🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 23

October 7th, 2021

Episode 23 — October 7th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/23

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.

“Memory is the grid of meaning we impose on the random and bewildering flux of the world. Memory is the line we pay out behind us as we travel through time — it is the clue, like Ariadne's, which means we do not lose our way. Memory is the lasso with which we capture the past and haul it from chaos towards us in nicely ordered sequences, like those of baroque keyboard music.”

― Angela Carter

🦠🌡 The rhymes of our times

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

— Mark Twain (attributed)

COVID-19 accelerated technological transformations already underway in many parts of the world. As we take Zoom calls from our backyards, await lunch delivered by a DoorDash driver, and coordinate with others on our latest PartyDAO purchase, it’s worth pausing to notice that many of us are already living in the future. 

Accelerated adoption of technology is not the only way the past 19 months have shined a light on the future. With the hottest months on record, some of the largest wildfires ever recorded, devastating floods, scores dying in monsoon rains — if there was ever a time to catalyze collective action, this should have been it. Yet despite the 2021 IPCC report alerting us that humanity was at “Code Red,” the news cycle around it barely lasted 48 hours. 

How on Earth are we, as a species, supposed to cope with new climate reality over the next few decades? To answer that question, we can take a look at the past 19 months. In many ways, COVID-19 has been a “dress rehearsal” for the far larger challenge of climate change adaptation. It can give us a glimpse into what we should expect in the future, like in Twain’s supposed quote. Here are some broad brush strokes.

Adaptability leads to mundane futures. If we had known the facts of the pandemic in late 2019, we would have likely imagined a bleak reality akin to Alfonso Cuaró’s Children of Men. In reality, we adapted. This seems to be a pattern: we are far more adaptive than our forecasts predict. The dystopian (or utopian) futures we imagine become mundane realities. We will adapt to extreme weather. It won’t be pleasant, but it will take place.

Tribalism saps the power of collective action. Anyone hoping for humans to make individual sacrifices in pursuit of a better outcome for the whole will be discouraged by the response to COVID-19. Tribal lines were drawn across pretty much every precautionary measure (e.g. wearing masks, keeping kids out of school, or getting the vaccine). We’ve already seen tribal lines drawn in response to some of our largest climate problems. Expect it to continue.

Is technology our best hope? After all the debate about lockdowns, testing, tracking, quarantines, and mask mandates, the reason we were able to (at least partially) enjoy our summer is due to science-fiction levels of advancement in bio-medicine. It was our scientists and technologists who helped us return to something somewhat closer to normalcy. As the current pandemic of the unvaccinated plays out, it is likely that science will save the day with antiviral drugs. 

In The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C. Mann describes 2 archetypes. Prophets value community, conservation, and connection to the local land. Wizards innovate in service of a global marketplace. If COVID-19 was a dress rehearsal, our future may be in the hands of wizards who help us adapt and innovate. But it may well be that these wizards need danger-sensitive prophets to drive them to action.

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🚢 Supply-chain management is the new hot major in business schools

The past year’s supply-chain shocks have made major corporations realize that their lean, “just-in-time” logistics processes have made their supply chains brittle and thus need to be revamped. These firms are ramping up recruitment for supply-chain jobs (one business school is seeing twice as many companies as usual attending its supply-chain career fair this year) and, accordingly, many B-school students are switching to supply-chain management (one school saw enrollment in that major grow almost 50% year-over-year).

🚏🔺 MLMs are growing rapidly thanks to COVID-powered trends

Companies in the opportunistic multi-level marketing industry have onboarded vast numbers of new sellers during the pandemic. They’ve capitalized on trends like economic turbulence driving people to seek new income streams; a growing desire to work from home; the increasing social acceptability of selling items to strangers through social media; rising demand for “alternative cures” to COVID-19; and people looking for something to do with their stimulus checks.

🚏🕹 Shopify made an internal gaming platform to make virtual meetings more fun

Shopify has heavily prioritized remote work, and to avoid the fatigue and anxiety that nonstop video calls often bring, the tech company created a party-game platform for employees to use for remote meetings. During one-on-ones, standups, icebreakers, and other meetings, employees’ 3D avatars can play bumper cars, race motorboats, go hiking, navigate obstacle courses, and more.

