🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 39
February 17th, 2022
Episode 39 — February 17th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/39
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Alex Komoroske, Stefano Mazzocchi, Justin Quimby, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Ben Mathes, 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.
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
💃🤼♂️ Innovation kayfabe
Innovators rarely work alone these days. Living at the edge of the currently possible, they need to convince others to invest time or money in a vision. Often, this requires a suspension of belief — a willingness to operate in a hypothetical future in which the innovation actually goes somewhere. We have written about this “dance with delusion” before. Innovation requires a dynamic choreography between vision and reality, between risks and mitigations, between confidence and doubt. Executed well, it is an elegant ballet, enthralling to watch.
Another phenomenon that happens at the frontier of the possible is the innovation kayfabe. In professional wrestling, kayfabe is the art of presenting staged performances as authentic. It’s a highly-orchestrated form of pretending. Professional wrestlers perform difficult athletic feats to avoid hurting themselves and each other… while seeming to hurt each other in elaborate, dramatic, and entertaining ways. It’s circus gladiators without the pain, gore, and finality. These performances are far more entertaining than genuine fights. In real fights much of the time is spent on subtle jostling for position; to an unsophisticated audience this positioning looks boring or pointless. In kayfabe, movements are telegraphed to build excitement and direct the audience's attention so that can enjoy the story.
If you look carefully, you can spot kayfabe in technology innovation. In the heat of the moment, though, it can be challenging to spot the difference. Are you seeing a dance with delusion at the edge of what’s possible? Or is it an elaborate performance made to hold the interest of stakeholders as long as possible? There doesn’t seem to be a simple lens to help us tell the two apart. It appears possible to innovate meaningfully even in an environment full of elaborate performances that never produce results. Plus, some amount of innovation kayfabe can be valuable. For example, it can signal a company’s recognition that it needs to continue to invest in innovation.
When we spend time at the innovation frontier, it serves us well to learn to distinguish those who have learned to dance with their delusion from those who focus on innovation kayfabe. Innovation can happen even with non-trivial amounts of kayfabe. At the same time, it is healthy to be aware of the dynamic. It can be disheartening to realize an effort to affect real change was nothing more than an elaborate, entertaining performance.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🔌 The US is planning to build EV chargers every 50 miles on the highways
A new plan from the US’s transportation department is offering states up to $5 billion in funds to build electric vehicle charging stations every 50 miles on the Interstate Highway System. Each station will need to be able to charge at least four cars at once using the common CCS plug type. The move comes as part of a broader goal to build half a million EV chargers across the country by 2030.
🚏👩🏾💼 Black and female entrepreneurs are founding an increasing number of small businesses
COVID-19 has spurred a rise in entrepreneurship in the United States, but the increase hasn’t been uniform. According to a survey by GoDaddy, Black and female entrepreneurs, plus those without a college degree, now account for a significantly larger portion of new small businesses than before the pandemic.
🚏🔮 A jokester convinced people he was a Nintendo insider by manipulating a Twitter feed
One YouTuber’s fake Twitter account became a celebrity when people discovered that it had tweeted accurate predictions of Nintendo’s latest game announcements — days before that information was made public. People began thinking that this account represented a Nintendo insider who was leaking to the press. In truth, the man behind the account had made hundreds of plausible-seeming predictions in the days before the announcement; then, when the official news broke, he just deleted everything besides the “predictions” that ended up being true.
🚏💵 A nonprofit is experimenting with guaranteed income for former inmates
While universal basic income projects have been experimented with throughout the world, one nonprofit is taking a different approach: giving up to $1000 a month to 115 randomly-selected formerly incarcerated people in Florida. The group’s hope is to help these people get stable housing, pay off incarceration-related fees, invest in their education, and otherwise set up a solid footing that’ll help them avoid landing back in prison.
