🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 61
July 28th, 2022
Episode 61 — July 28th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/61
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Ben Mathes, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Alex Komoroske
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Dimitri Glazkov, 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.
“I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.”
— Poul Anderson
🦄🌁 Disenchantment vs. Mis-enchantment
Sometimes we experience an enchanted time. Things seem to just click. The world is imbued with meaning. Our ideals and goals align with our strategic strengths. Everything just works.
Think back to the experiences Google had as the web first grew enormous: the values of opening information and making it easily accessible lined up with a quickly-growing internet… and large profits. Think of the suburban expansion of mid-20th-century America: ideals of freedom provided by the car, everyone having their own castle, and a safe suburban life created the physical fabric underlying most of the US today. Think of the functionaries of the British Empire during its peak in the 1800s: do your bureaucratic duty in service to the crown and be rewarded with revenue and glory.
We are not saying these situations are good or bad — just that these phenomena felt enchanted to the people on the inside. Often this was because of powerful forces outside the awareness of those on the inside. Google rode on broadband infrastructure and US Defense spending to incubate the internet. Suburban home constructors and inhabitants rode both the highly-subsidized highway infrastructure and subsidized mortgage loans. British bureaucrats rode the highly-subsidized Pax Britannica enforcement of the Royal Navy.
Eventually, enchanted times come to an end, leaving us disenchanted.
Disenchantment is when our values seem to stop working. We keep trying the things that got us there, but they don’t work anymore. The suburban real estate developer builds more cul-de-sacs, but 2008 hits and everything blows up. Google realizes mobile phone usage is growing and apps are becoming the primary way users experience content. The British bureaucrat after World War 2 does the same thing their 1800s predecessors were taught at Oxford, but their empire falls apart anyway.
When in the period of disenchantment, our ideals and values don’t fit the macro forces anymore. The enchantment is gone.
At a moment like this, we are most prone to be wooed by mis-enchantment.
Mis-enchantment is when we try to reinflate some mystical meaning and values into a world where they no longer fit. It can feel like nostalgia: “Make it magical again.” It doesn’t have to be an exact replica of the old ideals. Mis-enchantment can manifest in entirely new sets of ill-fit values that declare to reclaim the past from what the new age has become. Mis-enchantment can be extra dangerous when it flows into moral righteousness. No group is immune to this trap.
We humans desire shared values. Especially after experiencing it once, we want to feel “real” enchantment again. We want to feel that wonderful moment of everything lining up and things clicking into place. In a period of disenchantment, when meaning feels hollow, we are all very susceptible to any plausible story that gets us going. However, it is really hard to find “real” enchantment! We are ripe to become pawns in someone else’s scheme unless we are careful. In extreme cases, mis-enchantment leads to cults like Jim Jones’s People’s Temple.
As the saying goes: you can’t go home again. All we can do is try to make a new home.
So how do we distinguish enchantment from mis-enchantment? From the inside, in the moment of euphoric action (not necessarily progress), it can be hard. We should try to retain awareness of those forces on the outside that enable our feelings of enchantment. Then we can see if we are riding a larger macro force like the internet, highway system, or royal navy. Or if someone is trying to re-inflate a past enchanted bubble that we’d be suckers to fall for.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🛒 E-commerce adoption is returning to its long-term trend after a COVID bump
While e-commerce had been growing steadily throughout the 21st century, it looked like the pandemic had driven a “step function” shift, possibly accelerating the industry’s growth for good. But data from the US Census Bureau reveals that e-commerce adoption has declined after the sudden spike in 2020 — heading right back to its pre-pandemic trajectory.
🚏🇳🇱 Work-from-home may become a legal right in the Netherlands
The lower house of the Dutch parliament passed a bill that would establish work-from-home as a legal right, forcing employers to “consider employee requests to work from home as long as their professions allow it.” If the policy is enacted, the Netherlands would become one of the world’s first countries to codify the right to remote work in law.
🚏🚙 Ford will lay off a quarter of its American workforce as it pivots to electric cars
Earlier this year, Ford internally reorganized itself into two divisions: Ford Blue, which owns its “legacy internal combustion engine” business, and Model E, which focuses on software and electric vehicles. Ford is reportedly now cutting 8,000 jobs from Ford Blue, primarily in the US — which is almost a quarter of Ford’s 31,000 US-based employees. The move will save an estimated $3 billion in operational costs by 2026; the savings will likely contribute to the $50 billion that Ford plans to spend on its shift to EVs.
