🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 05

Episode 05 — June 3rd, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/05

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.

“A subtle thought that is in error may yet give rise to fruitful inquiry that can establish truths of great value.”

— Isaac Asimov

🏙🏔 Living adjacent lives

We might believe that the global pandemic played out in the same way for all of us. Like with other shared cultural moments (like TV shows or ad jingles from our childhood), we could be tempted to bond over our common COVID-19 experiences — and be shocked at how they differ. While some industries thrived, others were decimated. Some had nominal change, others struggled through drastic changes in child care, loss of loved ones, or other personal tumult. A K-shaped recovery seems likely, if not inevitable, compounding the diverging impacts of the pandemic.

While the pandemic may be an extreme example of how shared experiences are lived differently, this difference is always there. The lens of social construction highlights that what we perceive as “actual reality” is just our learned interpretation of the environment — and a carefully-balanced social construct. Seeing a gap between our “actual realities” can be startling, so we tend to seek and group with those whose constructed realities are more similar to ours. This both reinforces our belief that we’re all seeing the same thing and makes us less able to connect with those who’ve had different experiences.

This moment in time seems like a good opportunity to recognize that even beyond this pandemic, all of our experiences are mediated by our own context. While we may jointly undergo some shared event, how we see it may differ vastly among us. If we sit with this discomfort and learn to appreciate these differences rather than avoiding them, we can begin to come to a richer understanding of the world around us. It may even increase our empathy for those who are suffering a lonely grief in the US amidst the jubilation surrounding the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

🌭💬 Conversation: You are what you eat (food or information!)

🐢 Turtle: What we consume impacts what we become. Food does this — but so does information. This parallel is thought-provoking: what is the “nutritional value” of information? What is the information equivalent of the “dinner table”? Or eating at weddings and funerals? What is the “salt, fat, sugar” equivalent for information? Is there cholesterol in information? Informational diabetes?

🐿️ Chipmunk: I love this analogy! I’m thinking back to how humans evolved under very different evolutionary pressures: food was hard to come by for most of human history, so we’ll scarf down anything with high calories (and sugar, fat, and salt, as you mentioned). Similarly, we humans are hard-wired to respond to novelty, since failing to notice a tiger lurking in the bushes wasn’t good for your survival chances. And to this day, many entertainment and social media apps make hay out of our addiction to novelty — the informational equivalent of a bag of Doritos. We biologically can’t stop eating them, as much as our “enlightened” minds might want us not to.

🐌 Snail: Like food, information can be consumed so many ways: mindlessly, for pleasure, for self improvement, socially. Yet our information spaces don’t necessarily do a great job of helping us use our setting to help us choose the right information consumption habits. Social information feeds, the ones that you use to keep up with your friends, family, or scene, are all mixed up with mindless consumption and the bottomless pit of news.

🐍 Snek: Nutritional labels for information? Can’t wait to see an information pyramid and information dieting book industry that comes out of that. Keep thinking: will those information dieting books be classified as junk food?

🦋 Butterfly: I wonder if the medium is also somehow related here. I find reading a paper book with a marker — ahhh the feeling, the smell! — very different from skimming an article on my phone. Listening to audiobooks also feels like its own category: I usually listen when doing something else, and that puts the book’s content in the background. Great for the latest sci fi novel, challenging for a work of philosophy.

🐌 Snail: Hey, that resonates. Maybe different writing styles offer their own nutritional density? Reading Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building was like eating kale: a mental workout in every sentence. On the other hand, I read a young adult novel recently (nope, not telling) and I swear I could’ve skipped pages and been better for it. Was it fatty and sweet? Yeah! Did it nourish my mind? Unlikely.

🐢 Turtle: As a social species, I wonder if the macronutrients of communication, the salt, fat, and sugar of the information world, are the things which trigger our moral sensors. For example, Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations include care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. It seems like information which touches these areas can overcome our desire to consume information thoughtfully. And who knows, maybe even help us become better versions of ourselves.

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🏖 Beach cities are the hottest destinations this summer, thanks to resorts

In the pre-pandemic “Before Times,” the top summer destinations for American travelers were big cities like New York, Sydney, and Tokyo. Last summer, road trips were the main attractions. But this summer, as things slowly reopen, the top summer destinations are beach cities like Miami, Cancun, and Honolulu. One reason is the rise of “enclave tourism” at luxury resorts cut off from the rest of the world.

🚏🍹 To-go cocktails will remain legal in at least 20 US states post-pandemic

Before COVID-19, few places in the US outside New Orleans let restaurants sell cocktails in takeout orders. Lockdowns pushed many states to relax these rules, and they were so popular that over 20 states (plus DC) will let restaurants keep selling to-go cocktails post-pandemic. This is a lifeline for struggling restaurants, who make a lot of profit from alcohol.

🚏👩🏾‍🍳 Many small businesses formed in Black neighborhoods thanks to the stimulus

Despite the pandemic, the last year has seen a surge in startups across the US. After each round of federal stimulus, cities saw sharp increases in the number of new businesses being registered. The greatest gains were in majority-Black neighborhoods.

🚏🌉 Tech companies are unsuccessfully trying to rent out vacant SF office space

Tech companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, and Salesforce bought massive amounts of office space in San Francisco in the 2010s but quickly vacated it once the pandemic started. They’ve tried leasing the space out to recoup some losses, but even that isn’t working: Airbnb alone lost over $100 million last quarter on its vacant office space.

