🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 02

Episode 02 — May 13th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/02

We’re a ragtag band of systems thinkers who have been dedicating our early mornings to finding new lenses to help you make sense of the complex world we live in. This newsletter is a collection of patterns we’ve noticed in recent weeks.

“It is not that the meaning cannot be explained. But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.”

— Haruki Murakami

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.

🚏👩‍💼 Women’s job recovery is still lagging

One big reason why the US’s most recent jobs report was disappointing: women were hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and they’re still struggling to regain all their lost jobs. That, in turn, has been driven in part by a lack of child care access and the continued closure of schools.

🚏🎰 Ohio is launching a $1 million vaccine lottery 

The state will be awarding $1 million each to five random adult Ohioans who’ve gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Five randomly-chosen teenagers from the state will also get full scholarships to a state university.

🚏🇺🇸 The US saw its lowest population growth since the Depression

The most recent US census reported that the country’s population grew 7.4% from 2010 to 2020 — not a bad figure, but lower than any decade since the Great Depression. Slowing immigration, declines in childbirth thanks to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, and an aging population were all major contributors.

🚏👓 Nearsightedness is on the rise thanks to less time outdoors

A growing number of children have myopia, due in large part to them spending less time in natural light and more time staring at screens. Experts worry that the pandemic is making this trend even worse.

🚏🇯🇵 Japan is opening its first esports gym

Gamers can book 3-hour time slots at the new facility in Tokyo to hone their skills in games like League of Legends and Valorant. You can even pay for hourly coaching sessions with pro gamers.

🚏🏘 Home prices in the US have hit a record high

Accelerated by the pandemic, the median price of a single-family home in the US has hit an all-time record. Potential factors include low interest rates increasing housing demand; millennials hitting prime house-buying age, thus competing for the limited housing stock; and investors snapping up buyable houses and turning them into lucrative rental properties.

🚏🏭 Innovation in semiconductors is booming, despite the shortages

Much ink has been spilled over the massive shortages of microchips, but despite that (or perhaps because of it), the semiconductor industry is seeing a Cambrian explosion. Last year, silicon startups drew $12 billion in funding, twice the total from 2019 and eight times the 2016 figure. The market for chips that specialize in AI has become particularly hot.

🚏🐶 A Goldman Sachs exec quit after making a Dogecoin fortune

A 14-year veteran of the prestigious bank reportedly quit this week after he struck it rich off Dogecoin. The price of the joke currency spiked from 1 cent on January 1st to over 70 cents in early May.

📖⏳ Worth your time

Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.

  • The Great Online Game (Not Boring) — Packy McCormick explores how a metagame has co-evolved alongside social media and how cryptocurrencies might take the metagame up a notch by baking game mechanics (points, rewards, skins, teams, etc.) right into the internet’s fabric.

  • Indian Americans Don’t Know What to Feel Right Now (The Atlantic) — Digs into how the brutal pandemic surge in India just exacerbates the feelings of pain, powerlessness, and guilt that many immigrants already feel.

  • Welcome to the YOLO Economy (New York Times) — Explores how COVID-19 is causing impromptu career moves, partly as a response to the “languishing” that many workers are feeling.

  • Bisociation (Edge.org) — Argues that creativity comes from being able to view a situation through multiple frames of reference at once, a skill that also shows up in comedy and puns.

  • Supernormal Stimuli (Sparring Mind) — Investigates how junk food, the Internet, TV, and video games all hijack our brains’ instincts, and argues that simple awareness, not complete rejection, is the best way for us to responsibly engage with these “addictive” things.

  • The Miracle of the Commons (Aeon) — Reviews research by Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel laureate in Economics, and concludes that the “tragedy of the commons” is overrated: communities can actually be quite good at preserving common resources for future generations.

  • What Is an Entertainment Company in 2021 and Why Does the Answer Matter? (Matthew Ball) — Ball, a venture capitalist, argues that Disney isn’t a movie company but rather an “entertainment company,” then explores why that is, why it matters, and how love is central to entertainment.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.

This week, we recommend What Would Nature Do? by Ruth DeFries (2020, 266 pages).

That our planet is in crisis should come as no surprise: turn on the TV and you’ll be barraged with news of raging fires, political maelstroms, financial turmoil, and deadly pandemics. What does come as a surprise is when someone puts forth a plan to deal with these crises. 

In What Would Nature Do?,Columbia Professor Ruth DeFries argues that, through trial and error, nature has evolved a set of “time-tested tactics” for survival that span domains and offer our species a path forward.

DeFries offers four key tactics: circuit breakers, diversity, networking, and bottom-up decision making. Drawing on examples from nature, such as the behavior of an ant colony or how the “loopy” vein structures of plant leaves became a model for the internet, she argues that, when we’re seeking to understand how to solve wicked problems, we should turn to our most experienced expert: nature. 

One of our favorite quotes from the book:

“Ironically, the more civilization becomes sophisticated, urbanized, and seemingly removed from nature, the more it becomes interconnected and mired in complexity. Nature’s strategies become even more relevant. They can postpone and cushion the fall in the endless cycle of growth, stagnation, breakdown, and renewal.”

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.

This week’s lens: the S-curve.

Popularized by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator's Dilemma, the S-curve is a phenomenon that shows up in many complex adaptive systems, not just the economy. Any process with positive feedback loops and growth ceilings will end up exhibiting sigmoid, or “S,” curves:

  • A rodent finds its way onto an island and the population explodes, though it slows down once it approaches the island’s carrying capacity.

  • A fad starts when a celebrity wears a new type of sunglasses; it quickly expands until the entire subculture is wearing them.

  • A virus starts out in China and spreads until the whole world is infected. 

These examples share common stages. The optimistic and brimming-with-potential gestation is followed by a period of rapid growth, a slowing era of maturity, and finally a steady demise. Though we may heroically try to bend this arc, wholly escaping the pattern is futile: a new S-curve is always emerging right as we begin our descent.

We can use this lens when examining a problem space as a team or an organization. What stage of the S-curve are we currently in? Is our hockey-stick growth going to continue forever? What is the limiting factor (in other words, the ceiling of our S-curve)? Might a new S-curve be emerging?

Recognizing the inexorability of the S-curve can give us a healthy degree of detachment. The sooner we accept that the shape of this curve is set, the more nimble we can be about finding the next one… although finding new S-curves is a bit of a miracle. Moving from gestation to growth isn’t guaranteed either; emergence is not a thing that can be manufactured. That’s what makes complex adaptive systems so much fun to work with.