Monday, May 20, 2013

Guestpost: Howard Burton - "Justified Optimism"

[Howard Burton, founding director of Perimeter Institute, has a new project, Ideas Roadshow, a weekly magazine dedicated to ideas of all types and shapes. Rather than having the declared aim of spreading fractured pieces with little content, the Ideas Roadshow is for those who are looking for content, and who want to know more than the catchy phrases. The magazine will be published in text and as video (streaming and downloadable).]

A fairly common reaction when I tell people what I’m doing now with Ideas Roadshow is a quizzical raising of the eyebrows followed by a wry little smile.

“Well, good luck,” they say sceptically. I certainly think that’s needed right now. But you know Howard, the internet is not exactly about substance. We live in a sound bite world. How do you think you’re going to make money from this? Who is going to watch it?”

So one of the few benefits about careening into advanced middle age is that I’ve witnessed enough by now to recognize that any references to recent golden ages are wildly exaggerated. I don’t remember being brought up in a world awash in substantive, measured discussions of the latest issues in neuroscience or public policy. My high school experience didn’t consist of teachers having to forcibly detach kids from their iPhones, but there was no shortage of ways for us to waste our hours and avoid doing what we were supposed to: Donkey Kong manages to kill time just as well as Angry Birds.

That’s not to say that, by some objective measure, things aren’t getting worse. In some ways they certainly are.

It’s true that newspapers almost everywhere are in deep financial trouble and those that have managed to stay afloat are devoting increasingly less of their time and resources towards long-form analysis and more for mindless knee-jerk responses to the ever-increasing amount of “breaking news”.

But it’s also true that there are now far more effective and salubrious ways for a young ambitious musician to gain a popular audience than by being forced to cavort with sleazy record executives.

Technology, of course, is but a tool. That is so obvious as to border on the cliché. But that doesn’t mean that the message doesn’t sometimes get overlooked.

The notion that, somehow as a result of our developing technology, virtually nobody on planet Earth actually cares anymore about engaging in the world of ideas, is, of course, simply ludicrous. It can’t be true. And it bloody well isn’t.

What technology has done, however, is change the way that those who are interested interact with the world of ideas. In particular, one decidedly ironic effect of the internet has been to intellectually ghettoize people. So while it’s now trivial to meaningfully interact with like-minded people living on the other side of the world, it’s also the case that one is much less likely to be confronted with interesting and stimulating ideas outside of one’s own self-selected area of interest.

Often the most illuminating and stimulating experiences happen when we are forced to encounter people who hold radically different approaches or interests to our own. But the more we spend time with our like-minded friends, the less likelier such encounters are going to be.

This is the core issue. It has, of course, been commented on before. But somehow I don’t think it’s as appreciated as much as it should be.

Conventional newspapers are not collapsing because nobody cares about general ideas. Conventional newspapers are collapsing because their principal revenue stream – print advertising revenue – has dried up. Advertisers are naturally much keener to ensure that their message is being delivered to their particular target audience, which naturally argues for a segmented, specialized approach to sponsorship. Now that technology allows for detailed methods to precisely deliver content and measure its impact, advertisers are increasingly unwilling to participate in scattershot approaches that will clearly be hugely less efficient and effective.

All quite reasonable. But the solution for those who seek a general level of stimulation, for those who are keen to be at play in the world of ideas, is not to bemoan the logic of the marketplace or fall back on dreamy reminiscences of some mythical golden age, but to simply capitalize on the opportunities afforded.

Twenty years ago, or even ten, it would have been completely inconceivable to imagine creating a program where one travels the world and records substantial conversations with a diverse range of fascinating people. Camera technology would have made it prohibitively expensive to develop a professional-quality product; and even had that been somehow circumvented, it would have been virtually impossible to disseminate the results with anywhere near the range necessary to make it profitable.

People interested in ideas have always been a small minority, so to make it work one has to scale globally, or at least nationally. How could a private start-up even attempt such a thing? We’d have had to effectively take over a TV station. Inconceivable.

Recent technology has allowed both of these fundamental obstacles to be overcome. We can not only film for a fraction of the cost of ten years ago, we can also fit all of our cameras, lights and gear into two travelling cases that we can easily travel with anywhere. And once we’ve made our videos and eBooks, we can easily market them to ideas-oriented consumers worldwide.

Of course, just because structural impediments are eliminated, success is hardly guaranteed. One still has to make a product that people actually like. And then one has to establish a new brand and market it successfully.

But let’s be very clear: those are the issues. Not that we are all too superficial now. Or that nobody cares about ideas. That’s just silly.

Starting something new is always a challenge. But there are challenges and then there are challenges.

Being at the front end of a new wave of global niche market digital media products is one thing. But it’s not like some unknown guy trying to build a theoretical physics institute in the middle of nowhere from scratch.

