Amit Varma on The Creator Economy

Shruti Rajagopalan and Amit Varma discuss podcasting, writing on the internet, the role of AI and much more.

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Amit Varma about being alert to changing technologies, building online communities, creating for love vs. validation, how to use ChatGPT productively and much more. Varma is a writer, journalist and podcaster based in Mumbai. He hosts the weekly podcast The Seen and the Unseen and is a columnist at the Times of India. He is also the author of the blog India Uncut, which was active from 2004 to 2008. He won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015, the first person to win it twice.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Today my guest is Amit Varma, who is a writer and podcaster based in Mumbai. He is the host of The Seen and the Unseen podcast. He is also a two-time Bastiat Prize winner for his journalism and the author of the bestselling novel “My Friend Sancho.” He teaches an online writing course on the Art of Clear Writing and blogs at India Uncut and also writes the India Uncut newsletter on Substack.

We spoke about how Amit thinks about the global creator economy, the opportunities it presents for your writers and content creators, creating a global community, AI and much more.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit

Hi, Amit. Thank you for coming on the show. I think this is the easiest thing I have ever done because I don’t even have to produce it.

AMIT VARMA: Thanks, Shruti. Such a pleasure being here. It was a joy watching you set up because I’ve known you, I think, since you were a kid. I’m so proud of everything you’ve done. The other day I was chatting with our mutual friend Vaidehi Tandel, who was in Mumbai. We met up for coffee, and we described ourselves as Shruti’s people. It’s so nice to be able to do that because even though once upon a time you were a bacha [kiddo] to us, today you are such a formidable force of nature. We are very proud of you.

Our Podcast Journey

RAJAGOPALAN: Normally that would irritate me because I’m an irritable person, and I don’t like most people. You and Vaidehi, I accept. I am very happy to be in this club and for you to know each other through me and be known by me. First of all, it’s really nice to have you here because I have been on your podcast lots of times, and this is the first time you’re coming over, but Ideas of India owes a lot to you because I was not so convinced about doing this.

It’s really through my guest appearances on The Seen and the Unseen that I got this identity as, “Oh, you’re great on podcasts.” I always joke that, “Yes, Amit and I have the face for radio.” Right? That’s the way it all kicked off. Then people said, “Oh, you should do this on your own.” You were the first person I came to for a lot of advice. You gave me great advice. I stuck to most of it. It’s super nice to have you here. It’s very different from most of my other guests.

VARMA: It’s super nice to be here. I remember when you first came on The Seen and the Unseen, you were like really skeptical what a podcast is going to do. In those days they were much shorter. Episode 26 was my first one to hit an hour. At the end of it, you were so psyched out. You were like, “Hey, cut as much as you need to, and this is too much, and who wants to hear me for so long?”

One of the learnings—and I didn’t know podcasts right at the start, but one of the important learnings that I learned about podcasts also speaks directly to what you’re saying about your feeling that, “Hey, I can’t do it,” and realizing over time as you got comfortable that you can. Which is that, unlike radio, people often think podcasts are radio on demand, but they are a lot more than that. Radio is fundamentally different because of all the incentives, the license fees, all of that.

In radio, you’re broadcasting to a lot of people, whereas a podcast is a voice in your head. It’s intimate. Therefore, you don’t need things like how to project yourself and how to speak to many people and all of that shit. You just need to be yourself. If you can be yourself and you can make that connection, that’s all that matters. The thing about you, and the thing I think about both of us and every podcaster I like, basically, is that in real life also, they’re straightforward people. They’re not projecting a persona or whatever; they’re just being themselves.

That is the only secret to good podcasting. That’s where you start. You just have to be yourself. Look what I’ve done; I’ve given another lecture. This is me being myself, I guess.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, actually, the first thing I want to pick up on that is, of course, I took your advice very carefully, the “Be authentic. Don’t worry if you think you’re too economist in your thinking, or too nerdy or too geeky. Embrace all of it and go for it.” I remember one particular thing you said to me was, “You will be exhausted performing if you have to do this for 90 minutes. You can perform for five minutes, seven minutes, short clips, but it’s very tiring to do this in a long format.” That’s something that really stuck with me.

The Alert Entrepreneur

RAJAGOPALAN: Before that, one of the things you said was, you were alert to podcasting in a way that I was not because I was very skeptical about the format and skeptical about people listening to us. That’s not the first time you’ve been alert to something. You were alert to blogging before anyone else got there. You were alert to the MTV revolution very early on. You were alert to the fact that cricket scores, statistic, writing is going to move online in a very big way before other people were, most other people. The credible voices were still writing for Telegraph and Times of India and things like that.

Then it’s the same thing with podcasting. It’s the same thing with TikTok; you’re the first person. I didn’t even know what TikTok was until you sent me—you said, “Oh, you don’t know what TikTok is?” You sent me like 500 videos, and it almost crashed my phone. What is it about you that makes you alert in particular to a new medium or channel of distribution when everyone else is like, “Yes, it’s new. Maybe it’s for the kids. Maybe it’s for entertainment; it’s not really for me”?

VARMA: I think when one looks back on one’s life, it’s easy to put a teleological narrative to it and believe that there is a narrative and these are the common threads holding everything together. I’m not sure that’s true, in the sense that a lot of these I moved into by accident, even podcasting.

See, this wasn’t a five- or seven-hour podcast. The Seen and the Unseen, when it started, it was just like a 15-minute exercise. At that time I wasn’t doing it myself. It was done with a partner. Then later I took the show over. It was very little effort, and that’s why I did it. Blogging also was very little effort. You open an account with Blogger, you put a paragraph of shit out there, and all these things just happened to take off at the time. It was really serendipitous, me going from one thing to another.

Two common frames I think hold them together. I’m thinking aloud here because obviously we didn’t prepare for this or discuss this particular thing before. I think one is the sense that I’ve always had that I’m an outsider everywhere. Even when you called me for those two conferences in August, and I was stuck in my room with what appeared to be COVID but wasn’t, but it was pretty bad, I remember in a blaze of self-pity thinking, “It doesn’t matter. I’m an outsider here.”

I’ve been an outsider in every community I’ve been part of, whether it was being a journalist, whether it was in television, whether it was in college—which is way back in the ’80s and ’90s where there’s no internet, so you’re stuck to communities of circumstance. You’re restricted by geography and where you are, and you can’t find like-minded people so easily. In a sense, I was always an outsider. Because I’m always an outsider, I’m looking out. Therefore, I see this new stuff and I’m like, “Okay, hey, let’s try this, let’s try this.” I’ve just been open to everything.

The different enthusiasms came about because of different reasons. Blogging happened when I was a managing editor at Cricinfo. I’m working in a mainstream place, but I want to write about other things in cricket. It’s easy for me to do because my first imagination is, “Hey, it’s a blog. No one’s going to read it anyway.” Then I start, and then it really takes off and becomes big. Then that motivation is enough to continue. That goes on for a few years until that ends, so on and so forth.

There’s no grand narrative theme to tie it all together. I said there are two things. One is, of course, my perception of myself as an outsider, which is why I’m never falling into the conventional grooves that there are, but I’m always looking around and seeing what else there is to do. The other I think is related to that, but just that I’m never looking at the world the same way as everyone does. I’m always looking at other stuff. I’m always questioning why are we doing this.

With blogging, for example, because I’m thinking of first principles with everything, it’s very easy for me to take a step back and see why it is so remarkably different from what I was doing earlier. If you’re a journalist, one, you are restricted by form. Your typical piece will be 800 words. Sometimes you write a longer feature, but a blog post can be 80 words, it can be 1,000 words. It can have pictures, it can have links. Beyond the form, you’re no longer tied to a news cycle. You can write about whatever you feel like. I can write about something that happened in 1940. No one is asking me why is it relevant.

Third, you don’t have gatekeepers to go through. You can put up whatever you want whenever you want. I don’t have to take anyone’s permission for it. Whereas even as an editor in a place, there will be conventions that tie me down. But over here, I can do whatever I feel like and so on and so forth. It was very liberating. Thinking of it in that sense, I think, also helped where I could get into any of these, whether it’s blogging or podcasting or whether it’s looking at TikTok, which initially seems like just random, cheap entertainment.

If you look a little deeper and what it was doing to Indian culture and Indian society in the sense that it broadened access in such a revolutionary way, to villages, to people of alternate sexuality and so on, which nothing else was doing at that time. I think that’s one reason. I wouldn’t say I saw any of those before anyone else, but that’s why I grew attached to them and I got it.

Outsiders and Misfits

RAJAGOPALAN: On the outsider thing, do you feel like you are attracted to these different media, the new media, because the barriers to entry are relatively low and it’s an access issue? Everyone else is in network, and you are this outsider coming in; you don’t exactly hang out with these people. Is it that, or is it that it can accommodate misfits? Is it about the content and not about the entry point?

VARMA: Oh, you’ve nailed it. It’s really both of these to an extent. The barriers-to-entry point is really important because back in the day, if in 1995 I was to go to a radio station (who are the only people who did audio) and pitch a seven-hour podcast, I’d be laughed out of the room, right? Over here, I can do whatever the hell I want. I don’t have to worry about barriers to entry. For example, I’m technically a Times of India columnist, but my last column for them came in 2020 because I’ve decided that I don’t need the mainstream media now.

Of course, I’m privileged to be in that tier of creators where by now I’ve made the name that I can just not have to write for anyone else. I can just do my own thing. In general, that’s advice I give even my writing students: The mainstream is dying, build your own identity, build your own communities around you, and that’s important.

