🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 27

November 4th, 2021

Episode 27 — November 4th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/27
Contributors to this issue: Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Boris Smus

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.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

— Kurt Vonnegut

🎲🎭 Our many faces

Recent chatter about social networks and metaverses, AR, and VR have gotten us thinking about the different roles these play in our lives and how they relate to identity. The idea of a single identity is great for advertising, but it may run counter to how the internet is evolving. As more and more people move to cozyweb communities — Discord and Slack channels, video games, private groups and forums — we are seeing identity fragment into specialized personas for different purposes.

Although somewhat driven by the technology itself, people are coming to realize that this fragmentation isn’t a bad thing. In “Social Networking 2.0”, Ben Thompson writes about separating identities:

“What I increasingly realize, though, is that separating my identities on Twitter does not mean a lesser experience, but a far superior one; social interaction in any medium is always a balance between self-expression and the accommodation of others, which means that in the analog world it is a constant struggle to strike a balance between being myself and annoying everyone around me at some point or another. The magic of the Internet, though, is that you can be whatever you want to be.”

This desire to separate our identities isn’t confined to the world of social networking. It is likely even more important in the worlds of augmented and virtual reality. Consider the category of smart glasses. While it may be very useful to the wearer of the glasses to be able to look around and see everyone's identity — their past and present of their jobs, schools, and old pictures taken on drunken nights — as a bystander that is the precise thing you want to avoid. 

VR and metaverses further stretch the idea of a single identity. By sliding on a set of VR goggles you can go anywhere and be anyone. And yet, as Thompson notes, this isn’t as different from the real world as it may at first seem. In the real world, we are different people with our friends, with our families, at work, with strangers. And this is a good thing! From the realms of AR and VR, in the metaverses, and in the splintering of online activity into multiple social networks, we see increasing evidence that people want the freedom to exercise multiple identities. 

However, for companies that rely on a strong identity model — when a business is prefaced on collapsing all of “you” into a single identity and advertising to that identity — embracing this idea of multiple identities can be hard. That reluctance makes this an area ripe for counter-positioning. Counter-positioning, coined by Hamilton Helmer in his book 7 Powers, is when “a newcomer adopts a new, superior business model which the incumbent does not mimic due to anticipated damage to their existing business.” Companies that can embrace the idea of multiple identities from the start can make moves that would be too high-risk for companies relying on a strong identity model. 

All of this is to say that, if dreams of the platform of the future are at odds with the fundamental business model of a company, don’t bet on that company being able to shepherd those ideas to fruition. 

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏👘 People are designing and wearing augmented-reality clothing

Gamers have long been able to buy VR outfits to adorn their characters in games like Fortnite. But now, you can buy AR clothing for real life. Fashion designers upload and sell virtual clothing on new e-commerce platforms. Buyers purchase an outfit, wear neutral dark clothes, strike a dramatic pose, snap a picture, and send it to professional editors. Those artists then edit the digital clothes onto the picture and send back the final image, which is a mashup of real-world locations and digital fashions.

🚏☀️ Researchers have invented a way to make hydrocarbons with solar energy

A team of researchers at ETH Zurich have invented a small-scale process to make fossil-fuel-esque energy using only air and sunlight. Their machine absorbs carbon dioxide and oxygen from the air; superheats them using concentrated sunlight to turn them into carbon monoxide and hydrogen; and uses a catalyst to turn those reagents into fuels like kerosene. While the prototype can only generate a few milliliters of fuel, the researchers are optimistic that they can eventually scale it up.

🚏🇨🇳 Fortnite is shutting down in China after a 3-year-long beta

Epic, the company that makes the battle royale game Fortnite, is abruptly shutting down a Chinese beta of the popular game. Even though it had the backing of the Chinese gaming giant Tencent, Epic appears to have been turned off by the Chinese government’s strict controls on what content is allowed in video games and its broader crackdown on the gaming industry. (Epic isn’t alone: Yahoo and LinkedIn have also recently announced plans to exit the Chinese market.)

