Episode 28 — November 11th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/28
Contributors to this issue: Stefano Mazzocchi, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Alex Komoroske
Additional insights from: Ben Mathes, a.r. Routh, Ade Oshineye, Robinson Eaton, Gordon Brander
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.
“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”
— Sylvia Plath
🏛💪🏾 The struggle against preferential attachment
The protocols that underlie the internet were designed for fault tolerance. To create a system that could remain viable even in the event of a nuclear attack, the system has built-in path redundancy. Communication can be easily rerouted around obstacles or failed lines. There’s another side effect of this architecture: the internet lacks a single point of failure, a center. It is decentralized.
This picture appeals to our love of “David vs. Goliath” underdog fables. There once was a system of centralized communication channels controlled by giant corporations who stifled innovation and controlled content. Then came the Internet. Its ability to route around failures routed around centralized control as well. The founders’ ideals crystalized into technology: democracy was part of the fundamental “physics” of the digital universe.
Fast forward a few decades and we see power centers re-emerging in big tech alongside new attempts to decentralize once again: cryptocurrencies, DApps, Web3, NFTs, etc. These efforts try to capture a democratization that has been lost. To do so, they must grapple with a key concept in graph theory: preferential attachment.
Any system that exhibits even the tiniest preferential attachment eventually ends up clustered — a few nodes attract the vast majority of the connections. Imagine a bunch of people browsing the web. At first, people might look at websites at random, distributing their attention roughly equally. Over time, some websites gather slightly more traffic, whether through luck or genuine appeal. Newcomers will be slightly more inclined to visit more popular sites. New sites have a slight preference to connect to the same popular sites. Popularity can turn into an ability to hire more and better people, advertise, and reshape access funnels — further magnifying these sites’ advantages. A little preferential attachment eventually turns into a lot.
We sometimes assume that decentralization automatically creates fairness or a more equal distribution of resources and opportunities. This might be true at the very beginning, when there is very little preferential attachment. But, over time, preferential attachment compounds. Though they may be decentralized in theory, systems end up dominated by a few power centers. Moving to a new decentralized system can solve this problem for a while, but it doesn’t disrupt the underlying dynamic. Doing that requires creating checks and balances created by regulations and carefully tuned incentives.
There is an implicit underdog story in any system that proudly proclaims itself as decentralized. It whispers — or shouts — fairness, opportunity, a clean slate from previous power structures, and a promise to create more egalitarian new ones. When we hear these stories, we should ask ourselves how the new system takes preferential attachment into account. Otherwise, it is all but guaranteed that the new world will end up just as clustered and unequally-distributed as the world it was designed to displace.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🦠 A new coronavirus was discovered in Haiti and Malaysia
There are just seven types of coronavirus known to infect humans, including the ones that cause MERS, SARS, and COVID-19. Researchers have now announced the discovery of an eighth infectious coronavirus after finding nearly-identical strains infecting doctors in Haiti and dogs in Malaysia back in 2017. Scientists say the bad news is that this virus is likely widespread, but the good news is that it takes years for these viruses to hit pandemic levels, and so catching it early means there’s plenty of time to develop treatments and vaccines.
🚏🚚 A truckload of graphics cards were stolen on their way to a distribution center
Because GPUs are in such short supply these days, they’ve become a prime target for thieves. In the latest incident, an entire shipment of GeForce RTX 30 cards was stolen from a truck heading to a California distribution center. (It may be easy for the thieves to offload these chips, since the shortage has meant that most GPUs need to be bought off secondhand markets like eBay.)
🚏🏭 The US Dept. of Energy is aiming to slash the price of carbon capture
Direct air capture plants, including the buzzy new one in Iceland, have been cited as a key tool in the fight against climate change for their ability to suck carbon out of the air. But carbon capture technologies like these are still cost-prohibitive, at $600 per ton of CO2. To this end, the US Department of Energy has launched a “moonshot” initiative to bring the price down to just $100 per ton.
🚏🇸🇬 Singapore will stop covering the medical bills of unvaccinated patients
Throughout the pandemic, the Singaporean government has been covering the medical bills of COVID-19 patients. But the country’s Ministry of Health has now announced that it will no longer be footing the bill for people who are “unvaccinated by choice,” saying that these people “disproportionately contribute to the strain on our healthcare resources.”
🚏🔦 Hackers may be stealing data now to crack with quantum computing in the future
Quantum computing, which will be able to crack most encryption schemes, is still a nascent technology, but US government officials worry that nation-state adversaries see a future where they’ll get their hands on fully-functional quantum computers. Agencies are working on post-quantum cryptography, but officials say that, in the meantime, attackers are probably trying to harvest encrypted data now that they’ll be able to crack in a decade or so.
🚏💶 The EU plans to ban payment for order flow, a key driver for free trading
The past year’s explosion in meme-stock day-trading has been fueled by the rise of fee-free trades through brokerages like Robinhood. These brokerages monetize by selling trades to other firms, known as the “payment for order flow” (PFOF) mechanism. PFOF is thus essential to the continuation of fee-free trading, but the European Union is now planning a ban on PFOF because it “may lead to retail orders not being executed on terms most favorable to the client but instead on the terms most profitable to brokers.”