I think the misfits point is really important. The other day I was talking about the number of close friends I have. You’d count as one of them. One of the realizations I had is that all of this is because of the internet. If not for the internet, I don’t think I would have had any friends. I would have been fucking miserable. I would have been a party of one. It would have been horrible. Every friend I have is because I managed to form communities of choice, get out on the internet, whether it was through blogging or podcasting or whatever, to be able to make these friends and build these relationships.

Even out of the narrow context of the creator economy, when you just think of all of us, we take it for granted, especially for introverted people or especially for people who, in whatever way—maybe because of personality, maybe because of sexuality, maybe because of temperament, maybe because of interests—they would be misfits in their local geography and would never belong, but they can find places to belong when they go online. I find that incredibly empowering.

Community Building

RAJAGOPALAN: How hard is it to form a community? You’ve done this multiple times. I think you were my first set of internet friends, you and all the others. They were all these bloggers who were writing largely libertarian stuff. We all got to know each other mainly through the internet. Eventually, we all got together in different cities and hung out and exchanged ideas and books, but that was how it started. You’ve been part of this community building many times over now. How difficult is it, and what does it take to build that in a way that’s useful both to you and to all the people who are in it?

VARMA: There are two kinds of communities we’re talking here. The first is communities of people like you, of like-minded people or fellow misfits or whatever. That’s incredibly important because, one, you wouldn’t meet people like that in real life, and two, they help sharpen your thinking. We were part of something that we jokingly called the libertarian cartel—obviously, the cartel bit is tongue in cheek—circa 2007, 2008, and all of us went in different directions.

The thing is that if I didn’t meet this bunch of people—I consider our mutual friend Yazad Jal as a really big influence on my thinking, because all the conventional thinking that you’re surrounded by is the socialist thinking where the state has a solution to everything and blah, blah.

At one level you might instinctively know that this is wrong. You look at the real world and you see that this isn’t working, that this can’t possibly be true, but you don’t want to speak out against what appears to be accepted wisdom because, hey, you also want to belong at some point. Maybe you just stay silent. You don’t have resources to sharpen your thinking. Suddenly you meet a bunch of people who help you find those intellectual frames and then guide you to resources which can help you become a sharper intellectual.

Going beyond that, I think all of us failed, including you and me, in spreading this thinking out to a wider audience. There are still large hordes of people out there who accept the conventional wisdom because there’s absolutely nothing else. That’s a failure on our part. Hopefully, we’ll set it right in times to come. That’s one kind of community. Like I said, that community has been hugely important to me personally.

The other kind of community is a community that a creator builds around herself. I talk about how the world has changed for creators in five fundamental ways since, say, the ’90s. One of them is the ability to form communities. For example, in 1995, let’s say, I publish a piece in Times of India. It comes, you see it, you’re like, “Huh, this guy is interesting.” You ignore it. Then six weeks later, something comes in Indian Express. You say, “Huh, the name sounds familiar. This guy’s interesting.” I have no way of interfacing with the community or binding it together.

What happens in the aughties with blogging and all that is that, one, you do have comments on blogs, but once a blog goes above a certain level of traffic as mine did, you have a noise-to-signal ratio problem. A lot of the top blogs just disable comments anyway, but it is a rough way to reach people but not to actually accumulate them or gather them in one place. What’s happened recently is that using Discord or using Substack, you can actually form your own community.

Thirty years ago, you see a piece by me in Times of India and you forget about me. Today you follow a link, you hit my Substack piece and you’re like, “This guy is interesting.” You click subscribe, which is free for a lot of good newsletters. From then on, you’re part of my community. That email database belongs to me, not to Substack.

You’re part of my community. Everything I do reaches out to you. I can sell merchandise, I can publish a book, and that community is something that I am just growing. Just like you have Shruti’s people, and that’s in an informal sense, you could say that I have Amit’s people. They’re not exclusively my people, but I can reach them anytime I want. There’s a certain amount of goodwill there.

Also, I teach an online writing course. I’ve had more than 2,100 students at the time of recording. That’s also a community. We have very vibrant community interaction. We have a large WhatsApp group with more than 700 people. Everybody is supporting everybody else. Unlike the rest of the internet, it’s filled with positivity. There’s no negativity. Everybody is happy for everyone else, tremendous support. It’s important, I think, for people who create to look at building community.

One of the other points, which is related to this so I’ll go through it—one of the other five ways in which the world has changed is that you can make money off your community now. In the ’90s, what would happen is you sell a random piece to Times of India. Times of India aggregates eyeballs with all the pieces they have; they sell advertising. You get a tiny, tiny chunk of that. You have no direct interface. This changed in two phases. One phase falls perhaps in the 2010s with YouTube and all that, where creators got the clout to actually get the advertising themselves.

The other phase after that is when you don’t need advertisers. You can get money directly from your fans and your community, as I do with my writing course, as I could do in various other ways if I wasn’t lazy. Those avenues are now open. You know what Kevin Kelly said about 1,000 true fans. It’s so true. You don’t need to scale anymore. You need to find those 1,000 true fans. If you’re authentic and you stick to what you’re doing, I have faith that every creator has a shot at finding them.

Means of Production vs. Distribution

RAJAGOPALAN: There are two parts to the shift that have happened since you were a columnist in the early years—I don’t even know when that was, the prehistoric age, and then Cricinfo and so on—which is the means of production started getting cheaper and started liberalizing, and then the second aspect was the means of distribution dramatically shifted. This is really the post-internet world. I want to make this distinction between the two, especially because you’ve linked it so clearly to the community of fans.

What I mean by means of production is, now it’s so much easier for anyone to get a relatively cheap smartphone. It won’t be as good as the latest amazing iPhone, but it can do 90% of the job. Now, if it’s something like an editing software, there are lots of them that are free on the internet—color correction or changing filters. These used to be very, very expensive gadgets. People needed to go to a studio. I use a mic which is 90% of what the mics were in All India Radio when my mother was performing there. It’s $50, and it gets shipped to my house. That’s what I mean by the means of production.

The second aspect is the means of distribution, which is whether it’s Substacks or blogs and so on. Now everyone has relatively equal access to means of production, given a certain level of income, but everyone doesn’t have equal access when it comes to the means of distribution. Like you said, you already have a platform which is an outsized voice. You’ve already been around long enough; you’ve had time to build a brand. What is a good way for someone today who’s entering this business, who can afford the same mic as you, can afford the same gadgets as you—how should they think about building out a distribution channel?

VARMA: Actually, the thing is, I disagree in the sense that I think everyone has access to the means of production and everyone has access to the means of distribution, because podcast hosting is free on Anchor. You can make a video and put it up on YouTube. There will be 1,000 big YouTubers a year from now who are completely unknown today, who haven’t even started up, so anyone can get there. I think the bottleneck is really in discovery. Because there are so many people who are coming out there, how do you get discovery? Like, I produce a fantastic podcast called Brave New World for a friend of mine, Vasant Dhar. It’s on He’s an incredible guy.

RAJAGOPALAN: Just fantastic.

VARMA: Yes. He’s an incredible guy. He’s an AI pioneer. He’s had guests like Daniel Kahneman and Scott Galloway on the show. It’s just a fantastic show. It hasn’t quite taken off, and we’re both scratching our heads why. The thing is that sometimes there’s nothing you can do. I got very lucky in the sense I perhaps had some following from my blogging days, even though I hadn’t blogged for many years. Then I just kept at it, kept at it, kept at it, and it grew organically. One, in an idealistic sense, I say that you have to keep at it.

The other is also perhaps there is some luck involved. While I’m not downplaying the luck, and part of the luck will be being a known person already, perhaps, but that can only get you so far, because people have limited time. They’re not going to keep listening to you or watching you just because you’re famous. You have to do something good.

While accepting that luck plays a big part, I also want to talk a little bit about the importance of perseverance and not thinking of validation. Too often what happens is we’ll start something. Now, when we start something, we will always suck at it, right, because we’ve just started something. I sucked at the start in podcasting or in blogging or when I started writing columns. How do you get better? You get better by just doing it again and again and again. Iteration leads to excellence. That is the only way.

However, if you’re stuck on validation, then you start something, and you’ll realize that, “Hey, I’m not getting hits, I’m not getting whatever,” and you’ll stop. Then you’ll never get better. The important thing is not to care about validation at the start. Therefore, it is equally important to do something you love at the start, because then that love takes you through. Otherwise, if you are just doing something cynically for making a big brand of yourself or whatever, it won’t work.

There’s that saying about “The future is for sci-fi writers,” which also holds true for creators; we tend to overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term. I think that comes into play when many creators will start something, expect immediate success, doesn’t happen, they quit. The key is not to do that; the key is to just persevere doggedly. Then you see that exponential curve, and then you realize that, yes, you were also underestimating the long term.

Algorithms and Validation

RAJAGOPALAN: On the distribution, I want to make a difference between the access to the different media, to the different channels—you’re right, anyone can upload a podcast, you can get a free account on Twitter, you can get a free account on Substack and so on. There is a question of distribution in terms of the algorithm and where it places you. Does your name actually pop up in a search, right? If it pops up, where does it pop up exactly? Will Google autocorrect V-E-R-M-A to V-A-R-M-A? “Did you mean Amit Varma?” is how it would pop up for me.

These are just things where you didn’t exactly contrive this in any way, but you’ve built a pretty long career. Your name’s been out there in a way that maybe Vasant Dhar’s name has only been out in very niche academic circles, because he’s a fantastic academic mind, right? Now, how does one think about that? I think your point about validation is well taken, but for most people who are trying to write something or trying to produce something, there’s a question of cost-benefit, right?

