🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 109
July 20th, 2023
Episode 109 — July 20th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/109
Contributors to this issue: Boris Smus, Neel Mehta, Gordon Brander, Ben Mathes, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Stefano Mazzocchi, Dimitri Glazkov, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Dart Lindsley, Jon Lebensold
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.
“He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.”
— 老子 (Lao Tzu), talking about reciprocal agent behavior in social networks, probably
🤝🔮 Trust is a long game
In an age of demagogues and polarized opinions, the proverb “honesty is the best policy” may feel like a quaint idea from the past. If it seems like the most successful are cheating, sending coded messages, and reinterpreting (or even recreating) rules to benefit themselves, why bother being honest?
We’re in one of those strange, but not unique, moments of history where massive fortunes have been made in a fraction of a generation. The incentives at play when wealth and influence took decades of reputation-building feel like they’re being replaced by a new set of incentives in an era where some individuals have gone for the quick buck and succeeded.
But as a culture right now, we massively underestimate the downstream effects of being an honest dealer. When success can be won quickly, luck dominates (as much as we might like to think otherwise). When success takes time, luck is still an important factor, but we also have to accumulate it a bit at a time. We depend on others, and they on us.
This need for honesty goes beyond the individual. It is a requirement for continual innovation. Being an honest dealer makes people composable. By this, we do not mean that they are interchangeable, like cogs in a machine. Rather, composability means that we can take the work of one person and combine it with the work of others. When we have agreements we can trust and sound people making them, we can cooperate and combinatorially innovate at complex levels. A subculture of trust allows everyone in that subculture to operate together better: You can have confidence that you know the true state of the whole network around you and can operate accordingly.
On the other hand, if everyone is looking for an opportunity to cheat, play games, and break the rules, cooperation breaks down. You can’t trust what the five closest people around you say they are going to do, so you have to model all of their possible incentives and desires, try to plan for all the ways they could act, and now do that for everyone… it becomes intractable. People retreat to nepotism and smaller groups. Aside: this is what most of human history is full of, and larger cooperation networks are a relatively peculiar and recent phenomenon. When we can all trust each other enough, each of us is free to be complex and varied, and our collective trust allows us to still coordinate.
But when the broader cooperation-via-honesty collapses, so does social complexity. One tempting response when trust-enabled coordination breaks down is to terraform everyone into uncomplicated automatons: if everyone is identical, it’s easy to coordinate together. Strongmen often arise to terraform the conditions necessary for their own survival: make everyone trustworthy insofar as they all can be trusted to follow the strongman, a hollow version of alignment that can never outlast that particular strongman.
Trust and honest representation of motives is a superpower. Consider a community as an information processing network. Playing informational games makes nodes in the network less reliable. Their unreliable information propagates through the network, infecting other nodes. Bad faith players are like lying DNS records saying, “I have the right location. Trust me!” who then get paid for the traffic sent their way.
Short-term focus creates a tragedy of the commons. Anyone not being honest is defecting and burning the very commons that their short-term success is built on.
An effective way to save the commons is with cultural self-policing. As discussed in Paul F. Steinberg’s Who Rules the Earth? (reviewed later in this episode), the traditional framing of the tragedy of the commons conflates open access and common property. When a resource is treated as open access, we are likely to see traditional tragedy of the commons behavior where people are incentivized to take a short term view and overuse the resource, ruining it for everyone. However, in common property systems, users will regulate each other. People do not magically become more long-thinking. However, they regulate the behavior of others and know that they too will be judged.
In this scenario, honest dealing allows us to stay in the game. It’s not that we’re “rewarded” for honesty. It’s that when we are not honest, a healthy self-policing culture kicks us out, and we are not allowed to play the game at all. In this world, it takes a long time to build up a durable advantage such as wealth and influence. The best part is that those advantages are built up without burning down the very foundation they are built on.
Applying self-policing to communities with control of valuable resources can have its own problems, though. Access tends to be limited to those already in the community — or those they can get into the system. They can be subject to stagnation and protectionism as they focus on maintaining the advantages they have. Longer-lived communities like this almost always have some mechanism of letting outsiders earn/prove their way into the community. An old historical example is how many later Roman emperors came up through the Roman military, earning their place even though they came from “barbarian” (non-Roman) tribes.
Self-policing is not the only way to create incentive systems that promote long-term cultural innovation. Transparency and openness can help when applied in the right places. Regulations can help align short-term incentives with longer-term goals. What these all have in common is that they can succeed if — and only if — people are incentivized to keep the game going. Social complexity requires trust, and trust is a long game.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏📸 An iPhone shot was rejected from a photo competition because judges ruled it could’ve been made with AI
One woman snapped a colorful photo of her son with two mannequins using her iPhone, then submitted the picture to an Australian photography competition. After looking at the image, the judges said they were “suspicious” that it could’ve been generated with AI, but they couldn’t prove it one way or the other. Regardless, the judges ruled that, due to the suspicion, they wouldn’t allow the picture in the competition.
🚏🚌 Many American cities are testing free public transportation
Kansas City, Richmond, Tucson, Raleigh, and several other US cities are testing making their public transit systems free; Boston and New York are testing limited numbers of fare-free buses. Proponents say that the move can boost transit ridership, speed up boarding, and make transit more accessible to low-income riders. Others have argued that transit authorities should be focusing more on improving frequency and on-time percentage, which may be a more effective means of increasing ridership.
🚏🧯 British Columbia’s government hit the tweet limit during wildfire evacuations
As British Columbia suffered from an outbreak of wildfires, a Twitter account run by the province’s Ministry of Transportation sent out a flurry of tweets about driving conditions. But the account, @DriveBC, hit Twitter’s temporarily imposed rate limit on tweets and couldn’t post for about an hour. Other government agencies have faced similar problems: the US National Weather Service’s Boulder bureau was temporarily unable to access its tweets earlier this month “due to issues with Twitter rate limits.”
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Befriending the Goon Squad (Applied Cartography) — Argues that many simple, low-budget products can succeed by simply outlasting the competition. A great way to build an enduring product is to pick something low-maintenance, such that its only risk is your continued motivation, and let it enjoy “slow, compounding growth” over the years.
Invisible Details of Interaction Design (Rauno Freiberg) — Uses examples and graphics to illustrate some under-appreciated aspects of interaction design, including scroll landmarks, “fidgetability,” kinetic physics, and Fitts’s Law. The common theme is that many of these techniques create metaphors to things we understand in the real world: the feeling of paging through a book, flicking a card, or pinching to pick up a small item.
Western Union: Banking & Finance for the Poor (Modern MBA) — Describes how Western Union and MoneyGram built strong businesses by catering to the very people that most financial firms avoid: low-income people and migrant workers. Much of their success stems from their use of a decentralized network of local agents, who are deeply embedded (and thus highly trusted) in their local communities.
In Praise of Dumb Boxes (Mike Eliason) — Observes that modern land use codes push buildings to have excessive numbers of setbacks, corners, and embellishments, compared to the simple square designs that have long been standard. These “dumb boxes,” the author argues, are cheaper to build, use less carbon, and are more climate-resilient.
Time Is a Wheel, Time Is an Arrow (Superb Owl) — Attempts to synthesize linear and cyclical time into a coherent worldview, aiming to counteract the modern propensity toward a linear view of time in which our civilization is progressing in some definite direction. What if the question isn’t whether the road we’re on leads to utopia or dystopia, but whether we are on the road in the first place?
💊🍀 A dose of hopepunk
An optimistic sign that our world’s systems are changing for the better.
One Brazilian photographer left his home deep in a tropical jungle to work in journalism; when he returned several years later, the rainforest had been almost completely cut down. Over the next 20 years, he and his wife began replanting the forest, putting in over two million trees. Now, the forest is once again alive with plants and animals. In the photographer’s words:
“The land was as sick as I was — everything was destroyed. Only about 0.5% of the land was covered in trees. Then my wife had a fabulous idea to replant this forest. And when we began to do that, then all the insects and birds and fish returned and, thanks to this increase of the trees I, too, was reborn — this was the most important moment.”
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Who Rules the Earth?: How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives by Paul F. Steinberg (2014, 352 pages).
In this book, Paul Steinberg discusses the importance of both formal and informal rules in determining environmental policy. Although policy and social norms may not seem like particularly glamorous topics, they directly impact environmental outcomes.
Rules are all around us. Even when we think we are at our most free — on our own property or in the wilderness, perhaps — our freedom is mediated by a web of rules that define and implement property rights. These rules may sometimes seem like they are as fundamental as the laws of nature, but they differ from nation to nation and change within nations over time. Rules can be changed, and this change is a critical part of environmental policy.
Changing the rules is not enough, though. The formal rules of society are built on top of informal norms and routines. To enact social change, we definitely need to change formal rules, but we also need to change the minds of those in society and the routines of the institutions that impact the implementation and enforcement of those rules. This requires building broad coalitions, which often include those who support the rules for the “wrong” reasons.
Filled with concrete examples and detailed discussion, this book is a fascinating look at environmental policy from a systems thinking lens. We recommend it to anyone who is interested in how to effectively advocate for change in environmental policies as well as those who are interested in systems thinking and want to see it applied in a concrete context.
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