Commercialised media and decline of STEM careers

In the last post, I analysed how natural rules of the society make STEM careers not attractive to young people. Free market doesn’t restrict the work of natural economic rules, which sets price of each career only according to its popularity among the public. Government should compose laws to increase the salary of STEM careers mandatorily. And in this article, I will say something about the mainstream media and we will say how these media make STEM less attractive and even vilified.

Since 1980s, the media market in many countries has been gradually opened to private investors; and even state-owned media are attempting to make themselves commercialised and profitable. And now we see the harm of this trend. When the media and communication industry are over commercialised, they instinctively broadcast the programmes with less brain using to the public; because corny content are more popular among people, especially young people and can so that the company can make more profit; the classic and elegant content are reducing in most of public media because laziness is human’s nature and not many people want to use their brain to think of the programme’s plots. When the figures or the content of the programme has more popularity, the the more TV station can earn. As I talked about in the last post, if the business and government are always compromising on public popularity, there will be less motivation for them to improve the society and push it forward. And just because the media industry is over commercialised, the media companies compromise on public popularity, and one of the result is they tend to reduce the content related to STEM and people working in these fields.

During the process of the commercialisations of media industry, there is a trend we can see that more and more children and teenage entertainment stars have come into public view, such as Justin Bieber and so on (Sorry Mr. Bieber we talk about you again here). These figures are always attractive to the public. At the same time, the programmes related to entertainment have been increasing in nearly all mainstream TV channels maybe except KCTV of North Korea. One results of this trend is that more and more children and teenagers want to join entertainment industry.

This is an issue in China as far as I know. I spent primary school and middle school age in Chinese mainland in the first fourteen years of 21st century. I remember that when I was in primary school, most of my classmates’ dreams were to become scientists, engineers, workers, entrepreneurs and government officials. However, a decade later, a survey done among Chinese school kids recently indicated that most of them want to be music or movie stars! The Chinese society are totally shocked by this result and blaming the role of media in this issue; because there are too much entertainment content on Chinese media and almost all news indicates that one can become rich easily by becoming an entertainment overnight! As for engineers and scientists, many Chinese students told the surveyors that these careers require too much study finally earn extremely little.

It is not an individual case in China, but a common phenomenon in most of the countries in the world I reckon. Because the commercialised media like making young stars for their business interest, they are changing the sense of worth among young people. Every child and teenager wants to be famous and this is a normal psychological condition in that age. And the content of entertainment media are actually telling them the “best” way to achieve this goal: have a nice look, and learn how to show off, then you will become next star! And when they are convinced that becoming a singer or actor is the most effective method to get famous and rich under 25 years old, do you think they still want to jump into the deep pit of STEM? Compared with entertainment career path, STEM careers are really tough and rough: you have to work in a huge company or institute for many years and achieve some academic or technological stuff which are unknown to the public; most of scientists and engineers who have 30 years of experience and professor position are far poorer than a music star who has started singing only 5 years ago (only few Silicon Valley lucky guys can do this). Since the scene is like this, why do the kids in their teenage want to do STEM in their college or university age? Moreover, students loving STEM seem to be stupid because they just choose a long tough way to go.

The more disturbing case is that many media companies are vilifying the impression of scientists and engineers in their media products on the purpose to increase popularity. The most familiar one to me is Big Bang Theory. If I’m not mistaken or watching it with prejudice, the whole series are just fabricated with the stories showing how stupid the scientists are in real life. Their ability of dealing with daily life or talking with normal people is almost zero in the series. After watching the media programmes like this, do you think the middle school students still want to study STEM in college or going to take STEM as their career path? I doubt. My personal feeling is: if I had watched it years before, I would not have chosen engineering as my undergraduate course or learn astrophysics by myself.