If in the early period no one’s really reading it, you start wondering, “Should I be doing something better with my time?” Even if there is no need for validation and it’s not about the dopamine hits when someone likes your pieces or shares them, there is a question of, “Is this valuable to anyone in the world?” What is a good way to think about that?

VARMA: Okay, three ways. One way is simply that is the labor of love. You want to do it, so you do it, and that’s it. I think those are the things that are successful. When you love something so much, others will love it too when you get it right. That’s number one.

Number two is, from the start you are clear that you’re thinking of the long term; you’re not thinking of immediate success. In the sense that you’ll remember that when you were starting Ideas of India, one of the things I told you was that, don’t think of the audience you’ll have at episode 1. Think of someone who discovers your show in episode 100, and think of what they can binge on, and you’re building that body of work for them to binge. The way I’ve thought of my podcast is that I want someone to be able to listen to them in 2050 and get a really clear sense of a particular kind of time, the way a particular kind of person thought and so on and so forth.

Therefore, make it a resource for the future. When you look at it like that, where you’re not just growing across space in terms of geography but also across time, then that may help. Then you can tell yourself that, “Okay, maybe I have a few hundred people listening to this today, but there is a larger cause there. I believe in it, and I’m going to do it.” That can also work.

What was the third one I wrote? My handwriting is so bad. Excuse me. The third one is when it helps you as well. I did an episode with Amitava Kumar in journaling, a beautiful episode on his book “The Blue Book,” which is a collection of his Instagram journalism masterpiece. Since that episode, I’ve been recommending journaling to all my writing students, because—think of it this way, with an experiment. There’s a Shruti who writes a journal entry every day for the next five years, and there’s a Shruti who doesn’t. The Shruti who does is much smarter, more self-aware and calmer than the one who doesn’t, because every time you write an entry like that, even if it’s a few hundred words, you are examining the world better and you’re understanding yourself better. In a sense, you’re shaping your own self.

That’s not just with journaling but with any creative activity that you do. For example, I consider teaching courses also part of the creator economy because you’re sharing your knowledge with people, and they’re benefiting from it and paying for it. That helps you because whenever you teach something, you end up understanding it better and seeing nuances you hadn’t otherwise seen. Any other creative thing that you do is helping you grow as well.

If you manage to combine the three of these and say, “I love doing this. Therefore I will do it, and I am doing it for the long term. I won’t obsess over metrics now,” and three, “that I will grow,” that’s priceless. How many people get that? Everyone who creates gets that, but that’s priceless. I think that is the approach that I would recommend for creators. That also means that, unfortunately, anyone who goes into the creator economy and says, “This is going to be my full-time job,” is just foolish because you don’t know. You don’t know whether you’ll succeed or not.

You can’t get into it as a full-time gig anyway. You have to get into it saying, “I’m going to do something interesting,” or “I’m going to have some fun. I’m going to do something I love.” Then if it begins to work and you feel that magic, then you can go for it. Then if things start working out, you can think of quitting your day job. All the successful people in the creator economy that I can think of didn’t make money through it for a long, long time till things really took off, and they were doing other shit. That’s the game.

Generational Differences

RAJAGOPALAN: Are we both weird? When I say these things to the younger people on my team or the students I interact with, the look on their face is, “Okay, boomer.” That’s how they perceive this. Again, we are very similar in this. We are both very process-driven. For me, my podcast is almost pure consumption. I wouldn’t produce a transcript and do the editing and stuff if I wasn’t putting it out. Other than that, it’s just largely a consumption good. I get to read this stuff. I get to have the conversations I want. Are we weird? Is it a generational thing, or is there something that is setting us apart in our long-termism, which is different for people when they’re 20 or when they’re just coming into a new format or a new space?

VARMA: A couple of things. Again, I’m thinking aloud. Number one is that I think as you grow older, your time horizons expand. When you’re 20 everything is immediate. You want immediate gratification. You want to be rich and famous by the time you’re 23, blah, blah, blah. I think when you are 45, you realize that your dreams are never going to come true; everything you hoped would happen is never going to happen. You just have to roll with it. You think of the whole world differently. You take the small pleasures, you take the joy in them, and you realize that sometimes it is not in achieving something but just in the act of doing it which is the whole point.

That’s the act of living. You do that. I think we are along different parts of the journey, but we are on the journey. I think that’s just one thing. It’s just a function of age. As you grow older, you’re in less of a hurry, which is weird because you’re closer to death. You should be in more of a hurry, but perhaps you’re in less of a hurry.

The other part of it is that, now, I don’t know how it is out there, but what I see in India is that a lot of these elite English-speaking city kids, many of whom have gotten degrees from universities abroad, have just a fucking terrible attitude. They’re going to screw themselves with this. One, they want immediate gratification for everything. Two, they are so incredibly entitled: They demand that success happen, they think they are geniuses, they think the world owes them something. If they don’t get what they want, they’ll do stupid things like quiet quitting and all of that.

All of these people are in for a huge disappointment if they don’t pull their socks up. Certainly in India, because young people in India in small towns, the younger people who come from small towns without this elite privilege and without this rubbish brainwashing that seems to happen in American universities, they have a great attitude. They’re hungry, they want to learn, they want to get things done. They’ll work as hard as it takes. They’ll work Monday to Sunday. They’ll work 10 hours a day if they have to, like we did when we were young.

They want to get things done. That’s what it comes down to. I think, at least in the Indian context, all young people are not like this. I see plenty of young people who have that hunger and who have that desire. I also see these elite people with an accent, with their foreign degrees, who are so freaking entitled, and they think they’re geniuses, and they’re passing judgment on everything and everybody. Wait till they hit 40; they’re going to get screwed.

Status vs. Reach

RAJAGOPALAN: I see a lot of these students. I feel a little bit too grumpy when I’m complaining about the younger people because I’m like, “Maybe I was like that too.” I’ll hold off on that. The way I read what’s going on is, it seems to me that they are after a particular kind of status, right? If you publish in the Indian Express, your piece is going to be right next to Pratap’s, that is a particular kind of status.

Now, to get that same level of status on Substack, you have to have written about 50 of them, and at least 40 have to be good. Otherwise, you’re not going to have either the readership or the reach, or when you put something out, people are not going to really read you and listen to you and care about it. To me, one of the aspects of the elite is that they’ve always had access to that kind of status. There were so few of them before that if you knew how to string together a few sentences and you knew anything about the world, it was relatively easy to get published in an elite newspaper and get a column eventually and so on. I think that’s what’s going on.

I’m not sure if it’s that they’re not willing to put in the hard work. It’s that they’re not willing to put in the hard work to something that’s not going to grant them the status at the same speed that the traditional institutional press and media are going to grant them. Is this a way to think about it, the status versus reach? You reduce the barriers to entry and allow people access, but that automatically democratizes the medium and reduces the ability to tell us who is high status versus who is low status. Whereas if you’re in Indian Express next to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, we know you’re high status, right? This is how I have made sense of what’s going on with that group.

VARMA: Yes, that’s a very sharp observation, but if there are people like that, they’re making a mistake at a number of levels. My broad observation: As the mainstream is crumbling, it is going to become less and less relevant, and elites are going to suffer. First of all, let’s take a counterfactual. You look at one of my recent episodes was with a guy called Gurwinder Bhogal. Now, I don’t know if you’ve read him. Absolutely brilliant. Discovered him on Twitter. He would do megathreads on Twitter. He’s basically a specialist in metacognition. He thinks about thinking.

Through the prism of that, he’s eviscerated the elites. He’s eviscerated both sides of the political spectrum, the wokes and the based as he calls them, and so on and so forth. One of the sharpest thinkers around. Came to prominence on Twitter, then Substack. I would say he’s one of the most important thinkers of our times, and he has that reach. He hasn’t published in mainstream newspapers or whatever, though, obviously, they’ll come knocking on his door. If he has any sense, he should say no.

Here’s why he should say no, because what I tell my writing students, for example, when they say that, “Hey, I want to pitch to Indian Express, or I want to pitch to so and so,” is I tell them don’t. That’s a trap. I’ll tell you why it’s a trap. What happens is that, let’s say you pitch to Indian Express today, you pitch to The Hindu tomorrow, you pitch to these major newspapers. Number of things happen. One is you’re thinking piece to piece, and you’re thinking something every four weeks, something every five weeks. The output is very limited. You have to go through gatekeepers, you have to conform to conventional thinking. Automatically, you’re putting straitjackets on yourself.

Now, because your output is nowhere near as prolific as someone who is Substacking, you will also spend less time in the writing gym. You will spend less time writing per se. Writing is a way of improving your thinking. Therefore, somebody who is Substacking like that won’t get that immediate rush of status, which only fellow elites actually notice, where you are beside Pratap.

What will happen is that the Substackers are getting smarter. They’re building an organic audience that counts for much more. They’re building those communities, as we spoke about earlier. These guys aren’t. Eventually, they’ll have the cachet among the 40 other people in their academic circle joke that, “Hey, I published on Indian Express beside Pratap.” They will not even have Pratap’s reach or influence because Pratap is Pratap, so publishing beside him means nothing.

Equally, they will not have that larger audience, and they will be worse thinkers because they’re not iterating enough or they’re not writing enough, and they’ve put these straitjackets on themselves. Therefore, it’s a bad policy in any case. Somebody exactly like that, who fit that definition, wrote in to me asking to be on The Seen and the Unseen. I took one look at his work and I saw the word neoliberal, and mentally I just said, “Okay, red flag. Fuck off.” Yes, that’s where we go.