🚏🖼 When a man’s NFTs were stolen, he got NFT marketplaces to de-list them
One man purchased three of the popular Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs, collectively valued (according to him) at over a million dollars, but then got conned into sending the tokens to scammers posing as potential buyers on a Discord server. Blockchain transactions can’t be rolled back, so his Apes are gone forever, but the man complained loudly on Twitter and got the centralized NFT marketplaces OpenSea and Rarible to ban the buying and selling of the stolen tokens.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Organizations With No Hierarchy Don’t Exist (Ouishare) — Argues that flat organizations can’t get rid of all hierarchy: informal hierarchies always exist, and pretending they don’t can be harmful to the organization. Instead, we should embrace “dynamic hierarchies,” where authority shifts around the organization based on expertise and context.
Timeline of the Human Condition: Milestones in Evolution and History (Southampton University) — A history of the universe from the Big Bang to the invention of fire to today; it is notable for decentering individual humans and focusing more on historic inventions, societal milestones, and scientific and philosophical breakthroughs.
10 Threads on Web3 Products and Protocols (Yash Bora) — A compilation of ten deep-dives on notable crypto projects, including a “learn and earn” platform, identity verification on the blockchain, a “decentralized reserve currency,” and prize-linked savings accounts.
Victory and Other Failures (Unpredictable Patterns) — Explores broadly-useful strategic concepts including how regularities and economies of scale are often the sources of vulnerabilities, how our strengths are often the sources of defeat because they lead us to overextend ourselves, why constantly-successful organizations are often fragile, and why weakly-linked empires might be the best way to consolidate massive gains.
How Technology and COVID-19 Are Reinventing Education (Digital Native) — Shows how the pandemic has accelerated the shift in education delivery toward lifelong learning and direct-to-learner models, and examines five related trends, including the rise of “edutainment” and the unbundling of college. Concludes that “the word ‘learning’ better fits where the world is going than the word ‘education’.”
This Brainless Slime Mold Can Decide Where to Go Without Having Already Been There (Science Alert) — A study shows how the single-celled slime mold, which lacks a brain and nervous system, has body parts that use sensory input from its environment to grow in advantageous directions, thus “us[ing] physics to implement primitive cognition.”
The Economic Mistake the Left Is Finally Confronting (New York Times) — Ezra Klein argues that the world we should build toward requires more than redistribution: it requires progress, inventions, and advances that will boost productivity and ultimately grow the supply of goods and services.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2016, 288 pages).
Many ideas featured in the FLUX Review — including this week’s lens — are inspired by biological ecosystems. With this week’s book, we go look directly at one of those ecosystems. The Hidden Life of Trees is a poetic take on how trees work together in surprisingly complex ways to create thriving forests. It’s a great way to build an intuitive sense of awe for the beauty and majesty of nature.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Forest Debris.
The forest floor is covered in debris. To a casual observer, it might seem that this should be cleared. Left in place, the decomposing leaves and needles create a slippery hazard for anyone passing through. Yet if this debris is cleared too aggressively, the ground erodes away. The barren remains become a hazard in their own right. The detritus of the forest floor is one of the richest components of the ecosystem, providing nutrients, habitat, water absorption, and more. A forest meant for human use must balance removing enough debris to keep it fit for its intended uses while leaving enough to enrich the loam.
The same is true with many things in our own lives. Consider stress. Some stressors cause painful distress. However, the right kind of stressors can cause positive eustress. This stress pushes you just enough. Overcoming the stressor brings a positive feeling. Eustress is involved in the feelings of flow that comes when the level of challenge is just above your current level of ability. Like debris, we often think of stress as something to avoid: remove all the stress and we will finally achieve lasting happiness. However, as with forest debris, too little dirt and grit in our lives leaves our personal ecosystem barren. We need that debris to build up the loam of our well-being.
Instead of thinking about how to eliminate the stress in your life, think about how to manage it so that you have the right amount of the right kind of stress at the right time — the kind that pushes you just beyond where you currently are. Do this regularly, and beautiful things will have a chance to grow.
🔮📬 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.
// These days, there are billions of dollars in cryptocurrency wallets that haven’t been touched in years. If crypto doesn’t crash and burn, the lengths to which people will go to get access to those digital funds may become a bit more... extreme.
// November 11th, 2030. A remote telepresence status-update meeting.
An amber alert light blinked in the lower right of Jean’s glasses. Jean’s eyes flicked toward it, pupils dilated as they read the summary. Jean engaged their remote presence avatar, left the meeting, and began messaging furiously.
“Prescott, pick up. Yes, we need to talk — right now, in real time. Got a match from the monitoring systems. It’s an obituary for a former tech worker. They had an old GitHub repo under their realname from 2022, which in one of the revisions has a crypto wallet address. That wallet hasn’t been accessed in the last decade, but it’s loaded — full of Ethereum and blue-chip NFTs. And here’s the best part: there is an archived tweet associated with them about the importance of ‘offline backups’ of your recovery phrases. An AI analysis of their tweets/likes/posts says it’s very likely that there is a physical copy of the wallet’s recovery phrase somewhere in the house.
“We need to move fast on this. I’ve spun up a smart contract and funded it with an initial stake. We need someone on the ground to contact the estate ASAP and make sure they don’t throw stuff out. Maybe make an offer to help clean the house. Details are on the way, along with payout splits. You in?”