For years Intel practiced dominance over the PC processor industry with a development cycle they called Tick-Tock. The model was a repetitive structure applied to processor innovation. Every “tick” made the processor technology smaller, every “tock” updated the architecture on the chip. The ticks were ultimately in the service of Moore’s Law, a conjecture by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore affirming that the number of transistors on a chip would double roughly every eighteen months. The tocks used the die-shrinking and built parallel innovations on top. This mental model of how Intel was going to work systemized an outlandish, relentless struggle to grow computing power at an exponential pace, as Intel simultaneously improved efficiency.
In 2016, Tick-Tock was retired for a slower three-step cycle, as Intel ran up against the increasing physical and economic challenges of miniaturization. But the legacy of Tick-Tock is an enduring imprint on the modern technological industry – the blueprint of consistent, predictable, exponential growth. Tick-Tock, and the five decades of Moore’s Law it helped uphold, are as Intel rightly describes, “the metronome of the modern world”.
The microchip represents perhaps the single most powerful burst of innovation in human history. In some sense, it is a magical moonshot. But understanding it in terms of Intel’s process reveals it to be a rhythmic, relentless struggle.
One of the many parallels of Tick-Tock in the tech industry today is the iPhone, a new model of which is released consistently on an annual alternating cycle. One year the body iterates, the next everything is optimized around it. The release of the first iPhone in 2007 was an inflection point in personal computing, and is in no small part responsible for the decreasing relevance of Intel. But near every iteration of the iPhone since, while bringing Tick-Tock like exponential increases in computing power, has failed to enthrall audiences like that first one – a sentiment oft phrased along the lines of Apple’s seeming loss of its ability to innovate. Rick Tetzeli addresses this sentiment in a recent profile of Apple’s ‘Long Game’ for Fast Company. In the context of Apple Maps, he writes:
What Apple has accomplished with Maps is an example of the kind of grind-it-out innovation that’s happening all the time at the company. You don’t hear a lot about it, perhaps because it doesn’t support the enthralling myth that innovation comes in blinding flashes that lead to hitherto unimaginable products. When critics ding Apple for its failure to introduce “breakthrough” devices and services, they are missing three key facts about technology: First, that breakthrough moments are unpredictable outcomes of ongoing, incremental innovation; second, that ongoing, behind-the-scenes innovation brings significant benefits, even if it fails to create singular disruptions; and, third, that new technologies only connect broadly when a mainstream audience is ready and has a compelling need. “The world thinks we delivered [a breakthrough] every year while Steve was here,” says Cue. “Those products were developed over a long period of time.”
What this comes down to, is that the idea of an unwavering grind is on the surface not as enthralling as this imagined flare of brilliance. Ironically, the speed of development of modern technology, although driven by feats of steadiness, is pushing us further to crave an ephemeral, blazing high. And as we unconsciously grind through our own lives every day, we continue to arrest our imaginations with fables and dreams of tiny moments that changed everything. In the hope, perhaps, that the vision we imagine for ourselves is only but this moment away.
No one really talks about the first season of Coke Studio. Which is largely because it was quite weird, and no one, not even Coke, took it seriously enough to record it properly. The videos are grainy, and the audio doesn’t even make it to streaming services.
But enduring still, is the strange, unpredictable impact of a strange experiment. The idea was to make eastern classical relevant and western pop interesting by putting the two together. This gave us a joyous Rangeen and a reverential Dhaani, but we really only remember two moments: Garaj Baras, and Allah Hu. Two singers came together in each, east met west, magic happened.
The second season was serious, and so the magic was thought through. Pop would be reworked in the frame of a raag, classical would be given the production and the backing band it deserved and never got. And once every episode (or thereabouts), two artists would play something together. Largely this collaboration was one half classical or folk, and one half pop. But this wavered now and then. Season 2 was consistent, sizable, pure magic. Really it built on ideas that had been tweaked the year before, which themselves came from ideas that had been toyed with for years before, but those years didn’t make it to the Behind the Scenes videos.
As the years progressed the songs became more complicated. The raags took longer to set a mood before the song could reach any sort of climax. Reworkings of old songs made way for newer material, as the safety net of known tunes was no longer needed to dive into the experiment of fusion. The frame of the experiment became more rigid, and so the inputs themselves became more flexible.
