🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 21

September 23rd, 2021

Episode 21 — September 23rd, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/21

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.

“Knowledge is a vehicle that progresses through errors and blind alleys. It is the nature of history that the ruts left by earlier events persist down the centuries.”

— Ken Liu

🎳💬 Scrambling status games with Zoom

🦉 Owl: You know that feeling when someone really impressive enters the room and everyone shifts in their chairs and the conversation totally changes? You might not be crazy. It seems that people in groups mimic the highest-status person in the room. This mimicry happens at a deeply unconscious level. We quickly mimic the low-frequency non-language utterances of the highest-status people in the room. Similar things apply for body language, speaking style, etc. We seem to be constantly clustering and reclustering based on the specific cocktail of the group we are in.

🐶 Dog: That makes sense, right? We’ve always played games to sort out who’s high status and who’s not. This sorting happens in every social species! Even dogs and rats and wolves play — albeit a more direct version, a sort of play-fighting. We humans have made it far more subtle and multidimensional, though once you’re attuned to it, it’s hard not to spot it in a business meeting, negotiations, or dating.

🐭 Mouse: This is why I really don’t want to go back to in-person meetings.

🦁 Lion: What do you mean, mouse? In-person meetings are great!

🐭 Mouse: They’re great for you, Lion! You’re big and strong and everyone defers to you. Over video conference I’m the same height as you! People actually listen for once. 

🐍 Snek: Mouse is onto something, Lion. In-person, we had an entire unconscious set of games and statuses that were archaic. Sure, the main traits that correlate with leadership are competence and reciprocity. But all else equal, someone who also has traits that tie into our primordial and social constructs like height, physical strength, etc. gets an edge.

🦉 Owl: So you’re saying that everyone who was winning at the status games before return-to-office are more likely to want to go back to the office because it gives them a marginal edge? Or at least, they’ll be more blind to how all those unconscious status games worked in their favor. It’ll just “feel better” to them.

🐶 Dog: Honestly, Lion, you’re missing out. During remote work I’ve been able to hear what Mouse really thought. It’s so much better this way.

🦁 Lion: I bet there’s a lot more than height and size. What about all the mis-timed pauses in conversations over video calls that we’d noticed unconsciously in person? Someone who’s more comfortable talking over other people would do better in a remote world because they’ll start talking before someone who waits for the pause.

🐶 Dog: Oof… we really have no idea how many subtle unconscious experiments we’ve been running on ourselves, all at once, for over a year, do we?

🦉 Owl: Indeed. And we really don’t have any idea what it’s going to look like when we start to return to offices in hybrid and in full. As the classic book Impro teaches us, subtle social status is one of the most human games, and we’ve messed with the rules without even knowing which rules and how much!

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🎵 Chinese TikTok is limiting kids to 40 minutes on the app per day

As Chinese authorities crack down on the country’s tech industry, ByteDance has announced that Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, will limit users known to be under 14 years of age to just 40 minutes on the app per day. To get confirmed ages for these young users, Douyin is asking parents to register their kids’ real names and ages on the app.

🚏☕️ Commodity prices are spiking in Southeast Asia, and the world is feeling it

Recent COVID-19 surges in Malaysia have limited the number of migrant workers who can grow the plants that produce palm oil; lockdowns are slowing the processing and export of coffee beans in Vietnam; shuttered smelters in Malaysia are constraining global tin supply. This supply chain pain has hurt multinationals like Smucker’s, Unilever, and Peet’s, who rely heavily on commodities from this part of the world — and they now have to pass these costs on to consumers.

🚏☀️ US solar installations are on track for a record year, again

A new report predicts that, despite supply chain shortages, the US will install 26.4 gigawatts of solar power this year, far exceeding last year’s record of 19.2 gigawatts. The report added that solar accounted for over half of all “new electricity generating capacity additions” in the first half of 2021, beating out wind and natural gas.

🚏🦞 A crypto organization sold NFTs to support a “crypto lobbyist” in Washington

A decentralized crypto organization, known as a DAO, sold 10,000 “Lobby Lobster” NFTs to the public, raising $4 million in Ethereum. It then donated these funds to a crypto lobbying group based in Washington, DC in the hopes of promoting legislation that eases pressure on the embattled decentralized finance (DeFi) industry.

🚏🛍 Amazon sellers are bargaining with customers who leave negative reviews

Many cheap, generic products on Amazon have suspiciously near-perfect ratings, thanks in large part to a new trend where sellers reach out to customers who left negative ratings. Sellers are offering these buyers refunds or gift cards to amend or remove their negative reviews, thus helping the products’ average ratings rise.

🚏☘️ Australian wildfires have been causing algal blooms thousands of miles away

Researchers have found that the wind carries smoke from the fires blazing across Australia thousands of miles east into the Pacific Ocean, almost to South America’s doorstep. This soot contains plentiful iron, a relatively scarce nutrient that’s caused explosive growth in algae populations. These algae, in turn, often wreak havoc on local marine ecosystems, sucking up the oxygen that fish, coral reefs, and mammals need.

