Episode 46 — April 7th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/46
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Julka Almquist, Alex Komoroske, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, 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.
“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
― Hannah Arendt
📚💬 Long story short
tl;dr: long, nuanced narratives tend to get flattened or shortened when exposed to more people, becoming caricature-like versions of themselves.
A complex idea wants to be expressed as a long, nuanced story. We prepare the soil by defining terms and setting out related concepts. Into this we plant the idea’s spirit. Yet this well-cared-for idea is delicate, like a hothouse orchid. Ideas that spread rapidly are more like weeds. They are resonant and relatable. More importantly, they are easy to tell.
There appears to be a tension here: we want to share ideas as accurately as possible, yet we also want to share ideas widely. This tension creates a simplifying force. As if borrowing a page from evolution, when stories are retold, they mutate to become easier to share. Everyone is too busy. Who has time to read or listen to — let alone reflect on — a long story? So we abbreviate and abridge. We make our stories shorter, more to the point. “Whoa! Long doc. What’s the gist?”
This bias toward simplification feels as inevitable as gravity: the more people we want to influence, the shorter the story we must tell. We easily might find our nuanced strategies turned into bullet points, still using the same words, but pointing in completely different directions. A careful analysis of forces in tension collapses into a simple enumeration: “Do all the things!” A neutrally written doc on pros and cons of alternatives is propped up as a sort of bludgeon to justify something briefly mentioned in sentence 4 of paragraph 7.
It is a discomforting possibility that, for a sufficiently large group of people, the only stories that can be told are slogans whose oracular prose eludes our ability to tell whether they are deeply profound or just plain nonsense. This can turn out poorly for large organizations, where there tends to be a strong collective desire for a clear strategy. This clear strategy can easily become a cryptic proclamation that everyone believes they know the true interpretation of, leading the organization to become less and less coherent over time, especially as reality becomes more and more complex.
So what’s the short, memorable takeaway? Well, maybe there isn’t just one. However, we can remember to be aware of our audiences. Are we trying to directly influence a small group? A longer, more nuanced narrative might be safe. Are we trying to indirectly influence a large group? Maybe we should create a simplified narrative ourselves so that we’ll have at least initial control over its evolution. If we accept the tension between accuracy and spread as one we must live with, we can be empowered to simplify strategically.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏📳 Ukrainians using “Find my iPhone” discovered Russian troop movements
Many invading Russian soldiers stole Apple gadgets from Ukrainians, but some of these Ukrainians used Apple’s “Find my iPhone” feature to track the movement of their stolen items. They discovered that many of these troops had retreated to a particular region of Belarus, consistent with military reports. (Similarly, a team of journalists created a map tracing the shipments of “parcels with Russian loot from Ukraine” from Belarus to the Russian hinterlands.)
🚏🎮 You can now earn college credits from gaming
Students at the University of Arizona and Arizona Online can now earn academic credits through educational content embedded into the popular strategy video game Age of Empires, a program known as the Illuminated Histories Experience. A professor of medieval history and a professor of Roman history, both gamers, teamed up with Microsoft’s World’s Edge gaming studio (the makers of Age of Empires) to create this in-context learning experience. The program largely targets gamers who aren’t yet enrolled at the university, likely in a bid to attract new students.
🚏👓 Myopia is on the rise, especially in children, thanks to quarantines
Health researchers are slowly learning more about how COVID-19’s quarantines and stay-at-home culture have impacted our bodies. One major implication of spending more time indoors, working from home, and generally using screens more has been a surge in myopia (or nearsightedness), especially in children. A study from JAMA Ophthalmology reported that 6–8 year old children in China were three times more likely to develop nearsightedness in 2020 than in prior years.
🚏🐦 Elon Musk made a viral poll demanding a Twitter edit button; the CEO took note
After Elon Musk bought a huge 9.2% stake in Twitter, one of his first orders of business was to send out a tweet asking his fans if they wanted an edit button. He got over 4 million votes, with almost three-fourths of them landing in favor of the oft-requested feature. While Twitter had declined to build this feature for years, the company’s CEO seemed to take a special interest now that Musk was the one requesting it, saying that, “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.” The next day, Twitter announced that the edit button was indeed in the works:
🚏🫒A jumbo-jet made a test flight powered by cooking oil
As part of a test, Airbus fueled up one of its A380 jumbo jets with used cooking oil — known as Sustainable Aviation Fuel, or SAF — and took it on a three-hour flight across France. In public, Airbus planes are allowed to fly using up to 50% SAF (with normal kerosene making up the rest of the fuel), but Airbus hopes it can get certified to fly passenger planes with 100% SAF by 2030. (Airbus says that SAF is carbon-neutral because the plants it’s made from recently absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, unlike fossil fuels.)
