Think big! Conference on World Affairs starts today in Boulder

Now in its 64th year, the Conference on World Affairs is a five-day mental fest that fires up at the University of Colorado Boulder campus today. Since the first CWA in 1948, thinkers from the forefront and fringes of science, politics, spirituality, medicine, academia and the arts have convened every April to share and spar over the emerging ideas of the times.

For current-event junkies -- and anyone interested in emerging viewpoints on what's next for humankind -- it's an intellectual feast, the South by Southwest of the modern intelligentsia. But it's not to be undertaken by the meek or unprepared. With more than 90,000 people expected to participate, 150 presenters and dozens of offerings daily, it's impossible to take it all in. Some tips:

Best Theme: Technology Is Ruining/Saving the World

The CWA schedule is filled with thought-provoking panels on all kinds of things, but technology emerges as the issue on the mind of the most presenters. Dozens of events will probe the nuances of the digital era. Some speakers see boundless opportunities, abundance and solutions to global problems; others take a dimmer view of a wired world. Social media receives particular consideration, from its role as a tool of liberation in the Arab Spring and other youth-led revolutions to its implications for journalism. There's even conceptual artist, robot engineer and technological sculptor Jeff Lieberman ("Artistic and Interactive Interpretations of Robotic Technology," airing at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday on KGNU 88.5 FM/1390 AM), and Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute ("Technology: Helping or Hurting," Wednesday, 1 p.m., UMC West Ballroom).

Most Essential Wonky Speech, If You Gotta Pick One:

Like all CWA presenters, Alice Rivlin is a smart cookie. A senior fellow of economics at the Brookings Institution, Rivlin was appointed to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform by President Barack Obama, and also co-chairs the Debt Reduction Task Force at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She was also the first director of the Congressional Budget Office.

The qualifications make Rivlin uniquely qualified to pose a provocative question in her keynote address: "Can the Center Hold: Democracy and Governance in a Polarized America," 11:30 a.m. today at Macky Auditorium. Rivlin will bring an historical and insider perspective to the deep economic, ideological and cultural divisions that define our era and corrode civic engagement and government accountability.

Sounds a bit heavy? Not to worry. The keynote will be preceded by a parade -- albeit a CWA-style one: Rivlin will lead a procession of students, dignitaries and CWA presenters through the Boulder campus, as an official kick-off to the conference. She will not, however, appear on a float.

Best Panel That Should Be Held in Denver Instead of Boulder

Global economics are another major theme of this year's CWA. But the buy-and-make local movement gets some podium time, too. Mark Fraunfelder, founder of the scrappy, popular web aggregator boingboing as well as the crafter mag Make is among the presenters of "DIY: Hipster Economy," on Tuesday, 2 p.m., at the Atlas Black Box. We just wish Fraunfelder and his fellow presenters would take their show on the road. An encore at Fancy Tiger, perhaps?

Best Way to Go to the CWA:

Early, patiently and preferably in a carpool. All CWA panels, performances and screenings are free, but seats go quickly. Most are offered on a first-come/first-served basis, though there are ticket lotteries for some events. Boulder academics don't play around, so plan to arrive a good two hours before the official start; bring a book, a pal or a smartphone for entertaining yourself while in line. You can always scope the schedule online.

As for transportation: Parking on the CU campus is nearly impossible on a normal day. You can get a free ride on the Hop Shuttle, which picks up outside the also-free Macy's parking lot on 29th Street.

Best Reason Not to Attend the CWA:

Let's face it: Boulder can be annoying. If you'd rather not brave the drive, the parking, the crowds and the co-eds, you can still soak up the inspiration from the comfort of your computer. Sessions taking place in the UMC Ballroom and Macky Auditorium will be available in real time via Video on Demand, through the CWA website. An archive of CWA 2012 highlights will also be maintained on the site, as it has been in years past: Participant lists, schedules and podcasts of CWAs from 2001 through today are available here.

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