Episode 25 — October 21st, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/25
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.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
🦓📓 Hidden for all to see
Zebras have bright black-and-white stripes. Their environment does not. Lions have camouflage for their environment. Lions blend into their surroundings. Lions hunt zebras. Zebras are prey animals. How could anti-camouflage evolve in a prey animal?
A clue comes from early field studies of zebras. When studying a specific zebra, zoologists would look down to write some notes. When they looked back up, they couldn’t tell which zebra they’d been looking at. To tell them apart, they had to mark a zebra of interest with paint or an ear tag. That zebra would get singled out by the researcher… and the lion. The zebra would get eaten.
Zebras are camouflaged to their group, not their natural environment. A zebra’s camouflage environment is other zebras. Each individual zebra stands out, but as a group they have better odds of survival.
We humans also form these mutually-camouflaging groups. So what can zebras teach us about human organizations? In nature, a lion will be full for a long time with just one zebra. The time it takes to eat and digest the zebra rate-limits how many zebras can get picked off. The group can accept the occasional loss.
We humans tend to form groups based on shared beliefs. The competition for limited resources can lead to groups “hunting” outsiders who don’t share those beliefs. In the past, those who didn’t share the beliefs of the “predator” group could hide in the crowd. There was low risk that they would be the one picked out, as long as they didn’t do anything too egregious.
But in modern human societies, the social equivalent of a successful hunt does not take much time to enact or digest. The quick hit of dopamine only temporarily whets an endless collective appetite. The internet has supercharged this dynamic with a world-wide population, pseudonymity, and zero friction of sharing information. This can create accelerating frenzies of activity with an inexhaustible set of participants. Unlike the zebras, members of the group currently under attack can’t just keep their head down and hope they won’t get picked off next.
Where do you see groups of humans hiding behind zebra stripes, for good or for ill? Where does that strategy still work… and where does it fail in the supercharged information age?
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🎭 Pro writers and actors are creating a universe of fictional influencers on TikTok
A collective of writers and actors have created six fictional influencers, who post about their “lives” in viral TikTok videos. While the posts look authentic, they’re all scripted and professionally acted. The writers even had all six characters, each of whom has their own story arcs, “meet” each other at a Los Angeles mansion, thus putting them all in the same world. Says one of the collective’s founders: “We’re basically creating an MCU-style universe of characters on TikTok. Some succeed, some fail — it’s the TV pilot season model where we only invest in those that get traction and audiences love.”
🚏🛢 Oil- and gas-focused private equity shops are shuttering as investors seek ESG
Oil and gas companies have seen poor financial returns over the past few years, but, perhaps more surprisingly, investors have been fleeing the fossil fuel sector and moving money into companies that do well on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria. This one-two punch has led many private equity firms to exit the fossil fuel business.
🚏🏚 China’s real estate bubble spawned 100M+ empty properties and entire “ghost towns”
China’s titanic real estate bubble may finally be popping, but it ran so hot for so long that real estate developers built over 100 million properties that were sold but never occupied, since buyers were using them purely as investment vehicles. This rampant overbuilding led to the growth of “ghost towns” across China, which are filled with mostly-empty high-rise apartment buildings. They’re so empty that you can walk down the middle of the highway during rush hour.
🚏📣 “Striketober” is on as thousands of workers demand better conditions
Tens of thousands of low-wage workers at companies like John Deere, Kaiser Permanente, and Kellogg’s are now on strike or planning to strike, while Hollywood management narrowly avoided a strike of 60,000 stage workers this week. The last month has seen a surge in strike action in the US, known as “Striketober” on social media; analysts say a big reason is that these workers have grown tired of endless COVID-19 health risks and realize they have leverage in this tight labor market. What’s more, researchers say we’re seeing proof that strike actions are “contagious.”
🚏⚛️ Ex-SpaceX engineers are building a portable nuclear reactor
A team of engineers is developing the “world's first portable, zero-emissions power source” in the form of a miniature nuclear reactor. The company says each unit can power over 1000 homes for over 8 years and can be easily transported by boat, truck, or plane — which could make it a feasible energy source for isolated villages, scientific bases, disaster zones, and even potential Martian colonies.
🚏🕯️ Indian crypto exchanges are tapping movie stars to promote crypto this Diwali
Dhanteras, the first day of the Hindu festival of Diwali, is considered an auspicious day to buy gold or silver. This year’s Dhanteras falls on November 2nd, and in preparation India’s two largest crypto exchanges have hired Bollywood superstars to encourage Indians to buy cryptocurrencies instead of the usual precious metals. (This comes despite the Indian government’s on-and-off bans of crypto trading.)
🚏🍔 The restaurant industry is getting hit especially hard by “the Great Resignation”
Over 4 million Americans quit their jobs in August in search of better wages or because they lacked affordable childcare options, part of a trend that’s come to be known as “the Great Resignation.” The food-service industry has been especially hard hit, with 6.8% of employees in that sector quitting in August, compared to an overall August quit rate of 2.9%. This, combined with existing staffing shortages, has sparked widespread pessimism among restaurant-chain executives and financial analysts.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Math of the Amazing Sandpile (Nautilus) — Uses a model of a humble pile of sand to demonstrate how simple rules can give rise to beautifully complex behavior, including fractals, self-organization, and the automatic seeking of critical thresholds. Finishes with a discussion of how such “self-organized criticality” could have been key to the emergence of life.