🚏👾 r/place became an ephemeral site for collective organizing
For April Fools’ Day, Reddit brought back r/place, their collaborative art experiment originally run in 2017. This year’s iteration began as a blank white canvas and allowed Reddit users to add one colored tile every 5 minutes. To build something required an extraordinary amount of strategizing and coordination. Global communities rallied to be represented on the canvas and found ways to build collectively (and to take over other people’s territory). On the last day of the experiment, users were only allowed to place white tiles, so the artwork slowly faded back into a large, blank canvas.
🚏🔓 New startups will let you recover your lost crypto by brute-forcing passwords
As time goes on, more and more people forget or lose the passwords to their crypto wallets and thus can’t access the coins stashed inside. A few new startups promise to help these unlucky investors recover their coins by brute-forcing the passwords to their wallets. (This guess-and-check method only works if customers already know some of the characters in their passwords; it’s still infeasible to crack these passwords with no prior information.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
What the Ukraine-Russia War Means For the “Clash of Civilizations” (Paul Poast) — Breaks down Samuel Huntington’s oft-cited “clash of civilizations” thesis, which proposed that, after the Cold War, the primary source of geopolitical conflict would be clashing cultures, not opposing ideologies or economic models. This analyst argues that the theory is wrong on its merits (especially given the current war) and, more fundamentally, faces the impossible task of carving up the world into discrete “civilizations.”
Why Evolution is Not a Tree of Life But a Fuzzy Network (Aeon) — Proposes an alternative to the classic “branching tree” model of evolutionary biology. In this “reticulate” model, species don’t just diverge; they can also merge, mix, and swap genes. While the dividing lines between “species” are fuzzy and arbitrary, it’s important not to take this concept too far: there are still biological pressures that keep certain species separate and prevent everything from blending together.
This Is What Happens When There Are Too Many Meetings (The Atlantic) — Shares some surprising research about the work-from-home era: work days have gotten an hour longer, meeting loads have increased 250%, and (in addition to the two normal productivity peaks pre- and post-lunch) there’s a new work peak late at night. The findings imply that “work” and “life” have bled into one another, and the lack of informal chats has led to more meetings being placed on the formal calendar.
Product-Driven Versus Customer-Driven (Ribbonfarm) — Explores two contrasting approaches to business: product-driven (which create visions based on internal ideas and decision-making) and customer-driven (which create visions based on patterns and demands they see in the marketplace). Examines whether these two are mutually exclusive or if they can coexist.
The Outside View (Buttondown) — Suggests that, before we debate an idea or technology on its merits, we should take the “outside view”: are the people promoting it open to discussion and dealing in good faith? The author proposes 9 questions we can ask about the promoters to help figure out whether their idea or technology is worth evaluating more closely.
Climate Change Challenges for Alpine Ski Resorts in Western Canada (UBC) — A deep-dive into how climate change will affect ski resorts over the next half-century. It’s a good example of a specific, scientific analysis of climate change (as opposed to the all-too-common hand wringing), yet still sobering in its implications: “under the worst-case scenario [by 2085] all of the coastal resorts will become much too warm to support winter recreation.”
Workplace Serendipity, Invention, and Lessons from Prohibition (Interconnected) — Examines a study that found that closing saloons during Prohibition reduced patenting in the US by 15%. Alcohol had nothing to do with this drop in creativity — it was all about having liminal spaces where serendipitous, informal interactions could occur. The essay then explores how we could use this insight to make remote work more generative.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
AI, quantum computing, curing cancer... all ambitious challenges have something in common: the stepping stones to get there are unknown. Faced with this challenge, how can we effectively navigate the space of possibility to arrive at our objective? In Stepping Stones in Possibility Space, FLUX’s own Gordon Brander explores a surprising strategy proposed by AI researchers Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman: let go of objectives and embrace stepping stones — a luck-maximization algorithm — instead!