🚏🥷 Russia launched a malware app that claimed to be for attacking Russian sites
An Android app called CyberAzov appeared on the web, claiming that it would help launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on Russian sites to “help stop Russian aggression against Ukraine.” (The name referenced a Ukrainian militia called the Azov Battalion.) But it turned out this app was malware launched by the Russian government in a bid to identify and track Ukrainian hackers who downloaded it.
🚏💸 The US launched its first-ever cryptocurrency insider trading case
The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York (which often prosecutes financial crimes) charged three men with insider trading of cryptocurrencies — the first case of its kind in US history. The indictment alleges that a former Coinbase product manager tipped off his friend and brother about which cryptocurrencies were going to be listed on Coinbase; using this confidential information, the men bought the coins just before listing and netted a $1.5 million profit. The allegation cites research from a prominent Crypto Twitter influencer as proof of the conspiracy.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Is Everything Getting Old? (The Diff) — Byrne Hobart examines the well-known trend where everything from the most popular movies to Fortune 500 CEOs is steadily getting older. He proposes several possible reasons: increases in life expectancy are keeping people active for longer; the long-term decline in real interest rates is making accumulated skills and connections more important; or the things we’re measuring are outdated, and we’re missing the things that young people are flourishing in, from TikTok to tech startups.
We Dramatically Undervalue Night Transit (Reece Martin Transit) — Argues that night buses have benefits above and beyond the fares and ridership they directly pull in: they make car-free living truly possible by allaying the fear of being stranded in the city at night; they encourage people to make trips during the day, knowing a night bus will be available if they stay late; and they make the city a more vibrant, convenient 24-hour space.
Egypt’s New Capital Is an Ozymandian Nightmare (Adam Something) — Critiques the massive, glitzy new capital city that Egypt’s president is building, highlighting the city’s purposely “anti-revolutionary” design (a favorite of strongmen) and how it caters to the wealthy over Cairo’s lower classes. Then argues that many urbanists get caught up in praising the scale and shininess of construction projects while not thinking about their socioeconomic impacts and context.
Bitcoin as a Meme and a Future (Noema Magazine) — Writes that money, including cryptocurrencies, is a meme: a bit of “powerful magic” that “turns absurdity and cynicism into the kind of true belief that can bend reality.” In this way, cryptocurrencies are similar phenomena to Redditors memeing GameStop stocks ‘to the moon’ or QAnon memeing its way to political power.
Tyler Cowen’s Approach to Leading an Intellectually Fulfilling Life (David Gasca) — A summary of the principles that Cowen (a polymath, podcaster, and prolific writer) uses to maximize his rate of learning. His style involves extensive travel, social learning, gaining the context to appreciate new things, and sampling the best offerings from a variety of obscure fields.
Asymptotic Burnout and Homeostatic Awakening: A Possible Solution to the Fermi Paradox? (The Royal Society) — Observes that interconnected societies exhibit increasing returns to scale (for example, in GDP per capita) and argues that they will therefore experience unbounded growth, resulting in an accelerating thirst for energy. Eventually this growth in resource demand will outpace society’s ability to innovate, and society will hit “asymptotic burnout” and collapse unless it can reorient itself toward a post-growth state of homeostasis.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
A wild Postcard from the Future appears in print form! Issue #9 of CYBR magazine includes a piece of speculative fiction written by FLUX’s own Justin Quimby. The postcard ponders the challenges facing beings who have only ever known a post-singularity world and are trying to understand the mindset of pre-singularity humans.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Nature’s Best Hope by Douglas W. Tallamy (2020, 256 pages).
The flora and fauna in our environment provide many ecological services that are critical to the flourishing of both humans and animals, like water management and air quality improvement. We are currently destroying that ecological capacity. But this book is not about the problems we are causing — rather, it’s about how we can be a small but positive part of the solution.
