Seismic Shifts in our Social Culture – Part I: Synopsis from the Aspen Ideas Festival

Category: Managing Directors, Portfolio Management

By Doug Cohen, Managing Director, Portfolio Management

I had the privilege of attending the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival earlier this summer. The Festival is a gathering place for scientists, artists, politicians, historians, educators, activists, and other great thinkers to present, debate, and discuss some of the most important and fascinating ideas and issues of our time. The sessions generally touched on a wide spectrum of political, technological/scientific, social, and women empowerment oriented themes.

A former professor of mine at Harvard Business School used to say that you will almost always be well ahead of the pack if you can distill any given class or presentation into three key takeaways—as well as one important issue that went unaddressed. Along those lines, here are my key observations from the speakers of the sessions I attended that examined seismic shifts in our social culture.

Key takeaways on the politically-oriented sessions can be read here and here, and observations from sessions on climate change and disruptive technologies can be read here.

Where the Next Billion Members of the Middle Class Will Come From

Sarah Heck – Head of Entrepreneurship for Stripe, enabling entrepreneurs globally to start and grow internet businesses; formerly held several positions at the US Department of State

Kalsoom Lakhani – Founder and CEO of Invest2Innovate, supporting startups in growth markets

Snigdha Poonam – National Affairs Writer with the Hindustan Times in Delhi; Author of “Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World”

1) An iPhone is now more powerful than all of the computing power NASA had in 1969. This is enabling a tremendous amount of young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs around the world to build businesses with little regard to traditional borders. That said, youth unemployment remains highly elevated throughout much of the world and it will be critical to empower young people to help build high growth businesses.

2) Today’s Pakistan is much different from what you may see on TV. Approximately 60% of the people are under 30 and smartphone penetration is approaching 70%. Entrepreneurship is thriving. Still, it is an opaque market with significant operating risks and there is still much to prove.

3) India has continued to build one of the world’s great technology innovation hotbeds. Half of the nation’s roughly 1.2 billion people are under age 25 and smartphone growth is also exploding. India will likely have the largest English speaking population in the world within the next decade or so. The youth culture greatly admires self-made US entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk—their YouTube videos are extremely popular. All that said, youth unemployment and underemployment are still very high and crime (including tech related scams) is widespread.

--A key question that was not addressed: How can countries such as Pakistan and India capitalize as Chinese labor and manufacturing costs continue to rise?

The Perilous Pursuit of the Truth: Investigative Journalists in Hostile Times

Faisal Al Mutar – Founder and Chairman of Ideas Beyond Borders

Yvette Alberdingk Thijm – Executive Director, WITNESS, a global team of human rights activists

Gillian Caldwell – CEO of Global Witness

1) This is a great moment of peril for global journalists and for journalism as a whole. Much of the world lacks access to a free press and is dramatically misinformed by their government run press. This is a major issue throughout much of the Arab world.

2) In many cases, the major social media platforms have added significant transparency to multiple government abuses. In this sense social media can be very positive. But the obstacles are often formidable. For example, governments have often deleted evidence of major wrong-doing. Moreover, the major social media platforms utilize algorithms that have unknowingly erased vitally important pieces of evidence from journalists and others who have recorded atrocities. The view was expressed that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does not understand true journalism and that there is a resulting gap in the company’s values.

3) There is a tremendous amount of “synthetic media” that has arisen, much of it valuable. However, youth (in particular) know that such media can be heavily manipulated and have learned not to trust all that they see. As positive as social media can be in terms of raising awareness, it can also pose significant risks (e.g., enabling authorities to locate potential deportees). In that sense, extensive social media training is still required among the general population.

--A key question that was not addressed: What are the ethical obligations of social media-oriented companies in countries where censorship prevents accurate information from being shared?

From the Barricades of the Culture Wars

Jordan Peterson – Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto; Author of the recent best-seller “12 Rules for Life”

1) After some initial discussion of his recent rise to fame and controversy (the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted him as a potential star in conservatism’s rebirth—despite his insistence that he is not a conservative—while publications such as the New York Times have been far more critical), Peterson emphasized the power of technological transformation. In particular, YouTube videos and podcasts have allowed him (and, of course, many others) to expand his reach by orders of magnitude beyond what printed media could have ever done. He believes there is a true hunger in the population for intellectual discussion that transcends what television is capable of providing. Peterson insists that he is often misquoted despite being incredibly careful to be precise in how he speaks, but that he is “loathed by only a small percentage of noisy people.”

2) Peterson was highly critical of academia in that he believe that universities have become too top heavy at the administrative level and are not spending any more on faculty than they did thirty years ago. There has been a radical increase in tuition while most other things in life have seen their prices decline. Free access to student loans ultimately cripples too many students when they reach their 30’s and 40’s—a form of involuntary servitude. He believes  new technologies will help expand education to more of a life-long endeavor rather than stopping at the age of 21 or 22, as is the case for too many people.

3) In response to some of the contentious issues related to gender that he has discussed and written about, Mr. Peterson insists that most men and women are fundamentally similar—that the similarities are more pronounced than the differences. That said, he believes that as a matter of statistical reality (the outliers on a normal statistical distribution), men tend to be more aggressive. For example, that is why men are roughly 10 times more likely to go to jail than women, or why men are much more likely to succeed in their suicide attempts. He believes the evidence is that men are more interested in things and that women are more interested in people and the care of others. As such, he believes this is why men tend to gravitate toward professions such as engineering and women dominate in health care services.

--A key question that was not addressed: Mr. Peterson touched upon his transformation from a young believer in socialism to his prevailing view that socialism and Marxism are highly destructive. Was there a specific catalyst that encouraged the transformation or was it simply that his view changed as he studied the cumulative evidence?

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