🚏🏛 “Crypto-native” nonprofits are emerging, using DeFi to grow endowments

The crypto world is seeing the rise of decentralized nonprofits such as Rewilder, which raises crypto funds to buy and preserve land in the rainforest. The group puts a crypto spin on many aspects of nonprofit governance: giving NFTs to donors as proof of contribution, putting financial details on the blockchain for transparency, and even using “low-risk” decentralized finance projects to grow the endowment. But it still keeps a “legacy world non-profit entity… [that] will act as a proxy to the traditional legal system (to own the lands and keys to funds).”

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • Wolf Reintroduction Changes Ecosystem in Yellowstone (Outside) — Traces the “trophic cascade” that followed when wolves (which were native to Yellowstone but had gone extinct) were brought back to the national park. The ripple effect of that small change has helped everyone from willow trees to beavers to ravens flourish.

  • The Positive Lexicography Project (Lomas, Patrasc, and Russell) — A visual database of untranslateable words from dozens of world languages, spanning emotions, relationships, philosophy, character traits, and more.

  • Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self (Julie Nolke) — An entertaining six-part video series where a YouTube comedian showcases the unpredictable, unfortunate, and downright bizarre things that have happened in the last year-plus, from lockdowns to conspiracy theories to the GameStop incident.

  • Resignation and Postmortem (Jamie Zawinski) — A Netscape employee’s 1999 resignation letter, which reflects on why big companies struggle to be creative, why creating open-source ecosystems is hard, and how innovative companies sow the seeds of their own destruction by attracting employees who want to coast off the company’s success.

  • The Iceberg Theory of EdTech (Gaurav Singh) — Uses the story of the unsuccessful One Laptop Per Child project to describe the interpersonal complexities that technologists need to grapple with if they want to drive social change; it’s not just about building flashy new technologies.

  • The World Does Not Need a World Computer (Something Interesting) — Tyler Odean takes a skeptical look at decentralized computing platforms like Ethereum, arguing that market forces will naturally squeeze decentralization out of systems in exchange for efficiency and that a lot of Ethereum’s claims to decentralization are just “expensive theater.”

  • Speculative Bubbles in the 21st Century (Michael Dempsey) — Argues that there’s a reason for the explosive growth of speculative assets like crypto in recent years: more and more people are discovering the power of “asymmetric upside,” where risky investments have capped downside but unlimited upward growth potential.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal (2015, 289 pages).

Written as part account of leading the Joint Special Operations Task Force to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq and part leadership book, Team of Teams introduces its readers to a different way of thinking about leading and, indeed, war. It was one of the first popular books to clearly argue that the prevailing complexity of modern warfare necessitates not just different techniques or styles of command, but also a wholly different way of leading and organizing. The book is about leading in complexity and applying systems thinking to save lives, and an engaging story of a massive team undergoing a painful transformation to adapt to a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment — and ultimately rising up to the challenge.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: Thinking Space.

If you’re a long-time reader of this newsletter, you’re probably familiar with the 2x2s: a useful way to represent a two-dimensional problem as four quadrants. In a 2x2, there’s usually three “bad” quadrants and one “good” quadrant, the one to strive for. For example, the Radical Candor framework had the two axes of caring and challenging with the eponymous “Radical Candor” occupying the top-right quadrant.

A thinking space may look like a 2x2 at first, but it serves a different purpose: there’s no judgement passed on each quadrant, and each is worth exploring and in some cases, aiming for. A thinking space is more like a coordinate system, where points across each axis reflect the extent of the quality, described by their labels. These labels work best when they are in some tension with each other. For example, “no bugs” and “too many bugs,” or “strategic” and “tactical.” The points at the center are closer to the equilibrium between the two counter-positioned labels of each axis, and the farther into the corners, the more strongly they associate with one label and not the other.

The Cynefin framework is an example of a thinking space. Though often viewed and used as a sort of weird 2x2 that lacks the comforting answer in the top right, it is a lot more fun to engage with as a thinking space, exploring the movements across the quadrant space, as well as studying how various situations plot -- and shift depending on various perspectives.

If you’re looking for a way to reason through a particularly challenging set of constraints in a dynamic environment, a thinking space might be just the tool for the task.

🔮📬 Postcard from the future

A short ‘what if’ piece of speculative fiction about a hypothetical future that could result from the forces changing our world.

// 2023. The last post from a noted 1980s’ futurist on LiveJournal.

It used to be that you could spend years doing some deep thinking and research about systemic forces and the world, extract some key insights about the possible future, then take a year or two to write a book, then hit the lecture circuit for a few years.

But just like everything else, things started to speed up. Take a decade to research a critical US president and their implications on US political power? Why waste the time? Just spend a year trolling part-time through newspaper and Wikipedia articles, do some SEO on your catchphrase, and write a column for some online magazine.

Then even that started to get too slow. These days, by the time a month has gone by, innovative insights into the world have crumbled into “common knowledge” that you’re a sucker if you don’t intuitively understand. Online social points scored from Tweet threads and Substack posts about “the possible future” outweigh long-form content, since who has time to read anything these days.

Your vision of the future will end up looking as ludicrous as those old issues of Popular Mechanics. Get out of the futurism business kids, it just isn’t as good as it used to be.