🚏🍝 Restaurants on car-free streets have thrived during the pandemic

COVID-19 has led many cities to close off restaurant-heavy streets to cars so diners could eat outside. Many business owners disliked the change, thinking it would turn away inconvenienced drivers, but new data from Yelp shows that restaurants on car-free streets have done 15%+ better than restaurants elsewhere in the city.

🚏🚜 An Australian farm is going completely automated

One university’s farm in New South Wales will eliminate all farm workers, relying instead on robotic, remote-controlled tractors, harvesters, and drones, plus plenty of sensors. Autonomous vehicles will also help harvest crops overnight while the farmer sleeps.

🚏🛋 A furniture company’s stock is soaring because its ticker looks like Ethereum’s

The recent crypto boom drove a lot of interest to the cryptocurrency Ethereum (ticker symbol ETH). An unintended beneficiary was the furniture company Ethan Allen (also ticker symbol ETH), whose stock price has more than doubled in the last year as confused investors pour money into it. Forums for Ethan Allen investors have similarly been swarmed with people talking about Ethereum.

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • The Economic Origins of Black Wall Street (Investopedia) — An excerpt from a book that highlights how Tulsa’s Greenwood Avenue became the hub of a thriving, middle-class Black community a century ago.

  • Gin, Television, and Social Surplus (Clay Shirky) — Explores how new technologies unlock “cognitive surplus,” which is initially wasted but eventually put to productive use, and uses this to argue that online creation and collaboration have incredibly bright futures.

  • Can Removing Highways Fix America’s Cities? (New York Times) —  Explores how the rise of highways in the mid-20th century caused many American cities to tear themselves apart, and how some cities are now trying to remove highways to create denser, more walkable, and more integrated neighborhoods.

  • The Evolution of Wikipedia’s Norm Network (Future Internet) — Tours the development of Wikipedia’s norms for editing articles, finding that the most influential norms were established early in Wikipedia’s life — meaning that the seemingly freewheeling community is more like an old-fashioned bureaucracy than it might seem.

  • You are a Network (Aeon) — A philosophy professor introduces the “network self,” or the emerging notion that we as individuals are complex systems of interconnected and ever-evolving identities, not to be flattened into single roles or traits.

  • Three Big Things: The Most Important Forces Shaping the World (Collaborative Fund) — Explores three macro trends that will shape the next several decades: demographic shifts, economic inequality, and access to information.

  • Sketchplanations (Jono Hey) — Hundreds of cartoons that illustrate lenses for making sense of our complex world, from Swiss-cheese defenses to survivorship bias to the lamppost effect… plus some delightful life-hacks.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (2021, 482 pages).

Andy Weir returns with his newest love letter to science Project Hail Mary. In the novel, high school science teacher Ryland Grace is the sole survivor of a desperate, last-chance mission to save humanity from an algae-like alien species.

Except that when the book starts he can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

A scientific mystery as only Andy Weir can deliver, “Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian — while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.”

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: Bisociation.

Louis Braille was musing on the problem of how blind people could be enabled to read books when he happened to pick up a pine cone. The impression of the sharp spines of the cone on his hand, coupled with his musing about reading for the blind, showed him the path to an alphabet based on touch. 

What Braille was unintentionally practicing was the act of bisociation. Bisociation is the fusing together of ideas from two different planes of experience. Coined by Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book The Act of Creation, the key to the concept of bisociation is its inherent instability. It produces a “transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.“  Koestler coined the term bisociation to illustrate the combinatorial nature of creativity and how creativity appropriates the mind's patterning instinct to synthesize new ideas.

The beautiful thing about bisociation is you can try it yourself and anyone can do it. To get started, brainstorm a list of technologies (machine learning, 3D printing, GPS, etc.) and everyday tasks (brushing your teeth, parking your car, going to lunch, etc). Draw one concept from each pile and combine. You might just find yourself with a toothbrush that interfaces with your dental records to personalize how it brushes each of your teeth!

🔮📬 Postcard from the future

A short ‘what if’ piece of speculative fiction about a hypothetical future that could result from the forces changing our world.

// 2025. The Nevada Desert: A Sprinter van, a satellite linkup, and a remote engineer.

Last year’s FameCoin crash took out a lot of dreamers and hucksters. But not everyone. A 26-year-old BigCo engineer out in the Nevada desert thought differently. She worked her day job from 8am to 2pm on her satellite linkup in her Sprinter van. She hacked on her own projects at sunset. Sunsets were more romantic. She could dream bigger then. She knew who Zoom2TheMoon was on that forum. She saw him go hog-wild on all those FameCoins. She saw him flame out and ragepost for a solid two months before leaving the forum. But she didn’t buy the whole “new kind of money” stuff. She knew her Carlota Perez and Gartner Hype Cycle.

See, the technology behind FameCoins was fine; the problem was the fame part. You shouldn’t let only the famous get coins. What if you let anyone, anywhere, sell personal coins? What if it was the perfect decentralized way to sell equity in you? From first principles it was only a better kind of economic alignment. Imagine all those “mentors” that come to underprivileged schools or give one commencement address and collect their honorary degree… they never stuck around to see if they actually helped the kids. Imagine they could only come give that talk and get all that fancy status if they bought into each of those kids’ SelfCoins? They’d be economically aligned. The “mentors” would turn into real life mentors, helping the kids do better long term. They’d have to! They owned SelfCoins from the kids. They had skin-in-the-game! She was sure there couldn’t be anything wrong with people selling marginal stakes in themselves.

She started copy-pasting from CoinOverflow that evening.