Episode 06 — June 10th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/06
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.
“We live in a world that is beyond our control, and life is in a constant flux of change. So we have a decision to make: keep trying to control a storm that is not going to go away or start learning how to live within the rain.”
― Glenn Pemberton
Editor’s note: we’ve rebranded to the FLUX Review, a publication of the FLUX Collective. No need to adjust your subscription — you’ll keep receiving the newsletter despite the name change.
🚘🐔 Perspective in communication
Trigger warning: this piece discusses suicide.
If you live long enough in the US, you’ll eventually come across a young kid that tells you this joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”. The kid pauses, waiting for you to reply. You understand that your role is to reply ”I don’t know,” at which point the kid finishes the joke with “To get to the other side!”. The child laughs, you laugh because the child laughs and because the joke is so flat that it’s silly. It’s good and harmless fun. The joke is terrible but the experience is endearing because it’s often the first joke a kid remembers.
But what if the chicken is suicidal?
What if “going to the other side” is literally the desire for the chicken to end its life? The exact same joke, with the exact same words, now takes on a far darker and much more subtle meaning… one that may be completely hidden until someone points it out. After hearing this interpretation, it’s hard to “unsee it”. The same joke, the same words with an updated context results in a much more sophisticated and punny joke.
Once you experience this alchemical transmutation of a sentence into one with a separate, deeper meaning, it’s natural to wonder: how many other communications have we failed to understand because our perspective was misaligned with the intended one? Or symmetrically, how much communication is perceived deeper and more meaningful by the readers than the writer intended?
It doesn’t matter which meaning was originally intended. The important part is to be conscious of this effect. Communication is about more than just words. It includes how those words are understood by writers and readers. The perspectives from which communication takes place is as vital as the message… but far more elusive to grasp and control.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🤧 Two common flu strains seem to have vanished thanks to COVID-19
Ever since the pandemic started, public health measures like mask-wearing, social distancing, and lockdowns have stunted the spread of the seasonal flu. Now, some virologists think it’s possible that two of the more common flu strains might have gone extinct.
🚏🍊 Thanks to produce sales, China has a new biggest ecommerce platform
The ecommerce platform Pinduoduo now has more Chinese users than the far more famous Alibaba. Pinduoduo first gained attention for its social “group buying” features but has seen even more growth by bringing China’s produce farmers into the ecommerce age, helping them sell fresh fruits and vegetables online in a country where traditional food supply chains are weak. From that seed, it’s grown into a near-billion-user behemoth that covers all corners of ecommerce.
🚏🚱 The American West is facing a “mega-drought” ahead of fire season
Much of the Western US faced “severe” droughts last year, which helped create an apocalyptic-seeming fire season complete with orange skies over San Francisco. But this year, meteorologists warn that the West is facing “extreme” and even “exceptional” droughts — the worst since at least 2000 — which foreshadows an even more devastating fire season.
🚏💰 US feds recovered millions in Bitcoin paid to pipeline hackers
After being crippled with ransomware, the Colonial Pipeline company paid $4.4 million in Bitcoin to the hacking group DarkSide. The US’s Department of Justice has now announced that it traced the ransom payment on the public blockchain, found DarkSide’s cryptocurrency wallet, and seized the ill-gotten coins (now worth $2.3 million) — a blow to crypto’s claim of being government-proof.
🚏☢️ American soldiers leaked nuclear secrets via flashcard apps
US soldiers responsible for maintaining the country's nuclear arsenal have to memorize detailed security protocols, so for help they turn to digital flashcard apps. A simple Google search by researchers revealed dozens of publicly-visible flashcard sets made by these soldiers, which leaked information about military procedures, where bombs are stored, where to find keys to aircraft shelters, and even passwords.
🚏🚙 2020 was the most deadly year for US drivers in over a decade
The pandemic-induced lockdowns certainly got many people to stop driving, but many of the remaining drivers saw empty highways as an invitation to drive recklessly. That’s one possible reason why road deaths increased over 7% from 2019 to 2020, with 2020 becoming the most deadly for drivers since 2007.
🚏🧼 A new video game lets you simulate power-washing cars and buildings
A bizarrely relaxing new game called PowerWash Simulator lets you grab a virtual hose and blast away dirt caked on cars, houses, or even Mars rovers. Pondering what made the game so appealing, one reviewer said, “Chances are, I will never be able to own my own home and do this in real life, but it’s so pleasingly domestic to experience the simulated version.”
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Pandemic is a Portal (Financial Times) — This essay by Arundhati Roy from April 2020 still rings true, arguing that pandemics, by melting down the status quo, give us an opportunity to cast aside society’s baggage and imagine a new, brighter world.
The Four Americas (The Atlantic) — American historian George Packer traces how the US fractured into four competing narratives: libertarian and individualist Free America, educated and urban Smart America, populist and nationalist Real America, and young and rebellious Just America.
Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing (Indeed) — Breaks down Bruce Tuckman’s model of group development, highlighting patterns that teams tend to follow as they evolve.
Caught in the Study Web (Cybernaut) — Explores how young students, feeling lost in the lockdown era and racked with anxiety amidst ceaseless pressure to get straight-A’s, have created social media communities to find support, tips, inspiration, and solidarity.
