🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 08

June 24th, 2021

Episode 08 — June 24th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/08

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.

“To sit on the front steps — whether it’s a veranda in a small town or a concrete stoop in a big city — and to talk to our neighborhoods is infinitely more important than to huddle on the living-room lounger and watch a make-believe world in not-quite living color.”

— Harvey Milk

🎼🎩 The siren song of the modernist hat 

When we wear our systems-thinking hats, we strive to see a bit more, something just beyond our peripheral vision. We are eager to stretch, reframe, and improvise. At the same time, the capacity for systems thinking grows out of a long time spent developing clarity of vision and learning how to frame, order, and refine. This is the modernist hat.

But the modernist hat’s hyper-focus on precision can lead us to miss the truth. One way to spot the modernist hat in action is to look at the shape of our problems and solutions. When we’re wearing the modernist hat, there’s a sharpness to our thinking that just feels right. We can suddenly see causal chains everywhere we look. When a change happens, we know why. People around us start looking like rational, mechanistic automatons. We can predict what they’re thinking; we can guess their intentions. “My colleague was angry because they didn't want to hear the truth.” “You’re just sad because you didn’t get a promotion.” We play with multiple lenses, but mostly as a way to find the one that’s the least distorting. The modernist hat whispers correctness: our brilliant insights reveal “how it actually is.” And those who can’t see our rightness need to fix their thinking. 

In contrast, the systems-thinking hat helps us let go of this pursuit. We use multiple lenses to navigate the uncomfortable knowledge that the sense of “rightness” that a lens gives us comes from our own collection of lived experiences. Every lens introduces some distortion, and the lenses that feel most right are often the ones that are most likely to lead us astray. When wearing this hat, we don’t see others as right or wrong so much as we see them highlighting different factors we might want to consider. 

The modernist hat can be a powerful tool. It’s invaluable for constructing a perspective. But it can also be a trap. Once a truth is discovered, the appeal of making it the truth can be overwhelming. So, even if we start out wearing the systems-thinking hat, we often feel the urge to swap it out for the modernist one. We might even believe that we’re still thinking in systems, but the sharpness of our answers and the strength of our conviction will hint otherwise. 

Keeping the systems-thinker hat on is a long-term practice, kind of like staying fit. Next time you find yourself gasping with a sudden insight and having that sense of crystal clarity, take a quick second to orient and ask yourself: am I wearing the modernist hat? And if so, am I doing so consciously, or am I trapped by it?

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🍩 “Donut migration” in American cities points to the rise of hybrid work

Many Americans have been moving since COVID-19 began, but notably, most migration has been within metro areas, not between them. New research shows that people are primarily moving from downtowns to cheaper suburbs, a trend that’s especially pronounced for big, expensive cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston. The researchers argue that this is consistent with a future of hybrid work, where people commute downtown just a few times a week, rather than completely remote work.

🚏🚐 Workers who adopted a nomadic “van life” aren’t keen on coming back

When the pandemic started, many Americans jumped in a van and started touring the country, working off mobile hotspots during the day and exploring nature and new cities in their free time. Most people only planned to spend a few months on the road, but some like the lifestyle so much that they want to keep going as long as they can. (Not that many of them have a 9-5 lifestyle to go back to: many van-lifers are freelancers or startup founders.)

🚏🍞 The pandemic recession is birthing a new generation of bread bakers

Since COVID-19 started, many people (especially those who lost their jobs) have turned to bread baking to stave off boredom. Now, many of them are starting small baking businesses, selling fresh loaves to farmers’ markets or delivering them directly to fans. Longtime bakers are seeing echoes of 2001’s dot-com crash, when many unemployed and disaffected people also turned to baking.

🚏🛬 American Airlines, after furloughing pilots last year, is plagued by cancelled flights

During last year’s slump in air travel, American Airlines cut costs by furloughing 1600 pilots and offering 1000 senior pilots early retirement packages. It was a savvy move at the time, but now the airline is having trouble retraining and re-certifying pilots fast enough to handle this summer’s surging demand for flights. Thanks in part to the staffing shortage, American now has to cancel 50 to 80 flights every single day, with hundreds more delays.

🚏👋 Social and communication apps are letting users add their pronouns

Within the last few months, apps like Zoom, Instagram, Slack, and LinkedIn have started letting users add their gender pronouns to their profiles and have been surfacing them throughout the interface.

🚏🔋 The battery boom is driving interest in a new metal: zinc

Electric vehicles are growing in popularity, and the demand for lithium-ion batteries is growing as well. But lithium is rare and expensive, and lithium-ion batteries use dangerously flammable liquid components. So some scientists are looking to zinc, a cheap, abundant metal that could power vastly cheaper, more energy-dense batteries once some of the kinks are worked out.

🚏🗺 People are finding their deceased friends and family on Google Street View

Many people have found that Google Maps’ Street View feature has preserved old snapshots of loved ones who have since passed away, giving them a touching portal into their past. As one internet user put it, “I go on Google maps to the images that were dated as being taken before my dad died so I can walk around a little bit in a world where he is still with me.”

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • Burnout: Modern Affliction or Human Condition? (New Yorker) — Jill Lepore examines the long and winding history of the term “burnout,” seeking to understand whether burnout is a fundamental part of human life or an output of our particular time in history.

  • Tackling Wicked Problems With Complexity Theory (Sitra) — Describes how solving “wicked problems” like climate change and government corruption requires systems thinking, including knowledge of emergence, self-organization, game theory, and network thinking.