The Role of Editors

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to talk a little bit about the editors. This is a slightly heartbreaking topic for me. I completely agree with you about the mainstream press, especially in India. I used to have a column with Mint. I have exited writing for the mainstream press for various reasons, and we can get into that. To me, I don’t know if I just got very lucky with my editors or they were just doing their job, but they weren’t just gatekeepers. They were also curating, which is a really important function in the digital world when there’s so much noise and you need people to curate good ideas.

Frankly, they were the people who taught me how to write. I didn’t learn how to write in undergrad or in law school. A little bit when I was working part time alongside law school at a law firm. It’s really people like Niranjan [Rajadhyaksha], who was our editor at Mint, or Mary [Kissel], who was our editor at Wall Street Journal. They worked draft after draft with me. I was just very fortunate. It all happened in my early 20s. I don’t know how I struck gold like that, but I feel very bad about that function. I know a lot about writing today because they taught me the basic mechanics of how to do it. Then, of course, I had the discipline to keep at it.

What is a good way to think about modern-day mainstream editors? Are they all just gone, the good ones? Are they just gatekeepers now in a hurry because they need to turn a news cycle around? Are there still good curators? What is their overall function today?

VARMA: I’m not in that game anymore. I used to be an editor till not long ago, but I’m not in that game anymore, so I really don’t know, and I can’t comment on them. Obviously, Niranjan and Mary are both outstanding editors. I’ve worked with both of them as well, however briefly. I’ll say two things there. One is that, for me, the ideal would be that you’re Substacking every day or blogging every day. And once in a while, you get published with one of these people, and you have an opportunity to work with a great editor who hones your craft.

The other thing is, if I think of the great internet writers of the last 20 years, they haven’t really had those editors. They’ve put in self-discipline. To me, the finest essayist of this century so far is Paul Graham, right? He doesn’t have—


VARMA: —an editor. He works for weeks on his essay. Some of his essays actually tell you how to write an essay in terms of how to think, how to write, all of that. He’s got a brilliant piece called “Write Simply,” which in fact I send to all my writing students, and I tell them that normally I don’t like adverbs, but this one is fine. It’s a great essay. I think one of the other very fine essayists, who seems inspired by Paul and I think was a protégé of his, is Sam Altman, whose essays are also absolutely wonderful.

I look at someone like Gurwinder. Gurwinder in his episode with me talks about the intentionality with his writing and the way that he writes, because he’s understood metacognition. He knows what is going to go on in the reader’s head when the reader reads him, and he can find his own style for that reason. I think these writers would be lesser writers if they worked with great editors. They’re really good. This is also partly because they’re outsiders and they think in a particular way, and also they have the clarity of thought to be able to produce a clarity of writing. Obviously, there’s a two-way feedback loop between clarity of writing and clarity of thought, but they’re that good.

I don’t think good editors are necessary. If you find one, I think it is a blessing, but good editors can also come from particular points of view and particular ways of thinking, and that can be a straitjacket. I really don’t know. I think that this is something that one doesn’t plan. I think with young writers, things happen to them, and they go with the flow, and if they’re lucky to get good editors, that’s great. If they are unfortunate to be stuck in a situation where they can’t really grow and where they’re being hampered, they should also have the clear-sightedness to be able to see that.

Feedback and Criticism

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s odd because at some level, people who are clear thinkers will eventually become clear writers. It’s a question of just putting your arse on the chair and just working the hours to get you where you need to get. But a very large part of the writing process is good feedback, right? What’s happening online is just the feedback noise-to-signal ratio is pretty bad. I have learned this the hard way. I come from very, very traditional institutions. I spent the first 30 years of my life in proper educational institutions. Actually, I have never worked outside of a university. My first job was at a university. I still work at a university.

I’m used to a seminar culture where, when people critique you or they tell you something about your work, you take it very seriously. I was using that same framework for Twitter, and it is a recipe for disaster. One, because you can’t take every comment seriously. Two, because a lot of people just don’t know very much. I don’t mean that in a nasty way. I just mean I’m an economist. Very often I use words that are technical terms that have a very clear meaning. When we say rationality, it’s not the same as the colloquial rationality, right? When we say regressive in taxation, it’s very specific. It’s not colloquial regressive.

I would get very bizarre feedback. Also, there’s the crazy overconfidence on Twitter. People would just give you wrong facts. I would get into a tizzy and then immediately go back and check if I’ve made a mistake. Then I just said, “You know what, I need to get my feedback from very trusted sources. I can’t do this. I need to get it from editors and a few writers.” It’s always forthcoming. I write an awkward sentence and before I know it, you will text me and say, “This was really great.” “This sentence is horrible.” I really appreciate that.

How should one think about feedback in this crazy digital world? Is that why the trusted, small, niche community is important? Should we take what people say on the web seriously, not seriously, ignore all of it, take some of it?

VARMA: Three things. One, as far as the web is concerned, you and I know exactly what’s going on there. We just need to ignore Twitter. Once in a while, if there’s someone you know on Twitter and they happen to give you feedback on Twitter instead of directly emailing you, and it’s good feedback, you can take it. Everything really with a pinch of salt. Twitter is reacting to keywords and trigger words. They’re not even reading the piece. Nobody reads the damn piece. You know this; you’ve been mobbed for something which people didn’t even read. Twitter brings out the worst in people and it also empowers the worst people. We’ve both been at the receiving end of that and seen what that is like. One, ignore Twitter.

Two, it’s useful to have people you can trust. Once in a while when you write something, I’ll write to you and I’ll talk about it. It’s useful to build a community of people like that who you can trust, even accountability partners, even beyond the feedback loop, so you can discuss your writing with them and they can keep you on the track and make sure you’re writing enough and you’re doing your targets. That’s invaluable. It’s harder to do. It takes a lot of luck to get the right circles.

I think the most important is this: Who does the best feedback come from? The best feedback actually comes from ourselves, because I think of writing as having two aspects to it. The facility to write comes with, one, judgment, and two, ability. Your judgment and your ability are separate things. Often you’ll write something and you’ll think it sucks. One, that may be because you’re too close to it and you’re being too critical. Two, it could also be because your judgment is ahead of your ability. Now, this is a reason for you to continue, not to stop, because it’s a positive thing. It means your ability will eventually catch up.

What you also need to do is keep working on your judgment. Keep working on your judgment. That means—and this is something you do, but I’m not sure how many writers actually do it as rigorously as they should—that you have to read a lot. There’s no substitute for that. You have to read a lot. You have to read it with a critical mind. When you read a great piece, reverse engineer it. Read it again with that specific eye where you’re looking at the craft.

When you read a piece by someone you like but this particular piece hasn’t worked, do the same thing. Read it with a critical eye. Figure out why didn’t it work this time. What went wrong? Why did it feel off? You have to hone the reader in yourself, which will automatically make your judgment better, which will automatically lift your ability with it because then you’ll have to work that much harder to please the critic in you.

Ultimately, this is all we have. I’m very fortunate to have the friends I do in the community of writers that I’m part of. Ultimately, for me, writing is—it is a lonely activity. You are all alone with the demons in your mind, and you have to get the job done. Ultimately, there is nowhere else to look but to yourself. Therefore, it is important that you hone your judgment as well so you can be your own mentor, as it were.

Considering the Audience

RAJAGOPALAN: This is interesting. It was one of the reasons I started the podcast. I was in all these meetings, and a very useful thing that my producer, who’s also the creative director at Mercatus, Jeff Holmes, asked me to do—he said, “Think of a representative listener. Who is this person, the perfect person that you would be speaking with?”

In my head, the odd thing was, I was speaking to the 16-, 17-, 18-, 19-year-old me in the sense that, as you already alluded to, there weren’t too many people who were thinking about libertarian ideas. There was virtually no one thinking about law and economics or public choice, right? There were maybe two or three people who’d even heard those names. My first copy of Jim Buchanan is someone’s book, which I had to stand and photocopy the entire book and return it to them. Same thing with Dick Wagner or something like that. Most people might have chosen to go this way and pursue these ideas if they had known.

My sense was, what if we make these academic ideas a little bit more accessible? Actually, people can just listen. If they’re in a small town in India or a university that’s not so great because that’s the best they had access to or they could afford, they will at least have a sense of, “Oh, there is this other thing out there. That someone in this other university in the other end of the world or in the other end of India is actually working on these ideas, and that sounds interesting, and maybe I can pursue it.” That was my goal with this.

It’s the same thing, it seems, with writing. What is a good way to think about the target listener or the target audience in a world where technically you could reach anyone? Anyone could read your piece. Anyone could listen to an episode of the podcast. Maybe it’s interpreted well or not interpreted well. Maybe they have the context or they don’t. What is a good way to think about that?

VARMA: Great question, but before I answer it, I’ll come back to the earlier thing you said about young girls in some random place in India listening to this and understanding that there’s a world out there they haven’t yet known of but which holds possibilities for them. I think that’s actually an incredible social service. To come across something and find that it gives you the permission to think in a different way, that it’s okay to think beyond particular boxes and go in different—to open up possibilities to you. I think it’s incredible, and it’s a social service.

I often think that I don’t know what my podcast, even with the reach that I’ve been lucky enough to have, might achieve tangibly in the here and now. But maybe there’s a 15-year-old girl in a small town in India somewhere listening to this who is the prime minister of the country in 2050. You never know. Maybe it makes some difference somewhere down the line, so we are all playing the long game.

As far as the audience is concerned, sometimes, of course, your audience is defined. If you’re writing for Wall Street Journal, you write in a particular way. If you’re writing for Times of India, you simplify. Instead of inflation, you might say rising prices. Instead of fiscal deficit, you might say when the government spends more than it has—though, obviously, for WSJ, you’re using those terms. But you are right that often for longer pieces of work, whether it’s essays or novels or even if you’re writing a nonfiction book or even if you’re producing a podcast, you don’t really know what the audience is.

