Episode 100 — May 18th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/100
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Neel Mehta, Ben Mathes, Dart Lindsley, Spencer Pitman, Ade Oshineye, Jon Lebensold, Dimitri Glazkov
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, Boris Smus, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman
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.
“The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien
📝 Editor’s note: We hope you enjoy this special edition to celebrate our 100th episode!
🌀💬 Conversation: Why we FLUX
We’re bringing back one of our old favorite formats — the conversation! Here, each of our contributors takes on a pseudonymous animal persona, and our little “zoo” gets together for some friendly debate and banter.
🐘 Elephant: Welcome, everyone! I can’t believe we’ve been working on this newsletter for about two years and exactly one hundred (!) episodes. Systems thinking teaches us the importance of periodically stepping back and taking stock. So, let’s move “onto the balcony” and reflect: what does our FLUX Collective mean to you? What impact has it made on you as a thinker, a professional, and a person?
🦆 Duck: FLUX became my third space, my healing center, my church, my posse, and my confessor all rolled into one. It started during the pandemic and has helped me cope with the anxiety, fear, frustration and angst generated by the uncertainty revealed by COVID-19. We got together to make sense of it all by sharing our individual puzzle pieces. In turn, I didn’t just get better news and insights. I got better mental health and better tools to deal with complexity, both external and — surprisingly — internal. FLUX is a place where we collect and craft “lenses” like pebbles on the beach. It is a place where a Pareto-stable “yes and…” can be replaced with a far more nuanced “it scans, but have you considered…” without collapsing into what-about-ism and ego warfare. And many of us still haven’t met in person! There is something truly valuable here. The newsletter lets it shine through, but it’s only the tip of the FLUX value iceberg for me.
🐭 Mouse: Yeah, FLUX has been a wonderful pressure relief valve from the craziness of the COVID-19 world, where so many things have been thrown into a chaotic realm. This group has helped ground my ideas and provide inspiration for personal transformation.
🐠 Fish: I love the sense of community… even if it does explode my reading list beyond all maintainability 😄. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to flex my writing muscles. We sometimes talk about the newsletter as providing a sort of minimum-viable convergence. It keeps our conversations from becoming so meaningless that they end up as a parody of a TED talk. Even though our conversations range far beyond what ultimately makes it into the newsletter, having that weekly rhythm keeps people engaged and coming back, even as life ebbs and flows.
🐘 Elephant: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an “ideas machine” quite like this group before. We only get space to write up one piece a week, but we have something like 50 stubs, seedlings, and rough chunks of ideas slowly marinating in our “hopper,” which is (as of this writing) 113 pages long. And in our Discord, which serves as a sort of living room slash perpetual house party, we regularly throw around reactions like 💎(great insight), 🤯 (profound idea), and 🌱(generative — our highest compliment). I get smarter every single time I interact with this group, and even better, everyone is so humble, curious, and supportive. It’s a phenomenal space, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
🐲 Dragon: Every morning I wake up with a lattice of ideas I don’t know what to do with. Left to my own devices, they wouldn’t go anywhere. Instead, I join a carousel of characters that have their own idea lattices. We ask questions about the questions. We explore our blindspots. Together we go broader and deeper. Despite our different backgrounds, we’ve stumbled on some similar, reality-cleaving ideas. Our time together starts my day off in a generative way. It’s like my friendly, caring mental warmup that leaves me limber and productive for the rest of my day. And I get to test out the ideas from my day job and projects. FLUX is both fun, and my secret superpower.
🐞 Ladybug: Systems thinking is about looking at the world through a variety of lenses and modeling the system's changes with N-ply of lookahead. That takes you to some strange intellectual landscapes. It's generatively invigorating to have a group that's willing to come along on these journeys and who will invite you along on their own journeys.
🐜 Ant: How often can you find an encouraging, engaged audience for your biggest, vaguest, still gestating ideas? In my whole life, very rarely, and certainly never a whole group of kindred minds at one time. FLUX is the first place I’ve been able to bring larval ideas before a group of friends are willing to listen, help them mature, and add their own young ideas to the mix. Together we get to share these with other kindred minds through the Review. Sometimes it’s a guilty pleasure. We all have other responsibilities. Writing for FLUX means I am not doing something more tactical. But once a new idea has grown and turned into an article, it can become a strategic thinking tool to move other work forward more quickly.
🦈 Shark: For much of my life I’ve been in places where my meandering divergence, linking together of odd topics, love of cities and systems, and vacillation between conviction and utter confusion are things that have… well… not made me friends. But in FLUX those things are contributions to a grander, swirling intelligence that emerges and hallucinates and recombines the ideas into something that feels like more than any of us could have made on our own. The architecture isn’t transformers or LSA or any directed algorithms. It’s real human relationships that are funny, messy, tensioned, and deeply caring. FLUX is what happens when people come together with openness, care, and a sense of humor. This shark feels lucky to swim in its waters.
