Forty-one years ago on July 20, 1969 two amazing first-ever phenomena happened simultaneously: In the first case, a human being walked on the moon—the first time we had stepped onto a world beyond Earth. It was the pinnacle of human technology and engineering. In this second case, five hundred million people around the world watched this moon walk on TV screens. It was the most popular media event to date.
As a thought experiment, imagine that you could go back in time and ask one of those TV viewers a question. Let’s call him Joe. You ask him, “Of these two momentous events, which one will make the bigger impact on life in forty years?”
My money says that Joe would pick the moon landing. And I think you’ll agree that that would be the wrong choice. This age of HD TV’s, Google, Facebook, video games, 3D imax movies, iPhones, and animated billboards. Rockets are cool, but the screens have won.
That night was a dramatic symbol of an ongoing titanic shift from the world of matter to the world of media.
The moonwalk represents humans’ extraordinary ability to manipulate their environment to chase material goals. It’s the same motivation that sent explorers looking for farmable land in the “New World,” and the same innovation that led eskimos to develop technology for surviving Arctic winters. Sure, bees build beehives and gorillas sometimes use sticks to dig out ants, but humans are the kings of taming environments. We have indoor heat and air conditioning, and create tools like tractors and rockets. We have a long history of learning to master the material world.
Joe probably expected a future that extended this trend; something like “The Jetsons” TV show, filled with flying cars, trips to Saturn, talking kitchens, and robot lawn mowers.
Those little shaded pixels on black and white TV’s represented a somewhat newer skill of humans: that of cheaply manipulating our senses so that we can have experiences without actually “being there”. Fifty million people could experience walking on the moon—or a good approximation—without actually having to fly in a rocket for three days. It’s certainly not the same as being on the moon, but it’s almost as good, and a lot cheaper! The moon missions cost at least $25 billion. Watching it on TV was free, apart from some advertisements. This was an important step—a giant leap even!—in our mastery of the media world.
Joe could not have foreseen the degree to which people immerse themselves in various media. Americans spend 46 billion minutes a month watching TV. And worldwide, people are spending 500 billion minutes a month just on Facebook.(3) Not to mention the time spent on telephones, video games, iPhone twiddling, and Twitter tweeting.
What is causing this shift in prominence from matter to media?
It comes down to values again.(1) Getting enough to eat is exponentially easier than even a hundred years ago. Same for shelter and other material needs.(2) When your material needs are met to a certain degree, there comes a point of diminishing returns: additional effort or dollars spent on better food, housing, toys, etc. doesn’t bring as much “bang” for the buck.
On the other hand, media experiences have been getting cheaper and better. People can often get more “valuable” experiences in the world of media—and for cheaper than the comparable material-world experiences.
This all seems intuitively right. If you’re a reader of this blog, you probably agree too. But are we just deceiving ourselves with our love of new media(4)? Where is the hard data? How would you prove (or disprove) this shift in human priorities? Here are some initial thoughts:
- Contributions to GDP from “matter companies” as opposed to “media companies”.
- Percentage of personal income spent on material needs versus media consumption.
- At what wealth threshold to people in developing nations begin to prioritize media? (Anyone who has traveled to developing countries has been struck by the sight of satellite dishes on shacks, and mobile phones on ox carts.)
- Mentions of media events and companies vs. matter companies in news headlines over time.
- Number of people employed, or net salaries paid, in “matter” jobs (manufacturing, farming, construction, etc) vs media jobs. (Though could be misleading, as many media have such low marginal cost as to require few workers.)
(1) Yeah, that’s my theme these days: See also Musings on the role of values in a life and When values go wrong: Surprising tales from cats, rats, bees, and Russian chat rooms.
(2) Primarily for western countries, but increasingly for the rest of the world too.
(4)Yes, pinning down a definition of “media” is hard. I’ll tackle that in a future post.
Thanks to Peter Sennhauser for hashing out this idea with me. And thanks to Ken Reisman for brainstorming about ways to measure this.