Spotting trends in a fast-changing world

🗝 The Keyring // 009

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As the pace of change accelerates it’s increasingly valuable to tune into thinkers who can make sense of the world. If I had to pick one writer, who consistently has the best sense of what humanity is facing, it’s David Mattin.

Formerly the Global Head of Trends and Insights at TrendWatching, one of the world’s leading independent consumer trend firms, David has had his finger on the pulse of change for a long time.

Now as the founder of The Strategy and Futures Research Unit, David publishes a weekly newsletter called New World Same Humans that highlights the macro trends that are reshaping our human experience.

I’m lucky to have struck up an online friendship with David over the past year and am excited to give you a glimpse into how he thinks about the future.

In this issue of The Keyring, David discusses:

  • 📈 Trends that will shape the next year

  • 📖 The staples of his information diet

  • 🔎 How to get better at spotting trends

  • 🛠 The tools he uses for work

  • 🤩 Who he admires most in his field

and plenty more…

What do you do for work?

It’s all about describing and making sense of a changing world.

I write a newsletter on technology, society, and our shared future called New World Same Humans that gives me space to explore new ideas.

And I talk to people – often business people or people who work inside governments – to help them understand how the world is changing, and what it means for them.

What are three trends that you believe we will be talking about by this time next year?

I’m interested in the rise of algorithmic consumption: a trend I call B2A

People will start to outsource consumption tasks and even purchase decisions to AIs. The seeds of this trend have been around for a while. Look at the DoNotPay chatbot and the way it automates refunds and subscription cancelations. Or even the way a Tesla will now self-diagnose faults and auto-order new parts for repair. We’re going to see a lot more of this kind of automated consumption, and businesses need to ask: what changes for us when we’re selling to an algorithm, rather than a person?

Everyone was talking about the metaverse in 2020. That’s fine, but across the coming year I think we’ll talk more about what the metaverse means for human behaviour.

Meaningful new trends emerge when new technologies unlock new ways to serve age-old human needs. So, in 2021, we’ll hear much more about the ways in which people are seeking to express fundamental needs – social connection, security, convenience, and so on – inside simulated worlds: I think of this as the rise of The Metaversal Self

A lot of human behavior inside affluent societies is, in the end, about the quest for status. So I’m particularly interested in how virtual worlds become new domains of status-seeking. Check out, for example, the way fashion label Balenciaga launched their Fall 2021 collection inside a bespoke video game called Afterworld: Age of Tomorrow

Finally, two powerful forces shaping behavior are converging at the moment. They are expectations of ultra-convenience, and the search for a more sustainable, enlightened mode of consumerism. Essentially, people want consumption that is less damaging to the planet and society, and that they can feel less guilty about. But a decade or more of on-demand services such as Uber has primed them to expect total convenience, and that expectation is now too established to fade away.

So people are really going to embrace services that combine on-demand convenience and sustainability in powerful new ways: I call this the search for Sustainability as a Service

Tell me about your information diet? What are some information sources you depend on to understand the state of the world?

My working life is reading and writing, so it’s hard to say where my information diet stops and daily life begins. It’s constant, and, to be honest, pretty unstructured.

To fuel the newsletter I read a ton of publications and newsletters, and listen to a lot of podcasts.

My core reading is pretty standard. Daily news is the Guardian, the Economist, the New York Times, Bloomberg, the BBC. I read a ton of tech publications, Wired, The Verge, TechCrunch, The Next Web.

I read a lot of essays in the London Review of Books, the Atlantic.

A whole ton of newsletters, as you can imagine. Two I really enjoy are Matt Webb’s Interconnected and Sari Azout’s Check Your Pulse, two excellent newsletters on technology and society.

I love the British news startup Tortoise, for their take on the slow news movement as well as UnHerd, which has a stable of writers, including the British political philosopher John Grey, who is one of the thinkers I admire most.

But a lot of my reading isn’t really about a daily ‘information diet’; it’s about the search for a deeper and more lasting set of ideas when it comes to our place in this world, and the fundamental problems that life brings us into contact with. 

Political philosophy is one of my longstanding obsessions, and I find myself reading an essay at the Boston Review pretty often. One of my teachers at university, Professor David Runciman, presents a podcast called Talking Politics, and that’s one of my big favorites; it recently ran a brilliant series on the history of ideas that had great episodes on Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau, Simone De Beauvoir, and others.

Also, I read a lot of fiction. That’s a whole other interview, but some all-time heroes include Rachel Cusk, JG Ballard, Roberto Bolano, and George Elliot.

How does one get better at spotting trends?

Emerging trends are about a collision between the new – typically a new technology – and an age-old, fundamental human need.

The mistake many people make when they want to think in a structured way about the future is that they fixate on what is changing. Usually, that means a shiny new technology: blockchain, machine learning, and driverless cars.

But taken alone, those technologies aren’t trends. Simply saying, ‘there will be more AI in the years ahead’ tells us little that is useful.

Meaningful trends are founded not only in change, but in fundamental and unchanging human needs such as value, security, convenience, status, and social connection.

Here’s the key: New trends emerge when some change – typically a new technology – unlocks a new way to serve one of those needs. So if you want to start spotting trends, start looking at technology through the lens of human needs. 

The best way to apply this framework is simply to bring it to your observation of the world around you. 

In practical terms: start looking for innovations – new products, services, platforms, and so on – that serve a basic need in a new way.