🚏🐟 Scientists built a swimming “fish” using human heart cells
Biophysics researchers combined paper, plastic, gelatin, and human heart muscle cells to build synthetic “fish” that can swim through water for an extended period of time. Heart cells on the fish’s left side contract, which swings the fish’s tail and stimulates heart cells on the right side, which swings the fish’s tail the other way and in turn stimulates cells on the left side. This propels the fish forward and creates a self-perpetuating “swimming” motion. The researchers say this advancement might one day help us build replacement hearts for human patients.
🚏🦏 A Zambian park restored a population of rhinos thought to be locally extinct
In 1998, Zambia declared black rhinos, a critically endangered species, to be locally extinct as a result of hunting. But a combination of governmental and NGO efforts has restored a thriving black rhino population to one Zambian national park. The park used skilled rangers, data monitoring, and aircraft surveillance to drive out poachers and strengthen the local ecosystem, spurring comebacks of elephant and lion populations. South Africa then donated a population of 25 black rhinos, and since then the Zambian park has seen its black rhino population double, with no recorded instances of poaching.
🚏🎟️ Samsung held a phone reveal event in a “metaverse” clone of a physical space
To announce its latest Galaxy phones, Samsung invited fans and reporters to attend an event in Samsung 837X, a virtual 3D space that’s supposed to be a replica of Samsung’s flagship event center in New York. (While popular, the experience suffered from glitches including unopenable doors and minor chaos as people’s avatars jumped on others’ heads to get to the front of the line.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Scale and Space Decay (Values-Based Social Design) — Proposes a division of activities into funnels (pushing someone toward someone else’s goal), tubes (helping someone reach their own goal), and spaces (areas of non-directional, non-goal-oriented exploration). Argues that spaces often decay as systems scale up because they’re often illegible to quantifiable metrics, resulting in a cold, transactional world of funnels and tubes. Then suggests some alternative ways to measure the quality of spaces.
DSHR's EE380 Talk (David Rosenthal) — Argues that, while cryptocurrencies promise decentralization, the economics of blockchains make centralization inevitable as the system scales up. Further argues that much of the discourse around cryptocurrencies ignores their externalities and the difficulty of mitigating them.
Playing Board Games, Thinking About Excel: Wingspan Edition (Interconnected) — Uses the example of a finely-tuned “engine building” board game to imagine how we could build modeling tools that produce systems that tend toward balance and complexity, rather than runaway overgrowth or violent implosion.
Difficulty Anchors (Mekka Okereke) — Discusses bias in performance evaluation and shares strategies on how to enlist neutral advocates with established credibility in the organization. By doing this, you can stake pre-emptive claims on difficult problems and push back against the erosion of your project’s perceived value from biased observers.
Live Versus Dead Players (Samo Burja) — Describes two types of actors in a system: live players, who have generative mental models and are able to do novel and unexpected things, and dead players, who repeat stereotyped behaviors, often cargo-culting what live players have pioneered.
Weird Kids’ Videos and Gaming the Algorithm (Folding Ideas) — A tour of the creepy, AI-generated children’s videos that spread virulently on YouTube, and a reflection on how the environment’s selection pressures helped such content flourish. Plus, introduces the lens of the “Inverse Turing Test”: where human content creators behave indistinguishably from bots.
The Internet Turned “Money” Into a Hobby (Vox) — Explores some societal trends that have made many normally-cautious people pick up what the author argues is effectively gambling (including stocks, options, crypto, and sports betting): a reduction of friction thanks to the internet, pandemic-driven boredom, stimulus checks, and a feeling among younger Americans that the only path to wealth is through investing.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat (2017, 480 pages).
What can a cookbook teach us about systems thinking? When we first learn how to cook, we tend to see recipes as inviolable truths. As we become more experienced, though, we use a process of trial and error to adapt those recipes to better match the outcomes we want. In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat introduces us to four key elements of good cooking and how they interact. The result is a set of principles that help the reader build up their intuition for how to cook well. Nosrat then shows us how to vary and combine these elements. Individual recipes in the book are less like rigid instructions and more like general templates that can be pushed in multiple directions. Even more importantly, Nosrat encourages a playful, experiential attitude toward food and cooking.
