This is my first Substack newsletter. I wonder: Years from now will that sentence feel like the start of something—a new chapter in my writing life—or will it represent just another half-hearted stab, one of many fizzled-out experiments in the crowded landscape of social media?
For those of you who don’t know, Substack is an exciting new platform that allows writers to create newsletters, attract subscribers, and—this part is crucial—get paid for their work. In a media world that feels increasingly constricted, conformist and stacked against writers, Substack offers writers a new way of communicating with readers and making at least a partial living. Substack has been called “the future of news,” and credited with “reinventing publishing” and “pioneering a new ‘business model for culture.’”
Time will tell how these predictions play out. I’ve been thinking of writing on Substack for a while, but I’ve been held back by a few concerns. Would I have enough time? Will anyone read what I write? And--perhaps most nagging--what will I write about? The next few months will answer those first two questions, but I think I have a somewhat clearer sense now about the last one. I’m going to take the opportunity of this—my first Substack newsletter: I like the ring of that—to explain what I’m thinking of writing about.
Every newsletter on Substack has a title, like a publication name. I’ve called mine “A Better World” not because I’m a great optimist (I’m not: anyone who’s read my writings on utopia knows that), but actually, because I’m a pessimist. The more I live, the more I realize how much is wrong—unjust and capricious and just cruel—about the world. I don’t believe in utopia, and I don’t believe in the possibility of a perfect world. Centuries of effort to perfect our world and human nature tell me neither of those are attainable. But there are things we can nonetheless do, and there are things already happening, that can at least improve the world and make it a little bit better. I want to explore those things.
So that’s the—admittedly very broad—topic of this newsletter, at least to begin with. My plan is to throw a wide net over various areas of society, culture, politics, and economics, and write about ways to make them better. I want to write about technology and how it can move beyond the current wall of misinformation, surveillance, and exploitation it seems to have run up against. I want to write about intentional communities past and present, and the ways they’re experimenting with alternative models of living. I want to write about faith and spiritualism, yoga and mindfulness, and the ways in which religion can be a force for positive change rather than sectarianism, dogmatism, and violence. I want to write about economic and social disparities (both within and among countries) that have long existed, but that once again emerged so starkly in the era of Covid-19.
You know that feeling you get when you’re walking down a road and you see a homeless person bundled up, begging and perhaps shivering (or burning in the heat of a warming planet)? Part of me always feels: There’s got to be a better world. That’s the feeling I want to explore.
As these goals suggest, my life and interests span many domains. I’ll be drawing from all of them in this newsletter, and I’ll be looking for common threads that connect various worlds: journalism, literature, technology, business, law, sociology, anthropology. Sometimes I’ll be writing about ideas, and sometimes I’ll be writing about specific people, projects, or books. Sometimes, too, I hope to bring in friends and colleagues who can illuminate some themes.
As many of you know, I’ve just published a new book: Better to Have Gone, a story about love, death, and the quest for utopia, set in the intentional community of Auroville, where I grew up. Some of my posts will also be about the book, and about its reception in the world. Please bear with me if these seem shamelessly self-promoting. I promise we will get past the book (and the book does explore many of the ideas and questions I’ve outlined here).
Many of the most exciting stories I’ve heard about Substack involve emails and feedback from readers. At its best, this platform offers potential for new forms of conversation, and perhaps even new friendships. So please send me your thoughts or ideas, and let me know what you think about the things I’m writing.
I’m looking forward to taking this journey together.
One last thing. The requisite social media plug: Please forward this to friends, relatives, and colleagues you think might be interested and ask them to sign up. (And please feel free to unsubscribe if you’re not interested and are getting this by mistake. I promise I won’t take it personally). Thank you!