🚏🤳🏾 TikTokers are using mirrors to make low-tech video game streams

Most video game streamers use high-tech gadgets like capture cards and DSLR cameras to make professional-looking, high-res streams for consumption on Twitch and YouTube. But thanks to TikTok’s new streaming features, many amateur streamers are using decidedly low-tech methods to show off what they’re playing. Some simply prop up their phone and point it at their tablet screen as they play a mobile game; others use mirrors to reflect their desktop screens into their phones’ cameras. And instead of editing in graphical overlays, some streamers just put slips of paper in their recording setups.

🚏💵 The US economy grew just 2% last quarter, but economists see a turnaround coming

According to new figures, the United States’ GDP grew by just 2% (seasonally adjusted) in the third quarter of this year, a sharp decline from the 6% increases seen in the first two quarters of the year and the lowest since the recovery began. Economists blame the usual suspects, including the delta variant, supply-chain turbulence, and labor shortages — but they say they’re optimistic about the fourth quarter thanks to declining infection rates, growing business inventories, and a return to slightly more “normal” consumer spending patterns.

🚏🌐 Microsoft is working on an enterprise metaverse, complete with VR avatars

Through a combination of Microsoft Teams and the HoloLens headset, Microsoft has announced that it, too, is entering the race to build the metaverse. Upcoming features include animated 3D avatars you can use in Teams calls; the ability to collaboratively work on 3D objects in VR; and virtual meeting rooms and even entire virtual campuses that Teams users can explore.

🚏☎️ Hackers are selling bots that’ll help steal people’s 2FA codes

Identity thieves have long sold login details for online banks and sites like Amazon, Coinbase, and PayPal on underground forums. With the rise of ubiquitous two-factor authentication, though, just having someone’s username and password isn’t enough anymore. Enter 2FA-stealing bots. When the hacker is told to present a two-factor authentication code, they summon the bot to robocall the victim; the bot pretends to represent the company and asks for the code that’s just been sent to the victim’s phone. The one-time password is passed along to the hacker, who can then gain access to the account.

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • The Obsession with “Return on Equity” (Ryan Petersen) — In a Twitter thread, Flexport’s CEO writes that the recent supply-chain bottlenecks were caused in large part by modern finance’s obsession with minimizing the number of assets on companies’ balance sheets, which has led to companies sacrificing their “shock absorbers” and leaving themselves unprepared for “hundred-year floods” like COVID-19.

  • I Want My Daughter to Live in a Better Metaverse (Wired) — Examines some thorny moral and societal issues we’ll have to wrestle with in the future metaverse, such as how we can teach children about the harsh realities of the world if their AR/VR glasses can simply make those unpleasant things disappear; how we can maintain a shared sense of reality if everyone is literally in their own little worlds; and how we can prevent violence and disinformation from taking over a virtual space that we can never really escape from.

  • Cynefin Fly-Through (Sue Borchardt) — A short, visual walkthrough of the cynefin framework for sense-making, with particular focuses on how to make change in a complex environment, what the “zone of complacency” is, and why it’s good to wade into the chaotic zone every now and then.

  • Scientists Look Beyond the Individual Brain to Study the Collective Mind (ScienceDaily) — A multidisciplinary team of scientists argue that, because humans often “outsource” some of our thinking and knowledge-gathering to other people, we have to start thinking of cognition as “a group activity, not an individual one;” to that end, neuroscientists need to incorporate insights from social science fields including psychology and anthropology.

  • I’m a Twenty Year Truck Driver; I Will Tell You Why America’s “Shipping Crisis” Will Not End (Ryan Johnson) — Details why every part of the US’s freight supply chain has seized up, seemingly in unison; how COVID-19 made the already-fragile system implode; why a skewed economic model gives shipping companies little incentive to change anything; and what we can do to overhaul the industry.

