🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 49
April 28th, 2022
Episode 49 — April 28th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/49
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Spencer Pitman, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Julka Almquist, Ben Mathes, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton
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.
“[The] golden rule of level design: finish your first level last."
— John Romero, designer of the video games Doom and Wolfenstein 3D
🔎 When a lens becomes a crutch
Well-worn lenses can be reliable aids for understanding, but sometimes, they can become defensive tools. In this orientation, you could say that the lens has become a crutch.
For example, Adult Development Theory (as described by psychologists like Robert Kegan) can be a powerful lens for self-understanding. However, when groups lean too hard on the idea of developmental stages, an interesting dynamic can emerge: certain people are derisively labeled as being at “lower” stages — particularly those advocating a different perspective. In some cases this may be a kind of self-aware ironic joking, but it also comes up in scenarios where the intent is clearly to judge and/or dismiss. To use adult development stages as a bludgeon in this way is to misunderstand the dynamism and conditional nature of these stages.
Using a lens as a crutch can get in the way of making meaningful assessments. A litmus test to determine if a lens is being misused is to see how someone responds to collaborative debate that uses their same lens to defend a different assessment of the subject. If they respond openly and actively evolve their assessment, then the lens may have just produced a “strong opinion loosely held.” But if they are defensive or resistant to debate, the lens is likely functioning as a judgemental crutch.
This harmful overreliance can play out with any lens. A common offender is mis-application of the cynefin model, in which bad people/companies are “complicated” and good ones are “complex.” A lens used as a crutch can also show up as a blindspot. Instead of providing insight, it is used to construct a superficial narrative. In the case of adult development theory, that might be the self-aggrandizement of having “achieved” a certain desirable state without having done the hard work of self-discovery and growth. Crutches can also be weaponized when the language from a lens is used to win arguments. As we saw above, Kegan’s stages might be used to portray others as having categorically undesirable or “lower orders” of function. Those who are different are seen as less “enlightened.”
Too often, a technique or lens that is evidence of some insight is mistaken for that insight itself. As the psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi put it, “The patient is not cured by free-association. He is cured when he can free-associate.”
These misuses are things that the disciplined application of lenses should help us avoid. When working with lenses, especially the ones that we hold dearly and return to over and over again, it is wise to frequently gut-check our thinking. We want to make sure that we are looking through, rather than leaning on, a given lens.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🥶 Twitter instituted a feature freeze to stymie disgruntled employees
After Elon Musk placed his successful bid to buy Twitter, many of the firm’s employees were reportedly rattled. Some worried about possible changes to content moderation policies, others were nervous about layoffs, and yet others wondered what would happen to employee retention without stock grants. To prevent employees from “going rogue” and making “unauthorized changes” to the product, Twitter effectively froze its codebase for the rest of the week: until Friday, any non-business-critical product change will require VP approval.
🚏👩🏽🎤 Anitta fans coordinated to game Spotify’s algorithm and make her song #1
A group of fans of the Brazilian singer Anitta wanted to inflate the popularity of her new song, Envolver. So, they coordinated on Twitter to game Spotify’s algorithm and push the track to the #1 spot. On Spotify, a song played endlessly on repeat is picked up as bot behavior, but a song played repeatedly on a playlist and from different accounts circumvents this check. The fans successfully used this workaround to juice Envolver’s popularity, giving it a weekend in the #1 spot and making Anitta the most-streamed Brazilian artist on Spotify.
🚏🚙 Tesla batteries may be switching away from cobalt
Lithium-ion batteries have traditionally made heavy use of cobalt, but the metal has become a predicted bottleneck for battery production and has generated a human rights controversy for the electric car companies that use it. This week, Tesla confirmed that about half of its new vehicles are using cobalt-free lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries. (LFP batteries have long had less energy density than ones that contained cobalt, but LFPs have improved enough that they’re now usable for lower-end and shorter-range vehicles.)
🚏🇲🇽 Mexico nationalized its lithium industry
The price of lithium has skyrocketed recently — it’s up almost 700% in the last two years — thanks in large part to a boom in electric cars and battery backup systems. While Mexico only has one operational lithium mine, the country is estimated to have over a million tons of reserves in the ground. Perhaps realizing this, the Mexican government passed a bill nationalizing the country’s fledgling lithium industry, giving the state the exclusive right to search for and mine the valuable metal.
