Podcasting: Mechanist View vs Humanist View

I’m going to take another run at this, even though I’ve long since tired of the topic because I keep feeling like I’m tantalizingly close to expressing something so that someone else might actually understand where I’m coming from. Rob Greenlee responded to my post about his interview with Don Katz, to which I re-responded. In debating with Rob, I think I finally understand why we’ve been talking past each other on this topic since last October.

I’m frustrated by the fact that Rob cannot discuss podcasting without saying some variant of “… but people have been downloading audio files from the web for years..” I find that statement true and correct yet useless. I’ve never understood why that has to count against what we are doing. Does it matter how long audio has been on the web or for that matter who the first to upload it was?

I think Rob is approaching this from a Mechanist viewpoint, as a number of folks do. They are ascribing the value of podcasting as some complicated calculation of the sum of value of the component technologies times the novelty of them to the factorial of users or some crap. That kind of thinking isn’t at all how I’m approaching it.

I look at this from a Humanist viewpoint. The technology is necessary to make it happen, but is really kind of irrelevant. The important bit to me is the human and social interactions that happen once the technology existed and was combined together in certain ways. I don’t have a fetish for RSS and enclosures per se and if it were some different format that was equally easy to use and develop to, I could care less. What I do care about is that automatically, I have human voices that appear on my computer and communicate to me. That’s it. That’s all I care about. I care that the scaffolding exists but not what it is, and from my perspective any scaffolding that does the same job with the same ease is effectively the same thing. That’s why I don’t care how novel any part of this is. Being able to have 50 different ordinary yet compelling people to listen to whenever they choose to publish a file is what excites me. This part is inarguably novel because it wasn’t happening and now it is.

Because of my viewpoint, once the human interaction is there the technology questions fade into irrelevance. Rob feels a need to deflate the “untrue hype” that this is new and exciting, because his Mechanist view says this combination of old technologies isn’t new and exciting from a technical level. I think it is new and exciting because the voices I listen to all day every day weren’t speaking to me in this manner in the recent past, which is new and I find it exciting because it excites me.

Is this making sense to anyone? I’ve grown weary of the Mechanists feeling the need to “take the piss out of podcasting” because of the lack of technical novelty. Are people lining up to say Flickr isn’t new and interesting because people have been putting photos on the web for 15 years? I find it exactly analogous to what we are discussing here – the novelty is in reducing the friction of creation and publishing to a low enough point to allow new human interactions to occur. My new response to the Mechanist argument is this: “What you say is entirely correct, entirely factual and entirely irrelevant to me.”

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father. Member of the Podcast Hall of Fame class of 2022.

12 thoughts on “Podcasting: Mechanist View vs Humanist View”

  1. Pingback: Webcrumbs
  2. Dave, I agree with you completely. I think you really nailed it here. I love podcasting because of the compelling voices I get hear every day, with very little effort on my part. Listening to people like you, Dawn and Drew, Steve Gillmor, Deniz Rudin, most of the people and songs on the association of music podcasters, Dave Winer, Bob and AJ, Tony Kahn and so many others make me smile, think and truly enjoy listening again. I still listen to some public radio programs but only on podcast. I have almost completely given up listening to radio since I discovered podcasting last October. I stopped listening to commercial radio about 8 or 9 years ago and listened to npr exclusively for most of the time since. Streaming audio is really not very convenient most of the time, and until podcasting most of what I heard was not much different from over the radio. But now I hear funny and thought provoking voices every day, and have heard more awesome new music in the last 8 months than I heard in the last 8 years. Keep up the great work.

  3. The critics are right in that there isn’t much technologically new about podcasting, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Podcasting comes out of the confluence of two technologies: audio compression via MP3 and syndication via RSS, neither of which are new.

    This is what standards are supposed to do: enable intelligent and interesting remixes of previous technoloyg which the original creators might not have envisioned.

    The problem I have with conflating podcasts with previous (and concurrent) forms of audio on the web is that if you say that MP3s without RSS are podcasts it automatically makes a ton of things podcasts that the original author or poster never intended into podcasts, like ringtones that are on the net, or every song on a filesharing service.

    There are many media that are defined by how they’re distributed (think television, radio, newspapers).

    Maybe the problem is that many recent innovations have started to decouple media from the original distribution mechanism that gave it its shape. Over the air television gets piped down a cable, radio comes from a satellite, phones don’t have wires, the newspaper now can be viewed on the net instead of its traditional dead tree distribution.

    I think in part what people are expressing is their indifference to distribution. Maybe this is what happens when a VERY VERY widely distributed format (MP3) meets a less widely known one (RSS). It seems to me that this is a byproduct of the fact that more people “get” MP3s than RSS.

    I often ask people who don’t like the subscription aspect of podcasts, or don’t get its value, if they use RSS to read blogs.

    Very frequently the answer is “no.” If you look at podcasts for users who have never used any kind of aggregator, the learning curve is much higher than for those who already subscribe to a lot of feeds. For them the change is just incremental — now some of their feeds deliver files.

