The Art of Iterated Progress

Compound Interest

Hey friends,

Last week, I’d talked about creating your end-of-year statement. This is a hard thing because writing exactly what you want to achieve by the end of the year is like setting conditions for failure. Suddenly, it becomes painfully clear what you need to do to succeed. That’s why we don’t like either 100% clarity or 100% ambiguity. But that’s life — to navigate between ‘chaos’ and ‘order’.

As I’ve written about long-term goals and getting started, goals are only about as useful as they help propel you to action. The rest is a natural consequence of the action. I’ve used the framework above to set my quarterly goals as well, which stare at me every day I start my day with Roam. So, in this email, I’m sharing a little progress update to show to you how a tiny step, each day, comes a long way. (That’s exactly why life is a marathon of sprints, and not a sprint.)

I’ve been working in the media. So, to understand Industry, share insights, and accumulate knowledge, I started The Media Stack, a Substack publication, to share my thoughts and ideas. (Subscribe if you haven’t.)

Now, because the goal-setting framework above has been particularly helpful to me, I am sharing with you the first chapter from a longform essay, below, that I’ve been writing for the past month. I share this excerpt with you, largely, because this helps me build public accountability; in fact, this forces me to write more and write regularly, two necessary ingredients for becoming a better writer.

I’d suggest please take only a few minutes to skim through the chapter (below), to get a sense of how you can get started and maintain momentum. Hope you like this variation. 😊

Until next time,


Podcast Of The Week

In this chat, Sid and I talk about thinking in systems, reading, setting deadlines (with caffeine), using primitive note-taking systems, and advice you should not take. (Hint: Don't build in public.) Sidhartha Jha is the writer of the weekly newsletter 'Sid's Sunday Snapshots', that talks about books, tech, psychology, and Chicago.

We also talk about systems, reading, setting deadlines (with caffeine), using primitive note-taking systems, and advice you should not take. (Hint: Don't build in public.) Tune in to this episode on Spotify, Google, Apple, or the website.

Article Of The Week

I enjoyed reading this piece on ‘12 Life Lessons From Mathematician and Philosopher Gian-Carlo Rota.’

Onward… Onto the essay, on media, which I’ve posted, below.

The Media Stack

Understanding media has never been more important. With the rise of TikTok (and its success despite India), the GameStop saga, the Reddit forum WallStreetBets, the influencer economy, the subscription economy, Clubhouse (with Elon Musk's appearance on it), and Substack, media has significantly evolved. To "understand" media, then, is to understand our own interactions with the world and how we, as a people, are changing.

In this essay, I want to understand how media has got here (ie 2021), and where it will go from here.

Chapter 1: The Pre-Internet Media

You can't understand the future without understanding the past; and you can't understand media without understanding how technology. After all, media is a result of technology. How we communicate is a function of the available tools.

To understand media, then, is to understand technology.

To wrap our minds around the evolution of technology, divide time into four buckets:

  • Pre-1700s: The Pre-Industrial Age
  • 1700 - 1930: The Industrial Age
  • 1930 - 1980s: The Electronic Age
  • 1980s - To Date: The Information age

Pre 1700s

Start with the pre-1700s. Imagine, for a second, that the act of writing does not exist. Imagine that you don't know how to write. Or, imagine that the act of writing is unimportant. People were precisely like that until the 4th century, when Sumerians (possibly) invented writing. Until the 4th century, writing was an act reserved for codifying law, ethics, or socially-acceptable practices. The Sumerians are likely to have developed the purpose of writing as a tool to disseminate information.

The Industrial Age

But you couldn't have disseminated information by writing 1000 books by yourself. You needed some (mechanical) way to help you scale that dissemination, and do it repeatedly. This is what printing provided, in part, at least. 'Block printing' — as invented by the Chinese in 6th century — helped in reaching scale, but not to a point where it was meaningful enough. In the 11th century, the Chinese invented some form of movable printing, but that did not scale due to religious considerations. (Arabs did not approve of printing the Qurʾān well until 1825.)

Fast forward thousands of years to the 1400s, when Gutenberg invented the movable type of printing, with metal, ink, paper, press.

This changed everything.

Take books. Suddenly, you didn't have to handwrite books.

Before Gutenberg's invention, books were painstakingly handwritten. Of course, writing and paper had existed for a long time, but printing — at scale — did not, which made the dissemination of information practically infeasible. Besides, the act of writing introduced human errors, biases, and perspectives that shaped our collective knowledge. (No two books were the same.)

The excessive control of scribes, priests, and central authorities over the "message" was a function of the medium, which made it impossible for the masses to have any say over the message. The message — like the currency Yuan — was tightly controlled.

