🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 60
July 21st, 2022
Episode 60 — July 21st, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/60
Contributors to this issue: Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman
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.
“Which do you fear more: a future where technology allows machines to become clones of human life or one where humans are equivalent to automated machines?”
— Gentle Monster
🚴🏁 Mental model shortcuts
People are unbelievably complex. We don’t have to go far to verify that. Just remember the last time you agonized over seemingly simple things or found yourself puzzling over why you said or did something you absolutely didn’t want to.
Throughout our lives, we build mental models of ourselves, trying to better understand our own preferences, inclinations, habits, desires, and revulsions. As we mature and grow older, we recognize how we change over time, and the complexity of our mental model of self grows with us.
However, when pressed to predict what others will do, we often take one of two common shortcuts: we construct rigid, simplistic mental models of people, or we reuse our mental model of ourselves, assuming others will behave mostly like we would. We use the first shortcut for those outside of our ingroup and largely reserve the second shortcut (known in psychology as social projection) for those within the group.
The process of taking a shortcut is automatic and something we do so naturally that we rarely notice. Of course, those other people we don’t know are a bunch of crude non-player characters, blindly and deterministically following their scripts. Of course, those who are close and important to us are like us. The process works both ways, subconsciously guiding us to cluster with people whose behaviors appear to resemble ours. “Finding my tribe” and “belonging” are terms filled with relief and hope, while encountering a mental model difference or the surprising depth of an “automaton” can be jarring.
It is no surprise, then, that when we make products for others, we repeat the same patterns. We either build products for a faceless user who is but a stick figure of needs in our minds. Or we build the products for users who are exactly like ourselves. In the former case, the best outcome is that we make a thing that no real person wants. In the latter case, we find a much narrower audience than we perhaps intended. Or things can take a turn for the worse: the product that’s a caricature of user needs might tap into society’s id and sprawl into a cancerous pathology, while the “for users just like me” product might end up reinforcing systemic biases.
If we are to steer clear of these unhappy endings, it helps to recognize that a) all people are complex and b) trying to grasp the full extent of such complexity is too overwhelming for us to grapple with. So it’s inevitable that our minds will take a shortcut to resolve this paradox and avoid analysis paralysis.
But, as we’ve seen, these shortcuts can cause problems of their own. The best we can do is to be more conscious of this simplification process. It takes practice and patience, but it is possible to make that automatic mental leap more deliberate. In some cases, it does indeed help to simplify. In others, it helps to connect with our own experiences. As long as we are intentional about making these choices, we’re more likely to create things that uplift humanity as a whole.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🚢 Europe’s heatwave almost made the Rhine too shallow for shipping
The Rhine, which has long been a vital waterway for moving goods through west-central Europe, saw its water level drop to just 30 inches at a key bottleneck in western Germany. That’s the lowest water level at this time of year since 2007, and if the water drops 14.5 more inches, the river there will become effectively impassable for barges — thus cutting off much of Germany, France, and Switzerland from global commodities markets.
🚏🪙 Researchers made a plastic microchip that can be printed for under 1¢
A team of researchers has created a simplified 4-bit processor that can be printed on tiny, flexible sheets of plastic for less than a penny each while maintaining a high yield. These chips make some significant tradeoffs to hit this ambitious price target: ditching silicon, which requires too much “blank space” at the edge of the chip; radically simplifying the CPU design; and using just 2100 transistors, about the same number as chips from the early 1970s.
🚏🎙 Hackers are using deepfaked voice and video to apply for remote jobs
The FBI announced that it’s seen an uptick in people using stolen identities to apply for remote jobs at “IT, programming, database, and software firms.” During interviews, these hackers use deepfake audio and video techniques (or just old-fashioned voice changers) to make them look and sound like the people they’re impersonating. It appears that the hackers are angling for jobs that have access to “sensitive customer or employee data” and financial data about the companies.
🚏📽 China is tightening its rules on livestreamers’ conduct
New regulations by the Chinese government take aim at livestreamers, prohibiting 31 types of conduct while they’re streaming — from “showing an extravagant lifestyle” to “building up” sensitive issues to criticizing the ruling Communist Party. New guidelines also require influencers to have “relevant qualifications” to discuss law, finance, medicine, and education in their videos. (In recent years, several prominent Chinese influencers have been slammed with fines for tax evasion, disappeared, and/or seen their social media accounts vanish.)
🚏💬 Amazon has developed an AR live captioning prototype
A team at Amazon has created a prototype mixed-reality mobile app that can overlay live captions onto a speaker’s body when a user points their device at them. The prototype combines speech-to-text technology with AR body-tracking techniques to ensure the captions follow the speaker as they move around a room. The team believes that this technology will be a big win for accessibility and will be most useful with hands-free, mixed-reality headsets.
🚏🌤 Two cloud vendors had to shut down UK data centers during the heatwave
When the temperature in southeastern England hit a record-melting 40 ºC (104 ºF), the cooling systems in Oracle’s cloud datacenters couldn’t keep up, and Oracle had to shut down numerous servers to avoid damaging the machines; this knocked networking, storage, and computation resources offline. Meanwhile, Google Cloud said some of its UK cloud services were “experiencing elevated error rates, latencies, or service unavailability” due to a cooling failure in a London-based datacenter; it then “powered down” some of the affected machines.
