The IdeaFestival Is About This Too

I recalled this older blog post while talking with Kevin Smokler, Cariwyl Hebert and Jeff Rider at IdeaFestival 2012 last month. Because it expresses why I think the festival is so important, and perhaps to put rhetorical bow on what just went down, I thought it worthwhile to re-post a lightly edited version.

The blog will go silent next week while I take a few days away to recharge - be back soon.

Three years ago in a fit of exquisite timing I left a full time job with some pretty sweet benefits to start my own business. The IdeaFestival was my first client. At the time, I had learned from long exposure to information technology professionals that we were all publishers. One constant complaint in the rather large networks they managed revolved around the unauthorized use of those resources - given the means and opportunity, people did a lot of talking, and some of it not at all welcome.

Well that was just perfect. I had some things to say.

About that time, I had the good fortune to meet Kris Kimel, who founded the festival, and I explained that it might also want to talk out loud about ideas and their importance to "innovation that matters," its core purpose. And even though I'm sure he didn't quite understand this blogging business, to his credit he agreed.

In truth, there are people who understand social media far better than me, who know how to search-engine optimize digital nits down to the last file and meta-ID, who can program a web site to reach out and grab people by their Google-ad loving throat. I'm not one of them.

No, what I wanted more than anything was to be involved with an event where all kinds of people celebrated all kinds of things interesting and new. We introverts are like that. Appeals to our minds can bring our feet to a stop. And as the son of a pastor who has lived in quite a few different places from Louisiana to Minnesota, Kentucky was my home.

It's a place that I've come to appreciate over the years. It once was the first frontier, known for an expansiveness of thought, the belief that over mountains and in the fog-shrouded valleys on the Cumberland plateau a new beginning could be had. Descending the gap and buoyed on the Ohio, these visionaries and technologists built kilns and furnaces, they stacked trees, one over the other, to build walls to keep the cold at bay. They wrote letters to the public in Boston and Philadelphia.

Today I often wonder whether its descendants know that engineers are inspired by birds to design flocks of machines, or in a time gripped by so much fear, whether they really believe that the next step will not be the last - never mind if that belief calls on the extra-natural or not - or that our self-aware biology is still one gaping, breath-taking mystery to philosophers and biologists alike, or that 500 other worlds and counting orbit distant suns beside the yellow dwarf we know so well. Do they know that golden ages lie ahead? Do they know that doughty robots have sighted fountains near Saturn, or that oceans may spread across the deep below Enceladus or Europa, and that life clings to sulfur vents in the crushing depths of our own oceans, or that lately, some think that life may loiter in the thick orange atmosphere of Titan? 

Similarly, do people outside Kentucky know about the contentment found in fitting seashell-ed limestone rock wedged from soil inches deep? Do they know that these sturdy dry laid walls still line fields in the bluegrass with nought but gravity for an assist, the same implacable force studied by physicists? Do they understand that story and music runs thick as a washed July night in these southern highlands, because, far from the conventions of Boston and Philadelphia and safe in their redoubts, of course the explorers would send up sound and story? It's the normal respiration of any society able to recognize its good fortune.

Sadly, for many people thinking about the future delivers one punch to the gut after another. Science makes its best always-subject-to-revision effort to describe reality, and much too often ordinary people will lodge their complaints against it before beating a retreat in this wired, wired world to whatever and whomever will offer solace. And the art! Can't the meaning be clear? It's all just so much to digest, these changes.

I've learned from many people at the IdeaFestival. From Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I learned history will occasionally deliver overwhelming news from the clear blue. It just happens. I learned from Jane McGonigal that games can be used to make a better reality rather than as a means of escape. I learned from Teller that knowing secrets behind the curtain didn't diminish the joy of staring slack jawed at dancing golden spheres. I learned from Burt Rutan that with supreme imagination and determination, we can trip to space in safety and return in comfort. Someday, I'll do that. The elfin and poised Daniel Tammet argued during the most recent IdeaFestival that when we think in similes and puns, we're thinking not unlike a savant. I learned that his prodigious mathematical and language abilities are not so far removed from yours or mine.

I learned that there isn't a mind to waste, that when these explorers, these visionairies, these westward-movers describe new truths, their language touches - just touches - a single whole that in some sense will always be beyond reach. It's not because what's real is unknowable. On the contrary. It's because what's real is mind-bendingly big, and the mirrored snap, crackle and pop that occurs in my brain one week every fall in Louisville is merely a vanishing, if thrilling, approximation. I've learned, most importantly, that the festival is not an "either, or" after all.

It's about "this too."