New World Same Humans #46

Can we put humans back at the centre of our story about life, the universe, and everything?

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

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The year is drawing to a close. After everything, it’s enough to put anyone in a reflective mood.

Meanwhile, events of the last few days seemed to sum up so much of what this newsletter is about. So this week, a shorter note; reflections on all that. No Fast Download required.

Expect technology, the search for meaning, and a brief glimpse into deep time. Also, a call: to make our community count in 2021.


Some moments seem to reach out beyond their boundaries, and encompass multitudes. Last week provided one of them.

Monday brought news that Alphabet’s AI division, DeepMind, has solved the protein folding problem. Proteins are large, complex molecules that play a crucial role in many of the processes that support life. For five decades scientists have searched for a way to predict their three-dimensional structure. DeepMind’s AlphaFold can do that, with 92% accuracy. The advance is transformational: it will accelerate many existing branches of biology, and unlock new ones.

Meanwhile, the backdrop against which these events played out is all too familiar. This week was dominated, as the last 40 have been, by the pandemic.

I started this newsletter fuelled by a single conviction. A changing world perpetually collides with our shared, unchanging human nature: this is the engine of history, and it will be the engine of our shared future, too. New world, same humans.

It’s hard to imagine a week that better illustrates this idea. AlphaFold is the kind of technological advance that produces in us the feeling of being projected forwards into a new and bewildering world. Meanwhile, our overriding concern in 2020 is one held in common with 6th-century Byzantines, who lived through the Plague of Justinian, or the Europeans of the 14th-century, who suffered under the Black Death.

One of the early 21st-century’s most fashionable ideas is that we are fast approaching a post-human future. As it sounds from the above, this newsletter is founded in the idea that the truth is otherwise. While much is changing, it seems to me that there is no escape for us from the human predicament. No escape, that is, from our eternal quests for status, security, meaning, power, or truth. Nor from the conflicts that result when those values, and others like them, clash with one another.

Living through this year has only heightened that conviction. So where next?

In 2020, the technology revolution unfolding around us is dizzying. What’s more, we fear that it will end in our marginalisation, or even destruction.

Those possibilities seem all too easy to imagine. Somehow, it’s the idea that this revolution might enlarge us, might amplify the human, that seems far-fetched.

We need to see all this anew. That imperative is at the heart of the New World Manifesto project, which I launched a few weeks ago. It’s a call for the NWSH community to come together and imagine the futures that we should build in the decade ahead. And to articulate a set of fundamental principles that we believe can guide us all – founders, innovators, policy makers and the rest – towards a better world.

Discussion is already underway in the NWSH Slack group. And I’m working to attach a great advisory board to the project. In 2021, I hope the Manifesto acts as a rallying point for our community, and helps bring our perspectives to the wider world.

All this had led me to think about the fundamental principles I want to contribute to the conversation. There’s more coming on all that. But at the heart of my thinking is the idea that we humans need to put ourselves back at the centre of our own story. In other words, we must divest ourselves of our peculiarly modern nihilism: the belief – or fear, really – that human life is meaningless.

I’ve come to believe that at the root of nihilism are a mistaken set of ideas that hold humans apart from nature. This separation fuels modernity’s defining view of humankind as insignificant, accidental: cast adrift in a universe that is what it is, regardless of us or our values.

Instead we must come to understand ourselves as embedded in, and a part of, the natural world. When we understand that truth, we rediscover human values not as empty projections into an indifferent universe, but as a real part of that universe, every bit as much as ants, or brains, or planets.

Under this view, the power of nihilism wanes. The human project no longer seems by necessity inconsequential. Rather than feeling ourselves sentient beings floating alone in an indifferent cosmos, the door is opened on to a quite different idea: that we are the cosmos waking into sentience. That we are the meaning.

What new imperatives does this lend to the technology revolution we are now enacting? How can it help us ensure that the thinking machines we’re now building amplify us? Perhaps they can even carry the human way of seeing away from our tiny planet, and far into the universe?

Hey, I said I was in a reflective mood. But it’s not just me thinking these kinds of thoughts. Check out James Lovelock’s The Novacene, or Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0: both books that helped inspire this newsletter.

What I’m gesturing towards, I suppose, is a new spiritual view of our place in the world. These ideas may seem far-fetched; even a bit crazy. But what is this community if not a space to share our whispered, secret, crazy thoughts about our shared future?

There are more coming from me, and I hope from you, in the year ahead. In the meantime read on, and learn what you can do to help our project thrive.


Come together

Thanks for reading this week.

The New World Manifesto project is taking shape. It’s chance for all of us – for you – to share thinking on how we should rebuild in the 2020s.

What are the fundamental principles you think should guide us? Are they around the human relationship to technology? The future of cities? Of work? Equality?

In the weeks ahead, I’ll share the process via which we’ll conduct a collective conversation.

The Manifesto will be powerful only if it distils a diverse a range of voices. And there’s one thing you can do to help ensure that happens: share!

So if you know others who’d make a valuable contribution to our conversation – and I bet you do – then why not take a second to share this note with them? Just forward the email along. Or share it across one of your social networks, with few lines on why you found it valuable. Just hit the share button:

Share New World Same Humans

I’ll be back on Wednesday. Until then, be well,

David.


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.