For me, unless there’s a specific purpose, and therefore you define the audience; you say, “I want to reach 18-year-old girls and I want to change—” If you haven’t defined it like that—let’s say you just want to have good conversations, or you just want to write a good novel—my proxy is to think about the reader or the listener as someone who is identical to you in terms of intelligence and sensibility but doesn’t know what you know. What you’re writing about is new to them, but otherwise, they’re identical to you.

When you put it like that, I think the task becomes easier because otherwise there is a danger in second-guessing too much, about dumbing down content too much because, “Hey, will they understand?” Or about using too much jargon because, “Hey, my peers must think well of me,” or whatever. If you just think of someone exactly like yourself but without the knowledge of that particular thing you’re writing about, and you try to make it engaging for that person, then I think that’s a good proxy. But people find their own proxies. If you said that you were thinking of the 18-year-old Shruti, that’s a fantastic proxy also because, in a sense, it’s the same thing.

RAJAGOPALAN: I used my example very specifically because a lot of the creators and influencers who have this amazing personality and style and all these different ways of reaching people. My only superpower is I know a lot of material, and I know how to put it in a historical context or a disciplinary context. That’s really what my training is. I teach very well.

Going by your “be authentic” theme, what is it that I really do? I make complex ideas more accessible in the classroom and so on. That was really the intention, that I have this phenomenal access: If I request a particular academic to come on the podcast, they will come. Then they will discuss their book with great interest. They will try to make it more accessible and so on. In a sense, I wasn’t really doing social service—it was also consumption for me—but that was really the effort.

In fact, a couple of people have told me this. They’re like, “Listening to your podcast sounds like you’re doing office hours with your favorite professor.” I was, “That’s exactly what it is. That is it. You hit the nail on the head.” I prep and I go, and I know I have X number of minutes, and then I can ask them all the questions I’ve been dying to ask them.

Digital Media and Context Building

RAJAGOPALAN: Coming back to this sense of the ideal listener and what you said about context building, I particularly like Substack for that because now suddenly, you’re not bound by length. And you can also start linking in things, which obviously one can’t do when it’s a print paper, but even the online digital versions of a lot of the print newspapers, they don’t put in the links that you suggest. They put in their own links, or they have certain rules about what is gated, what is ungated, what is trustworthy and what is not trustworthy. I would even link a tweet, which is something they would never do, or embed a tweet. I have written Substacks that just have YouTube video clips of Hindi movies and things like that.

There is something about the world of context building that the digital media is very, very well suited to in a way that traditional media isn’t. What is a good way to use that aspect? Is it just go on Substack, start writing, you’ll figure out the missing context because readers will give you feedback? Or is there a method to this madness? What are the building blocks of that?

VARMA: I don’t know if there’s a method to this madness because I’ve stumbled through everything, but I think blogs had all of the things you mentioned. You could link to stuff; length wasn’t an issue. I think blogs are dead and Substack is much better, or newsletters are much better. And the reason for that is that, number one, the reason blogs are dead is no one goes to destination websites anymore. They’re not going to click and go there. They’ll just click on a link. With Substack, the advantage you have is it comes to your mailbox. Once you subscribe, it’s always coming to your mailbox, and that’s a big advantage. Therefore, I would advise everyone to go on Substack.

And I think that there is a tradeoff that creators often face, that every task that we do, we face a tradeoff between getting it done and getting it right. I think perfection is the enemy of production. I think the most important thing is to get it done. When you’re writing a huge, massive nonfiction masterpiece, or you’re writing a great novel or whatever, then, yes, you’ve got to get it right in the end, but even your first draft can just be “get it done.” Take a dump of the brain, and then you work on it.

My advice to everyone—and this is advice I followed during the blogging days when I did 8,000 posts in five years at five posts a day, but I don’t follow now at Substack; I’ve been irregular—but my advice to everyone is that, get it done. Get it done repeatedly. That’s a way to getting it right. If anyone is starting out now, don’t worry about, “Am I credible? Do I know enough?” Just start writing, but start writing with an attitude of humility. And eventually, over time—when you are writing itself, you spoke about how being a clear thinker increases the chances of your being a clear writer, but equally, trying to write clearly will help you think clearly.

Because every time you write, you are aware of the gaps in your knowledge. You’re aware of the gaps in your argument. You might even change your own mind while writing something if you’re honest enough and humble enough. Just go out there; write with humility. You will discover a lot more about the world. You will discover a lot more about yourself. My advice would be that write regularly. Even if you, for whatever reason, you don’t feel the confidence to put it out in the world, do an anonymous Substack for now, or go out there and journal or just be bindass [carefree]. Do what I did. I’m sure many of my old posts will no doubt make me cringe, but just do what I did.

Just go out there and put yourself out there. It’s fine, man. This age of hypersensitive, judging people and canceling them and mobbing them, it’s not going to last very long now. People have kind of seen through that. I think it’s another couple of years, it’s waning. It’s fine. No one is going to take screenshots of everything you write and come after you 10 years later and say, “Hey, so-an- so said this.” Just be yourself.

A general life lesson that it took me a long, long time to learn is, own yourself. You’re never going to be perfect. Everybody’s fucked up inside. That is the way it is. Just own yourself, own the fucked-upness. When you’re writing about stuff, write with humility. You don’t have the last word, but the words that you have today will take you to better words in the future, which is a terrible way of putting it. Don’t write like I’m talking now. Always production over perfection.

The Role of Marketing

RAJAGOPALAN: Here, the other thing I want to talk to you about—and I think this is both of our collectively least favorite thing to discuss and favorite thing to bitch and moan about: marketing.


RAJAGOPALAN: Generally, all the marketing gyan that comes our way for everything. “Oh, you should be doing this, or you should be doing that.” Is there a function to marketing? I think you and I are both old-school enough to know that the content has to come before anything else, and the good content will market itself. At least that’s the way I think about it. Increasingly, I meet younger people, they’re like, “Hey, there’s too much out there in the internet. Good content doesn’t always market itself. You need to do a few things to push it.”

What is going right with marketing in India when it comes to the kind of content we’re talking about, and what is going horribly wrong?

VARMA: Yes, I think a couple of things. One, of course, I agree with you in that very idealistic sense that a good product is the best marketing. I think both of us have the privilege to be able to think that way because I think we got lucky with the stuff that we did, and we have the cred that we do now.

Having said that, I have never wasted a single second on thinking about marketing. My thinking has been that if I do a good product, that’s enough. If there are young people who claim that, “Oh, good content isn’t enough,” then maybe they’re not producing good content to begin with. Just get that right first and do that consistently, and then see where it goes. You’re not entitled to anything.

The other aspect I speak about is that a lot of marketing—when people think about it now, when they talk about it now here, creators discuss, “Let’s do this, let’s do that, this metric, that metric.” There are a lot of these cliched boxes that you have to tick that, “Oh, we’ll do this on Instagram. Oh, we’ll do this on Twitter. Oh, we’ll have a presence here.” They’re ticking those boxes, and there’s no heart to it. I think they just put themselves through the motions, and then whatever has to happen happens anyway. Most of that marketing doesn’t help.

If anything, marketing will get you shallow engagement, that if something really succeeds in marketing terms, you’ll have people checking you out for 10, 15 seconds. But the deeper engagement times come with organic reach and all of that. The other thing I would add there is that, let’s say that you have a product, whatever it is. Let’s say you have a great podcast, and then someone says, “Hey, you should have an Instagram presence.” Someone else says, “You should have a TikTok presence.”

My advice to you is fine, do it. Don’t think of it cynically as a marketing channel. Think of it as an outlet for your creativity in itself, and then do the best Instagram channel you can. Have fun on TikTok. Do the best TikToks you can. Who knows? Maybe six months later you’ll realize that, “Hey, screw this podcast. I’m just going to be a TikToker.” Whatever you are doing, just put everything of yourself into it. Don’t think of it cynically as a marketing channel for this thing that we have done. If anything, the world is also inundated with too much marketing. If there’s too much content, there’s also too much marketing.

Ultimately, just make great content and have faith in that and focus on that. 100% of my focus goes on the content. It always has. It always has. from the time 300 people would download an episode to now, where there’s an order of magnitude more, but that never changed. Ultimately, it’s about the work itself.

Reach vs. Revenue

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s also really irritating. In one sense we’re talking about, how do you figure out a revenue stream coming out of this? The Ideas of India podcast is produced by the Mercatus Center. It’s part of my job, so I don’t have to be additionally compensated for it in any way. That’s not the case for The Seen and the Unseen, for instance. For you, it’s very much driven by a subscriber model, which is the campaign that you started off, “if you want to donate a cup of coffee to me every month,” or however people wish to set it up. You have very little advertising. You have a few clips of people who advertise.

The subscriber model obviously works great because you produce something of enormous value, and people care about promoting it. When it comes to the advertising, it’s a huge challenge. What are these young people in all these marketing firms who are doing ad buyouts in India getting horribly wrong? What are they missing?

VARMA: I think one of the things that they are missing is that they are just looking at absolute numbers, and they’re not looking at engagement. Like I often say, I’d rather have 100,000 people listen to an episode of mine than 10 million people watch a YouTube video. Because a YouTube video will have average engagement, average session lengths of 15 seconds, 20 seconds it could. Whereas my show will have an average session time of 40 minutes, and people listen across multiple sessions, and it’s so far off the charts. If you told me this number when I was an internet professional in, say, 2009, I would’ve said, “No freaking way.”

