🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 35
January 20th, 2022
Episode 35 — January 20th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/35
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Alex Komoroske, Gordon Brander
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Boris Smus, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman
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.
“Stop thinking about artworks as objects and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences. What makes a work of art good for you is not something that’s already inside it but something that happens inside you.”
― Brian Eno
👁️🗨️👥 Choose to bear witness
Shootings, COVID-19, extreme weather events, human rights violations. This list could refer to almost any time in the last couple of years. When there is so much sorrow and pain in the world, how do we balance our concern with the need to sustain our own well-being?
The common wisdom is that we should pull on our empathy and compassion. Empathy allows us to understand and share in the feelings of another. Compassion turns our concern into action to relieve suffering. When taking on the feelings of others can help them bear those feelings, we can apply empathy. When we are in a position to take action, we can apply compassion. Both are integral parts of the human experience. But applied too broadly, they can be unsustainable.
In the case of the societal-level events we saw above, there is little we can do individually and few people we can directly support. Empathy becomes a stressful burden we take on that does no one any good. Compassion turns into empty gestures made just for the sake of doing something. Applying empathy and compassion in this case, expending energy when the impact of that expenditure doesn’t change a thing: this is a recipe for burnout.
What do we do? Do we give up on concern and build a shell to protect ourselves? Do we have to choose between love for others and love for ourselves? No! We can choose to bear witness. To bear witness is to show what is true. It is to use your voice to say, “I cannot fix this, but I declare to you that it happened and is important.”
When we choose to bear witness, we regain a sense of agency that hopelessness takes from us. We acknowledge that we cannot fix the problem. We acknowledge that we may not even be the right person to fix the problem. But we make it loud and clear that this is a problem.
Bearing witness is particularly powerful when those who are suffering are unable to speak for themselves: they lack power, lack platforms, or lack legitimacy in the eyes of the majority. Bearing witness can be more powerful for these communities than if we try to solve their problems ourselves — something that can lead to tropes like that of the white savior. Instead, when we bear witness, we do what we can to give the affected communities the power to find solutions.
Even for problems that do affect us all equally, like climate change, we can shift the impotent portion of our worry toward bearing witness. When we take on the burden of a problem ourselves, we are more prone to ineffective solutions such as greenwashing. Instead, we can focus on what is effective and say to the powers that be, “Beyond this, we cannot fix it. Beyond this, you must take up your mantle of responsibility.”
Still, do not abandon empathy. Look for ways to support people in their times of sorrow and challenge. Do not abandon compassion either. Find ways that you can make a difference in the problems of the world. But when these paths are not open to you, reject both the burden of burnout and the hollow safety of sticking your head in the sand. Choose to bear witness.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏⛽️ Shell is replacing fuel pumps with electric-vehicle chargers at one UK site
Shell is ripping the fuel pumps out of one of its London gas stations and replacing them with rapid electric-car charging ports, a first for the petroleum company. Shell says that the facility will be powered by 100% renewable energy and feature solar panels, a retail outlet, and a coffee shop.
🚏🇨🇳 China’s population might start to shrink this year, ahead of predictions
It’s estimated that China’s total fertility rate stands at 1.15 children per woman over her lifetime, one of the world’s lowest and well below the population replacement rate of 2.1. As a result, demographers expected China’s population to begin to decline in 2027, but newly-released data suggests that the population drop could begin as early as this year.
🚏💳 Coinbase will let you buy NFTs using Mastercard cards
Currently, buying non-fungible tokens requires setting up crypto wallets, loading in cryptocurrencies, and managing private keys. But Coinbase has announced a partnership with Mastercard that will let customers buy NFTs on the crypto firm’s upcoming NFT marketplace using their Mastercard credit or debit cards — bypassing crypto wallets entirely.
🚏🐮 Cows are being given VR headsets to stimulate milk production
One rancher in Turkey hypothesized that his cows might start producing milk if they thought they were out in an open, grassy field. So he started strapping VR headsets onto his cows during the long winters when they were stuck inside, and it apparently worked: the rancher said his cows’ milk output has increased from 22 to 27 liters a day.
🚏🏎️ A man whose self-driving Tesla had a fatal crash is being charged with a felony
In 2019, a man set his Tesla on Autopilot (a semi-self-driving mode), but the car ran a red light and killed two people. The man is now being charged with vehicular manslaughter; experts think this is “the first US case… where serious criminal charges were filed in a fatal crash involving a partially automated driver-assist system.” The victims’ families have also sued Tesla for “selling defective vehicles.”