Now that, surely, is impossible.

16 comments:

Joy Christian said...

Where is the “like” button, Bee? I can’t communicate without the like button. I want to say “like” to this article!

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

:o) In the default widget the fb share icon doesn't show the number of "likes", it just shows the number of "+1". I meant to add the fb like count at some point by hand, but then, you can (and did) like it on fb directly. All this is to say that Google and fb don't mix as well as one would want them to and I don't have the patience to play with the template.

Arun said...

Like!

Uncle Al said...

What scares people? What is abundantly and aggressively, governmentally and socially anti-subsidized? What aspect of humanity cannot be reduced to scoring a goal (conquest), having 1000 m^2 bedrooms (wealth), or strutting on a stage and being pelted by panties (Mick Jagger or Obama - power and sex)? Intellect. It cannot be purchased, leased, stolen, counterfeited, worked into... or even imagined. There is nothing equal or equitable about the top 0.1% in anything.

Only one other force in the arts and sciences drives civilization so hard, so consistently, so globally, and so Officially unwantedly: pornography (painting, literature, magazines, sculpture; records, photography, movies, VCRs, CDs, DvDs; Usenet and Internet, picture-everythings). The Manhattan Project had an astoundingly large birthrate, then Hiroshima mon amour. Economics demands that objectively educating the masses requires brothels. (The US Department of Education in metaphor is an STD warehouse.)

Robert L. Oldershaw said...


Here's a possible idea for a future issue.

The Scientific Method: Science's Foundation or an Irritating Impediment?

Useful resources might be Smolin's fanciful new book "Time Reborn" and especially Richard Dawid's new book "String Theory and the Scientific Method".

A good quotation from James Clerk Maxwell that goes well with this theme is as follows.

"I have no reason to believe that the human intellect is able to weave a system of physics out of its own resources without experimental labour. Whenever the attempt has been made it has resulted in an unnatural and self-contradictory mass of rubbish."

Robert L. Oldershaw
Discrete Scale Relativity/Fractal Cosmology

Phillip Helbig said...

"All this is to say that Google and fb don't mix as well as one would want them to"

By design, of course.

Phil Warnell said...

Dear Dr. Burton,

I was wondering what had happened to you since your departure from PI. This new endeavour of yours certainly fits in with the type of person I found you to be during your tenure there and one of the aspects of the place I sorely miss. I've signed on for a year and have confidence I’ll have reason to do the same into the future.


Best Regards,

Phil

Howard Burton said...

Dear Phil,

Thanks so much for subscribing - very much appreciated indeed. It's always rather terrifying to do stuff in a void. You think you've got a good idea and a good product, but until you go to market, you simply don't know.

Something similar happened at PI. I remember getting up repeatedly to blather on about this and that on more occasions than was healthy for anyone, but it was never quite clear to me if anyone really agreed with what I was saying.

Your response goes a long way towards convincing me that perhaps I'm on the right track after all. Hopefully there will be more like you.

Thanks again,

Howard

Zephir said...

/* the most illuminating and stimulating experiences happen when we are forced to encounter people who hold radically different approaches or interests to our own */

Yep, they're banned from there - this is my stimulating experience with it.

Plato Hagel said...

Hello Howard,

Quite an undertaking given what I have just read.

I was equally impressed with the organizational work you for the Pi Institute, and to me, quite a feat.

There were some things that came to mind when hearing of the title, "Ideas Roadshow." It is what it symbolized when thinking with regard to Robert M. Pirsig and his written work called, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

In it he writes,

"What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that's the only name I can think of for it...like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks."{Link added by me to emphasis}

You of course recognize the difficulties of such a venture and of cutting new channels. You already lured me in with Plato's Heaven, so I will have to look at that and see where this goes.

All the best,

Giotis said...

I enjoyed Nima's interview especially a couple of his arguments supporting SUSY.

SUSY is the only reasonable thing Nature can do that is compatible with the principles of QM and special relativity.

and also that we have spin 0, 1/2, 1 and 2 particles so it would be odd for Nature not to close the circle with spin 3/2 particles.

Clever...

Then I guess Supergravity should be there and consequently String theory:-)

About the site I will not make a subscription but I will buy individual videos on topics I'm interested in.

Plato Hagel said...

Moving forward with these ideas are important. So the context given in lets say a string of thoughts was to remain part of that conversation?

In the old ways of television advertising they vied for spots during shows and some of the best shows were assign ads that cost more to be placed. The type of advertising you might want on your YouTube videos?

Currently Google as you know gives this option through algorithmic association. Some bloggers choose not to advertise, while some find it a means with which to support their living.

So how to support the Ideas Roadshow? By example, Scientific Magazine? What happens after the limited types with your introductory videos that were placed on YouTube?

You have no forum with which to continue these ideas? That should be part of your articles. How do your articles remain part f our conversations today? Access from the public perspective is necessary, to remain current?

