useful public utility for crisis situations and spontaneous viral group eruptions (from the incipient Iranian revolution to the Aspen Ideas Festival).

Follow me on Twitter @plevensohn and check out #AIF09 in the Twitter stream to see what is going on at the Aspen Ideas Festival in real time.

Getting From Here to There– It’s Time to Engage in Common Sense Approaches to Public Policy

I usually try to keep my blog posts short. Today I have failed in this endeavor but urge you to please read through to the end of this important post. The current issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine features an excerpt from Leslie Gelb's new book, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy.  This essay is exceptionally good, and, in my view, Gelb's thesis should be applied to all forms of statecraft and to promote the resolution of both newly emerging and long stagnating public policy debates.

Gelb accurately diagnoses the "weakening fundamentals of the United States.  First among them is that the country's economy, infrastructure, public schools, and political system have been allowed to deteriorate.  The result has been diminished economic strength, a less vital democracy, and a mediocrity of spirit."

Several paragraphs in this powerful essay deserve highlighting:

"The bases of the United States' international power are the country's economic competitiveness and its political cohesion, and there should be little doubt at this point that both are in decline.  Many acknowledge and lament faltering parts here and there, but they avoid a frontal stare at the deteriorating whole.  It is too depressing to do so, too much for most people to bear. … The United States is now the biggest debtor nation in history, and no nation with a massive debt has ever remained a great power.  Its heavy industry has largely disappeared, having moved to foreign competitors, which has cut deeply into its ability to be independent in times of peril.  Its public-school students trail their peers in other industrialized countries in math and science. They cannot compete in the global economy.  Generations of adult Americans, shockingly, read at a grade-school level and know almost no history, not to mention no geography.  They are simply not being educated to become the guardians of a democracy.

These signals of decline have not inspired politicians to put the national good above partisan interests or problem solving above scoring points.  Republicans act like rabid attack dogs in and out of power and treat facts like trash.  Democrats seem to lack the decisiveness, clarity of vision, and toughness necessary to govern.  This tableau of domestic political stalemate begs for new leadership.  The nation that not so long ago outproduced the rest of the world in arms and consumer goods, the nation lionized and envied for its innovation, can-do spirit, and capacity to accomplish economic miracles, has become overwhelmed by the tasks it once performed competently and with relative ease."

This is the most succinct and gut-wrenching summary of our national predicament that I have read.  Gelb puts his finger directly on the jugular vein of America's innovation ecosystem and diagnoses the multiple layers of dysfunction that have launched our country into such a deep crisis.  I share his fear of a new global reality developing along the following lines:

Images-1"The real danger in this universe of primitivism and plenty is not new wars or explosions among major states, or a world war, or even a nuclear war.  It is the specter of nations drowning in a flood of terrorism, tribal and religious hatred, lawlessness, poverty, disease, environmental calamities, and governmental incompetence.  Many nations are going under because they are simply unable to cope, and they will drag others down with them."


Gelb closes this essay with an impassioned plea for action, and most important, he retains a strong sense of hope and pride in our country:

"Every great nation or empire ultimately rots from within.  One can already see the United States, that precious guarantor of liberty and security, beginning to decline in its leadership, institutions, and physical and human infrastructure, heading on the path to becoming just another great power, a nation barely worth fearing or following.  It is time to send up flares signaling that the United States is losing its way and its power, that it is in trouble. But it is even more important to reaffirm the belief that the United States is worth fighting for both across the oceans and at home.  There should be no doubt that the United States, alone among nations, can provide the leadership to solve the problems that will otherwise engulf the world.  And for all the country's faults, there should be no doubt that it remains the last best chance to create equal opportunity, hope, and freedom.  But to restore all that is good and special about the United States, to rescue its power to solve problems, will require something that has not happened in a long time: that pragmatists, realists, and moderates unite and fight for their country."