Of course as the frame became more rigid, the show itself began to take on this unflappable funk of incremental grind. The magic seemed gone. We’d seen it all before. Except, it wasn’t that we’d seen it all before, it’s just that we’d felt a sort of high we wanted to feel again.
Intel had an easier job, in some sense. Because regardless of how normal they made their grind appear, it was in measurable terms obviously ridiculous. You could count how fast their processors were becoming. Apple has it harder because the commoditization of personal computers means that you can’t just measure what they do, you must measure how they make you feel. It has to make you feel a fleeting high – to make you feel magic. 1
We have nothing really to measure Coke Studio with, but I tried to draw a picture of its narrative by tracking the lengths of songs and their associated Behind the Scenes videos over its first eight seasons.2
During the Rohail Hyatt years, the songs remain roughly the same length. A few epics appear in Seasons 4 and 5. But what becomes increasingly evident is a desire to explain more of what’s happening in these songs. And by Season 6, clearly the most complicated of all of Rohail’s years, it often takes longer to explain the song than to play the song itself. This explains, perhaps, the growing acceptance of Season 6 in retrospect and why it took longer for people to appreciate it.
Starker than this gradual march towards Season 6 however, is the clear departure from it in the Strings years. Strings made no secret of the fact that they agreed with general opinion, the magic was gone. They remembered the magic – Seasons 2 and Season 3. They were going to recreate it, and they modeled to a fault.
More than the length of the songs and the explanatory clips, Strings drew on everything that made the old Coke Studio feel magical – the two-artist collaborations, the rebirth of the country’s biggest names in music, the nostalgia of refreshing old songs. Of course these elements were in service to a more invisible core framing and a more abstract higher purpose, but nobody thought they felt those bits.
And so Coke Studio 7 and 8 have more collaborations, with not much made of the original framing of east meets west. West can meet west, east can stay east. More of the music industry is on the stage, because while the song is important, we must also feel the warmth of Pakistan’s biggest names coming together. A full-time falsetto man is added to the backing vocalists, the lights flash more often, montages play before the song starts. Oh, and you get a solo, you get a solo, you get a water cooler.
The new Coke Studio is a variety show. But really, the variety show is a facade for the fact that Coke Studio is an ad campaign. And a brilliant one at that. For years an ad campaign has captured our imaginations, and what can be more magical than that?
The new Coke Studio is trying very hard to search for the magic. The danger of course, is that the new Coke Studio can almost pander. Sohni Dharti, Rah e Haq Ke Shahidon, beautiful in their own way, but dangerously reminiscent of the old record company idea of ‘every album must have a patriotic song’. This Coke Studio is a leg spinner bowling too fast, a one-day batsman trying to hit the ball too hard. It is desperate for magic.
In this desperation, Coke Studio presses on the soft nerves we all share: nostalgia, blind hope, trust, warmth. You only have to drive on Lahore’s roads for a few days to realize that these are emotions short in Pakistan. On much of Lahore’s Main Boulevard, traffic lights have given way to giant U-Turns. Traffic lights, the global mechanism for operating intersections, work on faith. To stop, you must believe that allowing others to pass makes your own journey smoother. But traffic lights don’t work quite like that in Lahore. Nobody stops as the light turns red, to compensate you start creeping forward before the light turns yellow, and you start honking before that. All the while you must remember that you are stuck. A U-Turn may eventually make everybody slower – no one really knows. But through all of it you are never stuck, you always have the ability to fight your way through, and you never feel helpless. But despite it all, Lahore’s traffic is not genial. And everyone remembers a better time. And to this traffic, on these roads, are the images of giant Coke Studio adverts all across the city. On the Cavalry Ground flyover you can see seven signs at the same time. To this traffic, and to these roads, Rah e Haq Ke Shahidon, the arrival of every musician anyone remembers, the reprise of every great hit, and every solo, is a consistent, relentless struggle to make us feel warm, to begin to trust, to feel that feeling of magic for even a small time. Strangely, in the desperate search for that great moment, Coke Studio has become a steady, trustworthy march of assurance.
Who am I to complain about that.