Nintendo’s Little-Known Product Philosophy: Lateral Thinking With Withered Technology (Adam Ghahramani) — Examines how Nintendo has consistently made cheap, surprising, and enormously successful gaming products by creatively combining reliable, well-known technologies instead of relying on risky, cutting-edge tech.
Make Your Values Mean Something (Harvard Business Review) — Argues that bland, generic corporate values are actively harmful, and that company values are most useful if they “inflict pain,” constrain the company’s options, and are somewhat controversial.
A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions (Kim Stanley Robinson) — The science fiction writer argues against the deterministic “covering law” approach to history, which posits that you can explain history solely through logical deduction from a set of known facts and ironclad rules.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins (1982, 404 pages).
It’s intuitive to believe that an organism ends at the boundary of its skin, but does this really make sense? No mound? No termite. No host? No virus. Each is only the arc of a larger circuit. That circuit could be seen as the organism’s extended phenotype. Dawkins advocates for a new way of seeing evolution, centered on genes and their downstream effects. These effects include not just the organism but also the impact an organism has on its environment. Taken together, these effects make up the gene’s extended phenotype.
Seeing from this perspective is a Copernican shift. It resolves paradoxes and reveals new ideas by taking on a different point of view, one that de-centers the organism. It is not the organism that is the unit of selection. The selfish gene is the unit of selection. The rest (including you) is just a vehicle, and the boundaries of that vehicle are incidental. One extended phenotype can freely bleed into another.
Quoting another scientist, Dawkins says:
“I do not propose to say anything new or original... But I am a great believer in saying familiar, well-known things backwards and inside out, hoping that from some new vantage point the old facts will take on a deeper significance.”
An ethos shared by us at FLUX!
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Intention vs. Impact.
The concept of pulling apart intention vs. impact is useful in examining both systems and personal interactions. Your intention is what you believed would occur based on your actions. Your impact is what actually occurred for the person or system you are interacting with.
Much of the time we focus on our intention instead of the impact. When someone says, “your words elicited X feeling in me,” we tend to point to our intention. “Well, I didn’t want you to feel X.” That’s mostly irrelevant; words were uttered and the person felt X. It's not a debate; it's their reality.
In systems, this occurs when we intend to achieve an outcome and focus on that regardless of the impact. For example, we intend to alleviate malaria by providing free bed nets… only to discover them being used as fishing net substitutes. We point to our intention to justify the impact, but regardless of intention, the system received our inputs and provided an output.
It can be helpful to try and detach from your intentions and lean into learning from the impact you see, both in systems and people. Even if it's hard, you’ll stand to gain more from exploring impact than from wallowing in intention.
🔮📬 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.
// 2027. Clicking an ad for a “Control your online life” service leads you to this landing page.
Thanks for your interest in BetterYou. We offer specialized solutions to the modern ills of low-quality information. Much like junk food, if you binge on the wrong types of information, bad things can result. Runaway feedback loops reward more and more extreme ideas, leading to radicalization and incentivizing automated disinformation at massive scale.
Our solution is a simple three-step program to break the cycle for yourself and your family.
Information Audit: You install our app on your desktop and mobile devices. It takes advantage of the EU’s ‘Right to Own’ rulings of 2024, so it works on both iOS and Android devices. We watch your online activity, computing how frequently you visit each app and website. Since we are a paid service, you are in control of your data. After a week of use, we proceed to phase two.
Info Biome Analysis: Gathering up the information from the Audit, we run it through our analysis systems to give you an objective report on your personalized information biome. How much time are you actually spending on news site X and social media app Y? Where are the articles you read and share coming from? Many subscribers are surprised to learn just how much of the information they consume comes from content farms or bots. We break down your diet by country, company, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation.
At this point, it can be a lot to take in. Our customer support team is on hand to walk you through the results. We will step through your profile and work with you to craft your desired information diet. But no plan matters unless it is accompanied by action.
Behavior Nudging: Next comes action. Combining awareness of bad info with direct feedback is core to breaking the compulsion loop of doom-scrolling.
Calorie counting: Every day, you’ll have an “information calorie” allocation. The more a piece of information deviates from your goals, the more calories it costs.
Misinfo delays: The other approach is more direct. The more a site or piece of information violates your ruleset, the more delay we introduce into its loading time. Information from the CDC? No delay. That article about how Russian submarines are broadcasting alien music to get people to vote a certain way? 10 seconds.
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The idea of an information diet is something I can get on board with, similar to some arguments that Clay Johnson made in his book the "The Information Diet". I could see several parallel universes to the postcard from the future:
1) Add tunability and explainability to the algorithm determining an information snippet's "goodness", whereby you as a user of the service are not only in control of your data, but can also adjust algorithm parameters and impact, and understand why a given piece of content is deemed good or bad. You could also open source and modify popular diets (in the spirit of Soylent) for different flavors, cheats, modifications, etc.
2) Creation of a financial market for information, whereby the "best" creators and posts receive the highest tokenized value, similar to BitClout
3) Curation by content experts either directly (a la Faves http://faves.media/) or indirectly (a la Nuzzel https://scroll.com/nuzzel)
4) Increasing costs for posting information on the internet or via newslwetters / emails with "stamps" (a la Earn.com, prior to its acquisition by Coinbase)