At most, if you are the most successful sticky video game in the world, can you have these numbers? Today podcasts do. I’m sure Lex Fridman, who does such an incredible podcast, has similar numbers. Rogan would have such similar numbers. I think advertisers just look at the absolute eyeballs, and they don’t look at the engagement, and the engagement matters a great deal.

I think eventually what’s going to happen is, as creators begin to interface directly with their audiences and get money from them, I don’t know what the future of advertising is. Who’s going to want advertising? I don’t go looking for advertising. Sometimes advertisers come and they say, “Can we advertise?” I say, “Okay,” that’s it, but I don’t go looking for it. My revenue is really, partly, I just ask people to voluntarily contribute because I tell them, “My show will always be free, but if you want to contribute, contribute.” Listeners have been incredibly generous. That’s what keeps the show going. If any of you are listening to this, please continue being generous.

Also, I realized that as a creator, you have to figure out what you’re doing for reach and what you’re doing for revenue, and in reach, I include credibility. For me, The Seen and the Unseen was reach, credibility, all of those things. Revenue was my writing course, which got me the revenue and which really keeps the show going. But at the same time, you can’t compromise on quality, anyway. It’s still got to be kick-ass.

That’s why, in fact, earlier the first bunch of students who signed up for my writing course did so because they’ve heard Seen and the Unseen, and they know the guy is credible. Today, most of them sign up because somebody who’s done the course before says, “Hey, this is a great course,” and they’re like, “Oh, you also have a podcast,” which is good to hear. No matter what you do, never be cynical about it, that I’m only doing this for money. Put your best foot forward. Do a great job.

I think, in a global sense, it’s become possible for creators to find 1,000 true fans and survive and subsist. In India, I think I’m lucky to be one of the few people who’s managed to do that. I think the long tail will be empowered with time, but it’s going to take a little bit of time. Because the traditional way of doing things, big platforms and the mainstream media and advertising and all of that—all of that is really on the way out, but there’s going to be a lag till something takes its place. It’s going to play itself out that way, but if you are a creator, your ultimate aim should be that, “I will be my own boss, and my money will come directly from the people who value what I do. I don’t want arbiters in between.”

Content Engagement

RAJAGOPALAN: Philosophically, I completely agree with you. I try and look at India from the lens of an economist. It just makes no sense to me when they chase the numbers. It’s a little bit like what young economists do these days, which is look at aggregate numbers and have no sense of what is underlying beneath it and make random assumptions.

For instance, in India, we have massive cellphone and almost free data penetration with Jio, which means eyeballs are very cheap. In India, you can get lots of people to watch the same Katrina Kaif song on YouTube 30 million times because, frankly, we have a youth joblessness problem, and we have lots of free data, and we have great Bollywood music.

Now, how many of those people are actually going to end up buying anything that is being advertised along with that? We don’t know because the same Katrina Kaif movie doesn’t get a fraction of the ticket sales that YouTube video gets. That’s one part of it, purchasing power. When it comes to something like The Seen and the Unseen, not only is it deep engagement, you are actually reaching a few hundred thousand people who are the top 25 million earners in India.

India is made up of lots of countries, and there is the top 25 million, who are the GDP per capita of Taiwan, or the top 100 million, who are closer to Mexico. The rest of them, even if they watch it, they’re not going to buy the books. What is extraordinary about The Seen and the Unseen is, anytime someone comes on your show, their book immediately becomes a bestseller in Indian terms because people are buying it. I know this because when you go on Amazon, it’s titles other people bought which have nothing to do with that book, and the only commonality is they’ve both been on The Seen and the Unseen. I’m sure someone has pointed this out to you.

Is it just that these people don’t know what they are doing? It’s not even clear to me that the numbers are going to get them what they want, which is people putting their money where their mouth is or where their eyeballs are.

VARMA: The advertisers not knowing what they’re doing? Yes, I think it is because, for an advertiser, it’s safe to deliver on the big number. It is dangerous if you’re an advertising executive in a firm, you have a boss to report to, that boss has a boss to report to—that final guy then has to go to the board and say, “We got these numbers, and these are what the other advertising companies did.” It’s like what Chuck Prince said about banking: “When the music’s playing, you have to dance.” If the dance is going to be around the metrics of absolute numbers, you’re going to go there.

Now, you’re absolutely right that a Katrina Kaif song—and I haven’t watched one in a long time, so forgive me if my judgment is wrong.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m disappointed.

VARMA: If a Katrina Kaif song or a random Bollywood song, maybe what I would call shallow content—not in a judgmental sense, but in terms of engagement, whereas a good podcast like yours would be deep content. So I think that is a distinction that they don’t know how to make or they may not care about. Because if what the advertiser, per se, is being judged on is eyeballs, he’ll deliver the eyeballs. How do you make the decision to go for something else? How do you measure it? How do you put a metric to it? It’s a business that’s really got to evolve, like John Wanamaker once famously said that “Half the money spent on advertising is wasted, but I don’t know which half.”

Ambi Parameswaran, the legendary adman, was on my show, and Ambi described digital marketing as “spray and pray.” That’s exactly what it is. These guys don’t have a clue. Now, in the short term, I suffer because people who could advertise and just get a tremendous amount of engagement, they don’t advertise. But I’m okay with that. I couldn’t care less. I’m not going to wait for the world to catch up. I have to keep moving ahead.

RAJAGOPALAN: Sure. I didn’t mean that it has to impact what you do because you have alternate sources of revenue, and to a very large extent, you are still partly subsidizing The Seen and the Unseen with other resources, even though it’s such a runaway hit. In any normal universe, there would be no reason for the creator to subsidize this podcast, but there’s something funky and fundamentally off about Indian marketing, Indian advertising, that that seems to be the case. Is it going to be a question of catch-up—you’re just a little bit ahead of your time? Or they just don’t know what they are doing?

VARMA: No. I think the thing is that the mainstream is completely irrelevant. I don’t like adverbs, but when I say completely here, I mean completely. It is over. It is finished. That whole model of having mainstream media, of having advertising—every aspect of that is irrelevant, it is broken, it is dysfunctional. However, there is going to be a lag between other systems coming up and taking its place and finding ways to function. That lag is going to take a while. To a large extent, these are unknown unknowns.

And these are unknown unknowns which are exacerbated by the greatest unknown of all, which is the impact of AI on all this, because how does AI impact creativity? I am convinced that 10 years from now, AI will be writing books and creating music and films of such quality that you won’t possibly be able to tell the difference between them and what humans have done. They’ll hit all your buttons in all the right places. Then where are creators? That’s a much larger question. My answer for my students, of course, is that creators can either have the thin desire that, “Let me get a lot of validation and fame,” or the thick desire of indulging in the joy of creating itself. They cannot take that thick desire away from us.

If I sit down quietly, and I make a drawing of the sea in front of me, or if I write an acrostic poem for my beloved, that is not a joy that AI can ever take away from me because I’m doing that. That act of creation is everything. In terms of validation, in terms of writing great books, can AI take that away? I think inevitably, yes, because inevitably AI will write great books also, and there will be no constraint in terms of how many and et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know when that is. Again, one doesn’t want to overestimate the short term, but no one should underestimate the long term.

I think all creators, I think my overall overarching message would be that if you are a creator, be driven by love. Love for what you do, passion for your craft—just be driven by that. Everything else is uncertain. You never quite know, but love will get you there.

AI and ChatGPT

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s almost as if you can read my mind because the last thing in my notes is ChatGPT, and you have already gotten us there. One is, what do you make of it? I don’t mean AI more generally; that’s a bigger question. I want to start with the basic tools, stuff like ChatGPT or the Bing-enabled search, what Google is now putting out through various plug-ins, and how does one use them?

VARMA: First of all, I know you want to talk about ChatGPT in particular and not AI in general. But I’ll just say that people who are dissing AI in general by looking at ChatGPT are making the same mistake that people would’ve made if they were looking at a 2-MB mainframe computer that occupied an entire room in 1950 and were condemning computing on the basis of that and saying, “No individual will ever have one of these in their room.” I would just say, don’t make that mistake. AI is going to be able to do everything, and generative AI is not the last word in AI.

RAJAGOPALAN: On this, it’s funny, you and I are old enough to have seen the beginning of the internet. When someone complains to me and says, “ChatGPT is not really that great,” I’m like, “I remember search before Google got good. It was really bad.” Even the early version of Google was not that great, and then Google got really good. The time it took for that to happen was many years.

What is super interesting about ChatGPT is, each iteration is so much better than the previous one, and it’s a matter of weeks and months. The difference between 3.5 and ChatGPT-4 is enormous. I know that’s only available to subscribers. This might just be our age showing that we remember that time.

VARMA: I’m a subscriber. Until recently, 3.5 could write better erotica than 4 because the controls on 4 are slightly tighter. I think they’ve tightened up the controls on 3.5 also. It’s become a bit boring. I got 3.5 to write 70,000 words of erotica discreetly. That art is in the prompting and then not being explicit in the prompt but taking it to that exact space where it has no option but to go in certain directions. Once it gets there, it freaks out, and you don’t know what to do. That’s irrelevant. That’s very early stage. That’s just me.

RAJAGOPALAN: Again, talking about age, I am old enough now to know that there are things that you cannot unsee and unread. I’m going to stay clear of ChatGPT erotica for the moment. I’m going to use it in other ways.

VARMA: You won’t be able to get it to write erotica because it’ll say, “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize,” or whatever. It takes great skill to take it in those particular directions, which I mastered.

RAJAGOPALAN: I just haven’t honed my prompts.

