[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.