🚏💽 A Japanese city worker lost a flash drive with personal data on 460,000 residents
A contractor working for the government of Amagasaki, Japan put the personal details of the town’s 460,000 inhabitants — their names, addresses, dates of birth, bank account numbers, and tax histories — on a flash drive when he wanted to transfer data between government offices. But after a night of heavy drinking, the man realized he’d lost the USB stick and the 460,000 personal records on it. The city apologized and vowed to improve its handling of sensitive electronic data.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Second Derivative of Vibes (Kyla Scanlon) — Diagnoses the current economy with a “vibecession”: economic indicators seem fine, yet people feel like a recession is going on. This is a sign that there’s a disconnect between data and reality, which suggests that narratives and reality interact in ways we can’t easily analyze. One potential factor is inflation, which makes us more certain of being uncertain, and thus drives negative “vibes.”
For Productivity Geeks, Futility Is a Relief and a Starting Point (Herbert Lui) — Argues that accepting our human limitations (that we have a finite amount of time, energy, etc.) is liberating for productivity geeks everywhere, since it frees them from the treadmill of always seeking to achieve more, more, more.
China’s Major Tax Problem (Economics Explained) — Argues that the Chinese government has a surprisingly hard time controlling the country’s economy if it’s going “in any direction but up”: the illegibility of the informal economy makes it hard to levy taxes, so fiscal policy becomes ineffectual. Plus, local government finances in China rely on the housing market appreciating endlessly, which only works if the real estate bubble keeps inflating (which it isn’t anymore).
Russia's “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model (RAND Corporation) — An analysis of modern Russian propaganda, which relies on a continuous barrage of invented and inconsistent information. It takes less time to fabricate facts than it does to verify them, and first impressions are very resilient. The authors argue that this is a wicked problem; don’t expect to “counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth.”
Please Make a Dumb Car (TechCrunch) — A relatable rant criticizing modern cars for evolving into yet another overbearing device, of which we have too many. The prototypical large touchscreen display in the middle of the console is overloaded for controlling everything from windshield wiper frequency to in-cab temperature to audio volume. Marketed as the next generation in mobility, this is largely a cost-saving measure that cuts down on part numbers.
Hunting and Farming (Ben Reinhardt) — Describes two ways that organizations tend to gather new ideas: seeking out people who are believed to already have good ideas (hunting) or trying to develop new ideas in-house (farming). Argues that both methods have their failure modes, but our economy has leaned too far toward hunting — an “extractive and zero-sum process,” in the writer’s eyes.
Weberian Bureaucracy (Babson University) — Describes Max Weber’s thesis that bureaucratic power structures evolved out of (and largely replaced) traditional organizational forms like feudalism. By using rigid and legible rules, strict hierarchies, impersonal means of dispute resolution, and meritocratic employment, bureaucracies become (in theory) less fickle and more consistent, and they can scale up more effectively.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend How to Think More Effectively by The School of Life (Author) and Alain de Botton (Editor) (2020, 153 pages).
The short book is structured as a series of descriptions of different types of thinking, each in its own chapter. Each chapter includes a helpful guide — a mental maneuver — to get into this particular kind of thinking and a rubric of when this type of thinking might come handy. All these chapters are brought together into a story of how, in order to thrive, we must adopt a variety of ways to think. Starting from strategic thinking and ending with skepticism, with “mad” thinking and death thinking in the middle, and written in an uplifting, optimistic voice, the book sparkles with insights. If your mind is feeling stale or in a rut, give this book a look.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: footguns.
A footgun is a colloquialism that describes a feature or a process that is extremely likely to cause serious problems in the future — it’s almost designed to make us shoot ourselves in the foot. Though this term is primarily used by software engineers, it’s widely applicable and can serve as a useful lens. Anytime we get a sense that the downside has suddenly become uncapped, with the “floor” collapsing beneath us, the “footgun” moniker is a perfect way to point at the object we suspect is the cause of the imminent danger.
Nobody ever starts out building a footgun, so the slow emergence of a footgun is always fascinating. Sometimes it starts as a bunch of random bits that don’t feel harmful yet, like all those extra odds and ends that we add to our products just because they sound neat. But the next moment, we turn to realize that we’re shackled with the burden of maintaining this interlocked, impossible-to-untangle mess. Other times, a footgun begins as a seeming stroke of genius, the best idea ever. We commit resources and pursue the idea with abandon, and are shocked when we get overrun by its terrible side effects.
Sometimes we accidentally build footguns for other people. In one trading app, the “delete order” button is right next to the “place order” button, making it likely that someone loses their work when they “fat-finger” the delete button by accident — or someone could accidentally place an order they meant to delete. These footguns are (hopefully) not created intentionally, but the designers only realize their mistake once it’s burned their users.
But all too often, we end up getting hobbled by footguns of our own creation. While we might be sorely tempted to blame someone else for our woes, the footgun lens could be a humbling reminder and a call for reflection: how did we manage to shoot ourselves in the foot? And when getting excited about a new cool idea, it might be a good move to ask: am I making a footgun?