I firmly cling to a view that media should spread the principle of how to improve our society, instead of merely compromising on public popularity. I have said that popularity among people might be a success of business but failure of society progress. If we want media give their voice helping pushing our society running forward, we must think of methods to force them broadcast the programmes which are not so popular, or to say tougher, force the public to love something. So the government should prevent mainstream media from over commercialisation. In other words, government is supposed to get the power to regulate the content of media and take it as a portion of government behaviour, instead of purely commercial behaviour.

Science, technology and commercialization

In my last post, I randomly talked about why most of young students have no interest studying STEM subjects/degrees or being scientists/engineers. I blamed a little bit about our over-commercialized society. Yes, our society obeys too much about what is called “natural market” or “supply-demand balance”. In this post, I am going to talk about more about scientific research and commercialization; I would reflect on a common idea, that is “good scientific research achievements should be those that can be commercialized”.

After the end of the Cold War, the whole world has stepped into a “pure business” society. Commercial values are regarded as the only standard to measure an object. And the outcome is our society pays less and less attention to scientific research. Because those financiers and businessmen don’t have enough patience to wait for money. Those products that can generate huge commercial values must be those that have huge crowd of consumers. That is the reason why the most successful new companies are mostly internet service companies. It has been a declining trend in the past few decades: a century ago, the startups like Thomas Edison’s company invented countless new products that are still influencing our life today and their inventions were totally new to the world; in 1960s to 1980s, startups such as Microsoft and Apple tended to apply the science or technology which had already existed just to make those existed stuff work better; and after the beginning of 21st century, the startups are mostly like Facebook, Twitter and Amazon; they didn’t invent any new scientific or engineering achievements; they just use internet, an existed science or technology, to decorate our life with better methods to communicate or show off, which is merely a type of service. When the society only respect commercial value, the result is we enhance more on service innovation but don’t have patience for true scientific and engineering breakthrough; because it takes money and time.

In the last post, I analyzed why most of the breakthroughs of science main took place during the Cold War age. Because neither USSR or USA paid so much attention to the commercial value of their inventions. If USSR had asked about how to use Sputnik to make money, they would rather not launch such a “waste”. Meanwhile, Apollo 11 was a waste of money as well if we only regard it as a commodity. In other word, if the Cold War were a commercial society like today, we wouldn’t have seen people landing on the moon or the Voyagers passing Neptune by.

In the retrospect of human history, a scientific or engineering breakthrough could not have any business value when they appeared at the beginning. Because science and technology are mostly far more advanced than the contemporary industrial demand; only after a new scientific theory or engineering technology has been explored, could a new type of industrial production method which is related to the scientific discovery be exploited. Have a look at our story of all industrial revolutions since 1750s: Newton wrote the Principia first, then businessmen and engineers applied his theory to build and sell machines; Ørsted, Faraday and Coulomb started the exploration of circuit and electronics, then the industries various from electricity generator to today’s microelectronics spring out; Only after the physicists such as Feynman initiated the research of quantum physics, could we today start a new business or industry called “quantum computing”. Could we imagine that Newton, Faraday and Feynman etc did their research because they had already seen that their achievements could be commercialized later? If they unfortunately live today, would they be treasured by our society? If a “scientific research” can be seen with huge commercial value once it begins, it indicates that this research is just a small patch of a skyscraper.

I am not against commercialization; but I reckon when everything is commercialized, the value of science and scientists will be underestimated. Just as today, we connive the rule of “freedom of economics” and “supply-demand” rule and think the system of market should not be interfered, we see that scientists earn much less than those entertainment stars. And we stop the large-scale engineering or scientific explorations just because we are afraid of “waste of money”. And now we have the result: we have the products much more beautiful and convenient than those in 1970s, but they are using the same scientific principle; and we regard those internet service companies as “technological innovation”. The booming of internet companies, or to say, silicon valley startups, just comes up with more and more services, instead of true scientific breakthroughs. If we are still stingy about the investment of large-scale scientific researches, we will see science fictions are truly fictions in the future.