I’m Charlie Warzel and this is Galaxy Brain. Allow me to explain.
In April 2021, I left my job as a writer at large for the New York Times Opinion page to start a Substack newsletter, Galaxy Brain. Today, I’m thrilled to announce that it has a new home here at The Atlantic, a magazine I’ve loved and admired since I learned what a magazine was. This is an introduction for those of you who might be new to Galaxy Brain. If you’re already a subscribed member of my curious internet experiment, then you know the drill (feel free to drop out here, and I’ll be back shortly with regularly scheduled programming). Galaxy Brain at The Atlantic will be very similar to the previous iteration (same editorial freedom and indulgences) but with the added benefit of a 164-year-old institution behind me. I am thrilled.
When I started Galaxy Brain I billed it as a newsletter about technology, media, and politics. If I’m being honest, I had no idea what that would look like in practice. I told people the newsletter was about “how the internet changes everything it touches” because that’s what a lot of my work has been about. Turns out that description wasn’t quite right. Later, I amended it to “thinking out loud about the internet, media, politics … and big ideas.” Better, but still not quite right. I’ve spent the last seven months exploring my curiosities, talking with some of the most interesting people I can find, and trying to parse news as it happens. Now I think I have a better idea of what this newsletter is.
There’s a cliché phrase that rings in my head all the time: “May you live in interesting times.” For the last five or so years I’ve seen people toss it around ironically on Twitter amid the torrent of news, much of it pretty depressing. Still, it’s hard to argue against it. We’re living in a time of pretty intense upheaval and cultural change. Societal (pandemics, shaky foundations of U.S. democracy) and even species-level (climate change) threats loom large. But so do massive technological advancements—anyone who has gotten an mRNA vaccine is the recipient of that good fortune. And, depending on who you talk to, we may very well be on the cusp of truly transformative technological change in the form of deep-learning AI. There’s reason to believe our near future might look less like the past than we’re used to. There’s also ample reason to be open-mindedly skeptical of some hyped futurism (crypto, billionaire space travel, the metaverse come to mind).
So here’s my pitch: Galaxy Brain is a newsletter about navigating interesting times.
That’s not as catchy as “Five things you need to know today” or even “A newsletter about technology and culture.” Galaxy Brain is a bit hard to pin down, but that’s the point. Being a person in an internet-tethered, algorithmically amplified, fiercely divided, climate-threatened, pandemic-ravaged world is profoundly weird. Often, it’s depressing and scary. Other times, though, it’s delightfully absurd and even exciting. The hope with Galaxy Brain is to try to chronicle parts of it in real time and have a better understanding of the history we’re living through.
Sometimes that means reporting about Facebook and algorithms. Other times, it might come in the form of a 3,000-word interview about how digital advertising has fundamentally warped the internet into a privacy-destroying commerce giant that fuels duopolies. Sometimes it will be an essay in which I try to think out loud about the ways that humanity seems woefully unprepared for what’s next.
Since Galaxy Brain launched, I’ve written extensively about how the internet warps our collective sense of time and context, flattening complex discussions into polarizing engagement fights. I’ve spent a lot of time in these posts thinking and reporting on the future of knowledge work (shameless plug: My book on the subject with my partner, Anne Helen Petersen, is out next month!). I’m obsessed with what feels like a generational shift around work-life balance and the rise of a phenomenon I’ve dubbed “career skepticism.” Throughout the pandemic, I’ve written and reported on anti-vax persuasion, COVID fatigue, and how, after 19 months of a pandemic, my pants no longer fit. I’ve had guest essays on the tyranny of Inbox Zero and I’ve written about how COVID helped me realize that I love crowds. This summer, I spent an entire newsletter getting in the weeds with an expert about air quality and wildfires.
The only unifying theme in these posts is that I’ve run into all of these subjects/questions/curiosities while trying to live my own life these last seven months. I’ve tried to use this newsletter to explore the weirdness and uncertainties of the world as they appear in my field of vision. For more than a decade I’ve dedicated my journalism to telling the story of how technology changes everything it touches. Specifically, how the modern internet harnesses huge pools of collective attention and influences the way that we behave. I care deeply about how these forces shape and distort our culture and our politics, and how they reimagine our economies. I still feel passionately about this work. But my interests are broader than that. Over the last two years, I’ve found it personally and professionally rewarding to try (however ham-fistedly) to give voice to some of the fuzzier and complex feelings that come with being alive right now (a feeling that the pandemic has changed us forever, or a just-below-the-surface sense of simmering national rage) in the hope that others might identify and feel less alone.
When I started Galaxy Brain, I had two goals in mind. First, to write with an eye toward nuance. I’ve tried in my last 70 or so newsletter posts to hold conflicting ideas in my head at once and to eschew easy answers in favor of a reality that is usually complicated. The second goal was to foster a sense of community. My readers will be the ultimate judge of my first goal, but I can say confidently that I’ve been buoyed by the Galaxy Brain community. Along with six other writers, I created Sidechannel, a Discord community that has been incredibly supportive. (Want to join? Click here. You can come play or you can ignore it completely.) Sidechannelers have helped me workshop ideas, they’ve challenged me to develop and refine my opinions, and some have even sent tips and story ideas. I’ve ended up in long, meandering, and generative phone conversations with some of them. Every email I send returns dozens of thoughtful emails and comments that push me to consider my ideas and writing in a new light. It is a true joy.
Part of my decision to bring this newsletter over to The Atlantic is to broaden that community. Galaxy Brain will grow as it merges organically with the magazine’s devoted readers. As such, every Galaxy Brain subscriber will continue to get access to Sidechannel. I want to make good on some of the promises I made earlier, including more live chats and, reader-willing, a book club. And for longtime Galaxy Brain subscribers, I believe there’s a massive added benefit here: Anyone on my list—free or paying—as of today will be getting a free year-long digital subscription to The Atlantic. Your subscription begins at the start of December. I think that’s a pretty good deal.
Nobody likes introduction posts very much, so I’ll end with something of a promise. For those who are current Galaxy Brain subscribers (did I mention I’m forever indebted?), very little is going to change here. I will have the same editorial freedom as before, only now posts will be copy edited for typos! My new home will also allow for our community to grow substantially, but also, I hope, sustainably. In addition to this newsletter, I’ll also be writing occasional articles for the magazine, and I hope all forms of my work can build on each other—the newsletter will be the iterative thinking that might feed into the other, perhaps longer-form journalism.
For new subscribers I can promise this: Galaxy Brain will endeavor to make you think harder, or at least differently about the world around you. I want to approach everything—from our broken, Extremely Online politics to the creator economy to climate discussions—with an earnest curiosity. I will try my damndest to present ideas and arguments to you in a new light. I will do my best to never take the easy editorial way out. I will do everything in my power to highlight the great work of others and expose you to new and interesting voices. When appropriate, I want this newsletter to delight in the weirdness of the internet. I also want to dig deeper into the ways that the transformative power of the open internet is cheapened by our greed, grift, and poorly considered digital architecture. And to complicate things further, I’ll talk about how the desire to fix the latter (bad internet) is sometimes in tension with the former (open, weird internet).
You live in weird, anxious, uncertain, sometimes hilarious, and definitely interesting times. Galaxy Brain wants to help.