We are in the middle of a wave of excitement about how “Atoms are the new bits” and the “Maker Movement” both of which are great news. However, these good tidings are juxtaposed with the fact that people continue to spend more time in front of the television (250B hours in aggregate or 6.5 hours a day per house hold). That much time in front of a screen makes it tough to hack on an Arduino project or to come up with a customized Lego design. There are a lot of reasons TV is so popular, but a big part of this has to be the simplicity of the interface. Press one button and you are immediately presented with some form of stimulating content.
Contrast that with a book. Even a well written and documented book presents challenges. Sam Harris has written a new op-ed called “The Future of the Book” where he breaks down the difficulties of spreading ideas in the current media landscape. He discusses everything from Twitter to the rise of Amazon’s Kindle Singles, but one point seemed especially interesting:
“If your book is 600 pages long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?
The honest answer to this last question should disappoint everyone: Publishers can’t charge enough money for 60-page books to survive; thus, writers can’t make a living by writing them.”
One button vs. 600 pages. Immediate gratification or hours of uncertain struggle. When viewed through that lens it is a little easier to understand why a “Sciency” TV show like the “Big Band Theory” draws more attention than a lecture on “Citizen Science. To get people building things, projects need to be scoped into the equivalent of 30 and 60 minute time blocks.
Even if someone wanted to learn more about a topic, Museums are often user unfriendly. Art museums often have a snobby feel and Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote an excellent article on the status of adult outreach at Science Museums.
“Many, many science museums in the United States, and abroad, base their image and advertising around bright, primary colors and kid-centric messages. They’re filled with large, loud rooms where packs of children run from one station to another punching buttons. And they feature exhibits that focus on the same kind of timeless science basics taught in school. More importantly, they don’t reliably connect the science back to real-life issues, ongoing controversies, and the news that adults see every day.”
So even if the average person gets off the couch and goes to a museum, they’ll often leave unsatisfied if they are not within the narrow group the institution is optimized for.
Strangely enough TV might be the answer. TLC, HGTV, and other basic cable channels propel a $30B crafting supply industry. Getting people to create more generally interesting projects might just require a change of content, not of channel.