ImagesI've been sending out flares to other realistic moderate pragmatists on this and other topics that demand a "common sense" approach for years.  Through groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute's Socrates Society, the Working Group on Director Accountability and Board Effectiveness, and, most recently, the Security Innovation Network, I have joined and helped forge communities of interest bound together by empowered individuals who are thoughtful and constructive agents of change.  As Gelb points out, we have a lot of wood to cut, but I remain energized and, most importantly, hopeful that we can make a difference because we have to.  Given where America stands today, fomenting pragmatic and realistic change is not an option, it is a requirement.



Aspen Institute Video: Judy Estrin Examines Some of the Root Causes of America’s Innovation Crisis

Examining the Root Causes of America’s Innovation Crisis

[4 minute run time]
Ms. Judy Estrin, author of “Closing the Innovation Gap”, former CTO of Cisco Systems, and a successful serial entrepreneur, took some time out of our seminar on Innovation on February 15, 2009 during the Aspen Institute Socrates Society Winter program in Aspen, Colorado to discuss some of the root causes of America’s Innovation crisis. This interview was conducted specifically in advance of the third annual IT Security Entrepreneurs’ Forum (ITSEF III) Innovation panel held at Stanford University on March 18, 2009 and was first released at the conference.
Since 2007, ITSEF has focused on advancing innovation in security technologies through public-private partnerships by developing a community of interest between Washington and Silicon Valley. ITSEF is the only conference of its kind designed to “bridge the gap” between the Federal Government, system integrators, venture capitalists, and academic research communities. Pascal Levensohn, Founder and Managing Partner of Levensohn Venture Partners, moderates the panel, with panelists Dr. Curtis Carlson, President and CEO of SRI International, Dr. Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, Chairman Sparta Group, LLC and Ms. Lesa Mitchell, VP Advancing Innovation, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
ITSEF is a part of the Security Innovation Network (SINet). For more information on SINet, click here.

Judy Estrin’s Message to Entrepreneurs: Don’t Give Up During These Challenging Times

Judy Estrin's Video Message to Entrepreneurs 

On February 15th, 2009, during the Aspen Institute's Socrates Society winter program, I interviewed Judy Estrin about the challenges that entrepreneurs are facing getting funding for new ventures in the current risk averse environment.  Estrin is the author of "Closing the Innovation Gap", which is an important book that squarely addresses the roots of America's innovation crisis and analyzes the importance of protecting our country's innovation ecosystem. 

I asked Judy what message she would
like to send to entrepreneurs who are increasingly challenged as they seek to
obtain risk capital funding due to the global financial crisis. “If an
entrepreneur is passionate about what he is doing, he will find a way,” she said in the video interview. “This is what entrepreneurship is all about.
Some of today’s greatest technology companies were started during economic


Aspen Ideas Festival: Peter Hirshberg Interviews Jim Steyer About How Children Must Learn Responsible Digital Citizenship on the Web



Technorati’s Chairman,Peter Hirshberg, is on the move at the Aspen Ideas Festival– his video blog provides an excellent forum for impromptu commentary from influential thought leaders in various fields who are attending the conference (link below). Globally, children are developing differently as a result of the pervasive influence of the Internet in their social relations. Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, explains why it is imperative to define ‘rules of the road’ for every kid on the Internet and the role that his organization plays as a thought leader in this area. According to Steyer, “this is a huge issue of ethics and responsibility . … kids get this, parents are clueless but know they should.” Despite many challenges when it comes to media content regulation, Steyer is optimistic about the future. This important discussion that ties directly into the that we discussed at our Socrates Society seminar last week on issues of the Media and our Conflicting Values. to watch the video: click on the following link:

Aspen Ideas: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Challenges Game Developers to Bring Civics in Government to the Web

How do we get young people in America, particularly children in the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades, to learn about Civics in Government? Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been working with the MacArthur Foundation, Georgetown University, and Arizona State University to develop engaging game content that will teach young people the importance of Civics and get them to understand how issues are actually decided in the US court system.