Mismatch of Mindsets: Why the Taliban Won in Afghanistan (The Guardian) — An anthropologist argues that many recent military blunders can be attributed to Westerners’ confusion around their own values and the values of others, and an assumption that all parties are willing to negotiate and compromise more than they really are, especially when it comes to group belonging and sacred values.
Why Did We Wait So Long For the Bicycle? (The Roots of Progress) — Seeks to answer the question of how it took so long for humanity to invent seemingly-obvious technologies like the bicycle, trawling through history to conclude that it took advancements in technology, economy, and culture, plus a lot of time for tinkerers to work out the kinks.
Sea Level Rise is So Much More Than Melting Ice (Verge Science) — Uses visual metaphors and home science experiments to explain the many factors that affect sea level and how climate change often leads to counterintuitive outcomes, such as the sea level in New York rising faster than average while the sea level around Antarctica falls.
The Nasty Logistics of Returning Your Too-Small Pants (The Atlantic) — A tour of the little-understood world of “reverse logistics,” including the factors that make returned products rarely go back on their original shelves and how the accelerating rise of ecommerce is causing the returns process to generate ever-more waste.
Why Is Everyone Asking for Religious Vaccine Exemptions? (The Daily Show) — Trevor Noah traces how religious exemptions were rooted in the US’s good-faith attempts to ensure religious freedom but have been warped into convenient excuses, then shows how vaccine hesitancy has created a profit stream for questionable actors, who are incentivized to keep the trend going.
Ones and Twos (Andreessen Horowitz) — Ben Horowitz, the venture firm’s co-founder, theorizes that there are two types of executives at a company: Type Ones, who prefer to set the strategic direction, and Type Twos, who prefer execution and optimization. He then shows how these dynamics give companies two flawed options when trying to pick an internal candidate to replace a departing CEO.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
In komoroske.com/slime-mold, FLUX’s own Alex Komoroske sketches out how frustrating organizational dynamics can emerge even when each individual member is collaborative, competent, and hard-working. Told in a light-hearted emoji flipbook style, this deck helps illuminate the complex dynamics that we’ve all experienced and offers a few potential paths forward.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2007, 291 pages).
Here at FLUX, we are believers in the importance of a well-crafted narrative. Data can help justify a position, but a well-crafted narrative is often what speaks to people’s hearts. We tell narratives to give a sense of meaning. We tell narratives to encourage change. But what makes for a good narrative?
In Made to Stick, the authors teach us about the keys to sticky ideas. Compelling narratives follow the pattern of SUCCES: they are sticky, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and tell stories. (Kudos to the authors for not artificially adding an additional ‘S’ for the sake of spelling.)
Filled with readable prose which illustrates these properties in actions, Made to Stick is a quick and enjoyable read.
🕵️♀️📆 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 subject-object shift.
It’s past time to leave. You’ve misplaced your car keys. You feel the panic rising. Before you realize what’s happened, the panic is driving your actions as you look in the same places over and over again. When you finally take a moment to separate yourself from your panic, you realize that the keys are in the pocket of the coat you wore yesterday. Was it just calming down that allowed this insight to spring forth... or is there something more at play?
Originating from adult development theory, the subject-object shift can help when we sense an invisible force tugging us in a certain direction — or, in more extreme cases, completely controlling us. This lens reveals a choice. One choice is that we are subject to a phenomenon; the object is the self. Another is to hold the phenomenon as an object separate from ourselves.
This is the difference between “I am angry” and “I feel anger”. “I am angry” conveys that anger cannot be separated from me. Being subject to anger places us into a rather helpless situation: anger has us and that’s all there is to it. “I feel anger” reveals that anger as a feeling, an object. Suddenly, I can hold “anger” apart from me, examine it, and do something about it. When we hold anger as an object we acquire agency to reflect on its source. We can question whether this is an emotion we want to feel.
In teams and organizations, look for well-entrenched practices, norms, and unspoken truths as things that you might be subject to, both individually and collectively. There is no doubt that these were hard-earned insights that got your team to where it is today. However, if you’re struggling to find your way forward, they could also be holding you subject, preventing you from seeing a path forward.
🔮📬 Postcard from the future
A hypothetical postcard from the future where ever increasing rates of societal, technological, and ecological change leave more and more people feeling unmoored.
// 2035. An introductory Discord server message upon enrollment in the market research group your niece recommended.
“Okay, Boomer.” At some point in the distant past, you probably said it. You dismissed a prior generation because they didn’t get a pop culture reference or a piece of technology, or shared a different worldview. Well, now it’s a few years later and you find yourself in charge, responsible for things. Some of you are in the corporate world, others politics, but what brought you here today is fear. Fear of being out of touch. Fear of being old. Fear of being “Okay, Boomer’d.”
You can put that fear to rest. Over the next three months, we will teach you the behavior patterns, slang, and coded phrases used by the next generation. You will get plugged into the right information flows, so you don’t have to worry about being caught off guard by the next wave of new recruits to your org. You can maintain your ability to chart the future without the risk of being upstaged by the youths or your out-of-touch peers.