Thursday, October 22, 2009

America, Reimagined

(Photo: National Geographic/PopTech2009 Photo Camp)

PopTech, the vaunted thoughtfest that annually gathers some of the world’s leading social innovators in the coastal hamlet of Camden, Maine, kicked off its 2009 conference today with an uncharacteristically unglobal theme: America and the challenges it faces domestically at the start of the new century.

America Reimagined
, the three-day conference features more than 50 artists, writers, musicians, technologists, and social entrepreneurs—all of whom are creating or leading bold new civic, economic, technological and cultural initiatives in the United States. The day-long sessions that run through Saturday are designed to explore how major forces are reshaping the idea of America, its government's contract with its citizens, its brand, and its role in the world. “The thing about the kinds of moments we are living in right now is that they are often filled with conflicting and confusing signals,” conference curator Andrew Zolli said in opening remarks. "Is this a moment of new engagement and activism and an era of populist movements … or are we living in a kleptocracy, a moment where our systems are so perverted that they are fundamentally incapable of reform? Is it possible for us as a country, economically and technologically, politically and culturally, to reinvent ourselves?”

Radio host
Kurt Andersen, the author of Reset, a book about America’s uncertain future, was the first to consider the question, describing the last 25 years of American life as years in which Americans have been "guilty of magical thinking"—living too large, defining success as "more of everything, instantly" and behaving, more or less, like spoiled children oblivious to their impact on the world. ["We took Peter Pan too seriously; we took Bob Dylan's lyrics too seriously," he said. "We committed to never growing up and we didn't. I mean, when did adults start celebrating Halloween? When did people over 12 begin eating ice cream with mashed up cookie dough in it? When did adults start wearing blue jeans and sneakers all the time and watching cartoons?"] Most decades end after a decade, Andersen said, but the 1980s—until last year's financial meltdown—"just kept going, and kept going, and kept going."

The point: America has always moved back and forth between economic booms and busts and between the right and left politically. But this moment in time is different, Andersen says. "It's a time when all of these cycles are shifting dramatically and simultaneously; when complacency is forced to end; when outdated structures are being inevitably and necessarily challenged, and when change is rapid and difficult to predict."

But Andersen is optimistic. He said the current economic crisis "is actually a great opportunity for reinvention and for getting ourselves as individuals and as a nation back on track." If reinvention is to occur, however, it will be catalyzed not by today’s present leaders as much as by the amateurs in society, young people and "new-thinking baby boomers" in the grassroots—people unafraid to take risks, think creatively, and see the world through the lens of possibility.

He called for a revival of "good old-fashioned American realism and pragmatism" to realign our behavior to progress. "This isn't the end of the world," Andersen said. "But the '80s are over. I'd like to think we're just waking up."

Among other highlights so far:

* Braddock, Pa. Mayor
John Fetterman described his efforts to pump new life into his 142-year-old town, the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and now one of America's most devastated Rust Belt cities. In the 1950s, Braddock—only about 10 miles from Pittsburgh—was a thriving suburban metropolis of 20,000 with a density similar to that of Brooklyn; today, the population has hollowed out to under 3,000. Where once, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, there were 30 tailors, 25 shoe stores, 14 jewelers, 51 barbers and 53 restaurants, today there are none. But Fetterman, a hulking, six-foot-eight Harvard Kennedy School graduate, is leading efforts to creatively reinvent the community, working with remaining residents to convert abandoned spaces into artists studios and a community center. He helped a local mason build a brick oven pizza kitchen out of fallen debris from a neighborhood building; he purchased an old millworker’s row house with $7,000 of his own money and converted it into a foster home for abandoned children. An old Catholic middle school is now a studio and gallery for local artists; residents are preparing to welcome a film crew that will start shooting the movie version of writer Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, using Braddock’s forlorn streets as a backdrop. (“Even Hollywood knows where to find good post-apocalyptic America,” Fetterman quipped.) Fetterman is used to fighting the odds. (He moved to Braddock in 2001 to work on an Americorps project and ended up running for mayor four years later, winning office by a single vote.) But he is also clear that his struggle to reimagine Braddock is just getting started. He told conferees he “felt a bit like Obama must have when he got the Nobel Prize”—undeserving of public attention for his vision while the reality of his work has yet to materialize more fully. Indeed, Fetterman almost canceled his Poptech session: earlier this week, Braddock’s last large employer, UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center), said it would be shutting down operations and moving some six miles up the road, to neighboring Monroeville. “This isn’t like a Lifetime Original movie, you know—something that has a guaranteed happy ending,” said Fetterman, who just made the cover of the magazine's November "Brave Thinkers" issue that hits the stands this week. "I don't yet have the answer. We're definitely still experimental."

* Erica Williams, a Washington, D.C.-based activist working to help broaden the civic engagement of her peers, urged the mostly over-30 PopTech crowd to put away their stereotypes of her generation. "Call us what you will, the MTV generation, Millennials, the 'us' generation," she said, "but we are not bored or disinterested; our world view is different." At some 300 million strong, she said, "millennials have the opportunity to re-brand civic engagement" and reinvent politics. "My generation doesn't like traditional politics," she told conferees. "We are the most ethnically diverse generation that America has ever had. We are post-racial We cam up at a time with 9-11, fighting two wars and a gap between the haves and have-nots that we haven't see since since the Gilded Age—and a "me" generation that was many of our parents. So we distrust politics as usual. It hasn't worked. When asked if the 22 million young people who helped elect President Obama would be disillusioned if he fails to deliver on his most important promises, Williams said it will be problematic. But mostly, she said, her generation will always work beyond the traditional avenues to get things done, even it it means bypassing candidates who don't deliver and mobilizing young people directly. "We are re-branding what it means to be politically engaged," she said.

* Chris Jordan, a photographer, spoke about what Zolli called "America's reset moment"—the moment in the country's political and social transition when activists of all stripes are bringing the invisible to light—in this case, the impact and aftermath of America's wasteful habits abroad. Jordan used the PopTech stage to unveil his latest project, Midway: Message from the Gyre, a series of photographs that he shot just a few weeks ago on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral in the North Pacific. The images are striking—decaying carcasses of albatross chicks that had been fed a diet of human trash from polluted ocean waters, the plastic that had killed them still intact in the place where their stomachs had been. Jordan says the chicks die young, from the toxins in the plastic or from choking on the refuse that had been mistaken for food. "We have this enormous, frightening problem of plastic pollution in our oceans and scientists are just starting to understand the effect it is having in the marine and wildlife environments," Jordan told conferees.

* Malaysian singer/songwriter Zee Avi, discovered on Twitter, performed several songs she wrote, her fresh lyrics and full-sounding acoustic guitar underscoring the influence that American popular culture has had on the rest of the world. At one point during her performance, PopTech attendee and Personal Democracy Forum cofounder Micah Sifry tweeted favorably: "Zee Avi, Malaysian singer, sounds like she's from Northampton, Mass. Is world getting too small?"

PopTech continues through Saturday, with talks about reinvention from prventive health expert Dean Ornish, food journalist Michael Pollan, Twestival cofounder Amanda Rose, writer Anthony Doerr and social media philosopher Michael Wesch, among many others. Watch this space for more highlights.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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