An audience for innovation: remember the colour film
September 13, 2023
With this issue of Innovation This Week, Tim Lougheed retires as managing editor of Research Money. Calling it one of the best gigs he has ever had during his 35-year career of writing about science and technology, he offers a parting thought on the powerful concept that drives this publication.
When the Prime Minister petitioned Taylor Swift on social media in July, asking her to include Canada on her upcoming world tour, there was more at stake than the reputation of a politician trying to show off his pop culture chops. It turns out the music star’s concerts can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy of host cities, with knock-on spending expected to approach $5 billion by the time her tour ends. A few weeks afterJustinTrudeau's tweet, tour organizers added six Toronto dates in November, sparking business expectations of a massive windfall just as consumers loosen their purse strings for Christmas.
Coming at a time when the country’s largest city is grappling with where to house its burgeoning population, never mind how to find work for all those people, the outsize impact of “Swift-onomics” raises questions about how to generate economic value in the 21st century. The short answer, in this case, has been the cultivation of a massive global audience, who deem the singer’s work to be personally and socially relevant.
Nevertheless, we are talking about music — not semiconductors, not steel, not batteries, not automobiles, not petroleum, not any of the “real” products we would regard as the content of multi-billion dollar trade. Nor was that audience wished into existence by Swift’s handlers. Its membership was established years before she swept onto the scene, among children who were steeped in a knowledge, appreciation, and outright love of music — a love powerful enough for otherwise cash-strapped concert-goers to find hundreds or even thousands of dollars for tickets, not to mention the sundry indignities associated with purchasing those tickets.
Consider that love the next time you attend your child’s school concert, or hear a young people’s choir, or see a teenage busker on the street. None of them may be talented, and the vast majority will never earn a living from their fondness for music, but they represent the foundation of a global, high-tech enterprise generating sales larger than many national economies.
We neglect this love at our peril, as we introduce young minds to other talents and interests, such as reading, numeracy, aesthetics, and critical thinking. Just as we indoctrinate even the most tone-deaf among us to the pleasures of a tune, we have the potential to instill a similar affection for a good book, the marvels of mathematical forms, an eye toward elegant design, and the mental tools to distinguish truth from lies.
Yet far too often, that affection is utterly lacking. Music is fun, we are told, and however bad we might be at it, that sense of fun can remain with us forever. In contrast, students far too often receive the message that science and math are absolutely not for fun. They are a serious business, calling for talent and skills essential to serious jobs that will be part of tomorrow’s serious economy. Of course, music calls for its own demanding set of talents and skills, but it also entertains and amuses; it smacks of heresy to suggest that science and math could do the same.
And so do we create an audience for an economy built on music, but not one built on science and mathematics. Those rare individuals who acquire a taste for these subjects are left to their own devices. Their subsequent endeavours, possibly leading to some intriguing discovery or invention, will not gain a following of individuals eager to weigh the implications of those discoveries or inventions — certainly not as eagerly as Taylor Swift fans await her next album. Instead, the often profound undertakings of scientists and engineers, which might represent the work of a lifetime or a world-spanning collaboration, are simply relegated to the narrow channels of technical lore, seen by few, loved by fewer.
We drain the blood out of our possible innovation economy, dreamt of by so much of the world’s business and political leadership. Governments trot out programs and incentives to entice the adoption of new ideas, new technology, or maybe just a bit of new equipment; all of it met by beancounters, pointing out they are not in this for fun.
Innovation costs, and with no fan base in evidence, its appeal invariably fades. We double down on how serious science and technology have become to our way of life, as though a mightier army of STEM shock troops would be the key to success, when what we lack is the popular support for the sizeable STEM workforce we already have. The billions produced by Taylor Swift do not come from highly skilled musicians, but from the broad range of allies with their own skill sets — in business, marketing, art design, fashion, stage construction, venue planning, and untold others — who team up with major talent for a very profitable ride. Innovation is no different: a prominent minority of devoted technology geeks may be the stars, but what really makes money is the hard work of all the other people in high tech, who bring something entirely different to the table and look a lot more like the rest of us.
By way of comparison, imagine a world in which the vast economic potential of music inspired educational authorities to treat this as another “serious” subject. Young people would only be allowed to sing, dance, or play an instrument under strictly controlled conditions. The distribution of music would also be tightly governed, lest its quality suffer from the many amateurs making a mess of it. Raise a generation in a staunch discipline respecting the societal importance of music, first and foremost, and ensuring talent is accredited and well organized.
Then go looking for the throngs of Swifties clamouring at the gates, who will instead amount to a tiny, polite line-up of devotees waiting their turn. Try to find the gushers of money those fans would surrender to hear the approved music, which will instead be a trickle. Academics will ponder what could be done to yield a more productive outcome for musical entrepreneurs, while governments frame policies to support more competitive musical initiatives. The outcome will be tepid at best, because everyone will have long since absorbed the unspoken lesson that music is not for fun, and so not worth any serious investment of time, energy, or resources.
Whole societies have learned such lessons the hard way. When Angela Merkel wrapped up her 16-year tenure as chancellor of Germany — a nation widely admired as an outstanding example of enterprise and innovation — she chose a revealing song to be played at her military leaving ceremony. It was “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen”, released in 1974 by the punk band Nina Hagen. That was in what was then East Germany, where Merkel grew up. The title — which means “You forgot the colour film” — became a subversive anthem for the Communist country’s stolid, drab, and uninspiring character. Casual observers estimated almost half the country could sing the song’s lyrics, which served as a tribute to the missing audience for a brighter, more inspiring way of life entrenched in West Germany, which ultimately absorbed its poorer cousins in the East.
For whatever reason, we constantly need to be reminded to load the colour film. It is not a fatal oversight, and people did indeed make their way in East Germany, however awkwardly. Yet in a 21st-century Canada that styles itself among the most attractive places in the world to live, let Merkel's music serve as a harsh reminder of the difference between a Taylor Swift concert and yet another neglected domestic enterprise taking its business elsewhere.