🐅 Tiger: Since I was a kid, I have always felt alone in how I see and move through the world. I have been fortunate to find and build community in many other critical ways, but it always bothered me that everyone seemed so disinterested in the complex problems we face and the complex systems that often complicate our ability to solve these problems. As someone who has dedicated their life to improving the lives of others and the world we live in, it has been such a gift to be a part of FLUX and to know I’m not alone.
🦃 Turkey: FLUX is a glimmer of what happens when humans, technology, and society are intertwined. It is a space where the patterns that cut across society, time and technology are freely discussed. It lets me better frame my daily efforts. I'm so grateful to have found a community so full of experience, knowledge and, most of all, hope for the future. Better still, no one minds when I cluck along!
🐘 Elephant: Despite our different backgrounds and interests, at the heart of it, the answer to “why we FLUX” is the same: the community, the relationships, and a chance to be part of something larger than our individual selves. Thank you all for being part of the reason this community can thrive — and, of course, thank you to our readers for your continued support!
🌽🚜 A peek into the FLUX hopper
As one of the participants in our conversation mentioned, we have a huge trove of article stubs, not-yet-polished ideas, and miscellaneous musings sitting in our “hopper,” which is a colossal Google Doc that we use to store material for future FLUX episodes. Here are a handful of stubs that we’ve put into the hopper over the years but haven’t (yet!) had a chance to write up.
🚗 Assembling a CAR: Exploring organizational design through the lenses of Capability, Authority, and Responsibility.
🌴 Tree falls and whale falls: How does the death and decay of an old tech platform feed the next generation of startups, forks, and new technologies?
🛂 Modeling and the desire for control: Are we trying to model the system to gain a deeper understanding of it? Or are we just trying to exploit it?
✂️ Big-O for decisions: How might we use Big-O notation to describe the decision-making process?
🙊 Disagree and commit, revisited: Exploring the nuances of the principle and the assumptions about what it means to “disagree” and what it means to “commit.”
⚠️ Non-uniform risk: The challenges of applying the typical risk management strategies when risk is not uniformly distributed.
🥄 Mediocrity: Mediocrity in user experience is a hint at platform opportunity. Consistent mediocrity is a more stable foundation than wild oscillations between optimality and collapse.
Shame & guilt: What if shame relates to retribution in the same way that guilt relates to accountability?
🥜Crunchy and gooey: A delicious way to think about organizations. Some orgs are strict and legalistic on the outside (crunchy) but relationship-based and flexible on the inside (gooey).
📈 Scale and culture: A riff on how scale changes the game. What does an organization’s scale — and the way it changes as it scales — tell us about the kind of structure and culture that is prevalent within it?
🏗️ Load-bearing beliefs: What are the ideas that, should we stop believing in them, would bring ruin to an organization?
🌪️ “Thriving in chaos” vs. “thriving through chaos”: How some loose-cannon actors unleash chaos, terraforming their environment into one where they can win.
💽 Read-write access: To be maximally effective, creative spaces must be owned by their inhabitants.
😈 Corrupting lenses: A meta-lens. Some ways of looking at the world permanently change a person’s perspective; these lenses can no longer be freely taken “on” and “off.”
🎚 Attaching a crank to everything: The constant temptation to turn a subtle, nuanced thing into a rigid process with a crank that we can reliably turn.
🪞📚 Books from the large language mirror
We made a list of all the books we’ve ever recommended in the FLUX Review and fed the list of titles into ChatGPT (using GPT-4) along with this prompt:
“Book recommendations based on this list for people who love systems theory”
Here is ChatGPT’s unedited output:
Based on the list you provided, it seems you're interested in a wide range of topics, including systems theory, human behavior, nature, architecture, business, and science fiction. Here are some book recommendations that might align with your interests:
Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows: This is a classic book on systems theory that provides a great introduction to the concept.
The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi: This book offers a unified view of life, integrating life's biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: This book discusses the impact of highly improbable and unpredictable events that have massive impact.
The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems by Fritjof Capra: This book explores the scientific paradigm shift from the view of the world as a machine to understanding it as a network.
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist: This book explores the notion of the divided brain in a broad context, bringing in culture, philosophy, and history.
The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel: This book tells the story of the self-taught Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who made substantial contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, and continued fractions.
The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton M. Christensen: This book discusses how successful, outstanding companies can do everything "right" and yet still lose their market leadership.
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin: If you enjoyed "The Left Hand of Darkness", you might enjoy this science fiction novel. It's the first book in a trilogy about humanity's contact with an alien civilization.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee: This book provides a fascinating look at the history of cancer and its treatment.
The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly: This book discusses the technological trends that will shape our future.
