Podcasting & the Public Intellectual

How the medium of podcasting is reinvigorating the exploration of ideas.

Marshall McLuhan rose to fame in the 1960s by declaring "the medium is the message" and believed "societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication".

At a time when headlines and soundbites dominate publishing and TV, debasing public discourse, the medium of podcasting is a lone light providing a platform for intellectual life, allowing depth and nuance in the exchange of ideas.

The Public Intellectual

The public intellectual is a thinker who communicates their ideas to a general and educated audience. From Socrates' dialogues in 4th Century BC to revolutionaries in the salons of 18th Century France, these individuals were revered in society.

Up until the 1980s, these writers and thinkers were given a stage on radio and TV. In 1978 the BBC broadcast 15 hour-long interviews with leading philosophers called Men of Ideas. Bryan Magee interviewed the likes of Berlin, Ayer and Noam Chomsky. Edited versions were published each week in the Listener magazine.

However, as TV hit the mainstream, the content evolved. Reality shows and game shows replaced the celebration of ideas. Intellectuals were relegated to academia.

The Long Tail of Ideas

But the internet allowed the long tail to thrive again. Without a media complex approving content, subcultures proliferated — in a world of 7 billion people connected online, finding your 1000 true fans is suddenly manageable.

A few intellectuals saw this shift early and took to blogging and video to build an audience. Tyler Cowen attracted fans of free-market economics with his blog Marginal Revolution while Jordan Peterson's lecture series Maps of Meaning became a surprise hit on YouTube.

But the barriers to entry for blogs and video are still relatively high, and the media are more suited to linear narratives than the iterative exploration of ideas.

In contrast, you can get started in podcasting with just a laptop, and audio favours the conversational format where experts and polymaths thrive.

The salon online

Curious individuals like Tim Ferriss, Russ Roberts and Joe Rogan saw the potential for the medium early and became curators — building the platform to allow intellectuals to share their ideas with a global audience. At the same time, opinionated thinkers like Sam Harris and Ben Thompson began sharing conversations on their own podcasts.

This brought the salon online. Intellectuals finally had the opportunity to connect with other leading thinkers throughout the world, share ideas with a global audience, gain influence, and even over time financial independence.

This matters because innovation comes from connecting ideas in adjacent spheres and combining them to form something new. The more we can hear leading thinkers in different disciplines compare and contrast their worldviews, the more nuance we can add to our own.

In the last few years, I've learned more from podcasts while walking, running and cooking, than I did at university. Not only have I learned established wisdom across as diverse areas as neurobiology, economics and philosophy, but because the format encourages debate, I've also come to understand the criticisms of these prevailing views.

David Brooks describes it well in his recent commencement speech that never was:

If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff. The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.

You can agree or disagree with how Spotify is building its podcasting platform, but there is so much potential to reinvigorate the world of ideas with his medium, and innovation is desperately needed after decades of stagnation.

While Gimlet and Pushkin Industries are exploring the storytelling possibilities of podcasting, Spotify is building the infrastructure for creation, discovery and monetisation. I'm excited to see what comes next.

Long reads I loved:

The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet | WIRED

We’re all human. This story of Marcus Hutchins is at times both sad and uplifting, and well worth a read.

Conjuring Scenius

Creativity and innovation happen when the people at the forefront of a field spend long periods of time together, pushing each other forward. This essay is an investigation of scenius across time — from Tik Tok mansions to the Inklings, the Scottish Enlightenment, and Bell Labs.

The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months.

A heartwarming story of human ingenuity.

The day the pirates came

Pirates are still active in West Africa, this is one hostage’s story.

Videos

On systems thinking and continuous improvement

Systems aren't improved by making the individual parts better, but by improving how they interact. This made me think of communication within startups - the magic is in the interaction between Sales, Marketing, CS, Product and Finance - each learning from each other to improve their own areas.

John Cleese: Creativity in Management

How to cultivate the open spaces and psychological safety that enable creativity within your company.

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Photo by Jonathan Velasquez on Unsplash