This video clip from the Aspen Ideas Festival really resonates with me, as it highlights the ignorance of our civic process among young Americans, a topic which I have written about in my blog series Democracy in America Revisited in the context of America’s political identity. Justice O’Connor poses her questions to Eric Brown of Impact Games and Douglas Thomas, also a game developer. Brown is the co-creator of the game PeaceMaker— coincidentally I just had breakfast in New York last week with his partner, Asi Burak and have a copy of the game that I am planning to play this weekend.

Justice O’Connor asks, ‘do we learn better by doing than by reading about something in a book’? Watch the video for the answers and for some of the challenges facing game developers who want to create entertaining content that also teaches about civic duty and citizenship.

Irshad Manji from the Aspen Ideas Festival on Ijtihad and Interfaith Marriage in Islam

Irshad Manji comments on the positive power of Ijtihad, the ancient tradition of critical thinking in Islam, and the importance of contemporary Muslim imams in justifying Muslim interfaith marriage.

Re-Defining the Public Interest in the Media Torrent of the Internet


Media and Our Conflicting Values: Day 3

On our last day of this Socrates Seminar, we jumped squarely into the discussion of the Internet that we all wanted to have since Day 1.

First, we acknowledged the disruptive transformation of the media away from its historical one-to-many controlled distribution model, which was largely restricted to professionally produced print, radio, and linear video broadcasting content. We discussed how the Internet’s broadband infrastructure has supported the development of a global multi-media content stream now defined by many content creators, both professionals and amateurs. Today we are inundated by countless streams of data broadcast in a free flow of information that is truly a torrent of bits.

Research has shown convincingly that the attention span of Americans has shortened substantially over the past several decades and that the rate of change in this direction continues to accelerate.
Are we doomed to being Information Snackers, a nation of dilettantes distinguished only in being a mile wide and an inch deep in our thinking? Does this trend raise troubling questions and pose risks to the integrity of our democratic society?

I think so. Why?

First, because we are drowning in choice. While America’s obsession with Freedom is empowering, too much choice is debilitating. We have too many choices in the Internet Age of mass customization in digital media. While people like to speak of their love of choices, in fact, people hate choices. Notice the incredible power of global brands today after the initial view that the dawn of the Internet rendered traditional brands worthless.

What are some of the nasty implications for democracies overwhelmed by media choices? In my view, the hyper abundance of choice makes individuals increasingly susceptible to manipulation by groups that have an agenda—especially an agenda associated with power and manipulation of masses of people (does anyone doubt that Al Qaeda has developed a sophisticated web presence, for example?)

The web has massively reduced the costs of coordination among large groups and truly revolutionized social collaboration on a large scale—for a positive example, consider the fundraising powerhouse of the Obama campaign and the massive empowerment and inclusion in the democratic political process of otherwise alienated and disenfranchised groups of American society.

There are many good things associated with these paradigmatic changes in the American political process enabled by the Internet borne media revolution.

But we should also consider the corner cases, the potential for abuse, for manipulation, for the propagation of lies through the digital media. We need to remember the potential for Tyranny of the Majority in a digital media search construct that determines what rises to the top by its popularity.

As Newton Minow, Chairman of the FCC said in his historic address to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, “some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree. … broadcasting, to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product.” Promoting citizenship! A novel concept, and one that I have written about extensively in this blog in the context of the Democracy in America Revisited Series and Professor Michael Sandel.

In my view, being right and doing the right thing should have nothing to do with what is popular and everything to do with the responsible exercise of leadership (something that is in very short supply in America today). Having technology drive people to the most popular result only accelerates the mediocrity that Alexis de Toqueville foresaw for American democracy.

We should not let our passion to uphold the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech trump the obligation that we have as a democratic society to keep our citizens informed of objective facts so that they can responsibly exercise their civic responsibilities. To be clear, I do not see this statement as being unsupportive of the First Amendment in any way.

Unfortunately, our discussion on Day 3 did not address a redefinition of the Public Interest.

Domain expertise, an objective mastery of the facts and the nuances associated with a specific body of knowledge, requires more than a passing acquaintance with that domain (would you go to a doctor for surgery who is not truly an expert in his/her field?). In my view, the knowledge crisis facing our next generation will be rooted in the misconception that surface knowledge is sufficient to impart expertise.
We are certainly still in our infancy in this new realm of digital media, but it is abundantly clear that technology has left our regulatory institutions in the dust. While I am a strong believer in the positive power of the market, I fear for those members of our society who will be left behind, for the voices that will not be heard.

The Government is a steward of the Public Interest, and that Public Interest will, of necessity, be redefined when we face a crisis. There needs to be a cool hand, a slow, deliberative process, that gets us to the right answer. Unfortunately, the history of regulation in America shows us that it is most often reactive and likely to generate severe, negative unintended consequences (Sarbanes Oxley, for example).

While I greatly enjoyed our Socratic discussion, I left the seminar continuing to ask myself, what will force this question, and how great a cost will our society bear along the way?

“Fat, Dumb, and Happy”– Intel CEO Craig Barrett Comments on American Competitiveness at Risk at Aspen Ideas Festival

KPCB’s John Doerr interviewed Intel’s Craig Barrett at the Aspen Ideas Festival on the impact of technology on our society and dives into the topic of the sustainability of American competitiveness in innovation. This topic is front and center for the American venture capital industry, as the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) declared yesterday that a U.S. capital markets crisis exists for the start-up community. Just as the capital markets problems for emerging US companies are structural and have been building for years, Barrett accurately points to underlying structural issues in the U.S. educational system that put America at risk of losing its ascendance in innovation leadership.

Some ominous signs– Intel used to make 90% of its investments in the US– today the split is 50% US, 50% Asia. While the U.S. still has the best engineering schools in the world, Barrett points out that 60% of PhD graduates from US universities are foreign nationals. He notes that, due to our current visa policy, the US is stupidly sending them home after the US taxpayer has subsidized their education in this country. Watch the video:

Of Free Markets, Regulation, and Tipping Points


A very interesting Day 2! Some highlights:

First Amendment issues and the specific domain of government regulation over free speech are narrowly confined to content creators over the licensed spectrum. For example, had the famous Janet Jackson Super Bowl breast exposure incident occurred on cable TV as opposed to broadcast TV, there would have been no regulatory issue over indecent exposure and hence no grounds for the FCC to get involved.

In short, you can be the willing consumer (or the inadvertent and unwilling spectator) of the most indecent behavior embedded in content on cable TV anytime and cannot object to it on grounds of Public Standards of decency because you have paid for the basic cable TV transport infrastructure. If the content is broadcast over the government licensed spectrum, then it’s a totally different story, as you have entered the domain of the Public Trust.

Today, 95% of US homes are passed by cable and increasingly ubiquitous access to the Internet brings streaming media of just about anything you can think of all the time. Most people get their content from new forms of media that are unsupervised and unaccountable to anyone other than The Market. Many people may feel this is not a problem at all– on the contrary, they may see it as a blessing.

Licensed spectrum broadcast content is now dwarfed by other media transports. In short, the domain of the Public Trust, and thus standards of socially and morally acceptable program, are hurtling toward irrelevancy in our new digital world.

My problem with this is that a few clicks away for ANYONE, especially children, you will find abominable violence, graphic examples of human enslavement for sexual exploitation, and hard core porn. The evidentiary record is increasingly showing that exposure to these types of negative human behaviors has a bad influence on children and absolutely impacts their social development.

The consequences of these trends are not well understood, but, in my view, these tectonic shifts in the landscape of content distribution will reach a tipping point that will trigger new regulation. Can the market self-regulate? Perhaps, but at what cost in the process? While America was built on freedom of speech, the proliferation of freedoms in the Digital Age may substantially fray the fabric of our society before we reach a new equilibrium.

Whether or not we think this is a good thing, we are already in the soup.