“The inaugural Convening the College event kicks off a new era for the reimagined College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas. We are committed to community-engaged scholarship designed to help students achieve success and live our institutional values through real-world experiences,” said Yohuru Williams, College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) dean. “Peter Leyden, a new CAS Advisory Board member, is the perfect person to set the tone. His expertise in technologies and future trends will address the extraordinary story of our times, what to expect in the coming decades and how the CAS is transforming itself in a way that will prepare its students to be morally responsible leaders who will be not only career-ready, but life-ready.”
Leyden attended St. Thomas after growing up on its campus as his father, Donald, helped lead the college for 30 years into the 1980s. Since attending St. Thomas Leyden has forged an incredible, globe-spanning career of storytelling and discussing big ideas with remarkable people. Early in his career he worked at the Star Tribune and started the newspaper’s first beat to explain the internet, writing a 50,000-word special project called “On the Edge of the Digital Age.” He then moved to WIRED and became its managing editor while continuing to cover the technological boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Leyden has most recently worked for several pioneering organizations and founded a variety of start-ups, including the latest, Reinvent, that facilitates conversations with thought leaders around the world.
His keynote presentation, “The Reinvention of America,” will lay out Leyden’s optimistic viewpoint as the United States works toward a fundamental reinvention. Informed by his decades of information gathering and knowledge seeking, Leyden will discuss how three major forces are driving a transformation of the economy and society that may have its closest precedent to the time of the Founding Fathers in the Enlightenment. The digitization of everything is allowing almost all our industries, fields and systems to be reorganized in very different ways. The globalization of everything is allowing humans to operate for the first time thoroughly on a planetary scale. And climate change is just beginning to force changes in our core energy systems and rework our entire infrastructure towards sustainability. These changes taken together will be so profound that we will come to understand them as civilizational changes as they play out over the next 50 years.
The Newsroom caught up with Leyden for a phone interview while he was in Amsterdam on Aug. 21 to talk with him about returning to his St. Thomas roots and his views on the world ahead.
(This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.)
How much are you looking forward to coming back to the campus you grew up on?
There is something special to me about coming back to St. Thomas and giving this talk. It’s the first time giving a talk at St. Thomas, and it is kind of an interesting full-circle experience. From the time I was 2 we moved to within a mile of campus, the house my mother still lives in. I literally was over for all the sports games, football, basketball. … This is a place I know quite well, and yet for the last 25 years I’ve been rooted in the Bay Area and have been thinking about the future of the country and the world. It’s really nice that this talk will give me a chance to come back full circle to my roots and reflect on what I’ve learned in the last several decades that might help folks in your community help think about the future differently.
You’ve made a career out of, as you put it, talking to remarkable people about big ideas. How much have you enjoyed that and what you’ve gained over decades of this work?
The way I think about it, I feel extremely fortunate in my career and in my life situation. And it starts, without making too much of it, with my early education, including my time at St. Thomas. I’ve always just been a very curious mind and a really avid reader. I have been fearlessly going out to learn what I can about the world. …
When I came to what was then the College of St. Thomas, in my first year I was opened up to literature and the humanities in ways that broadened my thinking. Second year went through one of the early study abroad programs, late ’70s, that I was given a chance to go to the University of London for a year. It wasn’t a little American program, but being part of the university there in London. That blew my mind. I ended up taking art history classes, literature, poetry, to expand away from just simply from the science and math background. That exposed me to travel and a lot of things that started to blow my mind in that year. Spent that summer in the Middle East, which took me beyond my comfort zone and into really foreign travel. From early days I was very intellectually curious but also exposed increasingly to incredible opportunities that set me on a course I’ve followed now a long time. …
In your keynote, you make the case for how the chaos and disruption of the early 21st century will yield a more digital, global, sustainable world. This sounds like a pretty optimistic viewpoint on how things are going and are going to go. Is that fair to say you feel good about where we’re headed?
I will completely cop to the idea that I am an indefatigable optimist. … My life experiences have reinforced to me a general optimism about the world. What I’ve done as I’ve studied the world and data and the future systematically in a rigorous way, in a bigger picture and longer term view, I would argue in American history we’ve watched an upward progression of quality of life, building the country, and the world itself despite all kinds of craziness. The general deep trend lines of people coming out of poverty, diseases being cured … are generally positive. The technology and knowledge we’re coming to find is that the future could be much better than we have now. My story that I tend to talk to people about is an optimistic one, a positive story, particularly where we’re going. It’s not inevitable that things will keep getting better … but it’s very plausible that we’re in the midst of a story that is getting better. Despite what we see in the daily news and are preoccupied constantly on Twitter, that we’re moving forward and have some huge opportunities that are going to play out to our benefit. I’m very confident we’ll solve climate change, get through fractious politics and get through to an era that will have more consensus, and that technology despite all its disruption will help us. … That’s the story I tell, and I’ve been telling it in different forms over many years.
Why has it been so important for you to seek out colleges as places to speak? What about speaking to young people as they’re in those formative years is appealing to you?
It totally is. A part of this talk, a portion of it I devote to demographic change, in America particularly. One of the major drivers of thinking about the future is the demographics of where things are going. The two big pieces are generation change and change toward a much more diverse country. I’ve been speaking for a long time about the millennial generation … it’s the biggest generation in American history, an extraordinary generation, and live out their lives of helping this transformation in the world. There’s a huge role as the baby boomers slide off the stage. …
Older generations … are still fighting a fight they started in the ’60s and it’s gotten to be counterproductive and really problematic for the country. The boomers have not done their part in moving the country ahead. I do feel optimistic and confident younger generations will learn from these mistakes … and we’ll move into a better era with more consensus, civic mindedness, and taking on these big problems like climate change that older generations are not. To go back into St. Thomas and a younger generation is nice. If professors or administrators, the world of higher education has a huge role to play in this transformation. … Liberal arts education, particularly, is at a juncture here. The world of education has not gone through the digital transformation so many other fields have been disrupted by. It’s still rooted in 20th century ways of operation. The field is overdue for a big change in how education gets done. Given how fundamental a lot of these changes will be is a role for all these disciplines to help figure out these new systems of the 21st century. We can’t just let the scientists and engineers figure all this out. … What is it like to be human in an age of AI? Those in the humanities have as much to offer as much as someone in science and technologies. We all have to step up. There’s going to be something for everyone in the coming decades.