Ra-Tan Lines – Robot or Not?

“Is it a robot? Robot or not?” These are the immortal questions that Jason Snell and John Siracusa have set out to answer. It is probably best to be upfront about this: “Robot or Not?” is not in any way, shape, or form an academic approach to the question in its title. There’s no particular reason to think the lines these two men have drawn in the sand are significant in any way. In fact, the hosts very deliberately hide the definition they are using, to keep up the suspense of early episodes.

Why would the question of robot-hood be controversial in any way? Well, consider this: is a self-driving vehicle a robot or a vehicle? Any TRON student reading this would probably exclaim “Both!” but this podcast is entirely about meaningless distinctions: the less meaning the merrier. Eventually the hosts moved away from asking “robot or not?” and now use the podcast feed to ask “sandwich or not?”, “bagel or not?”, “pet or not?” and similar questions. At this point, it should be clear what’s going on here, the reason this podcast is listened to at all. This isn’t a “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”-style search for truth. No, it is simply a Two Dudes Talking podcast, dependent on the listener’s interest in the Two Dudes.

Or in this case, of the One Dude. Jason Snell doesn’t reveal too much about his opinions on this podcast, although he has other podcasts with that purpose. Instead, he is focused on probing John Siracusa for data, trying to map the hills and valleys of the Siracusa mind. John Siracusa, for anyone unaware, is better known for the reviews he wrote for Ars Technica of each version of Apple’s Mac OS X. These reviews, written between 1999 and 2014, sometimes ran for as long as 30000 words. He continues to make his opinions on Apple public in the “Accidental Tech Podcast”. That isn’t a Two Dudes Talking podcast… but a Three Dudes Talking podcast.

Back to the topic of “Robot or Not?”, it is funny at times. However, it is perhaps more interesting as an illustration of what it means to be a geek. The podcast is at once pedantic and whimsical, simultaneously scientific and steeped in fiction. And while robots may seem to be an inherently unusual topic, the enthusiasm of the hosts extends to other, often mundane, aspects of human life. Is geekiness really defined by particular topics of conversation, or is it more of a state of mind, a style of presenting yourself, a sort of obsession with detail? Luckily for us, episode 137 of “Robot or Not?” focuses on the distinction between nerds and geeks. I always get that the wrong way around, so it’s a good thing Siracusa’s words were there to set me straight while I was writing this.

Given the prior experience of the hosts, it is no surprise that “Robot or Not?” has good audio, intro music, and outro music. The show actually cycles through different styles of intro music, which spices things up a little for binge listeners. Despite the style variations, there’s no mistaking the intro for any other podcast because the song is always dominated by the first seven words of this article.

“Robot or Not?” has the shortest episodes of any podcast I have listened to recently: Each one is less than 10 minutes long. However, it is worth noting that while podcasts such as “Accidental Tech Podcast”, “Hello Internet”, “Unmade Podcast” and the like last for hours, they only linger on a single topic for short periods of time. “Robot or Not?” is comparable to a single corner of “Hello Internet”, or perhaps even a single column of “Iron Warrior”. In fact “Robot or Not?” was partially spawned from Snell and Siracusa’s prior interactions in the “Incomparable” podcast, a geeky panel show with multi-hour episodes.

“Robot or Not?” episodes are released about every two weeks. I wouldn’t say I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for new releases. However I do sometimes binge listen, and other times find it a pleasant surprise sandwiched between two other podcasts in my playlist.

Leave a Reply