🚏🔬 Scientists found a carbon signature on Mars that could be connected to life
NASA scientists, analyzing data from the Curiosity rover, found an abnormally high amount of carbon-12 in Martian rocks. Earthly life prefers the lighter carbon-12 isotope over the heavier carbon-13 isotope, so a high concentration of carbon-12 is considered a marker of biological processes. If this hypothesis is carried over to Mars, this carbon signature could be a sign of past Martian life — but scientists stressed that Mars’s carbon cycle is still poorly-understood and that there are several potential non-biological explanations for this signature.
🚏🏡 You can now get a mortgage by pledging your crypto assets
The crypto-wealthy often have trouble buying homes, since crypto assets aren’t traditionally factored into credit scores, and selling off crypto assets for cash incurs heavy capital gains taxes. One startup, though, now offers a “crypto mortgage,” where you can offer your crypto-coins as collateral in place of a down payment.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Complexity Explained (CoMuNe Lab) — An interactive introduction to complexity science that uses a blend of text and interactive widgets to describe concepts like emergence, non-linearity, self-organization, complex adaptive systems, and agent-based modeling.
Do Viruses Always Become Good Guys in the End? (McGill University) — Examines the theory that viruses tend to evolve to become less virulent, arguing that we can’t attribute intention or direction to evolution. Instead, we should think about the many evolutionary pressures that apply to viruses; they often push in different directions, and there are always trade-offs.
Lumber Prices Are off the Rails Again. Blame Climate Change. (The Atlantic) — A lumber trader explains the complex dynamics driving lumber’s price surge, tying many of them back to climate change: summer wildfires, beetle infestations due to warmer winters, and the destruction of lumber-transport infrastructure in British Columbia due to recent floods and mudslides.
The Universal Language of Human Relationships (Conversation Agent) — Explores new ways we can try to understand interpersonal relationships, introduces the concepts of the “self-system” and energy flows in relationships, and examines the importance of internal conflicts and “letting go.”
Enabling Constraints in Software Development (AppUnite) — Describes how teams can use thought experiments of the form “what if we had to follow this constraint?” to generate new ideas for solving problems and working more effectively, then argues that this approach works well in complex, unpredictable environments where innovation is essential.
How Ocean Shipping Works (And Why It’s Broken) (Wendover Productions) — Shows how the global shipping industry’s reliance on economies of scale caused small delays to snowball into massive supply-chain chaos, concluding that “systems reliant on perfection are those most vulnerable to disruption.”
Why Can’t People Teleport? (Wired) — A physicist and a cartoonist investigate how teleportation might work in practice, delve into the math of quantum information and quantum entanglement, and probe the physical and philosophical quandaries that might arise if teleportation were actually possible.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
Creative block is tough. Fortunately, there are methods that can provoke creativity on-demand. In a new piece, FLUX’s own Gordon Brander analyzes how tools like Tarot can help us generate creative conversations with our subconscious.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend What's Your Problem?: To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg (2020, 211 pages).
This book doesn’t dawdle. It doesn’t include a long arc of history, trudging through the story of humanity. It doesn’t contain a series of long-winded tirades, seemingly struggling to get to the point (kind of like this recommendation so far). Instead, the author jumps straight in.
Written in a humorous, engaging, right-to-the-point style, the book is dedicated to the most interesting quality of problem-solving: ensuring that we’re solving the right problem in the first place. This is your field guide to the art of problem reframing. And — bonus points! — it is peppered with descriptive illustrations that complement the story. In a similar manner as Donella Meadows, who made systems thinking accessible with her book Thinking in Systems, the author manages to take a rather subtle concept of problem reframing and turn it into a practical, pragmatic introduction to framing (and reframing) vague phenomena into solvable problems. Just like Dr. Meadows’ classic, this short book might just be one of those must-haves for a systems thinker’s bookshelf.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Behavior over time graph (BOTG).
The behavior over time graph is almost too simple to take seriously: throw two axes on a sheet of paper — the horizontal axis being time — and draw a squiggly line to describe our understanding of how the measure of some value changes over time.
Now that we have drawn it, a whole world of questions opens up. If the line is going up, what do we believe is happening that makes it go that way? Is it dropping, as if it fell off a cliff? Again, why? Underneath this squiggly line are assumptions and tacit knowledge that can be unpacked and shared with others.
Such graphs can be an effective means to increase our shared mental model space. Just ask your colleagues to each draw one for an interesting value. Prepare to be surprised at the differences — and enjoy the generative conversation that follows.
