PopTech, the vaunted thoughtfest that annually gathers some of the world’s leading social innovators in the coastal hamlet of Camden, Maine, just wrapped up its 2009 conference after mulling an uncharacteristically, un-global theme: America and the challenges it faces domestically in the early years of this new century.

Called America Reimagined, the conference featured 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 sessions were 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 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.”

We took Peter Pan too seriously; we took Bob Dylan’s lyrics too seriously.  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, 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a time when all of these cycles are shifting dramatically and simultaneously; when complacency is forced to end; when outdated structures are being inevitably and necessarily challenged, and when change is rapid and difficult to predict.”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, like many of PopTech’s other speakers, was optimistic. Andersen 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.

“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:

  • Alec Ross, a senior social media/technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told conferees about the ion’s 21st Century Statecraft initiative, uses social media to help nations and leaders empower their citizens and each other. “If you think of the last eight years of American foreign policy, it was about overpowering others in the world,” Ross said. “[We want] to go beyond engaging government-to-government and to connect with people more directly.  If Paul Revere were alive today, he wouldn’t make a ride; he would have just tweeted and the lantern hangers would’ve retweeted.” Ross said he is launching a new social media initiative with Mexican drug-trafficking authorities that aims to engage citizens in their war on drugs.  He described that one of the biggest problems in this conflict is that people fear retaliation if they help out law enforcement.  “So I went [to Mexico]…and we met with NGOs and with Carlos Slim and we came up with a little system where people are able to email or text gang activity.” The system anonymizes their emails to prevent retaliation, and the government can use these tips to respond more quickly, and keep people informed about what’s happening in their anti-drug efforts. “This is just Chapter One of how we can use technology in statecraft.”
  • James Fowler, the author of the recent book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, told conferees that humans—like birds and schools of fish—also tend to act in communities of purpose and suggested that online social networks will amplify these natural social tendencies. Humans have always lived in “webs of humanity,” Fowler said, and within these Webs, such physical traits as obesity and behaviors such as smoking tend to spread like viruses. In other words, there is a kind of swarm mentality in social networks, and those people closest to us can affect our behaviors more than we might like to admit. But there is an upside.  When individuals engage in positive behavior, this also can have a ripple effect on the actions of those of their social networks.  “I recently lost five pounds,” Fowler said, “to influence those I loves to do the same. Just think about it, by changing your own behavior, you truly can change the behavior of others.” Social media can help humans influence their communities and have a large positive impact on the world.
  • Erica Williams, a 20-something Washington, D.C.-based activist working to help broaden the civic engagement of her peers, urged the older 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 added, today’s 18-27 year olds “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 came up at a time with 9-11, fighting two wars and a gap between the haves and have-nots that we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age—and a “me” generation that was many of our parents. So we distrust ‘politics as usual.’ It hasn’t worked.”  In the absence of top-down reform, Williams said her generation will always work beyond traditional avenues to get things done, bypassing candidates who don’t deliver, and mobilizing young people directly. “We are re-branding what it means to be politically engaged,” she said.
  • 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?”

imageMarcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.