VARMA: I’m bored with it. I’ll say that a couple of times when I had a guest coming on The Seen and the Unseen, I said, “So and so is my guest. What questions should I ask?” The questions it gives me are good enough for a one-hour podcast, but definitely not questions I could use because I go to different places, I’m doing five-hour or six-hour shows. They’re definitely good enough for a one-hour podcast. You could wing it just with that. Obviously, you should do your fact check because right now it hallucinates.

I think the larger thing about using GPT is that—our mutual friend Ajay Shah and I were discussing this the other day in the context of coders—for example, what happens to all our tech coolies? Our thing is that your tech coolies are basically going to disappear. The people who are going to benefit are the slightly higher-order thinkers. Because if you’re a slightly higher-order thinker, you have now unlimited coding resources available to you with ChatGPT and so on. Your power is multiplied many times.

The question there is, how many of the tech coolies can upgrade their skills to become higher-order thinkers? The same for everything. Today, if you’re in a copywriting firm and you have a creative director with 10 copywriters, you don’t need the 10 copywriters; you just need that creative director to know how to prompt. That’s what you need. Similarly with mediocre illustrators, you don’t need them anymore. You just need someone who knows how to prompt.

Now the question is, you and I are both extreme optimists when it comes to technology. That, sure, we say that initially there might be some loss in jobs, there is some displacement, but eventually the gains in productivity are so massive that it more than makes up for all of that. In the case of GPT, what my mind can’t grok is how that process will play out because obviously, the future benefits are unknown unknowns. And I believe they will be massive to the point where productivity could go up to such an extent that we could one day hit a post-scarcity society.

Having said that, I don’t know how the transition happens. Because I can see in as little as a year or two years, I see millions of copywriters and illustrators and tech coolies out of a job; there’s no need for them. Do the benefits come in fast enough for that to work out? On the whole, I’m optimistic, but I can’t lay out a scenario. What do you think?

AI Optimism

RAJAGOPALAN: For me, I think I am more optimistic than you are, and for a few reasons. One, I think the productivity gains are huge, and I think they’re also very big for the mediocre copywriter and illustrator if they quickly get on board and learn how to use ChatGPT. The nice thing about it is there is no institutional accreditation about how well you prompt. It’s something you can actually learn by doing. It’s a very level playing field. Of course, there’s a certain subscription fee that one needs to pay. You can get good at prompting, and a lot of it is just provoking and being good at conversation, trying to be willing to do a lot of trial and error and so on.

I think people will get there. The nice thing about these things is if writing overall gets better, people will read more. Because now, it’s easier to read and consume more information, which means you crack the market open. It’s the same thing with good illustration. If the illustrations become more vivid at a pretty low cost and even a mediocre illustrator can do a good job, then more and more copy is going to have great illustration.

All our Substacks can have highly personalized illustration, which means it cracks open the economy and makes that economy much bigger, and there’s more demand for illustrators because now we’ve gotten used to having personalized illustration for each Substack post and for each paragraph. I think the size of the market can grow in a way where, if that does it faster than the number of new mediocre copywriters or coders coming in, it’s going to keep up.

The second reason I’m optimistic that we’re not going to lose too many jobs in the short run is coordination. There is a transactions cost element to this. Now, can I give good prompts to Midjourney and Stable Diffusion and come up with a good illustration? Sure. It is going to take me away from writing or doing something else, which is my comparative advantage. It may still make sense for me to hire a copywriter or an illustrator who will be like, “You know what, that’s my core thing, and I can still do it way faster than what you can do.”

You are right that ChatGPT gives me a lot of absolute advantages, but still, my comparative advantage is being an economist. That’s not going to change anytime soon. This is like that Beatles thing. Someone asked John Lennon if Ringo Starr is the best drummer in the world, and he said, “He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles,” which is Lennon being an asshole, but leaving that aside . . .

VARMA: Paul was the best drummer in The Beatles. Yes, we all know this.

RAJAGOPALAN: Paul was the best everything. Still, there is the law of comparative advantage, which means it’s best if he does the singing, songwriting and plays left-handed guitar, and other people can do some other things. That I think will still hold, so that’s one of the reasons I’m optimistic.

The coordination costs when we start talking about large firms—now we are really getting into something. It’s not that easy for technology to produce something directly, send it to the editing software tool, capture that, make sure it’s checked and then release it, which means you need an intern at the very least to be able to do all these things.

There is a certain amount of human judgment which eases these transaction costs and coordination problems, and AI is not yet good enough for that. The internet got good at that over 20 years, reducing these coordination costs. And while it was getting good at that, it was getting better at so many other things that the size of the economy just cracked open, which means people were able to readjust and do other jobs in the same economy. I’m still more optimistic about AI not destroying jobs. I’m very optimistic about it making us very productive. I personally use ChatGPT as an editor, plus a writing coach, plus entertainment from time to time, plus a thesaurus and all of those sorts of things.

I don’t know if this is useful to people, but when I start writing about something, I’ll put the prompt into ChatGPT, and if I was going to write what it writes, which is usually not the case, I won’t write it. Because if ChatGPT can do this, then there is absolutely no reason for me to waste my time doing it. Sometimes if it’s going to give you about the same answer—because at the end of the day, demand can slope downward, so it’s not like I’m going to now write something else because ChatGPT said it—I still won’t start it the same way ChatGPT started it, even if I’m talking about like the law of demand or some universal, well-established rule.

That’s one very useful way of, “Hey, this is an aggregate that can spit something out, and how do you make sure that you are still adding value?” I think it’s great at summarizing stuff. It’s great at removing typos. It’s great at giving you words. It’s great when you get stuck, and you’ve written a very long, awkward sentence, and you can’t find your way out of it. It almost never gives me something that I can use as is, but it at least prompts a chain of thought and I can say, “Oh, that was interesting what it did, but I don’t like that word and I don’t like that framing,” and then I can readjust.

I find it phenomenally useful for legal footnotes, which are horrible to write, and it’ll summarize Indian legalese and horrible long constitutional provisions fairly simply. Stuff like that, I think it does very well. It’s great at producing titles and subtitles. “Suggest a subheading for this paragraph,” and it actually does a pretty decent job most of the time. Those are the sorts of things. I very much use it as a writing bouncing board, things my editor would normally tell me or a good writing coach would tell me. That’s really how I have been using it. I have not been using it for erotica, I must confess. I doubt I’ll use it anytime soon. That’s where I am right now.

VARMA: I think first of all, I’m optimistic about AI as well, but you’ve given me specific concrete reasons to be optimistic, which are wonderful and really lucid. Thank you for that. I think the thing is, I think ChatGPT is an incredible tool if you know how to use it. It’s very easy to make fun of it and say it, “Oh, it hallucinates,” and, “Oh, it gave this ridiculous fact.” When I was researching for Jerry Pinto’s episode, it said, “Jerry Pinto has won the Padma Shri,” which of course he hasn’t. It’ll hallucinate once in a while. Fine, you can fact-check everything, but otherwise it can be so incredibly useful in different ways.

In a sense, it’ll now give a comparative advantage to those who are not cynics by default. Because those of us who are not cynics by default will learn to use it. We’ll become better at whatever we do. It’ll just be another tool like the calculator or GPS. It is just another tool. I don’t even know what it is. It’s not even virtue signaling. It’s so fashionable to diss everything, and therefore it has become fashionable among a certain class of people to diss ChatGPT. The point is, it’s their loss. Too bad, it’ll create a vicious cycle for them.

What’s Wrong with the AI Critics?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes and no. I actually find something positive even in the people dissing it, in the following sense. I love that we have come far enough that if something is not as perfect as you expect it to be the day it’s launched, you are annoyed by it.

Louis C.K. had this bit where he said, “We went years and years without the internet, and then we went years and years without being able to use anything, including our phones, other than like a paper book, on an aircraft. Then they started providing Wi-Fi, and it was obviously not consistent. It would keep breaking up. The second that happened, people would loudly complain, ‘Can you believe it, that the Wi-Fi is not working on this plane?’” He’s like, it just takes us a few minutes, a few days to get adjusted to something and just expect it at the same quality that everything else is at.

I think that just tells us how far we’ve come as a human civilization. We should be mad when we open a tap and the water doesn’t flow and it’s not clean. There is something about your and my generation, which is used to the socialist world. We’re so grateful for everything. I would love that these kids don’t have to be grateful, that they can just be entitled.

VARMA: No, I don’t love it because they’re too entitled, and it leads to too much hubris. Sometimes you have to take that step back and have a little less hubris. Really all negative reactions to AI, in my opinion, are driven by hubris. We are overestimating our own intelligence whenever we criticize AI. The reason you and I are having this conversation is we’ve been trained on LLMs that are much smaller than the LLMs ChatGPT has been trained on, and our ability to process those LLMs is far less than ChatGPT’s. We’ll do things which we’ll call creative, and we’ll assign an almost mysticality to it simply because we don’t understand the processes in the brain by which it has come about.

It is actually inevitable that every single thing we do, at some point, AI will do and do better. That is fine. This is not a reason to get upset. Just as individually, we are all fucked-up, broken people, we are also a fucked-up, broken species. Have the humility to accept it. By some miracle, we have created a larger order of intelligence than us, and pretty soon perhaps a larger order of consciousness. Even if some believe it threatens our species, so freaking what? What’s so great about it?

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t know about the threatening of the species yet. I just don’t know enough about it. I think we overestimate the role of intelligence and underestimate the role of coordination and general frictions. We can’t get files to move in a particular way, even in a large, private, excellent multinational corporation. You’ve been in some of these marketing-type meetings or something—the bureaucracy takes forever.