  • Who Were the Most Important Individuals of the 2000s and 2010s? (Noahpinion) — Noah Smith zooms out and examines the long-term impacts that ten prominent public figures have had on the history of the 21st century; along the way, he investigates macro trends such as the long decline of poverty, the political changes caused by social media, the American culture wars, and the re-emergence of a pluricentric world.

  • Plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change (Surfing Complexity) — Introduces the concept of “sustained adaptability”: while some systems can adapt to a single change but collapse during subsequent changes, other systems can keep adapting every time their environment changes. Then, shows how those successful systems must be able to change the way they adapt — an example of double-loop learning.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend Confluence: Tools for Thinking about How Organized Plans and Self-organized Patterns Flow Together by Cynthia F. Kurtz (2021, 457 pages).

Some books spend their pages articulating and illustrating a single idea. This is not one of those books. Starting from the foundational distinction between organization and self-organization, Confluence blossoms into a collection of tools that can be applied individually or read as one cohesive narrative. Sprinkled in are bits of everything: deep insights into the nature of patterns and plans, a discussion of S-curve dynamics, a spirited critique of the analytical approach to complexity, a dive into folk tales, and some autobiographical vignettes. Think of it as a lifelong collection of carefully crafted and curated lenses (not dissimilar from those we publish here every week), wrapped with care into a story, told with disarming openness and kindness.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: Reversal of the causal arrow.

Each vision, personal or organizational, is a story. It’s a story of the future we strive for, that excites us and gives us hope. It is meant to inspire, but what happens if the vision starts to feel a bit flat and — gasp! — boring? No matter how hard we try to rekindle the fire, all we get is more cartoonish and cringe-worthy versions of the same old story. Somehow, our story went from being a compelling vision of the future to being tunnel vision that traps us in the present: try as we might, we can’t break out of the same old beats we believed in for so long.

To break out of this rut, to get a new vision, we need different stories. Here’s a fun trick that might help: reverse the causal arrow in your thinking. At work, if you think that desirable improvements to your product will change how users behave, spend some time thinking about how changes in user behavior could lead you to change your product to better fit their new needs. In your personal life, if you think that fighting with a friend or partner causes your bad moods, consider that bad moods may cause your fights. 

Reversing the causal arrow is not always going to lead to mind-blowing insights, but it might shine light onto non-obvious connections you haven’t seen before. More often than not, it’s not that one direction of the arrow is right and the other wrong. You may find that there is a causal feedback loop hiding in the dark.

🔮📬 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.

// What happens when the dreams of a massive, interoperable metaverse collide with entrenched owners of intellectual property? 

// 2026. A dimly lit room filled with the sound of laughter, clinking glasses, and heartfelt greetings. This is the metaverse interoperability working group.

“Alright — settle down, settle down. First things first: turn off your devices. ALL OF THEM. If you see someone with a phone or glasses in record mode, call it out. We’ve got electrical tape for folks with camera+glasses combos. 

“This is an in-person conversation for a reason. After the past four years of disasters, we set up an ‘official’ conference for all the lawyers and BD types. After all, ‘the metaverse is a honey pot for architectural astronauts.’ The folks here actually build stuff. <laughter and cheers from the crowd>

“Let’s talk about the first interoperability hurdles — the c-word and the t-word.

“Copyright. Trademark. <jeers from the crowd>

“As more and more big players with established intellectual property get into the digital goods space, many will want to protect their intellectual property. People want to take the cool Iron Man skin they bought from the official Marvel game into the cool new indie games coming out, but how the heck are we going to do that without the small devs getting sued into oblivion? 

Copyright laws in the US got extended to their current lengths because of heavy lobbying by Disney asking legislators: ‘Do you want to be responsible for Mickey Mouse appearing in porn? If you don’t want that, extend copyright. Do it for your grandkids.”’And trademark holders must enforce their trademark or they risk losing the trademark entirely.

“This is a Scylla and Charybdis situation. How the heck can we build something that an established IP can be part of, but where interoperability doesn’t result in lawsuits left, right, and center? Here’s John to kick off the discussion…”