🚏🛬 Business travel still isn’t coming back, contrary to airlines’ expectations

In July, both airlines and businesses expected business travel to soon return to near-normal levels, which is vital for legacy airlines like Delta and United, given that business travel accounts for almost all of their profit margins. But as COVID-19 continues to surge, offices postpone their reopening plans, and conferences stay online, airline executives are admitting that business travel is still not rebounding.

🚏💸 A bug in a decentralized finance project accidentally gave $90 million to users

Decentralized finance projects often keep huge “comptroller” accounts, which store millions of dollars in cryptocurrencies that are eventually given to users as rewards for using the protocol. But a bug in one prominent project’s code — apparently a one-letter mistake — led to its comptroller accidentally handing out $90 million in extra rewards to users. The project’s founder asked the community to return the funds, then threatened to “dox” people to the IRS if they didn’t return their windfalls.

🚏🌩 The Facebook outage also made Twitter and Cloudflare struggle

Facebook’s now-infamous six-hour outage had plenty of knock-on effects. Cloudflare, the internet infrastructure company, reported that its popular DNS resolver was swarmed with traffic as people and computers frantically tried to reach Facebook servers, and the company had to marshal extra resources to keep up. Meanwhile, Twitter experienced a deluge of visitors, which led to outages that caused Tweets to not load for many users.

🚏🏦 New crypto lending services let you borrow money using NFTs as collateral

Several new decentralized finance startups let people deposit their NFTs, such as the popular CryptoPunks, into a smart contract and get crypto-coins from a lender. The borrower can turn around and lend their money to somebody else, or “stake” or “yield farm” their money to earn rewards, but if they fail to repay the original loan, the lender will get the NFT collateral. (What could go wrong with unregulated lending?)

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • Can YOU Fix Climate Change? (Kurzgesagt) — Shows how individual actions, such as minimizing your “carbon footprint,” can’t solve climate change, which in reality is a thorny systemic problem at the intersection of politics, technology, and economics. Also explores the challenges facing seemingly-obvious fixes like reducing emissions in developing countries, cutting out meat, and direct carbon capture.

  • Hyrum’s Law: An Observation on Software Engineering (Hyrum Wright) — Examines how the users of any technical system, such as an API, will come to rely on its implementation details; they won’t stick to the creators’ cleanly-defined interfaces and abstractions.

  • Doctor’s Orders (Real Life) — A deep dive into vaccine hesitancy through the lens of a broader trend of the medicalization of society: when previously non-medical issues become medical and thus fixable, medical knowledge is elevated to the status of society’s ground truth, and medical advertising targets the individual consumer.

  • Bitcoin’s End: Tether, Binance, and the White Swans That Could Bring It All Down (Startups and Econ) — Argues that financial pundits overuse the term “black swan”; many risks and shocks, such as the pandemic, are actually quite easy to foresee and should be called “white swans.” Cites the example of the tight relationship between Bitcoin and Tether, and how the (often-predicted) collapse of Tether could greatly harm Bitcoin.

  • Seeing Like a Finite State Machine (Crooked Timber) — Questions the conventional wisdom that machine learning and omnipresent data collection will make authoritarian regimes into all-seeing juggernauts, arguing that AI-plus-authoritarianism can lead to runaway feedback loops that magnify any biases and flaws in the state’s thinking, without any mechanisms to correct the mistakes. The result is extreme instability.

  • Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity (Applied Cognitive Psychology) — Researchers find that using needlessly-complex language, often done to sound smart, actually backfires: it reduces readers’ processing fluency and leads them to view a piece of writing more negatively.

  • On the Internet, We’re Always Famous (New Yorker) — Explores how the internet, instead of returning us to a pre-TV era of well-informed discourse, birthed an even more spectacle-obsessed culture of memes and online shouting; how the distinction between public and private has been dissolved now that everything we do and say is visible online; and why we’re driven to seek out the approval of strangers online, even though this inevitably leads to suffering.

