A Meditation on Form

The medium shapes the messenger

I started recording an episode of The Seen and the Unseen at 7 pm yesterday. The recording ended after 10. My guest, no doubt relieved that the torment was over, asked, “Do people actually listen for so long?”

Ah well. When I began my podcast more than three years ago, my impression was that we live in the Age of the Short Attention Span. You gotta hook the listener within the first few seconds. Episodes should not be more than 20 minutes. Everyone wants to stay shallow. Don’t overestimate your audience.

All rubbish.

With time, I discovered the joys of the long, digressive conversation. What’s more, I discovered that people craved deep content. The medium had something to do with this. Podcasts have been around for a couple of decades, but think about when they took off: when smartphones became widespread.

Why were smartphones important? Two reasons.

One, people started listening to podcasts in three situations: while commuting, working out or doing errands. This meant that they were a captive audience. While watching a YouTube video, I can go to another tab or pick up a book or turn my head and talk to someone. If you’re jogging with earphones on, you’re less likely to be distracted.

Two, people began listening at higher speeds. This is not unnatural. Our optimal talking speed is about 200 words a minute, but our brains can process what we are listening to at 500 words a minute. As people become regular listeners, they lift the speed a couple of notches, and when that normalises, another couple of notches, till listening to them at normal speed seems unnatural. I listen to podcasts between 2x and 2.4x.

So you have captive listeners listening at double speed. That means a two-hour conversation takes an hour out of an evening walk, when the brain does not need to focus on anything else. The rest of your day might be packed, with no time to read or watch videos. But you can listen.

I found the satisfaction of having long conversations incomparable to anything I had done before. In a trivial way, the nature of the medium changed the nature of the content I put out. In a less trivial way, it also changed me.

There are two ways in which this happened. One, deep conversation requires deep preparation. To be able to talk to my guests for three hours, I need to have read every book they have written, as well as a ton of literature on whatever subject we discuss. I can’t skim or make a list of 10 questions and do a Q&A. This changes me, not just by forcing me to know more, but also by changing the way my brain processes information.

Two, for a longform conversation to be successful, you have to approach it differently from a shorter chat. You cannot be adversarial, looking for gotcha moments, interrupting often to show your smartness, because that will break down over a longer length. You have to be respectful, willing to follow random strands as they emerge, instead of sticking to a fixed set of questions. You have to listen – listen to understand, and not just to respond.

In other words, after 185 episodes of The Seen and the Unseen, I am a different person than I would have been had the show remained 20 minutes long. The medium changed the messenger.

The Link Between Thinking and Writing

George Orwell often stressed how clear thinking and clear writing are related. It is a two-way causal relationship. Yes, of course you are more likely to write clear prose if you are a clear thinker. But equally, if you set out to write lucid prose in simple language, you will be forced to think deeper than you otherwise would. Vague jargon and abstract terms will not do.

That is how the ethic of writing affects your thought. Can the form of writing also affect it?

How can it not?

A decade ago, around the time I stopped blogging, I wrote an essay titled ‘The Big Deal About Blogging.’ The age of blogs was already past by then. Blogging’s functions had been disaggregated by sundry social media – Twitter took care of micro-blogging and filtering, and Facebook and Instagram took over various aspects of personal posts. But in the five years before that, I had posted an average of five times a day, which came to over 8000 posts. Great writing practice – but did it amount to anything more?

Looking back at that old essay, I can see how blogging liberated me. I was freed from the dictates of length a traditional publication might have: my posts could be 80 words or 8000 words. I was freed from the dictates of the house styles of different publications, and could build a voice. I was free of the news cycle, free of limitations of what subjects I could write about, free of the anxiety of what others would think of my work, because hey, a blog is just a blog.

The popularity of India Uncut became an incentive to keep writing. To keep writing is to keep thinking. My writing was freed by the imperatives of form, and so was my thinking.

I read and write, therefore I am

I started this newsletter because I wanted to stretch out like that again, and expand my thinking with my writing. Blogs are dead not only because social media scavenged blogs, but also because no one goes to destination websites any more. We discover things to read online by clicking on links on social media. Yes, RSS readers were a thing, but they’re dead too.

If your reader won’t come to you, you have to go to the reader.

A newsletter is more than just a delivery mechanism, though. But I want to elaborate on that after I do a hundred of these posts, not now.

Meanwhile, I invite you to think about the various forms of reading and writing that you do. Twitter, Facebook, the newspaper, emails, books, whatever. How do they shape the way you think? Will they change you?