Discover more from 🌀🗞 The FLUX Review
🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 122
October 19th, 2023
Episode 122 — October 19th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/122
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Ben Mathes, MK
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, 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.
“You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”
“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin
✨ 👁️ Attention and awareness for organizations
In mindful meditation, there’s a distinction drawn between attention and awareness. Attention functions like a spotlight, focusing intently on specific points in a given moment. Awareness resembles the LIDAR system of a self-driving car; it passively captures the sum total of sensory experiences at any given moment. An adept meditator can maintain needle-sharp attention for extended periods, while concurrently sustaining a diffuse awareness of their surroundings. They can be both focused and broadly aware, but like a master in any physical skill, not without immense practice.
This duality offers a useful framework for examining teams. Just like people, organizations seem to have both attention and awareness. The focus of an organization manifests as attention, often represented by OKRs or key priorities. Awareness is this organization’s ability to sense and understand its environment.
The two dimensions present us with yet another opportunity to whip up a 2x2. Let’s imagine the two dimensions: the ability to focus with intention (weak to strong), and the scope of awareness (narrow to broad).
Just like experienced meditators, teams that can hold the duality of broad awareness and sharp focus are likely to thrive compared to less focused or aware organizations. The top-right quadrant represents the aspirational state for most organizations.
Moving clockwise, the bottom-right quadrant brings us to organizations with a weak ability to focus yet broad awareness. These are “distracted prophet” teams: they have great capability to identify early trends way before other organizations, but are rarely able to act on them, because — squirrel! — there’s always another cool discovery right around the corner. Such organizations can bring amazing insights and inventions, but they are nearly always challenging to work with: they require some other hapless team to do the work of realizing the full potential of their musings.
In the quadrant to the lower left, we have the worst of both worlds: an organization that can’t stay focused for even a minute, while at the same time being unable to see anything around them. These are myopic teams. The easiest way to detect if we’re on such a team is to listen to how changes are experienced. If changes blindside us—prompting exclamations like, 'We didn't see that coming!'—organizational myopia is likely at play. In rapidly evolving environments, such teams tend to struggle a lot. They will either learn how to improve their focus or die trying.
In the final, top-left quadrant, we have tunnel vision teams: they can exert extreme intensity of focus, yet have little or no sense of what’s happening around them. When properly directed, such teams can accomplish feats that border on the miraculous. However, if the aim is off even a fraction, the typical “bull in the china shop” trail of destruction follows in their wake.
Curiously — and just like in meditation — attention and awareness are inextricably linked. Enhancing one often comes at the expense of the other. A “tunnel vision” team that learns to take a broader perspective loses its intense focus. Similarly, the “distracted prophets” teams can’t just be taught how to focus. As soon as they are focused on prioritizing, their sensing/awareness capability will suffer.
A good heuristic to see where your organization falls is to look for how many people are working on diffuse sensing (awareness) and/or aligned focus (attention), and how they go about it. A few examples:
If 20% of an org is doing external business development, attending conferences, reading/writing industry reports, that’s likely a healthy amount of awareness.
If only 2% is handling conferences or industry reports, your org likely lacks some awareness.
If you have a dedicated group of people working to align everyone on the same key (under 5) priorities, your org likely has healthy attention.
If your org has a diffuse sense of teams all focusing on their own, mutually unintelligible goals, with a 20+ long list of “top” KPIs and success metrics, your org lacks attention.
Transitioning between quadrants doesn't seem to be straightforward. Despite wanting to be in the coveted top right, we more than likely will find ourselves meandering through the entire space over time. We likely will have to make tradeoffs between whether our org should improve its attention or its awareness, but not both. As in meditation, we may discover that an overemphasis on a particular experience compromises our ability to maintain balanced attention and awareness. Instead, like the meditative practice of the beginner’s mind, organizations must continually begin again, go back to observing where they are in the current moment, and see what they can learn from there.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🚢 Nvidia’s low-powered GPUs for China were blocked by new export rules
The US government previously blocked Nvidia from exporting its A100 and H100 GPUs, chips optimized for machine learning and AI applications, to China, citing national security concerns. So, Nvidia launched a weaker H800 chip designed to get around the controls, but the US Department of Commerce has blocked those chips from export to China as well. The US Secretary of Commerce said that the move “will increase the effectiveness of our controls and further shut off pathways to evade our restrictions.”
🚏🚙 A solar-powered, off-road SUV drove across Morocco
The world’s “first off-road solar-powered vehicle,” a green SUV created by students at a Dutch university, was able to drive 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) across Morocco, from the Mediterranean coast to the depths of the Sahara — entirely using electricity harvested from the Sun. Because the car could charge while driving, it didn’t need a huge battery, letting it weigh in at just 2,645 pounds (1,200 kg), or 25% less than the average mid-sized SUV. And, by not needing a charger, it could drive freely through remote areas.
🚏🧵 WordPress blogs can now be followed on Mastodon and other “fediverse” apps
WordPress’s parent company has enabled the ActivityPub protocol on all WordPress.com plans, allowing users to connect their blogs to decentralized social networks like Mastodon. With the feature, someone’s blog can be their profile in this “fediverse,” and they’ll be able to natively share their posts on all other fediverse apps — replies to the post will be auto-transformed into blog comments. WordPress isn’t alone in its move: Medium, Flipboard, and Meta’s Threads are also planning to integrate with ActivityPub.
🚏🪙 Reddit is sunsetting its tradable crypto “community points”
In 2020, Reddit launched blockchain-based “community points,” which were awarded to helpful commenters and could be exchanged for special features (or bought and sold). But Reddit recently announced that it would be removing the feature, citing the difficulty of scaling to more subreddits and “the regulatory environment.” Several subreddits’ coins fell 60–90% on the news. Reddit stressed that the coins will still be tradable on the blockchain, but they won’t show up on Reddit’s “vault” and won’t have any utility on Reddit. (Instead of these tokens, Reddit will be moving toward alternative rewards mechanisms that can be converted directly into cash.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Design Patterns of Biological Cells (Steven Andrews et al.) — Inspired by Christopher Alexander’s “pattern language” for urban and architectural design, scientists put forward some “design patterns” that recur frequently throughout biology. These include patterns for creating cell components (assembly lines, pores and pumps, templates), managing biological and chemical processes (common currency, collector/broadcaster, parallel paths), and high-level cell behavior (switching, insulators, hyperbolic output).
Theory-Building and Why Employee Churn Is Lethal to Software Companies (Baldur Bjarnason) — Argues that software development is all about building up a mental model of the application. As such, constant change in the development team disrupts the team’s mental model and leads to “bitrot.” This is a good explanation for why software can apparently “rot” even though the code itself hasn’t changed — our understanding of the code has atrophied.
War in Ukraine IV: Projections (Peter Turchin) — A sobering analysis suggesting that a static war of attrition heavily favors a win by Russia.
Becoming a Magician (Autotranslucence) — Reflecting on an artist so skillful that the author couldn’t comprehend how he did it, concludes that a good definition of “magic” is “competence so much more advanced than yours with such alien mental models that you cannot predict the outcomes of the model at all.” This is a valuable lesson for personal growth: the key to becoming a magician is to find and wear completely new “lenses” for seeing the world.
🔍📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: legibility.
James C. Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State, (summarized and riffed on here) lends new depth to the concept of legibility. When viewed through the lens of legibility, a system or object gains qualities that make it observable, comprehensible, and predictable. A well-known example from the book illustrates the failure of 'scientific forests' experiments in the early 20th century.
Scott convincingly argues that large polities (like states or companies) tend to impose legibility on their constituents as part of, well, just being themselves. The governing elements in large polities lack the requisite variety needed to manage the inherent complexity of their encompassing systems. Legibility is necessarily a simplification, which means that the natural complexity of the system has to somehow fit into a more predictable box.
We impose legibility on a system by reorganizing it, cleaning it up, or just throwing it all away and starting from scratch. It works to a degree, but the important aspects left outside of the box eventually sneak back in. In human systems, these refactorings can, at best, be illusory constructs for the organizer and, at worst, cause significant trauma for all participants.
The story of the 20th century was full of disastrous outcomes of vigorously imposing legibility. Fueled by the naive belief that everything would soon become legible, the 20th century became the era of high modernism. All of the unknowns would be eliminated. All answers would reveal themselves.
Any effort to articulate strategy, establish vision or priorities, and restructure an organization is essentially an endeavor to impose legibility. If we are the ones accountable for the health of the system, we desperately need these reductions in complexity to be able to hold our problems in our limited minds. How can we facilitate our team's success if we're unable to discern its driving factors?
Add too much legibility, though, and the tidy system will move from being a useful simplification to being a harmful illusion. Recognizing the limitations of legibility allows us to test our models against the rigors of reality, instead of futilely attempting to force reality into our simplified constructs.
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