Thursday, Mar. 11, 2010

Looking Around Corners

This week's cover, our third annual 10 Ideas issue, was itself a new idea: we joined with the New America Foundation to assess the most important concepts that will shape our world over the next decade. The New America Foundation, an 11-year-old nonpartisan think tank in Washington with Silicon Valley roots, emphasizes next-generation thinkers and ideas — and that's what you'll find inside.

There's often something quaint about old ideas of the future — moving sidewalks, cars with wings, jet packs! But for this project, we were less interested in exploring new technologies than new ideas, especially ideas that are not tethered to the next election cycle. And we wanted concepts that range across as many fields and disciplines as possible.

More than a year ago, I had lunch with Steve Coll, the president of the New America Foundation and a distinguished journalist himself, and we talked about projects we could do together. Time's Lev Grossman, who edited the cover package along with Romesh Ratnesar, started batting around ideas with Andrés Martinez, the director of the foundation's fellows program. In one sense, almost all the ideas are what we sometimes call conceptual scoops. In fact, the package begins with Martinez's essay "The Next American Century," which disputes the conventional wisdom that the U.S.'s best days are behind it.

Even though we cover many topics, there are some broad themes, including how we are adjusting to the new norms of an altered economy. This isn't a matter of just scaling back but also of reconceiving how we live. As Christopher Hayes writes in one of the issue's most passionately argued essays, it's not just the market that has changed. The entire edifice of trust in authority that supported American life has been shaken, and the challenge of the next decade is to rebuild what we can and reroute our lives around what we can't. Reihan Salam writes about how in the 2010s, more and more people will live off the grid, working in a new underground economy that will fill in the gaps of the old one. Gregory Rodriguez speculates that with America on its way to becoming a majority nonwhite nation by 2050, we may see an aggrieved white minority that feels threatened and disenfranchised. In the context of an often risk-averse economy, Megan McArdle writes that we should not let an economic downturn prevent us from trying and failing to start new businesses, because failure, particularly in America, is the key to our culture of innovation.

Stories about the future often paint a picture of wonders that do not exist today. But we've tried to look past the latest gadgets to the social, cultural and economic currents that shape technology. Charles Kenny writes that for many millions of people around the world, old-fashioned television, not iPads or Xboxes, is the next big thing. TV is still a massive agent of social change and, even more than the Internet, is regarded as subversive by totalitarian regimes. Finally, Michael Lind takes exception to the idea that we live in an age of transformation, maintaining that in the ways that really matter, we're still running on the technological innovations of the early 20th and even the late 19th centuries.

Ultimately, gadgets come and go, but it takes ideas to give them meaning and put them to work to make our lives better. This country was founded on an idea, one that will never be obsolete. Ideas were, are and always will be the next big thing.