🚏✂️ A small tweak made CRISPR gene editing 4000x less error-prone
The gene-editing protein CRISPR-Cas9, which many scientists say is revolutionizing medicine, is adept at identifying certain DNA snippets and replacing them with new sequences. But researchers found that, in some cases, the protein would find a partially-correct sequence (matching just 18 of the 20 DNA bases that it was searching for) and replace it anyway — its overzealous pattern-matching was causing “off-target mutations.” By removing a small structure that caused this “auto-correcting,” the researchers were able to prevent this CRISPR misbehavior, making the tool 4,000 times less likely to produce off-target mutations.
🚏📺 The CNN+ streaming service is shuttering after just 3 weeks
In March, CNN launched a much-awaited new streaming service called CNN+, calling it the “most important launch for the network since Ted Turner.” But the company recently announced that CNN+ would shut down just 3 weeks after launch. Meanwhile, platforms and formats where anyone can publish (podcasts, TikToks, YouTube videos, etc.) are continuing to grow, with nearly zero marginal cost to produce.
🚏💐 New companies are emerging to help crypto owners with inheritance
Unlike with traditional banking, there’s no built-in way for a crypto holder’s family to get control of their crypto assets once they pass away — without a wallet’s private key, it’s mathematically impossible to unlock its funds (and many people purposely keep their private keys in hard-to-find spots). Some new decentralized finance startups promise to help solve this problem without taking custody of private keys, such as by splitting your keys across multiple beneficiaries and activating them if you don’t respond to a certain email in a set amount of time. (The centralized crypto exchange Coinbase, meanwhile, will hand over crypto assets if an heir can prove that they’re legally entitled to them.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The War in Ukraine Has Unleashed a New Word (NYT Magazine) — Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny, explains the many layers of meaning behind the word “ruscism,” which many Ukrainians are using to describe the Russian invasion. There’s more to the word than just “Russia” + “fascism”; it subtly references Ukraine’s identity as a bilingual country and includes a nod to English to poke fun at Russia.
Community Input Is Bad, Actually (The Atlantic) — Argues that community input into local development projects might once have been a necessary tool to counterbalance centralized decision-making, but now it’s largely a venue for a handful of (usually wealthy) people to veto progress on housing, mass transit, renewable energy, and other essential infrastructure.
Cozy Games (Lost Garden) — A deep-dive into building “cozy” games: those that provide an environment of safety, lack of stress, and aesthetic softness. These games help players practice skills in a low-stakes environment and fulfill needs higher up in Maslow’s hierarchy, such as self-actualization and belonging. Specific imagery, audio, aesthetics, mechanics, and rituals can either foster coziness or destroy it.
The Foul Financials of Cryptocurrency (Crypto Critics’ Corner) — A podcast interview with an incoming Wharton professor about the problems with auditing and bad actors in the cryptocurrency space.
Netflix Is Not a Tech Company (Benedict Evans) — Argues that technology is necessary but not sufficient for the success of a streaming service like Netflix. While cutting-edge tech was a useful “crowbar” to help Netflix break into the market, that tech has become a commodity, and the questions that really matter for Netflix are all TV questions.
Vaccine Emoji Comes to Life (Emojipedia) — Tells the tale of how COVID and vaccines led companies to remove the blood from the syringe emoji (💉), thus making it more universal. This raises more questions: for instance, why is there only a red wine glass emoji (🍷), not a white one? What’s more, Apple famously changed its pistol emoji into a toy water gun (🔫) in 2016, causing widespread upset. When is it OK to repurpose existing emoji, and when is it not?
The Future of Substack (Uncharted Territories) — Describes how Substack has a credible path to becoming an internet-native version of newspapers like the New York Times. Digs into some useful creator-economy concepts around aggregation, walled gardens, disintermediation, network effects, and bundling subscriptions.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe (1998, 187 pages).
Stilgoe starts this book with a call to action: “Get out now.” He encourages getting outside to notice everyday things, to become aware of your surroundings, to enrich your life. Though the book was published in 1998 — well before smartphones — it already contained references like, “abandon… the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money.” Although tech resistance has become an old trope, Stilgoe is not waxing nostalgic for less tech-filled times. Instead he advocates for creating space for unstructured experiences that keep us connected to the world around us.