We then pushed GPT into more unconventional territory with:
“Give me weirder recommendations”
Here is its subsequent output:
Sure, let's dive into some more unconventional and thought-provoking books that might pique your interest:
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter: This book explores concepts of recursion and self-reference in art, music, and mathematics.
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott: This is a satirical novella about a two-dimensional world inhabited by geometric figures.
The Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky: This book offers a theory of how the mind works, suggesting it's a collection of cooperating agents that together perform the tasks we associate with thinking.
The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age by Stanisław Lem: A collection of humorous and philosophical short stories about two constructors who create machines for various civilizations.
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts: This book explores the nature of identity and the self.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono: A beautiful allegorical tale about a man who transforms a desolate valley into a thriving forest.
The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism by Fritjof Capra: This book explores the parallels between quantum physics and Eastern mysticism.
The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley: This book details Huxley's experiences when taking the psychedelic substance mescaline.
The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart: A novel about a psychiatrist who makes all of his decisions based on the roll of a die.
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse: This novel presents a future intellectual game that synthesizes all fields of human knowledge.
Remember, these are quite unconventional books, so they might not be for everyone. But if you're looking for something different, these could be worth checking out!
Notably, some of these listed books are in our internal library of must-read books, while other books, especially the weirder ones, were works that we had no idea about! Even without web browsing enabled, ChatGPT can be a useful tool for finding recommendations based on an existing list or vibe.
Just remember to double check everything, since ChatGPT, like other large language models, can be prone to hallucinating.
🔍🎨 Lenscrafting with ChatGPT
We took a list of all the lenses we’ve run in past FLUX episodes and gave it to ChatGPT, along with roughly this prompt (we had to go back and forth with ChatGPT for a bit, so this one-shot prompt is an approximation):
“Generate new analytical lenses that are inspired by this list of all the previous FLUX lenses. These lenses should be inspired by a variety of niche academic and cultural fields and be described in a way that provides a general understanding of how each lens could be applied”
ChatGPT’s output (emphasis ours):
📜 The Palimpsest: Inspired by literary studies, this lens considers how new ideas, cultures, or systems are built upon and influenced by those that came before, just as a palimpsest is a manuscript page that has been written on, scraped off, and used again.
🌊 The Fluxus: Borrowed from the Fluxus art movement, this lens focuses on the process or experience in any event or action rather than the final product or outcome. It can be used to emphasize the importance of the journey over the destination.
🌳 The Bonsai: From Japanese culture and horticulture, this lens views systems or processes as a delicate balance of careful pruning and nurturing growth. It can be applied to personal development, business strategy, or environmental management.
🍞 The Sourdough Starter: From the world of baking, this lens focuses on the concept of using a small, active culture to start a much larger process. It can be used to understand how small, catalytic actions can stimulate larger changes in fields like social movements, marketing, or even biological processes.
🚂 The Maqamat: Inspired by the Arabic literary tradition, this lens views life or processes as a series of "stations" or "stages," each with its own challenges and rewards. It can be applied to personal growth, educational progress, or business development.
🎶 The Fugue: Borrowed from music theory, this lens understands systems or situations as interweaving themes that repeat and vary, much like a fugue in music. It can be used to examine recurring patterns in social dynamics, market trends, or even ecological cycles.
🎯 The Vanishing Point: From the field of visual arts and perspective drawing, this lens focuses on how all lines of inquiry or progression tend to converge towards a single point. It can be applied to technological development, evolution, or any process that involves convergence over time.
🌌 The Dark Matter: Inspired by cosmology, this lens considers the unseen but influential forces that shape a system, much like how dark matter shapes the universe. It can be applied to the analysis of hidden power structures in society, unspoken cultural norms, or invisible market forces.
🎭 The Improv: From the world of theater, this lens views situations as unscripted and evolving, where success depends on adaptability, listening, and collaboration. It can be applied to business strategy, team dynamics, or any situation requiring agile thinking.
🌱 The Permaculture: From sustainable agriculture, this lens focuses on creating systems that are both self-sustaining and beneficial for their environment. It can be used to inform sustainable business practices, community development, or environmental conservation.
⏳ The Ephemeral: From performance arts, this lens highlights the transient and fleeting nature of moments, emphasizing the importance of presence and engagement. It can be applied to personal mindfulness, marketing trends, or even analysis of social media dynamics.
🌀 The Dreamtime: Inspired by Australian Aboriginal cosmology, this lens views time as non-linear, with past, present, and future interconnected. It can be applied to understanding cultural narratives, historical analysis, or even speculative fiction.
We also prompted ChatGPT to provide the emojis you see above:
“Generate a relevant, creative, and distinct emoji for the above 12 new lenses”
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I just started reading Gödel, Escher, Bach in my book club. It just keeps coming up.
I really like your posts - always thoughtful, always a fresh perspective even for an avid reader. Congratulations - and: thank you!