Unless this learns how to connect Google with Microsoft, with Zoom, with the podcast software, with Salesforce and everything and can magically coordinate these things, I think we’re overestimating. I do think the whole, like, “Can it crack the nuclear code through computation and set off a missile?” I think that’s a realistic fear. All the other things, they require a lot of human bureaucracy. That’s one thing. Bureaucracy might save us.

The hallucination, funnily enough—I don’t even know why we call it that, but it makes me very optimistic that it is very human. Most people have been dissing this hallucination part. That it’s just making up references, and those papers actually don’t exist, or those cases don’t exist. Something happened—a U.S. law firm, a couple of lawyers got reprimanded by a judge because they produced a list of cases which are just fake.

Think about how humans are. We have a blind spot. You drive. We have a blind spot when we’re driving. It doesn’t look like a black hole when we are looking at the side mirror. Now, what does the mind do? It just magically populates what’s going on. Now, technically, the only thing we can’t see is the car in the blind spot. The road doesn’t break up. The trees are the same way; the trees are just before and after it. The sidewalk is consistent. Everything else the mind will populate, except the car because the car we actually cannot see. It’s hard to just put that there.

I feel like ChatGPT is doing something very similar. It’s very human in that aspect that it’s probabilistic, so it’s actually populating everything else that seems feasible, which also gives me hope that it will start getting blind spot-checkers, and it will start getting better at even knowing that it has this blind spot and how do you deal with it. Just the way humans did with the side view mirror and that little light that blinks in my car now. I have one of the newer cars. There’s a little blind spot thing. Whenever a car shows up on the side, it’ll tell me.

Those are the sorts of things that make me quite optimistic that it is going to be able to contribute to our intelligence in a meaningful way despite the hallucination. The fact that Google doesn’t hallucinate should tell you something. What it tells me is not that it’s a superior technology; it actually tells me it’s trying to do something much more basic, which is why it’s not hallucinating. Am I too much of a tech optimist that I’m positive about all of these things? I don’t know.

VARMA: I think tech optimists have had a good record so far because we’ve always been right. I’m happy to be a tech optimist with you. This is a great point about the blind spot and about Google getting nothing wrong because it’s doing too little. When I was a poker professional, one of my friends once asked this room of people that if no one ever calls your bluff, what does that mean? Only I had the right answer. It obviously means you aren’t bluffing enough because if you bluff optimally, a certain percentage of your bluff should get called. I think it’s a bit like that.

I was chatting with Vasant when he was in Bombay, and we were recording an episode on the creator economy as well. And he spoke about how when he wrote a newsletter on a Substack on AI, somebody came to him and said that, “Ultimately, humans are very intelligent, but they’re also very messed up and fucked up. If computers get more intelligent, why won’t they also be messed up and fucked up?” Which is a great point.

My answer to that was, we are messed up and fucked up because of the contradictory impulses inside our brain. We are hardwired a certain way. A lot of the hardwiring is contradictory with each other. You have layers of different social convention built on top of that, many of which contradict each other as well. On top of that is a rational mind and the immediate incentives and the chemical balance in our brain, and what is making us feel at a particular moment in time.

This is just a messy, crazy soup, whereas AI can just be hyperrational. It is not messed up in any of these ways. Therefore, at least these complexities don’t exist. I could lust for someone and actually believe I am in love because that’s the evolutionary adaptation. AI doesn’t have that. AI doesn’t have lust. Whatever it feels, so to say, it’ll call it that. I think humans are messed up. That’s probably a feature, not a bug. That’s what makes us endearing, often. It’s the cracks where the light gets in, as someone said.

Intelligence and Coordination

RAJAGOPALAN: On the intelligence and the messed-up part, one thing that I can’t understand—and this is a genuine question; I’m not dissing what other people are saying. Whenever certain groups or species are perfectly aligned, and they all do what the other person does, and they coordinate very easily, we actually call them sheep in a very pejorative sense—that this is clearly something of a lower level of intelligence, that they all just do the same thing.

Why are we expecting that the higher-level intelligence, much higher than humans apparently, are all going to now magically coordinate with each other and have none of the conflicts that humans have and have none of the disagreements and have none of the coordination problems and none of the decentralized issues that any of us have? Apparently the super hyperrational being, which is much more intelligent, is now going to have no trouble with all of them agreeing with each other and having this perfect alignment. That’s the thing that I can’t quite wrap my head around.

Either it is the case that this evolutionary story doesn’t quite play out the same way to machine learning the way it does to human learning—that could be one possibility—or that it plays out much faster. The iterations we take over millennia, it’s going to do in a few days or a few years. Alternatively, those guys are missing something fundamental about intelligence and its ability to then keep replicating itself and then perfectly align. I think there’s something there.

VARMA: I think both are true. We do anthropomorphize intelligence and assume that when we talk intelligence, it’ll be an analog of human intelligence, which is not necessarily the case. I’m speculating and thinking aloud, but I think a lot of these coordination problems between humans are because of things like ego and tribalism and so on and so forth, which are unique to humans and the impossibility of actually really communicating, which people don’t realize. They take it for granted, but it’s incredibly hard.

Whereas, I think for a set of artificial intelligences to quickly compute that, given their different interests and objectives, what is an optimal way forward that satisfies all of them in a hypothetical situation is much more likely. Because the only thing that will come into play there is rationality, and none of this other stuff that happens with humans.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. That’s a very particular kind of rationality.

VARMA: Particular kind of rationality.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, which we know that humans don’t—

VARMA: Humans can only pretend to have it. We don’t have it. We can only pretend to have it, and sometimes we’ll be rationalizing, and we’ll pretend that we are reasoning, but we are just rationalizing.

RAJAGOPALAN: What I like about humans—and this is, again, a broader critique of the standard economics against behavioral economics—is human rationality is not like this basic given thing, like most people have a nose or 10 toes and 10 fingers. It’s not like that. It is highly contextual and conditional. I like the phrase that Vernon Smith uses. He says “ecological rationality,” and I think it’s Herb Simon who said that “Rationality, it’s like a pair of scissors.” One part of it is the cognitive aspect, and the other part of it is the environment. You need both sides of the pair of scissors to be able to cut through paper.

I’m very much coming from that point of view, that human rationality is contextual. We become shockingly rational very quickly when the incentives are there to do so or when there are costs to being or acting irrationally. When it starts costing us to hold irrational views, we start very quickly adjusting those views, which we see even on the internet and other places. That’s my view of it.

I have no idea how it’s going to play out for machine learning. I’m like a total newbie. I don’t know how to code. I don’t know how any of the tech works except in an abstract philosophical way. No one should go by what I’m doing except maybe borrow some of my prompts for ChatGPT.

Long Conversations

VARMA: If they want to write article, borrow some of my prompts. I’m not sharing because they’re obviously personalized for me. Yes, that scissor metaphor is fantastic, and that reminds me of, we should have you on The Seen and the Unseen again sometime soon to talk about so much else, but also rationality.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, but I can’t do one of those “life and times of Shruti”—

VARMA: Seven-hour things.

RAJAGOPALAN: No. We’ve talked about this before. I can talk about a particular concrete idea, and we have fantastic conversations, but I’m not sure I can talk about myself or that it’s worth talking about. I think on this we also fundamentally disagree, which is, you’re very interested in people; I’m very interested in ideas. Most people are boring, and their life and times and stories are boring. One of us has to persuade the other.

VARMA: I think the beautiful thing about friendship is sometimes you have to indulge your friends, and I shall ask exactly that of you soon.

RAJAGOPALAN: I will find it difficult to say no, but we’ll hopefully keep it the slow start. You tested with me doing these 20-minute snippet episodes that never released and then got me up to a particular point. So maybe we just stick with the ideas, and we can slowly sneak me up to a point where I can start getting interested in things other than that.

VARMA: Full seven-hour episode coming up, people.

RAJAGOPALAN: I do hold the distinction of doing the life-and-times episode of Amit Varma, which was five and a half hours, so that I have—

VARMA: Yes, which is 4 hours 59 minutes. That’s it.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, that’s it. Felt longer [chuckles].

VARMA: It would have been exact around five hours, but I cut out one sentence from you at the end because I felt offended by it where right at the end, you said that, “Let me tell you one thing about Amit: He will move on from this soon because he can’t do one thing for too long at a time.” I just felt that “She’s going to be proved wrong on this, so let me cut it out.” And I cut it out, and you have been proved wrong—so far, anyways.

RAJAGOPALAN: So far, you didn’t ask me what my time would—

VARMA: As of now, we are doing this thing, but I shouldn’t have cut it out. I regret it now. I should just have kept it.

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t mind if I was proved wrong, actually. I don’t think about proof that way. It was more for me a clarion call to the listeners, “Enjoy this while it lasts. Value this while it lasts,” because all good things in life, you just don’t know how long it’ll go on. Curious people are interested in just a whole bunch of different things, and you are one of them.

VARMA: Why are we talking about that show? We are on this show.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, but we all come from the coattails of The Seen and the Unseen.

VARMA: Oh my God.

RAJAGOPALAN: No. This has been lovely. Thank you for coming on this show. This is fun. This is one of the easiest conversations I’ve had. I feel I’ve prepped for it for a very, very long time, so almost no prep right now, but lots of prep over a lifetime. You even managed to record it and produce it for me, which is awesome. Your tech is better.

VARMA: Yes. It’s a holiday out there. Therefore, I thought, “Hey, you don’t need your tech people; I’ll just do it with my system.” Thank you for having me. This has been such great fun, and I’m so proud of you, and well done.

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app