    Technology is full of people whose computers half work. They feel cranky, and the low quality of most software means that when they try something new, they don’t know if it will work or how long it will take to make it work. (Think if you rented a car at the airport and felt the way it’s common and normal to feel about software). The most common reaction is, “I don’t need that, I don’t want anything new.”

    That’s one of the reasons I called my movie about podcasting “Four Minutes about Podcasting.” Even if you decided it wasn’t for you, you knew up front how much time you were going to be risking.

    We’re still at a technological point where people don’t (and shouldn’t) have the “oh, I’ll just download this nifty little widget, I understand what it does and it won’t take me a long time to set it up or figure out how to use it” point that signals mass adoption.

  4. Wow, that’s a really long-a$$ comment. Sorry!
    BTW, love the show. Makes me feel good to listen to EGC, thank you for the good human vibes.

  5. Dave,

    I think we clearly look at the world with different colored glasses as I still don’t think you really hearing what I am saying about podcasting and the history of downloadable spoken-word content. You are so focused on the new voices part of podcasting that you are not able to see my flipside view of it. I have always said that podcasting in the long run will be remembered for the creation of new and different content. These voices are part of that, but I am addressing the other side of podcasting which is its use by the major broadcasters and other long-time distributors of downloadable spoken-word content. I am tired of being painted as a person who does not get what is important about podcasting, that is unfair as I have been a student of it since it started. We are both pioneering podcasters and broadcasters. The only real difference between us is that I have less interest in talking about the new voices and more interested in talking about current broadcaster voices and how this podcasting development is changing what they do. I agree that the technology of podcasting in not important, but it will be a topic until the technology piece disappears from the listeners view. I think that day is coming, but is not here yet and we must continue to talk about the context of the changes occuring at all levels of spoken-word audio distribution.

    Rob Greenlee
    WebTalk Radio

  6. Rob,
    I think you do understand the value of podcasting, in that you began doing it almost immediately. However, the way you talk about it in your programs is consistently weird and a mixed message. What it feels like is you playing both sides of the fence, where you do in fact podcast but sound uncomfortable with much of what that implies. You say this here and now, and the next time you talk about in on your show, you’ll be back to “You know, there really isn’t anything new about this…” and sounding jealous that “podcasters are getting all the buzz.” That’s where you lose me, in the mixed nature of your message.

    The vast majority of what I care about is the new voices and interaction. Radio listenership is at a 30 year low, and that is for a reason. Part is competition for attention from other media but the largest part is that what they are broadcasting isn’t worth listening to. When they podcast the same content I don’t want to listen to on the radio, that just gives me another way to not to listen
    it. The second I had a decent alternative to broadcast radio in my car, I stopped listening to it. I do listen to some radio, but nothing I can hear in my area when I want to listen to it.

    I counted in my iPodderX list. I’m subscribed to 10 feeds that are existing radio programs, 4 that were existing stream-based radio programs prior to the podcast era, and 56 that exist because of the podcast era. By that, I think you can say that about 15% of my attention is towards existing broadcasters and the rest is to the new voices.

  7. Some Podcasters don’t offer a direct download. I think this because they want people to subscribe and they don’t want people to think of it as just an mp3 file. I look at the source code, find the url of the mp3, and paste it into my browser.

    What is different about podcasting from previous internet radio style mp3 files is that the hype in the media has caused poscasting to catch on; thus more podcasts; thus more listeners; thus more podcasts.

    Dave, please do more serious controversial shows like the godcast you did.

  8. A general discussion of “current broadcaster voices and how this podcasting development is changing what they do” would be welcome.

    But could we please put it in wiki, not blog, format, so it’s worth reading? Blog bad wiki good, from the reader’s point of view, there is no time to read anything but the current snapshot of consensus opinion.

    Maybe something like openpolitics.ca

  9. Craig, not this kid. I don’t buy “blog bad wiki good” at all. I’ll read wikis if that’s where the info is, but I hate using them. Most people seem to love them, but I find them an enormous pain in the ass.

    For the life of me, I can’t understand why you have this stance. Having umpteen wikis vs. umpteen blogs is at best a lateral move.

  10. Read en: openpolitics.ca blog bad, wiki good for my view on this. It should be obvious that while there might be umpteen wikis (one per group) there are umpteen times umpteed (umpteed squared) blogs (one per individual).

    Yes, it’s a pain in the ass to collaborate, decide and agree. But if you don’t, who cares what you have said, since it’s only you saying it?

  11. Craig, I don’t believe that things lose meaning when said by an individual. That is a downright bizarre thing to say. All great and profound ideas start from an individual and work outward.

    You do your thing and I’ll do mine. I like the blog form and I love the toolset I have to work with them. If I had to do all this in the form of a wiki, I’d have said “fuck it” and quit years ago. I just don’t like using wikis. I don’t have a problem reading them, but I find writing in them painful. I have made minor edits in them, but using them as an authoring tool sucks.

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