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder (2017, 110 pages).
“Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone else is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”
—Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny
In this book, historian Timothy Snyder distills the lessons from 20th-century European dictatorships into a set of pithy political lessons and suggestions for applying them in the modern day. This short book summarizes insights from many important thinkers, including Hannah Arendt, Umberto Eco, Stanley Milgram, Erich Fromm, and more.
There is also a graphic edition of the book, illustrated by Nora Krug.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: farrago.
Suppose you had never heard of NFTs. How would you figure out what they are? Maybe you’d start with a general internet search, half-watch some videos, follow some links, get sidetracked on some Twitter threads, then jump back to the comment thread on one of the videos. You might not even finish answering your original question of “what is an NFT?” before jumping into a new topic such as DAOs, VC funding, or the state of digital art.
A “farrago” is a confused mixture, a hodgepodge. It is an apt metaphor for how we interact with information in the internet age. Be it a mixture of fact and fiction, a mixture of formal and informal sources of information, or just jumping from one source to another, modern information is rarely consumed in a linear, start-to-finish manner. Gone are the days when an authoritative text was both necessary and sufficient for learning. Instead, we follow where our interests lead, consuming bits of information as they serendipitously come our way. However, this meandering method of learning is not without limitations. Without an authoritative foundation, we may cobble information together, perhaps gaining only a cargo-cult understanding of the topic at hand.
Not every topic needs to be understood from first principles. However, it’s worth occasionally pausing to ask ourselves if our understanding is merely a farrago. Can we connect the pieces, or does our understanding start to fall apart when we try to explain it to someone else? Acknowledging this gap is just a start. When the sources we consume are themselves farragos built upon farragos, finding and recognizing reasonably authoritative sources is a skill in its own right.
🔮📬 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.
// How might the power of insurance companies manifest in the future, given the state of technology and our healthcare system?
// April 2038. Ten people sit silently in a rumbling transport, surrounded by gear. One is asleep.
A younger team member begins to fidget and then pipes up: “Why are we here? I was just on a beach two days ago!”
An older team member, indifferently adjusting their gloves, starts talking with the cadence of an oft-repeated speech. “It’s insurance companies and their profit margins, kid. Vision insurance covers optometrist visits, but medical insurance covers ophthalmologist services.
“An optometrist is an eye doctor that does the basics: examining, diagnosing, and treating eyes. They measure vision and write prescriptions for contacts and glasses. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who performs medical and surgical interventions. They deal with cataract surgery, glaucoma surgery, and the like.
“Optometrists used to make most of their profit from selling glasses and contacts at high markups. But around the late 2010s, people started getting wise to the fact that they could ask for their prescription from the optometrist, then order glasses online at a fraction of the cost. By the mid-2020s, optometry was dying. Optometrists were desperate for new revenue streams.
“The industry received a much-needed injection of new patients and profits in the early 2020s, thanks to the radical increase in myopia and other long-COVID and lockdown-related vision issues. Turns out not going outside and staring at screens for long periods of time is bad for your eyes.
“When the first augmented reality contact lenses appeared on the scene in the mid-2030s, the optometry industry jumped on it hard. Gen A rejected the smartphone as ‘a tool of the old.’ The optometrist and vision insurance profits were immense.
“This is where our Insurance overlords come in. The medical insurance industry wanted a cut. Huge PR campaigns and government lobbying efforts tried to sway public and legislative opinions. The legislation didn’t go anywhere, though, since it ran straight into the quagmire of insurance reform. Things got really nasty for a while. Eventually, a truce was reached between the insurance MegaCorps, carving up territory and profit streams.
“Though, sometimes, someone gets out of line. And we get to enforce the terms of that truce, by whatever means necessary.”
The older team member's voice rises as they stand, grabbing their M41A pulse rifle and strapping on their combat helmet. “And this optometrist set up shop in the wrong megablock! It’s time to get some!”
The sound of weapon checks and body armor adjustments fill the transport.
“And somebody wake up Hicks.”
Myopia is a long-running problem that we've been (sic) blind to.
Some notes here: