Revisiting the Ghost 👻
Are we letting a unique chance to build a better future slip away?
Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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While I plan the next evolution of NWSH, I’ve been looking over past instalments of this newsletter. A few days ago, I came to the first email of 2021.
In that instalment I wrote about the late British philosopher and cultural critic Mark Fisher. At the heart of Fisher’s thinking was a ghost. He believed that we inhabitants of the 21st-century are haunted by futures – of abundance, leisure, and equality – that were promised but never arrived.
Re-reading what I wrote back in January, I was struck by the optimism. The pandemic offered us, I argued, a chance to build a radically different and better future — a chance to banish Fisher’s ghost.
I still believe that this moment brings with it powerful opportunities for change. Still, there’s no denying that at the end of 2021 I find myself struck by an anxiety of my own. That is, that the window of opportunity is narrower than we first believed, and closing fast. All too often across this year, it’s felt as though the most powerful among us are only tightening their grip on our shared future.
Some version of this anxiety is visible in the collective psyche, too. A few days ago a future-focused observation blew up on Twitter. If George Jetson were a real person, he would be due to be conceived this weekend. According to Wikipedia, Jetson’s birthday is the 27th of August, 2022. (There’s been some debate about the length of the gestation period implied by these dates, but let’s not get pernickety.)
Cue a storm of Twitter anxiety: we live in the future, and this is how it turned out?
When Fisher talks about the ‘futures that were promised but never arrived’, it’s promises made mostly in second half of the 20th-century – back when The Jetsons was on TV – that he’s talking about. A special power still attaches to the imaginings of our shared future that date from that time, and it’s not hard to see why. Western civilisation had starred into the abyss and pulled itself back. As post-war stability and a new affluence took hold, it was accompanied by a surge of optimism. Look what we could build; all we have to do is keep faith with progress.
Somewhere along the way, we skipped into an alternate, and darker, timeline. We shouldn’t forget the many ways that life is – for billions around the world – better than it was 50 years ago. But a Jetsons-esque ebullience is impossible to sustain; in 2021 it would feel odd even in a programme made for children. We live under the shadows of an emerging culture war, a technology sphere run out of control, and a climate crisis. The strange psychic tension attendant on that is never far away.
Why am I telling you all this?
The pandemic is our great collective shock; the closest thing most of us have experienced to the cataclysm that was WWII. In the wake of it, we need to relinquish our faith in old images of our shared future, and build new visions of our own. I’m more persuaded than ever that we should be radical.
Fisher’s great fear was that we’ve lost the ability to do all this. That we can no longer even imagine radically better futures, let alone enact them. At this moment that possibility seems just as terribly real as it did when he started writing back in the early noughties. So many of the futures imagined for us – whether inside virtual worlds or on distant planets – appear radical. But take a closer look, and you’ll find they’re only new ways to sustain the same old systems of technological capitalism. The systems, that is, that brought us here.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The window of opportunity that opened in March 2020 may be closing fast, but it’s not shut yet. It’s still possible to find new and better ways to live, work, and be with one another. And at the margins, new and truly radical ideas are taking root.
In next year’s NWSH I want us travel the world, and explore those ideas. I’m planning a big project that will see us do just that. And soon, I’ll tell you more.
Be in the room
Want a head start on 2022?
The NWSH end of year event, New Year Same Humans: Five Trends to Supercharge Your 2022, is approaching fast. Over 140 professionals – founders, designers, marketers, insight professionals and more – have already claimed their place. 🙌 🚀
On the December 14th at 16:00 UK time, I’ll be sharing five powerful trends that can empower you to build new products, services, campaigns and experiences next year. And afterwards, I’ll send attendees a full recording of the event, plus the 60+ slide trend report with even more insights and examples for you to apply.
The insights will be pro-grade. But to keep this event accessible to all, I’ve set an early bird price that – I hope you’ll agree – represents crazy value.
Check it out, and see you on December 14th!
I’ll be back as usual on Wednesday. Until then, be well,