  • How Memes Become Money (The Atlantic) — Examines how online content has traditionally been thought of as public-domain material, but how that’s changing as the rise of the attention economy and NFTs push creators to monetize their ideas.

  • The Longest-Running Evolution Experiment (Veritasium) — Explores an experiment that’s bred 75,000 generations of bacteria over 33 years; describes some surprising traits that have evolved; and shows that (according to the data) evolution may slow down but will never stop, even in an unchanging environment.

  • Conway’s Law: The Reason Software Mirrors Organizations (Alex Kondov) — Unpacks the quip that companies “ship their org chart,” explaining why distributed teams tend to ship distributed software and co-located teams tend to ship monolithic software.

  • The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial (Ribbon Farm) — Venkatesh Rao explores how the rise of fancy yet inferior goods, so popular among Millennials, is a signifier of a downwardly-mobile middle class who need to put on a façade (to others and to themselves) that they’re still upwardly mobile.

  • How Cities Will Fossilize (BBC) — Describes in poetic detail what will be left of our cities tens of millions of years from now and what far-future anthropologists might learn about us, and muses about how transient our civilizations are on a geologic time scale.

🌀🖋 More from FLUXers

Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.

Check out Ade Oshineye’s deck “Tools for Thought: From the Memex to index cards,” where he breaks down the history and philosophy of tools for thought (TFTs), how TFTs help you communicate with your past and future self, and how to layer TFTs into entire systems of thought. He shares useful tools for thought and techniques for using them, and ends on a thought-provoking question: “What is to thought what literacy is to reading and writing?”

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge (2006, 445 pages).

In the book, Senge lays out a theory for how we can create learning organizations. An organization’s ability to quickly learn new ideas, theories, and practices is key to its ability to become and remain successful in a rapidly-changing world.

Learning as an organization requires thinking about things holistically:

From a very early age, we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole. When we then try to “see the big picture,” we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds, to list and organize all the pieces. But, as physicist David Bohm says, the task is futile—similar to trying to reassemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection. Thus, after a while we give up trying to see the whole altogether.

The tools and ideas presented in this book are for destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces. When we give up this illusion—we can then build “learning organizations,” organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.

The tools described in the book include:

  • Understanding complexity through systems thinking

  • Developing reflective conversations through the use of mental models and dialogue

  • Fostering aspiration through personal mastery and the creation of a shared vision

If you enjoy systems-thinking ideas and want to learn how to apply them in an organizational context, we think you’ll find this book useful.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: horizontal and vertical learning.

When talking about learning, it might be useful to draw a distinction between vertical and horizontal learning. When we learn horizontally, we develop new competencies: skills, facts, abilities, and habits. When we learn vertically, we deepen our capacity to relate to the world around us. If we imagine our understanding of the world as a vast network of concepts, horizontal learning is the process of adding and connecting new concepts. In contrast, learning vertically is finding wholly new ways to organize this network.

Unlike horizontal learning, which happens in small increments at every single moment of our lives, vertical learning experiences are transformational moments. Each is a rearrangement, a phase transition, often sudden and disorienting. Just like with any network phase transition, vertical learning depends on horizontal learning, only becoming possible when the limits of the current arrangement are reached.

Such transformation often brings different answers to the same questions, with new perspectives opening up, new ways to examine the familiar. When a dot is exploring its two-dimensional world, it is learning horizontally. If, by some chance, it glimpses the existence of the third dimension, the vertical learning begins. The shift in sense-making makes the previously impossible now look mundane. Suddenly, the inexplicable circle that emerges out of nothing, grows, then shrinks back into nothing becomes a simple sphere moving through the two-dimensional plane.

The existence of vertical learning offers a hopeful perspective to the confounding complexity that surrounds us. Perhaps we’re just two-dimensional dots, yet to discern another dimension, accumulating our horizontal learnings in preparation for the next leap of vertical learning.

🔮📬 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.

// Wired Magazine 2032: The Hackers Who Plowed the Stroad

After the 2020s were a decade of milder and milder New England winters due to climate change, 2031 was a doozy. A late November week recorded 60 inches of snow in Boston, Mass., and then in March a separate storm dumped almost 100 inches, absolutely crushing the records of 1969’s 100-hour snowstorm.

After the first snowstorm, a group of disaffected and motivated UMass urban planners decided on action. Their enemy? The Stroads of Massachusetts. A street is a place where people and businesses gather to build wealth. A road is a thing that connects productive places. Roads are for transport, streets are places where things happen. A stroad is a mash-up of these two types of paths. They are “the futon of transportation” because, just as a futon is neither a particularly good bed nor a particularly good couch, a stroad is neither a particularly good road nor a particularly good street.

After the first massive snowfall, the protagonists of this story decided to get ready to strike a blow against stroads. They ‘liberated’ 3 snowplows from a state Public Works depot which had been abandoned due to budget cuts. To each snowplow they attached a concrete 3D printer, fed from a pulled feed truck. After a fresh coat of paint, their machines were at a casual glance indistinguishable from the state snowplows. 

When the second snowfall started, the crews rolled out. Targeting regions the state and towns had deprioritized, they began plowing. And when they plowed a stroad in the center of a village or town, the 3D printers cranked into action. They turned 4-lane stroads into 2-lane traffic zones with protected bike lanes. Support vehicles installed signage and street marking.

It was a ludicrous plan. Most of it didn’t survive the spring. But in a handful of places, it stuck. Hearkening back to the outdoor seating street takeovers during COVID-19, residents rediscovered the joy of walking and seeing their neighbors. And a small victory was won against the stroad.