The value of this goes beyond making a better dinner. Cooking is a domain where most of us can safely experiment. When we cook, we live with uncertainty, pay attention to subtle cues, and see how small shifts can have a big impact. The cost of failure is low (at least if you’re following basic food and tool safety precautions). Approached with intention, cooking can be a way to dance with systems.
Systems thinking has never tasted so good.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Key ingredients.
Drowning in a sprawling new project, a team spins in trial and error, fumbling around and trying to discover the shape of the desired outcome. Realizing they need to ground their work, the leads come up with a simple principle. “Whatever we ship, it needs to have these ingredients: speed, stability, security, and simplicity.” These key ingredients can come in many forms, but they must be present. This simple formula energizes the team, giving just enough organization to retain individual agency while providing enough structure to keep everyone is on the same page.
There is power in framing fluid, ambiguous, and flexible environments in terms of a few key ingredients. Especially in organizational cultures that trend toward being non-hierarchical, capturing the essence of desired outcomes can provide a valuable organizing technique. Chosen well, key ingredients can become a team’s core values. Finding the right set of ingredients is definitely a challenge — though veterans of your domain can provide you with a good starting list.
Taken too far, though, this approach falls into essentialism. We are tempted with a quest to find the ultimate key ingredients: the essence of it all. Essentialist adventures tend to end badly. They shift focus from the utility of a loose categorization to the inflexibility of finding the perfect one. If you’ve ever spent too much time arguing about the names for phases of a process or the one true way to refactor code, you’ve experienced essentialism’s gravitational pull.
If you are looking to reduce the inherent flux of your current endeavor, see if you can discern some key ingredients that define its shape. Communicating and embracing them might just be what your team needs.
🔮📬 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 will happen when autonomous vehicles become able to avoid almost every accident?
// February 2032. A bland, bureaucratic office.
A person in a suit sits at a desk and rubs their forehead. “Humor me and tell me how we got to this point.”
A nervous, slightly-younger bureaucratic office worker shuffles nervously in their chair. “Well, it started about 5 years ago, when the first fully-autonomous vehicles came online. Initially, there were still plenty of human-driven vehicles and there was no inter-vehicle networking, so we didn’t see the wave that was coming. Humans were still making mistakes.”
Older: “You mean humans-driven vehicles were still hitting pedestrians, vehicles, and animals.”
Younger’s chair squeaks as they nervously shift. “Ahhh. Yes. And then the vehicles started sharing sensor data. Sensors got embedded in the roads. Insurance companies gave discounts for cars with increasing levels of autonomy. Delivery services realized they could pay less for autonomous vehicles than unionized drivers. That trickled down to the gig economy, and eventually on-demand vehicle services went completely autonomous.”
Older: “But the laws for vehicular homicide didn’t change.”
Younger: “Yes, so every vehicle maker was incentivized to not cause bodily harm. Which meant that as sensors got more and more perfect, fewer accidents happened. Every traffic light, every Ring camera, every street light contributed to a road model that made vehicle collisions incredibly rare. We were so proud of our declining accident rates that we didn’t think of the problem.”
Older: “Which was…?”
Younger: “Sure. We consolidated and aggregated autonomous vehicular control systems, because of course who wants accidents? But then came the complications. An old person moving slowly could slow traffic. A jaywalker could cause a cascading traffic jam. Protestors could stop ambulances from moving. Then government agencies wanted to ‘override’ the safety controls. They claimed it was to help in disaster situations. It could also be used to assassinate people with autonomous vehicles. So we designed a solution. A way to get people off the road. We didn’t realize…”
Older: “This is why you always have a devil’s advocate! You fool, you built Scoops!”