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🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 110
July 27th, 2023
Episode 110 — July 27th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/110
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Ade Oshineye, Dimitri Glazkov, Ben Mathes
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, Stefano Mazzocchi, Justin Quimby, 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.
“Every act of building must be thought of as repair of the existing environment. The idea of building anything once and for all, or building all of a new facility prior to occupancy, is directly opposed to the way of nature. Nature is continually involved in ongoing, piecemeal growth and repair. It is not enough to have users initially designing their environments; it must also be possible for people to improve their existing environments gradually through repair.”
— Christopher Alexander
🚗🦶 Success creates calluses
As consumers, we often seek newness. Whether we’re looking to buy cars, clothes, phones, or other consumer products, we choose the options with fewer scuffs, dents, and tears. This makes sense when durability is a function of a relatively fixed lifespan. If the lifespan is fixed, marks of usage imply the end of life is nearer.
However, when we shop for resilience, we need to reverse our logic and look for marks of usage. We want evidence that an item has been in use for a long time and successfully survived challenges and the unforeseen. Success in a long-lived system creates calluses. Conversely, newness implies that an item was recently — and perhaps frequently — replaced. In a system meant to last, shininess is correlated with failure.
This effect is magnified in dynamic systems. Highly resilient systems tend to look makeshift and dilapidated. Everyone wonders how they work at all. Many long-running teams and bureaucracies fall into this category. They clearly demonstrate local brokenness, frustrating and befuddling us. Yet globally, they keep on chugging. They resist our desire to improve them. Our best efforts are but a small bump as they continue down their path, unaffected.
When we want to change a system, this kind of behavior is extremely frustrating. Yet it is also a mark of high resilience. These systems contain a seemingly indestructible core. Even when they do the opposite of what we desire, it’s worth respecting and studying the properties of these systems.
What we learn is that things become resilient a little bit at a time. It is rare that resilient artifacts are made from whole cloth. Instead, they acquire resilience through the passage of time. Resilience emerges from cycles of rupture and repair that leave visible marks: the calluses, scars, dents, and scuffs of use. The very signs that show that a fixed-lifespan product is nearing its end are the ones that tell us that a long-lived item has been able to survive.
Designing for emergent resilience can feel like a contradiction. We need to make something that can last and can change. That something must last to be resilient follows from the very definition of the term. However, it goes beyond that: maintenance is memory. If a system gets tuned up when it starts to stutter, if it is fixed when it starts to break, then the solution to that weakness and damage gets folded back into the structure itself.
And yet change is just as important to resilience. Renewal is necessary for living. As the environment around a product or system changes, it must adapt. If not, it may fail — not because it breaks, but because no one cares. It is no longer fit for its environment. As needs change, we exapt what exists rather than ripping it out. We turn the front steps of a home into a living room by spending time there with our friends. We turn a bicycle into a water pump. We build products with layered or modular designs that can change incrementally. We create organizations on top of stable principles and pay attention to team culture so that we can adapt while keeping what matters at the heart.
Things that survive are based on continuous exaptation. Things that die often do so because of a temptation to attempt slum clearance. Instead of working with what is there, we repeatedly try (and fail) to replace it with something that looks shiny but which does not endure. However, mere acceptance of the status quo is not a viable alternative. Instead we must find ways to evolve the system rather than tear it apart.
If we are patient and let them grow, our products and organizations can become more resilient over time. We just need to recognize that those scuff marks and warts they acquire over time are signs of growing resilience, rather than things to be fixed. We need to learn to see this wabi-sabi kind of beauty and practice the kintsugi kind of renewal/repair so that we can maintain long-lived systems.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🌊 The Gulf Stream may collapse as soon as 2025, scientists say
A new study predicts that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), an oceanic “conveyor belt” that includes the famous Gulf Stream, has a 95% chance of collapsing between 2025 and 2095; melting ice caps are releasing fresh water that “smothers” the underwater current. Experts fear that the collapse of the AMOC could disrupt rain patterns in India, South America, and west Africa; send temperatures in Europe plunging; raise sea levels on the US’s east coast; and put pressure on the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.