We can turn the graph into a vehicle for prediction by drawing a vertical line for “today” on the graph, splitting the space into the “past” and “future.” The graph can convey our sense of how things were going before and how we predict they will unfold going forward.
We can use multiple graphs to suss out potential causal relationships between values. If the number of software bugs keeps increasing, what do we believe will happen to the product velocity? Why do we believe that?
Finally, these graphs can capture our hopes and fears. Given how the value behaved in the past, what do we fear will the graph look like if we don’t do anything — or continue doing the same thing? What do we hope it will show if we make the change? If we ask our colleagues to draw the same thing, will we see different graphs?
With just a few simple lines, we create space for discussing ideas, uncovering assumptions, and surfacing wisdom that would otherwise remain unshared. In doing so, we can help our team dramatically increase the rigor with which it makes its choices.
🔮📬 Postcard from the future
A fictional “postcard from the future,” imagining a snapshot from a potential future that might result from the systemic forces at play in our world today.
// The current interest in, and froth around, cryptocurrencies has echoes of the late 1990s’ dot-com exuberance. Despite the promises of decentralization, aggregation is already happening to web3. What might happen when crypto orthodoxy meets late-stage capitalism?
// January 2025. Two unsmiling people in dark suits stare down at a pile of paper. The mood in the room is somber.
[Begin log dump] <Wake-up boot sequence completed> <Charge: 100%> <Neuralink: Nominal> <Sensors: Nominal> <Net connection: Nominal> <Compute levels: Nominal> <Threat level: Yellow> <Sweep pattern 6B initiated>
“I’m a good boi. Time to leave my bed and go outside. I love the outside! Time to sniff all the things! Ooh — there is a person! Are they a good person? *Sniff sniff* They have the good smell. And they have the right card! I remember them! They are good!
“Time to keep walking around. The big truck is coming! I love the big truck! So many things to smell!
“I must sit in the right spot and wait for things to come off the truck. There’s the person unloading the truck. They don’t smell like they did yesterday.”
“Oh, they have the ‘good card.’ They want to pet me. I shouldn’t, but I love being petted!
“They petted me! I love petting!”
<Hardline external link established> <Non-native code loaded>
“I should remember! Wait, there is a bad smell!”
“What smells bad? Must find it!”
<Explosive compounds detected> <Threat level: Red> <Warning: Excessive memory utilization> <Warning: Non-standard programs running> <Net connection: Offline> <Memory purge: Initiated> <System corruption detected> <Threat level: Purple>
“I don’t feel so good.
“Now the person is running away. But I need to stay and tell people about the bad box!”
Bark bark bark bark!!!!
<Memory purge: Completed> <Explosion detecte... [End of log]
Agent Verdi breaks the silence. “That’s all we’ve got from the blast site. The venture capital firm had recently installed Boston Dynamics’ robotic dog and customized it with lab-grown brain material from dogs as the central neural processor, interlaced with top-of-the-line spectroscopy systems to detect a variety of explosives and viral/chemical weapon signatures. The bombers hijacked the hardware and purged it prior to the explosion. We only have this hard copy because some tech lost a bet and had to debug the latest log4j vuln using a teletype.”
Agent Murtaugh grimaces. “Wait, this counter-terrorism hardware is on par with what we’re using at the Pentagon. I know VCs attract a lot of flak in down economies, but why this level of tech sophistication? I thought this was just another ‘Anarchist Cookbook’ mail bombing?”
Verdi: “You really need to stop playing Wordle 4 and read some threat briefings. This is the 15th VC firm bombing attack in the past month. Current working theory is that, after last quarter’s crypto crash, the web3 folks needed a scapegoat. When they backtraced blockchain transactions and unwound the mixing services, they found that tech VCs triggered the crash. The idea that VCs centralized the blockchain became crypto heresy. Some HODLers called for a crusade. Online mentions of the 1920 Wall Street bombing spiked.”
Murtaugh: “Give me some credit, Verdi. Sure, desperate people do desperate things, but I know for a fact that we don’t yet have a hard connection between these online groups and the bombings. The robot dog was blown to kingdom come. We’ve got nothing thanks to the attackers’ anti-surveillance hacks. How is this a break in the case?”
Verdi: “Look at this last page! It’s a dot-matrix representation of the last key image saved to local storage. We’ve got pixel art of our suspect.”
Murtaugh: “I’m getting too old for this.”