This book is a manifesto for the art of intimate exploration. When on foot or on a bike, you engage with your environment with more nuance and detail than when in a car. The book’s chapters are structured as a sort of conceptual guidebook. Stilgoe focuses on simple patterns like stripes, lines, and enclosures and then follows ideas and tangents, going deeper into their history and the larger systems in which they exist. While there is an element of privilege in the call to spend time outside exploring, there is something deeply accessible about finding inspiration in what is right in front of us. This book also serves as an excellent entry point into experience-based learning.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Getting lost.
The land artist Richard Long walks as part of his practice. He walks for miles in unfamiliar landscapes. When asked by an interviewer if he ever gets lost, he replied that he has found many ways of getting lost, but that he never gets fundamentally lost. The risk of not knowing where he is connects Long to his creative practice. His experience suggests there is something profound to learn from this subtle disorientation.
Getting lost is about more than geography. We can be lost in our careers, our projects, our relationships. In our world of hyper-productivity and maximizing efficiency, we have endless tools to get us back on track (maps, GPS, planning software, etc.). These gadgets are always at hand, providing certainty about where we are and what we should be doing. This certainty, though, can limit us. It can lead to calcified routines and diminished curiosity. Tools that orient prompt us to focus our gaze on them — instead of the world at large. If you are always oriented, you may miss the signals and ideas that could also help you find a new way. You may lose out on opportunities to drift and daydream.
There can be fear or even danger in feeling unmoored. But in most cases, you might discover that this was only a temporary sense of disorientation. It is empowering to rely on our own resources to make sense of where we are. When we let go of our well-worn paths and orienting tools, we notice new things, change our relationship to our context, and find direction from unexpected sources.
🔮📬 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.
// As the automated generation of content becomes more and more pervasive, what unintended consequences might arise?
// April 2051. A person sits at a desk, wearing a headset. A light blinks on the desk. They stop bouncing a ball off the wall, click a button, and accept the call.
“Thanks for contacting Memorex Adjustments. How can we help you?
“Ah, yes, your aging Gen-X relative is having memory problems. You aren’t alone. Given the advancing age of Gen-Xers and when they started using our products, it’s becoming more and more common these days.
“Cave Johnson did some pioneering work in the 2030s generating soap operas and reality TV shows using AI and ML systems. But while the Millennials and Gen Z jumped on it instantly, it took a while for most Gen-X’ers to start using them to shape their media consumption. They resisted the siren song of having their entire media landscape custom-built to reinforce their own particular worldview, as they clung to their antiquated notions of ‘durable real experiences.’
“The fractured and chaotic 2040s were a landscape of climate change, insurrections, political revolution, and economic instability, along with a media ecosystem flooded by AI-generated content. This decade was the tipping point. En masse, people plugged into AI-moderated reality filters. The mildest form acted like antique network firewalls: tweaking, blocking, and adjusting incoming data streams. The most extreme were the Aperture Science cornea and eardrum replacements, which adjusted audio and visual perception in real time for the subject.
“But then the problem is that these media reality generators can degrade, creating splintered realities that in no way correspond to the real world. Without constant alignment, people no longer have shared stories. And what one person saw as the fall of the Berlin Wall was seen by someone else as the collapse of the West.
“The good news is that we at Memorex now have several ways of adjusting these content systems and the memories they created.
“The most gradual involves nudging the patient’s media model over the course of a year. Taking advantage of recent advances in memory/image replacement for trauma victims, we tweak the memory landscape into the desired alignment. A year is a long time, so we also can take a month or two to take the most compromised memories of events and turn them into a dream sequence from a movie, while substituting them with real-world events. Our team of memory storytellers, assisted by the latest GPT-24 systems, custom-tailor memories for the client.
“Our two most extreme measures are potentially much more traumatic for the patient. The first is a full-blown memory replacement, where we fabricate a whole new set of memories and then overwrite existing ones. The challenge with this approach is that some Gen-X folks still keep offline written journals, records, keepsakes, and the like. We scrub the physical environment as well, but if they do discover an older journal hidden away, it can result in full blown client psychosis.
“The final option is a hard reset of the memory and content generation systems. Gen X is the last group of folks we can actually do this on, as they grew up in an analog world. The challenge is that the patient has to acknowledge and confront the fact that their understanding of the world is false. Some folks can adjust to this, but we require a significant screening process.
“So let’s talk more about the patient and if we can help.”