Anyway some ideas that came to mind as you emerge onto the scene.

Best,

Howard Burton said...

So I should have responded to this. I must confess that I am not the best blogger/responder - which, arguably, doesn't bode well for much of this. In my defense, however, I've been rather pre-occupied with getting ready for a batch of new issues.

Anyway, what I principally wanted to say was to thank you for your interest and your thoughtful suggestions. Partnering with a known quantity would be one obvious way to go.

I am, obviously, hardly anti-science. But on the other hand, as you can see from my writings, I am nonetheless determined to do what I can to get out of the "science ghetto" - not only because the usual handwringing of "why don't more members of the general public appreciate science?" is increasingly tedious to me, but also because I think a good chunk of people who never go on to science blogs or pick up science magazines would nonetheless be interested in some of these topics.

So how does one promote breadth while establishing an entirely new brand? I'm not quite sure. But I certainly welcome any and all suggestions.

Thanks again,

Howard

Howard Burton said...

So I should have responded to this. I must confess that I am not the best blogger/responder - which, arguably, doesn't bode well for much of this. In my defense, however, I've been rather pre-occupied with getting ready for a batch of new issues.

Anyway, what I principally wanted to say was to thank you for your interest and your thoughtful suggestions. Partnering with a known quantity would be one obvious way to go.

I am, obviously, hardly anti-science. But on the other hand, as you can see from my writings, I am nonetheless determined to do what I can to get out of the "science ghetto" - not only because the usual handwringing of "why don't more members of the general public appreciate science?" is increasingly tedious to me, but also because I think a good chunk of people who never go on to science blogs or pick up science magazines would nonetheless be interested in some of these topics.

So how does one promote breadth while establishing an entirely new brand? I'm not quite sure. But I certainly welcome any and all suggestions.

Thanks again,

Howard

Plato Hagel said...



Well. I hesitated for a bit, proffering a few encouraging comments for the sake of balance before erupting with a laundry list of various improvements, culminating with: "why the hell do you have horoscopes in your paper? Don't you see that it's a bloody embarrassment for an allegedly sophisticated publication to promote this kind of idiocy in the twenty-first century? Take them out!" First Principles by Howard Burton, page 190, para 2


Howard Burton:I am, obviously, hardly anti-science. But on the other hand, as you can see from my writings, I am nonetheless determined to do what I can to get out of the "science ghetto"

Phil and I have had some chat back then with regard to your book, First Principles. I didn't need much n the way of persuasion so as to realize the extreme efforts with which you have showed and demonstrated, as you had showed in the quest for the creation of the PI institute.

There were a few other, unique touches I had some fun with. Legend has it that glowering over the entrance to Plato's Academy was the phrase, "Let none ignorant of geometry enter here." Tipping our metaphorical hat to rigour of the Ancient Greeks while simultaneously invoking our outreach mandate, I contacted a classicist so that I could eventually inscribe a Greek translation of"Let no one uninterested in Geometry enter here" over both the the north and south doors of the building. It's possible that some wilful geometrical ignoramuses could penetrate the facility through another entrance, of course, but they'd have to go to a fair amount of trouble to do so.First Principles by Howard Burton, page 244, para 2 and page 245

I wonder what ever happen to those touches you added and placed over the doors?:)

Most organizations in terms of the papers have gone to digital formats because of the decrease in newspaper purchases and readership. A lot of these newspapers and science magazines are choosing to use a "Disqus commentary format" to correspond with their articles.

This is what I meant in terms of no forum.....yet chose to show you how your productions can become part of the discussion landscape.

You are facing a lot of competition, given the ability of many to now move into such production formats.

Of course as you say, it is your choice of productions that will help you along. Multimedia has gone through some dramatic changes in the last four years. I truly do wish you and your compadres all the best for success.

Plato Hagel said...

I thought I might add that the consideration of data constraints is still a problem today when it comes to staying within data parameters with regard to the plans people are using.

So data compression is a big topic right now in terms of how much data video imaging and multimedia usages is occurring.

Google's VP9 video compression format is also being brought to Chrome on mobile devices. It's designed to deliver better quality video at lower data rates than the widely used H.264 format, Google said.

VP9 offers roughly a 50 percent savings in data bandwidth usage over H.264, Upson said. That could make a big difference to people struggling to stay within their monthly data usage limits.

YouTube will start supporting VP9 later this year.
See:Google to boost speed, cut data use on mobile devices

Attaching your self to institutions like the one you created is also advisable. I would suggest using research developments into data compression, while operating in educational zones.

My push has been to provide unlimited use of data with regard to universities and libraries, on the basis of bringing society out of that ghetto.:)When faced with certain realizations the future will require a method to find holes in that data train in order to provide for usage of data that is free for educational uses.