Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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🎧 If you’d prefer to listen to this week’s instalment, go here for the audio version of New Beginnings. 🎧
I love this season, because it whispers to us all about new beginnings. A whole new year; what are you going to do with it?
Over the break, then, I sat with that question. In practice, that meant thinking a lot about the future of NWSH.
To start the year, I want to share some of my conclusions. That means this instalment is a bit inside baseball, but I hope it’s valuable. I want to bring you all with me on the road ahead, and that means sharing my thinking on where we’re going and why.
The headline: it’s been an amazing journey so far, but we’re still just getting started. In 2022, NWSH will double down on the project that’s always been at its heart.
Finally, sorry this instalment comes late for some of you. Let’s get into it.
The internet is an amazing, and chastening, place for writers. That’s always been true, but this is a special time. I’ve long regretted that I missed the blogging boom of the early and mid-2000s. But this moment – let’s call it, for want of anything better, the Substack moment – is starting to look just as exciting. We’ve seen a profusion of newsletters spring to life across the last couple of years; it’s a whole new scene.
For writers, what’s wonderful about all this is also what’s hard. Anyone can get their stuff out there. Competition for readers is intense; there’s so much to read. I’m not telling you anything new when I say that there are a thousand other newsletters on technology and society that you could be reading right now. Plenty of them are good; a few are stellar.
The only answer to that challenge is to write distinctive pieces. And the only way to do that reliably, in the end, is to lean on what makes you distinctly you. That means committing to a long process of self-excavation. An internet writer needs to identify the overlapping set of ideas, influences and obsessions that makes them not quite like anyone else, and then to push all that to the furthest horizon. Do that, and you have a chance to stand out. What’s more, you’ll be engaged in a meaningful endeavour whether people notice it or not.
Why am I telling you this now?
As 2022 begins, I’m determined to shift NWSH definitively towards a destination that will render it even more valuable – for me as a writer and, most important, for you as a reader. In practice, that means prioritising a set of ideas that have always been at the core of the newsletter, but have jostled for space with others, and have never quite been explicitly stated. Not a change of direction, then, but a doubling down.
So if NWSH is to advance, it’s time to articulate the intellectual project that animates it. That, above all, is what was on my mind over the break. Here is my first attempt. Obviously, all this is still a work in progress.
At the heart of this push to double down on the essence of the newsletter are three questions. They won’t come as a surprise to any regular reader.
What is the nature technological modernity? This strange, complex, shape-shifting version of modernity we now inhabit, this machine, what is its essential nature? Where did it come from? Where is it taking us? The newsletter will always face the future. But if we’re to think meaningfully about what lies ahead, we need to ground that thinking in an understanding of history.
What is the nature of a human being, and the human collective? Set against this mission to describe modernity is another, overlapping set of questions. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be one now, under the systems of modernity that I’m trying to describe? This newsletter is animated by the idea that if we are to understand our shared future, we must do more to understand ourselves. And that if we are to build a future worth living in, we should fight the erasure of the human by the unhuman, multi-tentacled system of capital, data, and machine intelligence taking shape around us.
What new forms life are possible, and desirable? This mission to better understand modernity and ourselves must, in the end, be put in the service of the ultimate question: how should we live? We all sense that we’re at a historical inflection point. So, how should we respond? That leads to a set of more specific questions. What is the human Good Life? What is freedom? Can we be mistaken about being free? How can we reimagine life inside, or outside, technological modernity? Is revolution still possible, or desirable? What might it look like?
We won’t, of course, be coming at these questions without a point of view. That POV in short? It’s that Things Must Change. We live amid a white-hot technological revolution, a culture war, and a crisis of ecological collapse. Amid that, our systems of liberal democracy and technologically mediated consumerism are exhausted. We all know we must change course, yet day after day we continue to march in the same old direction. In 2022, as Gramsci observed of his own society in the early 1930s, ‘the old is dying, but the new cannot be born’. Except it is being born somewhere out there, on the fringes. I want us to travel to those places, literally and figuratively.
This is a project, then, that takes place where political philosophy meets the history of technology meets philosophical anthropology. Which brings me to a second important point: this project should be better grounded in the long tradition of thought on these subjects. I want to draw on as wide a range of ideas as possible, but the newsletter will be guided in particular by a set of spirit animal thinkers that have much to say about this moment. They will include the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, and his epic project to describe the historical sources of modernity and modern consciousness. The British political thinker John Gray, a blistering sceptic when it comes to the Enlightenment religion of progress. And the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger, and his conception of we humans as a kind of paradox: the infinite and formless shackled to the finite and embodied.
So that’s the broad picture. A final turn towards a set of questions that I hope, essentially, to spend the rest of my life exploring. The challenge is daunting, but it feels great to have clarity.
But the point of this newsletter, of course, isn’t only to help me discover what I really think: it’s to serve you, the reader. So you may well ask: what does this shift mean for you? I hope the answer is, to a great degree, evident in the above. I’m obsessed with these questions because I believe they are the fundamental questions for all of us in the years ahead. I hope the newsletter will continue to expose you to new thinking on our shared future, but with a renewed focus on addressing the deepest questions you face in relation to that future. What does it mean to be you at this moment in history? How should you live? How should you navigate your way, practically, psychologically, and spiritually, through what appears to be an intensifying crisis? I will share my thinking, but above all I hope NWSH becomes, for even more of you, an enriching conversation: a space where we can share ideas, perspectives, and experiences with one another.
This doubling down will mean changes to the newsletter schedule, which I’m still thinking about. One clear change: instead of a short note every Sunday, I’ll move to longer essays published each month. The weekly cadence worked at first, but now it just doesn’t give me the time and space to explore ideas at the depth they need. I’ll still be in touch on some Sundays, though, with new kinds of articles, including interviews with thinkers, writers, artists, and makers who can deepen our perspective: I want to get better at situating our community within a network of others who are also thinking about similar questions. The Wednesday newsletter will stay but continue to evolve – as it always has done, anyway – around the questions I’ve outlined here.
And, in time, I’ll launch paid membership. The above means a lot of work, so if it’s to be remotely viable then I need to support that somehow. The internet, this Substack moment, what some are calling the creator economy, offers the chance for a new kind of creative and intellectual life, not supported by an academic institution, think tank, or similar, but directly by an audience. Can I support myself and my family (in London!) this way? We’ll see, but the experience of others suggests it’s possible.
All this, then, forms the outlines of my news beginnings. Not a revolution, or even a change of direction, really, but an attempt to identify and refine the essence of this project. Because if I don’t do that, if I don’t work to make this thing become what it really wants to be, then I’m failing both myself and you.
I hope you’ll come with me as we set about realising all this. Yes, things are about to get deeper, stranger, and wilder around here. But that befits the times.
I’d love to hear what you think of all this; the good and the bad. And most of all, I hope you’re dreaming up your own new beginnings for 2022 and beyond. If you want to share either, then just hit reply to this email — or find me in the NWSH Slack group.
Thanks for reading, and be well,