Whenever you see something new, ask two simple questions. First, what change in the world – a new technology, or perhaps something else – has made this innovation possible? Second, what fundamental human need does this innovation serve? 

Pretty soon, you’ll start to spot innovations that leverage a recent change in the world to serve an age-old human need in a new way. Those innovations are signals of emerging trends.

What tools do you use at work on a weekly basis?

I’m a big to-do list person, and a big paper and pen person. I think it’s my mother’s influence; she is quintessentially British in her belief that there is no problem that can’t be solved with a to-do list and quiet determination.

I write in Word docs on a MacBook Pro (so boring). 

I adopted Hey email, from Basecamp, as soon as it came out and its ‘Reply Later’ feature has made me less awful at email; it’s a great way of batching a ton of emails and powering through them all in one go.

New World Same Humans has a Slack community, so I’m in there a lot. 

The tool I’m most excited about, by far, is Roam Research. It’s borderline life-changing for someone like me. For years I’ve written my notes and ideas longhand into hardback notebooks. You lose ideas, you forget them, you can’t link them together easily. Roam has solved all that. You get to create this mind palace that allows you to see new and powerful connections. When your life is about the development of a set of ideas that help to explain the world and where it’s heading next, that’s valuable.

What are some mental models that you often turn to when confronted with a challenging problem?

The most challenging problems I face are not in my work, but in life. Which project should I pursue next? Am I doing my best work? How do I stay motivated? I’m sure that’s true for almost everyone.

Here are four principles I recently wrote to myself, pulled straight out of my personal Roam:

  • Seek compounding growth. Do work that brings compounding growth to both the quality of the work and your reputation. 

  • Make proper comparisons. Compare yourself to the person you were yesterday, and the person you want to be tomorrow. Other forms of comparison will steal joy.

  • Employ full-spectrum thinking. Banish “all or nothing thinking” in work, life, money. It inhibits action. Between zero and one billion, there are many great places to be.

  • Keep it between you and you. Remember that the entire game is between you and you. It's about being able to look back when the time is up, and know you pulled the most out of yourself. If you can honestly say you did, then you’ve won.

Who are three people in your field whose work you admire, and why?

There are so many, it’s hard to choose three. But interpreting my field pretty broadly, as anyone thinking and writing about our shared future, here are three names that come to mind today. 

  • Mark O’Connell is an Irish writer who is brilliant on our strange, uneasy relationship with technology. He wrote a book about the transhumanist movement called To Be A Machine, which I relentlessly recommend to everyone. The literary sensibility he brings to an examination of technology, the brilliant writing, and the humor – he’s a very funny writer – are all things I aspire to.

  • Venkatesh Rao is an internet writer and kind of a hero to a whole slew of people who, like me, are invested in this creator economy/ newsletter renaissance we’re having right now. He’s one of the blogosphere’s OGs: he founded a popular blog called Ribbonfarm back in the day. Now he writes a newsletter called Breaking Smart, about technology and society, which I pay for. It’s just fiercely intelligent writing that’s trying to make sense of these weird times and what lies ahead.

  • Payal Arora is a professor of Technology, Values, and Global Media Cultures at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. She wrote a book called The Next Billion Users, which looks at the future of the internet in developing countries. We’re all used to fixating on a certain set of issues – privacy, fake news, cyberbullying – but the internet looks very different when you’re accessing it from a favela in South America. It’s a fascinating book and I love the perspectives that Payal brings.

What are three books that have made you better at your job?

I’ve chosen one book that had a powerful effect on the way I think about the future, one on writing, and one that helped me overcome procrastination.

  • Straw Dogs is a short book by the British political philosopher John Gray, who I mentioned above. It argues that western, liberal modernity is built on a set of illusions: about human progress, the universal civilization, and the role of rationality in our lives. Gray believes that the idea we humans make progress is a myth; in his view, we remain inescapably flawed, irrational, and dangerous. I read Straw Dogs in my early twenties and it had a powerful effect on me. You can even hear an echo of Gray’s argument in my newsletter name: New World Same Humans. My perspectives have shifted over the years. But this book, more than any other, gave me a set of ideas and frameworks via which I approached thinking about the human future.

  • Story by Robert McKee is a canonical book about story and screenplay structure. There’s plenty about it that is contested, and some people hate the idea that writing can have rules. But it got me thinking about the structure of what I write and the mechanics of storytelling, and that’s powerful.

  • The War of Art is by US writer Robert Pressfield. Pressfield’s big idea is that there’s an internal force inside each person that he calls Resistance, and it wants to stop you from doing the creative work you’re meant to do. This book is about overcoming Resistance.

Five Takeaways

Here are five insights you can take from David to make progress in your own career:

  1. Meaningful trends are founded not only in technological change, but in fundamental and unchanging human needs.

  2. Whenever you see something new, ask two simple questions. First, what change in the world has made this innovation possible? Second, what fundamental human needs does this innovation serve? 

  3. Do work that brings compounding growth to both the quality of the work and your reputation.

  4. Compare yourself to the person you were yesterday, and the person you want to be tomorrow. Other forms of comparison will steal joy.

  5. Banish “all or nothing thinking” in work, life, money. It inhibits action. Between zero and one billion, there are many great places to be.

A big thanks to David for sharing his insight. If you want more of David’s insights, subscribe to New World Same Humans.

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– Nick