The printing press upended the monopoly on distribution, initially held by the enlightened.

It's hard to overstate the importance of the printing press, which helped usher in massive cultural movements like the European Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. Until then, the Church had controlled the distribution of religious texts — the Bible wasn't widely available.

In essence, this was the first time that technology, and by extension, media, disrupted those who controlled the means of accessing important knowledge, at scale. (This is a constant theme we will see throughout the essay ie how technology enables media to disrupt incumbents, at scale.)

On a tangent: Media is the collective noun, used to reference broadcasting, publishing, and the internet. The commonality in these 3 media is that each is a different form of distribution. So, when I say that 'technology enables media', I mean that tech enables a different means of distributing content. And that is how technology enables media.

As printing scaled and became more mechanized in the 19th century, the jobs of publishing, editing, and creating content, decoupled. Now, a publisher was separate from the author, the author, from the editor, and on and on. The author wasn't supposed to worry about how to publish and the publisher wasn't supposed to worry about what to publish. (Classic comparative advantage in application.)

This comparative advantage and constraint on free-flow of information helped newspapers form a monopoly over information distribution. (I won't go into the specifics of newspapers here.)

The Electronic Age

Fast forward to the 20th century, and with the newspaper as the primary medium, other forms of media emerged. Radio started in 1920, with live news being reported first. The radio station '8MK' reported election results; following suit, other radio stations reported news events and 'radio dramas' like A Comedy Of Danger and War of the Worlds. You can listen to a few radio broadcasts below.

The radio era continued for many years. From 1928 to 1935, many companies started making TV sets and TV stations, which gave rise to broadcast TV. Initially, the Federal Radio Commission was only able to broadcast silent images with their radio programming. Soon enough, though, the company GE's television division, WGY, **successfully transmitted the first-ever TV show, called The Queen's Messenger. (See the press release here.) WGY even managed to broadcast the show from Schenectady to Los Angeles. Here's an excerpt from the show.

Soon, in 1930, the British PM, Ramsay MacDonald, and his family watched the broadcast of the drama The Man with the Flower in His Mouth.

Initially, TV was a privilege, reserved for the rich or powerful. Soon, though, more people began got access to broadcast TV. And the first-ever widely available TV broadcast was the newscast of Today, on Jan 14, 1952. Have a look:

In case you were curious how broadcast TV works, here's a 2 minute video and below is a longer, 10-minute video:

As broadcast TV evolved, 'cable TV' was also starting out. Cable was better not only because physical transmission of content (via the cable) was more reliable and had better bandwidth, but also because it allowed viewers to watch multiple shows, and not be restricted to one broadcast. As far as I know, this was the first example of bundling different cable providers' TV programs.

Content exploded.

From just news to talk shows, we moved to niches, cooking, music videos, anime, non-fiction, and other interesting creative genres. This was the age of HBO, Nickelodeon, Discovery, MTV, and Fox News.

The TV craze was only settling in as the Internet was taking off. By the 1970s, ARPANET was growing fast, starting from 15 nodes to 200 nodes. By the 1990s, the Tim Berners Lee had invented the world-wide-web, which suddenly supported the massive commercialization and mass availability of the Internet.

The Information Age

With the exploding usage internationally, the Internet was catching pace and snowballing into something larger. By 2005, we had the ability to stream videos directly over the Internet: YouTube had entered the game.

That videos could now be streamed directly from the Internet was a big moment in technology's evolution. No longer did you require a broadcasting station; no longer were you impacted by the bandwidth limitations of cable TV; no longer did you require a satellite and a set-top box to watch a video. Of course, YouTube still had a long way to go — bandwidth was poor and we had Jawed Karim talking of elephants' long trunks.

       The First Video On YouTube (April 24, 2005) 

But the platform witnessed success soon enough, when Nike dropped a video of Ronaldinho getting his boots. This video amassed 1 million views and validated the potential of video. Sequoia jumped in with $3.5 million in November of 2005, investing another $8 million in 2006 with Artis Capital. Google bought the platform a year later, calling it "the next step in the evolution of the Internet."

On a tangent, you can have a look at the evolution of YouTube, Netflix, Google, and other websites here.

This was the beginning of the information age.

The Internet had disintermediated the distribution of information once again, effectively overriding 'limited shelf space' of CDs and physical stores. (Netflix was still offering DVD rentals for a monthly price.)

In an article in The Guardian, Tim Wu describes the information age. From the article:

The attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: “draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it”, a business model that is still alive and prospering on the contemporary internet.

Until next time,