🚏🚦 Stack Overflow traffic has dropped sharply since 2022
Traffic to Stack Overflow has fallen about 35% since the start of 2022; the number of posts made, long on a gradual decline, has tumbled about 50% over that same time frame. The exact reasons aren’t clear, but many speculate that ChatGPT is replacing Stack Overflow as programmers’ go-to destination for coding help.
🚏🌡️ More Americans are moving into disaster-prone areas than out of them
Net migration into disaster-prone parts of the US has increased sharply since the pandemic. Areas at risk of floods, such as those along the Atlantic seaboard, have seen in-migration more than double since 2019. Wildfire risk hotspots like California and the Mountain West have seen a 50% jump in net migration, and areas at risk of extreme heat, like much of the Southeast and Southwest, have seen a 17% increase. A possible reason is that “disaster-prone areas are relatively affordable”; insurance companies and governments have also been footing part of the bill for climate disasters.
🚏☀️ Solar-panel-covered canals are spreading across the world’s arid areas
India was perhaps the first place to realize the power of putting a roof of solar panels above irrigation canals: the solar panels generate electricity while blocking the sun and reducing evaporation, making it a two-for-one solution in water-scarce areas. American states have started looking into the idea as well; the country’s first solar-panel-canal projects are slated to break ground in California’s Central Valley later this year.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
China Notes, July ’23: On Technological Momentum (Dan Wang) — Predicts that “faltering economic growth is going to feed into a domineering political agenda [from the Chinese Communist Party], and vice versa.” This “political tightening” might slow down China’s growth, such as by spooking investors and making entrepreneurs want to work elsewhere. China has also shifted to a top-down approach to new technologies: for instance, the government has been hesitant to promote LLMs because it thinks they could foment social unrest while not providing much of a productivity boost.
Benjamin Franklin Makes His Final Speech to the Constitutional Convention (Schiller Institute) — Details how, on the last day of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin observed that an assembly of imperfect men cannot be expected to produce a perfect constitution; the current version, though possibly flawed, was “astonishingly” good and should be approved. In short, Franklin argued that the perfect is the enemy of the good — an eloquent call for consilience!
Shining a Light on the Digital Dark Age (Long Now Foundation) — Argues that digital records are just as fragile as analog documents, if not more so: hardware fails, file formats become obsolete, links rot, encryption keys get lost. Then describes some promising projects that could keep data readable for thousands of years, such as GitHub’s Arctic Code Vault and Microsoft’s Project Silica.
“JOOTSing”: The Key to Creativity (Farnam Street) — Introduces a term coined by Douglas Hofstadter, which means “jumping out of the system” (JOOTS). You must first become intimately familiar with the system and its rules, and only then can you create something new by breaking some of them.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems by J. Richard Hackman (2011, 237 pages).
What does the US intelligence community have to teach outsiders about how to structure teams? A lot! Many of us in FLUX are from the tech community, and it is fascinating to see where this look at effective teams matches our assumptions… and where it differs.
Much of the book contains a structured and concise exploration of familiar advice about effective teams: they should be intact social systems working together for a common purpose, they should have a compelling purpose, they need the right number and mix of people, they need clear norms, they need to be supported by the organization, and they need to be coached to be most effective.
Yet within this familiar framework, Hackman brings up various ideas that can go against common practice or intuition. For example, collaborative teams and lone geniuses are not the only options; there are other ways to structure group work effectively, such as groups of people working fully independently on composable parts. Interpersonal harmony is likely an effect of high performance, not a cause; that means that it can be more useful to coach a team for performance than to improve interpersonal dynamics (unless they are actively toxic). Individually focused incentives can be actively harmful to interdependent team work (something the tech sector might know in theory, but doesn’t live in practice). Erring on the side of less (resources, team size) is better than erring on the size of more. Finally, the book is surprisingly blunt in saying that sometimes otherwise-productive people are destructive to teams and should be redirected to individual work.
This book is written for the intelligence community, so sometimes it can take some work to translate it to other domains. However, it is that very work that makes us take a critical and valuable look at what we might otherwise take for granted.
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