🌀🖋 More from FLUXers

Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.

In The Fractal Dragon, FLUX’s own Dimitri Glazkov provides a vivid metaphor for what happens when we approach complexity as a problem to solve:

You might look at this feat of precision and go: wow, this warrior is so amazing at crushing the dragon into a million bits! Look at them go! Except… each bit is a tiny dragon-fractal. A few hundred more valiant slashes and the warrior will be facing a new kind of opponent: the hive of the dragon sand.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, And Stumbled Our Way to Civilization by Edward Slingerland (2021, 280 pages).

The premise of this book is quite simple: alcohol is not a bug, but a feature for our species. Drawing on recent experiments, Neolithic burials, eclectic myths, and global literature, the author teases out the evolutionary advantages and enduring benefits of getting blitzed. While researching his previous book (see FLUX’s Episode 22 for a review), Slingerland kept finding references to alcohol and how it has been used throughout history as a tool to enter a state of wu-wei.

When abused, alcohol has many downsides. Still, Slingerland speculates that drinking can allow wary, self-interested individuals to drop their guard and collaborate. It can facilitate the creativity and playfulness our species needs to innovate and survive. While much ink has been spilled over the history of alcohol, this book’s evolutionary systems perspective is what made it a slam drunk... err, dunk.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: The undercurrent.

At the beginning of the year, the team had high hopes for their recently released v1. Nine months and two reorgs later (with another rumored to be on the horizon), they’re barely managing to keep the product going. How could they have failed so hard?

The iceberg is often used to describe situations where you only see a small part of the larger challenge. It’s a great metaphor, but icebergs are large and relatively static. For active and adaptive — yet unseen — forces, we can use another watery metaphor: the undercurrent. Above the water, the undercurrent may barely be visible. However, its effects are profound: if your boat is aligned with the undercurrent, you’ll move quickly — whether or not that’s the direction you want to go. If you want to go any other way, expect to invest a lot of energy fighting the undercurrent. Looked at from the shore, all of this can look puzzling — or even unskilled. Can’t you just row better? We attribute success or failure to individual crews and question those who follow seemingly indirect routes to compensate for the undercurrent. 

The same happens in our lives. When we look at the accomplishments of individuals or groups without accounting for the context, we attribute to their personal skill or luck what may be overwhelmingly driven by the circumstances. Whether it’s the unequal impact of COVID-19, the impact of systemic biases, or the effect of being in the right place at the right time, the undercurrent of circumstances often deserves more credit than it is given.

When you’re tempted (or required) to judge someone’s skills, try to account for the undercurrents that may underlie their actions. Maybe that seemingly-failing team was the only thing that stood in the way of an outright product failure. Maybe that company that’s riding the wave of its own popularity doesn’t have a sustainable business model. Looking for the undercurrent encourages us to look beyond superficial signs of success or failure to see what’s going on underneath. 

🔮📬 Postcard from the future

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

// Retrospective of Space Exploration in the 21st Century, Chapter 07: “A New Player Appears”

While the race between billionaires to get to space in the midst of a global pandemic captured the headlines, an unexpected market shift led to a massive boom in space launches in the mid-2020s.  

In Q3 of 2021, Chinese regulators banned cryptocurrency trading and mining. Up until that point, China represented roughly half of all bitcoin mining globally. This happened at the same time that the Chinese property giant Evergrande ran into serious financial troubles. Evergrande owned more than 1,300 projects in more than 280 cities across China, which represented the primary investment strategy for millions of Chinese citizens.

The crash of the Chinese housing market combined with the ban on crypto created a surge of money looking for a new home. Elon Musk, ever the master of publicity, announced an “offshore your money in space” campaign. The premise: take Chinese money looking for a home, build a fleet of SpaceX launch vehicles, construct a vast array of crypto mining rigs, and launch them into space where they are free of government regulation.

Powered by solar energy, these satellites neatly bypassed the carbon pollution issues facing all other crypto mining facilities. Thus, in 2023 the first element of the SpaceX Dyson swarm came online. By 2030, well over 10,000 space mining facilities were in operation.