Why Will.i.am is Great for Science

Why Will.i.am is Great for Science December 18, 2012

This piece originally appeared on harvardhumanist.org.

This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.

Okay, first, a confession: I unironically love Britney Spears. This is not news for anyone who knows me personally, but I need to get that admission out of the way for this post. I wasn’t a fan when she first came out, but I began to pay closer attention when she started to publicly unravel. It was a terrifying spectacle, and I was disturbed by the way many people mocked and ridiculed what appeared to be a very difficult, very public breakdown. I even wrote an opinion piece for my college newspaper about it called “Spearing Miss Spears.” I wrote it shortly after the “Leave Britney Alone” video went viral, and it was a meditation on what Britney’s decline, and the reaction to it, said about our culture. (For more context, check out this harrowing in-depth Rolling Stone feature story, “The Tragedy of Britney Spears.“) Since then I have rooted for her, and I continue to hope that she is happy and well. I can’t really explain it — at least, not in the limited amount of time this blogathon allows — but my empathy for her has lasted.

Why am I prefacing this piece with a somewhat self-indulgent explication about my appreciation for Britney Spears? Because she has a new song and music video out with her friend Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. So, of course, I watched it. And man, is it ever rife with product placement for a wide range of technological gadgets.

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been keeping tabs on Will.i.am. Last year, he put together and hosted an hourlong television special for the ABC network called “i.am.FIRST,” which was designed to highlight the importance of science for young people (he got Britney to appear by video, giving this bizarre and hilarious response to the question of who her favorite scientist is) and “get science trending” (an allusion to trending topics on Twitter). Its tagline? “The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth.”

But that’s only the beginning. When it came time to debut a new song off of his forthcoming album, Will.i.am made a big show of premiering it from Mars. Called “Reaching for the Stars,” he wrote the song in honor of NASA’s Curiosity rover, which debuted the song (making it the first song to launch on another planet). He engaged in a social media campaign around its release, to drum up attention for the rover and its purpose. He also executive produced a documentary program for the Discovery Channel about the “the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) skills and expertise needed to send a song to, and back from Mars.”

A friend of Will.i.am’s, Britney helped by tweeting about it, too — and this wasn’t the first time she tweeted about the rover. Previously, she tweeted back and forth with the Curiosity rover’s Twitter account: “So @MarsCuriosity … does Mars look the same as it did in 2000?” she asked, including a link to a music video she made in 2000 that was supposed to have taken place on Mars. The rover’s Twitter account replied: “Hey Brit Brit. Mars is still looking good. Maybe someday an astronaut will bring me a gift, too. Drill bits crossed ;).” Sure, it’s all pretty silly, but you can’t deny that Britney — who is one of the most followed celebrities on Twitter — did more to raise awareness about the Mars rover than many science bloggers could. And Will.i.am isn’t doing too shabby in the Twitter followers department, either.

All the more, Will.i.am announced this year that he is developing an “American Idol”-esque show for science and technology geniuses. And it sounds fascinating:

In his keynote remarks at Amsterdam’s IBC technology conference last week, the musician, producer, outspoken political activist and proud science nerd admitted that the talent pool for star-caliber vocalists on shows like American IdolThe X Factor and The Voice — all three of which he has worked with — is rapidly dwindling.

But the format would work beautifully to find the world’s next Steve JobsMark Zuckerberg or even Bobak “Mohawk Guy” Ferdowski, will.i.am says.

“Every year, companies like Google need more innovators, but there is no content celebrating them,” he told the IBC crowd, according to the U.K.’s Broadcast.

“The system thinks people are dumb and they don’t care. We have no desire to make them care. We need creative people working with broadcasters, making smart content to inspire people to be geniuses.”

He may have new music out, but all of the interviews I’ve read lately find him talking up science instead. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he said: “Music is cool. But I’m just so much more excited about technology. It’s like I’m 13, 14 all over again. When I was 12, 13, 14 all I wanted to do was music. Now I’m a little older, all I think about is technology and consumer electronic products.”

I may not be the biggest fan of Will.i.am’s music, but he is doing a great service by using his platform to be a prominent and enthusiastic supporter of science and technology, and by advocating for increased access to education. And I’m particularly thrilled about how he is encouraging young people to get excited about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. We could use more advocates with his reach and his passion.

Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard. He is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, and the founder of the blog NonProphet Status.

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