The book suggests that we need to change our focus from an adversarial approach toward conservation, where it's humans versus nature, to one where we see nature as something that enriches our lives and which we want to encourage everywhere, not just in the places humans don't live. A perfect candidate for creating habitats is lawns —which, despite their greenness, are generally low in biodiversity. What should we plant? Native plants. The ecological functions of native plants far surpass the ecological functions of introduced species. Native plants have developed specific (and often symbiotic) relationships with each other and with native animals. While some animals can adapt to non-native species, many more cannot.
In particular, the authors advise us to use plants that support insects. Insects are foundational to ecosystems. Without insects, plant life — and the rest of life on land — would collapse. Thus, we should focus our landscaping goals on saving insects. Caterpillars and bees are two good species to start with. Most caterpillars are specialized for a few particular plants, which means that they are unable to feed off of invasive plants. We should landscape with plants that appeal to local caterpillars, especially keystone species that support many different types of caterpillars, such as local oak varieties. What’s more, bees are the most efficient pollinators in the insect kingdom. Plants that appeal to specialist local bee species will attract both specialists and generalists.
Learning about how we can support our biological ecosystems helps us to better understand the complex interdependencies of ecosystems in general. This book is a fascinating study of both the specific ways we can use our knowledge of systems thinking to improve our environments, and how we can learn to use the resources at hand to nudge any given ecosystem in the right direction.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: candle focus.
A scene lit by candle can be romantic and intimate. It can also be a bit spooky, hinting at the unknown. The soft, flickering light encourages a relaxed focus on the present moment and the present company.
This soft yet concentrated light can help us explore how we think about attention. Nideffer’s attentional model proposes that our attention can range from broad to narrow. When our external focus is broad, we see many elements of the scene around us, though not in much depth. When it is narrow, we focus on a small number of elements with greater attention. Narrow focus is often associated with blind spots: when we’re so focused on one thing that we don’t see anything else. However, the advantage of narrow attention is that it allows us to notice nuance and details.
The narrow–broad model defines a spectrum, not a binary. If a narrow focus is like a flashlight and a broad focus is like soft daylight, we could think of a candle focus as somewhere in between. When we have a candle focus, we put most of our attention on what’s inside the circle of light, but we reserve some attention for what’s on the edges.
In a physical setting, candle focus could be retaining situational awareness of your surroundings. Mentally, candle focus might look like watching the edges of your area of expertise to keep up with new developments. Having a candle focus is especially useful in situations, like meetings, where you want to engage with the content but also keep an eye on the social subtext.
When you’re trying to achieve a well-defined goal, go for a flashlight-like narrow focus. When you want to absorb a new experience, go for a daylight-like broad focus. However, when you want to keep your focus settled but loose, go for a flickering candle focus.
🔮📬 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.
// When organizations announce bold plans for the future, what schemes might lie behind those grand statements?
// 2027 — a conference room aboard an airship floating somewhere over a trackless desert.
A formally-dressed person at the head of the table rises to speak.
“Investors M., B., A., G., B., and others, thank you for coming to this exclusive introduction to Horizontal City. As I am sure your personal assistants and family office staff have told you, Horizontal City is our nation’s bold investment, creating a city for 8 million people, only 300 meters wide, but 150 kilometers long and 600 meters above sea level.
“There are many who have written about how this is a ‘flight of fancy.’ I am here to tell you that they are wrong. There is a reason why we were so insistent on the NDAs, as well as you attending this in person, and alone.
“We believe humanity is at a precipice. Climate change is wreaking havoc across the globe. Global elites fly to global climate conferences on private planes while nothing changes. There are no systemic actions being taken.
“If these ‘leaders’ will not take action, we will. Once Horizontal City is completed, Phase 2 will begin.
“A series of flights will seed the upper atmosphere, increasing the overall cloud cover and albedo, thus reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. A small underground tactical thermonuclear explosion will trigger an eruption of the Yellowstone caldera. Combined with a series of ‘failures’ at key CO2-emitting facilities, the Earth will slide into mini-ice age. And the Yellowstone eruption will alter the Earth’s rotation axis.
“The habitable zone for the planet will shift. Your real estate holdings in New Zealand, Wisconsin, and Switzerland will not be so good anymore.
“The most valuable real estate will be that which lies in the new habitable zone. In our city, Horizontal City.
“You have a chance to buy some of the most valuable real estate of the next two centuries. Are you in, or do you want to drop out?”