🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 15

August 12th, 2021

Episode 15 — August 12th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/15

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.

“Remember: The rules, like streets, can only take you to known places.”

― Ocean Vuong

🦠🧶 The intertwined pandemics

As with any complex system, we struggle to make sense of the pandemic. Seeing seemingly unintuitive behaviors around us, we are tempted to fall back to linear causal chains: “If only more people got vaccinated,” “If only more people trusted science,” “If only there was a more coherent response.” However, when the system includes people’s beliefs, as it does now, things are rarely so straightforward. We get into trouble when we only apply systems thinking to epidemiology (disease transmission) and forget to also apply it to epistemology (how do we form knowledge and beliefs).

Globalization has sped up transmission for both viruses (carriers of potential disease) and information (carriers of potential belief). We can look at the spread of harmful information as a memetic pandemic. While the world has experienced both viral and memetic pandemics before, it has never experienced both at the same time and quite at the same scale. Yes, the bubonic plague in europe was full of mistaken folklore about how to avoid it (memes), but what’s new today is the global, instant spread of these memes. In this framing, saying, “If only more people trusted science” is as productive as saying, “If only SARS-CoV-2 was less infectious.” In both cases, we are better off using systems thinking to conceive effective interventions.

For example, thinking about these two intertwined pandemics shines a different light on debates around mask wearing. From the pandemic lens, mask mandates are justified: the discomfort to the individual is small compared to the potential societal benefit of reducing exponential viral spread. But from the epistemic lens, new risks emerge: inconsistent advice from different institutions — or from the same institutions at different times — can erode those institutions’ ability to spur the much-needed collective action. We need to address those credibility concerns raised by the epistemic pandemic alongside our public health efforts to reduce the severity of the viral pandemic. 

We’ll admit: it’s disheartening to realize that we’re fighting not one, but two intertwined global pandemics, one viral and another memetic. However, by acknowledging that these are intertwined, we can start looking for interventions that build on the the insights of both epidemiologists and epistemologists.

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🍟 Fast-food robot cooks are gaining popularity thanks to a tight job market

Amidst a combination of a tight labor market with many unfilled fast-food jobs, a surge in takeout thanks to the pandemic, and low margins brought on by food-delivery apps, many fast-food restaurant owners are starting to invest in robot chefs. Pictured is “Flippy,” a robot that cooks French fries 23 hours a day for a White Castle restaurant.

🚏🏨 “Condos for cars” are the latest real-estate trend in Manhattan

COVID-19 has driven many New Yorkers to ditch the subway and buy their own cars. At the same time, restaurants have spread their outdoor dining onto the streets, removing thousands of parking spots. So, real estate developers in the Big Apple are now building “condos for cars,” where drivers can buy permanent, prime-location parking spots. At one such new condo in the swanky Upper East Side, parking spots sell for up to $350,000 a pop and are big enough “for a car plus additional room to hang items like golf clubs or strollers along the wall.”

🚏🤚🏼 Amazon will pay people $10 to hand over their palm prints

Amazon One, the retail giant’s palm-print scanning technology, is often used in Amazon’s brick-and-mortar stores as a contactless way for shoppers to pay for their items. A new promotional campaign is giving customers a $10 Amazon credit for signing up for Amazon One and registering their palm prints in-store. It’s unclear what Amazon is doing with the data, but the company says it will store palm print data “indefinitely” unless customers opt out. 

🚏🚘 Mercedes-Benz plans to go all-electric by 2030

Daimler, the company that makes Mercedes-Benz cars, says it plans to invest 40 billion Euros (47 billion USD) in battery technology and electric vehicle development, with a goal of selling only electric cars by 2030. The company added that, starting in 2025, “all new vehicle platforms would only make electric cars.” Mercedes-Benz joins Volvo, which plans to go all-electric by 2030, and General Motors, which says it will be fully electric by 2035.

🚏📵 Bad actors are offering to ban anyone from Instagram for $60

Instagram has a policy of banning accounts that appear to be impersonating someone else, and some shady online actors have found a way to monetize it. These people own verified accounts and, for as little as $60, will change the profile so it looks exactly like a target’s, including biography, name, and profile picture. Then, they file an impersonation claim with Instagram and usually win a takedown of the target account. Some enterprising scammers also offer unbanning services starting at $3500.

🚏🚰 Engineers have found a way to extract drinking water from thin air

Refugee camps in hot, arid areas often have trouble getting clean drinking water, so a Spanish firm built a machine that uses electricity to make water vapor in the air condense, much like how air conditioning units make condensation. Full-size versions of the machines can generate up to 5000 liters (1300 gallons) of water a day in temperatures as high as 40 ºC (104 ºF) and humidities as low as 10%. Smaller versions are now being deployed to refugee camps in Namibia and Lebanon.

🚏🏖 The “MiamiCoin” has raised over $1 million for Miami’s city government

A startup called CityCoin launches crypto tokens for cities, promising 30% of the money raised to the city government. Miami’s crypto-loving mayor announced that he supports the startup’s new MiamiCoin and that the city government will use its cut of the proceeds for building roads and parks and for “regional resilience” projects. MiamiCoin has already raised $1 million for the city in its first week of operation. (Bizarrely, a completely unrelated MiamiCoin has sprung up, perhaps to cash in on potential confusion.)

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • Nonlinear Methods for Understanding Complex Dynamical Phenomena in Psychological Science (American Psychological Association) — A clear and accessible explanation of what nonlinear dynamics are and why they give rise to complex behavior, plus an overview of popular methods for modeling and analyzing nonlinear systems, including agent-based modeling and fractal dynamics.

  • The Three Kinds of Non-Fiction Books (Common Cog) — Defines the categories of “narrative books,” “tree books,” and “branch books,” and explains the different approaches we should take to reading each kind of book in order to maximize our rate of learning.

  • Metaverses (Stratechery) — Ben Thompson reflects on how today’s budding digital metaverses are almost the opposite of the sci-fi “Metaverse” concept first described in the 1992 novel Snow Crash: our real metaverses appear to be becoming fragmented walled gardens rather than a single, global, open platform.

  • The Rise and Rise of New York’s Billionaire’s Row (B1M) — Details how a combination of geography, zoning codes, regulations, engineering innovations, and materials science led to the creation of one of New York City’s most iconic new neighborhoods.

  • Status Monkeys (Not Boring) — Uses Eugene Wei’s famous Status-as-a-Service lens to evaluate the world of NFTs, concluding that the digital tokens embody a compelling blend of social and financial capital and thus can be seen as a new type of social network.

  • The NFT Rube Goldberg Machine, or, Why is NFT Art So Lazy? (Storming the Ivory Tower) — An art critic issues a scathing critique of NFTs, arguing that neither NFT creators nor investors nor resellers think about NFT art as art, instead cynically viewing the tokens as mere speculative baubles. She contends that this trend disempowers artists and represents a dead-end for a previously-promising form of art.

  • Watch Sheep Flow Like Water (Live Science) — A drone photographer took a time-lapse video of a flock of sheep moving around a pasture. The result: the fluffy animals’ movements looked almost exactly like the flow of water around obstacles, through bottlenecks, and across valleys.

🌀🖋 More from FLUXers

Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.

In komoroske.com/gardening-platforms, FLUX’s own Alex Komoroske gives an in-depth tour of platforms and ecosystems. He describes why platforms are useful, what their key properties and power dynamics are, and how to co-evolve them with their associated ecosystems. He then introduces a horizontal playbook for growing useful platforms that create compounding value.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend Reinventing Organizations, An Illustrated Invitation to Join the Conversation on Next-Stage Organizations by Frederic Laloux (2014, 382 pages).

We can stretch the lens of adult development to gain perspectives into other complex systems. In this book, Laloux offers a light-hearted and optimistic take on the developmental nature of organizations. An eclectic fusion of a comic book and a classic leadership tome, the book draws heavily on spiral dynamics for inspiration, describing a stage-based framework of organizational development. The author believes in a future that’s a little bit brighter than the present, and after reading you may find yourself leaning a bit more in that direction too.

If you’re looking for a “fewer pictures, more depth” rendition, consider a non-illustrated edition of this book that came out a couple of years earlier. You will also be treated to a stirring foreword by Ken Wilbur, a mini-book in itself.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: Getting “over the hump.” 

Before COVID-19, it seemed unlikely that many companies would transition office workers to working from home. Yet somehow they did, and now that many of those companies have reached some sort of steady state for remote work, transitioning back to in-person work — or even hybrid variants — also seems hard. What caused this unlikely reversal? All it took was a crisis. 

Many systems feature attractors, or stable equilibria where the system can persist indefinitely. Jumping between attractors often requires so much energy that it rarely happens in practice. Crises, like COVID-19, create some of the rare times that there is enough energy to “get over the hump” and jump between extremes. 

As another example, consider self-driving cars. They are most useful when every other car on the road is self-driving; self-driving cars often have trouble functioning alongside human drivers (and vice versa), making stages with a partial fleet of self-driving cars unstable. We’re currently stuck at the “all human drivers” extreme; what sort of crisis or other “black swan” event would push us toward the “all self-driving cars” extreme? In other words, what unusual scenario might get us over the hump?

You can apply this process in your own efforts to make change. When trying to change a system, look at the attractors. What is the current stable state? What is a future stable state that you want? What could provide the energy that it would take to jump between them?