A while ago as I was sitting and reading the Financial Times (on paper), listening to a vinyl record, and keeping my phone and laptop at a distance, I cam across a column by Janan Ganesh, one of my favorite writers at the FT, whose "Citizen of Nowhere" is the sort of column you can rediscover months after it runs and it's totally evergreen. So here I am, reflecting on it several months later now that I have some headspace. The title of the column is "Podcasts aren't as smart as you think." Ganesh argues that people are willing to do almost anything other than read at length. He describes podcasts as "conversational muzak" that fills our loneliness in single occupancy households. However, he believes that podcasts and HBO series ask too little of their audience.
Ganesh questions the stickiness of knowledge that doesn't require effort. He finds that podcasts often go in one ear and out the other. He wonders about the jovial banter on podcasts and admits that he feels the same way about many of them. Sometimes he has to listen twice or take notes to retain the information, especially if he's not actively engaged. Ganesh argues that podcasts lack the microscopic human observation found in books, just as TV drama can't compare to novels.
He ponders the difference between podcasts and audiobooks, noting that there is a spectrum of seriousness in both formats. The speed at which he listens reflects the density of the content. For lightweight material, he listens at a faster speed, while for great fiction, he slows down to fully absorb it. Listening to audiobooks may be more passive than reading a book, but it requires the right frame of mind to fully appreciate it.
Ganesh suggests that the reason podcasts and TV dramas fall short compared to books is that they don't require the same level of effort to acquire knowledge or provide microscopic observation. He wonders about tools that reduce friction and allow for active engagement, such as transcribing notes with voice commands. He mentions a new product called "read something" that collects digital highlights from e-books and organizes them in a project management system.
He acknowledges the sensory experience of reading physical books, like scribbling on the margins or cutting out clippings from newspapers. These tactile practices enhance concentration and appreciation of the content. They provide moments of interaction and prevent passive consumption. Ganesh believes that balancing different media formats is important and encourages readers to reflect on their own media intake and how they engage with different formats.
In conclusion, Ganesh's article prompts us to think about our media consumption habits and the level of engagement required by different formats. It's not about declaring one medium better than another but rather understanding how we consume each type of media and being conscious of our choices.
Now the big reveal: except for the first few sentences, this post was just an AI-generated cleanup of my rambling Instagram Live on the column when it first came out. If the prose sounds prissier than I usually do, that's the fault of my prompt engineering. Next step: train AI on my long history of rambling audio and video content, so it sounds less like a suck-up student and more like the salty Robert you know.
Here's the original: