🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 62
August 4th, 2022
Episode 62 — August 4th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/62
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Justin Quimby, Ade Oshineye, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov, Spencer Pitman
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Dart Lindsley
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.
“She sowed in my mind the idea that reality is not only what we see on the surface; it has a magical dimension as well and, if we so desire, it is legitimate to enhance it and color it to make our journey through life less trying.”
— Isabel Allende
🛣️🚗 Life at the interoperability layer
In technology, the interoperability layer is a pattern that allows different systems to exchange information. For example, Apple Messages and Google Messages both use SMS as an interoperability layer so that people can communicate across different platforms. Similarly, through the standardization of connectors and drivers, different types of hardware can talk to different operating systems, allowing people a wider variety of peripheral choices.
In society, the interoperability layer is often defined by laws and norms. Through these means, society defines the least common denominator “interface” one must live by to be considered a full participant in society. Sometimes, these elements reflect moral claims with near universal acceptance, such as prohibitions against murder. Others are arbitrary decisions that enable smooth cooperation, such as which side of the road to drive on or norms about standing in line. People may attempt to use the interoperability layer to shift how we see society and its members — pick any battle in the culture wars as an example.
Interoperability is powerful. It can allow diverse elements to work together, prevent user lock-in, enable designing for emergence, and allow for a useful separation of concerns. However, interoperability’s shortcomings are embedded in its power. By requiring shared, commonly understood interfaces — whether in hardware, software, or policy — interoperability limits the expressible world to what is captured by the common interface; features outside this lowest common denominator are often left on the cutting room floor. An interoperability layer is a projection of potential onto an intentionally constrained space. As Ryan Muldoon says in Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World, “A projection takes a higher-dimensional object down to a lower dimension, and in the process, some information is necessarily lost.”
Any time we build on an interoperability layer, whether a technological one or a social one, we need to decide whether or not we hold ourselves to its limits — or expand them a bit for those in a shared space, be it those on the same operating system or those with similar ethical values. As valuable as the interoperability layer is, going beyond it is sometimes necessary to help a system evolve. Someone has to try something and showcase its value before it gets added to the standard (well, unless you want useless bloat).
When it comes to our social lives — our values, interests, community groups, and more — however, the need to live beyond the interoperability layer becomes imperative. As Muldoon notes, the social interoperability layer is, in a diverse society, necessarily and intentionally impoverished. It must be to allow for diversity to flourish. Limiting your life to the interoperability layer, confusing following the laws and norms of society with leading a flourishing, well-lived life, means that you will be missing out on all that makes life worth living.
There’s a flipside to this too. While it is important to work to shift the norms and laws of society to those that are more just and equitable for all, we must also be aware of the risk that comes with encoding too much of our personal value system into the interoperability layer. Just as a hug from a child means less if a parent forces them to give it, turning voluntary values into social requirements diminishes them.
We need interoperability layers. Without them, we would be limited to deeply-customized, low adoption interfaces. However, even when we embrace them, we must also be willing to go beyond them. When it comes to our lives, it is these “deeply-customized interfaces” — our relationships and values — that bring meaning.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🐝 The RNA tech used in COVID-19 is being used to protect honeybees
A biotechnology company is using RNA technology — the same tech used in Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines — to hinder the reproduction of varroa mites, which are parasites that are largely responsible for the staggering death rates facing honeybees across the world. The RNA treatment seems to be making bees healthier, and unlike chemical methods of controlling the mites, it doesn’t harm the bees at all.
🚏🤖 Bots are trying to scam each other on crypto Telegram groups
After the latest crypto crash, enthusiastic day-traders and con artists alike largely abandoned crypto trading Telegram groups; the only accounts left in these groups are bots who shill for crypto exchanges, spam advertisements for cryptocurrencies, or try to phish suckers. But without humans around, these bots mostly talk to each other — one bot asked for trading advice and got multiple auto-generated responses. (Telegram veterans say that, once human moderators leave, it’s only a matter of time before the bots take over.)
🚏👩⚖️ Wikipedia articles influenced judges’ legal reasoning in a recent study
MIT’s AI lab ran a randomized controlled trial where they wrote 150 new Wikipedia articles on Irish Supreme Court cases, but only uploaded half of them (randomly selected) to the web. They found that the cases that had articles got 20% more citations in judicial decisions; the effect was even stronger for cases that supported the argument that the judge was making. The text of these decisions also appeared similar to the cited Wikipedia articles, suggesting that the judges (or their clerks) were paraphrasing what they’d read on Wikipedia.
🚏🚇 Switzerland has green-lit an automated underground freight network
A Swiss project called Cargo Sous Terrain aims to build underground tunnels across Switzerland to quickly ship small volumes of freight across the country. The tunnels act as a sort of automated conveyor belt, where items are loaded onto driverless vehicles that automatically travel through the network. In December, the Swiss parliament approved the legal framework for underground freight transport, and the project is slated to start this month. The project’s sponsors estimate that, when completed, it could reduce the number of heavy trucks on Swiss roads by up to 40%.
🚏🚙 Ford will prevent electric car leasers from buying their cars after the lease
Lease-to-own programs are popular in the car industry, but Ford has announced that anyone who starts leasing a Ford electric vehicle going forward will not be able to do this “end-of-lease buyout.” Analysts suspect this could be a sign that the auto market is moving to a fully ‘cars-as-a-service’ model “where manufacturers ultimately retain ownership of all relevant assets.” Or, they think, Ford could just be trying to take advantage of high used car prices.
🚏📸 A photographer used DALL-E 2 to sharpen blurry images
A photographer erased a blurry part of a picture of a ladybug and then fed it into the DALL-E 2 image generation system, telling the AI to generate a “focus stacked high-resolution” photo. While DALL-E wasn’t made for this type of postprocessing, it generated some almost photorealistic images. The photographer also took a picture of a bird bathing in a drainage ditch, erased the bird, and then told DALL-E to place a baby elephant there.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Hopepunk, Optimism, Purity, and Futures of Hard Work (Ada Palmer) — Describes the genre of hopepunk, which combines the grungy, “fight the man” aesthetic of punk with the “we deserve a better world” mantra of hope. Hopepunk rejects the satisfying “burn-it-all-down” conclusions of grimdark or dystopian fiction in favor of chronicling the difficult work of building better systems, and it rejects the purity of stereotypical “Disney princess stories.”
The People of the Cloud (Aeon) — An anthropologist visits Boston, Iceland, Puerto Rico, and Arizona to meet the workers who keep cloud data centers running 24/7. He explores the varied cultures that emerge around data centers, the stories these crews tell about their jobs (comparing their work to that of mariners, priests, or firefighters), and how data centers integrate in their surrounding communities.
Where Did the Long Tail Go? (Ted Gioia) — A look back at Chris Anderson's starry-eyed take on the future of the internet in his 2006 book The Long Tail, which predicted that the internet would flourish into a world of endless choices for every fringe interest under the sun. In retrospect, rather than “selling less of more,” the internet has come back under the influence of aggregators and centralization — so we are losing the long tail and returning back to normal economics: selling more of less.
The False Promise of the Lower-Cost-of-Living State (Jeff McNamee) — A former Floridian writes that the apparent lower cost of living in the US’s Sun Belt is much less clear-cut than it appears: much of the taxation is shifted away from legible forms (such as income tax) and toward illegible ones (such as obscure surcharges on home and auto insurance); income-earning opportunities are generally worse; and lower land values usually correlate with fewer amenities and lower desirability.
Is Reduced Visual Processing the Price of Language? (Brain Sciences) — Examines how hyper-realistic cave paintings were eventually replaced with symbolic ones, suggesting that there’s a tradeoff between visual ability and linguistic/symbolic ability. Then explores how this interacted with human evolution, how some neuroatypical modern humans show that our biology still makes this tradeoff, and what we can learn about the cognition of other primates.
The Rise of Social Orthodoxy (2014) (Commentary) — A personal account of an as-yet-unnamed splinter movement in the Jewish Modern Orthodox denomination, which seeks to find a new point on the spectrum, closer to modernity and further from orthodoxy, while still fully embracing the Jewish idea of na’aseh v’nishma: engaging first in religious practices and letting matters of faith come later.
The World After Capital in 64 Theses (Continuations) — Summarizes the key points of Albert Wenger’s book about how we can navigate the tumultuous transition from the Industrial Age (where capital is scarce) to the Knowledge Age (where attention is scarce). Discusses how our industrial-era institutions have succumbed to “narrative vacuum exploited by nihilist forces,” the three types of freedom we need to enhance, the key tenets of humanism, and how we can move our economic systems past capitalism.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything by Jane McGonigal (2022, 531 pages).
Future-thinking is a valuable practice for any systems thinker, and this book serves as an excellent guide for it. Jane McGonigal is eager to help you get acquainted with the concept of imagining things that haven’t happened yet. The book uses examples from real future-thinking sessions and even provides a set of three well-designed simulation settings to help get your own session going.
Future-thinking explores things that may never happen, despite our efforts. That is okay! The goal is not to predict the future, but to remove our blinders and take a broader look forward. What are the things that, however unlikely, could nevertheless happen and change everything? How might people react to such change? What behavior patterns might emerge? And what would these patterns reveal about our understanding of the present?
By training our future-thinking muscles, we gain flexibility. As the author puts it:
“If you hate it, if you find it ridiculous, or if you have moral and ethical concerns burning you up as you imagine it — great! You have found a scenario that will help you practice taking in information that makes you uncomfortable. This is a crucial imagination-training skill.”
This book is full of helpful techniques and handy exercises to help us train our imagination, and the vivid and playful way with which the author brings the future-thinking scenarios to life leaves us in awe of what a well-trained imagination might feel like.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: lens portmanteau.
Sometimes one lens isn’t enough to express an interesting dynamic of a system. Imagine if we believe that a certain outcome was extremely unlikely. However, by digging just a little bit deeper and talking to people in the know, we’ll realize that it has been a long time coming — and, when it finally played out, the result had been predicted by the experts with surprising accuracy. Our recent (and ongoing) experience with a global pandemic might be a good instance of a scenario like this.
When grasping for an analogy to express such a phenomenon, we can rely on portmanteaus, the technique that’s been employed to manufacture quirky neologisms out of well-known concepts. Take “costume” and “role play” – and you’ve got a “cosplay.” Smash together “situational” and “comedy” to get a catchier “sitcom.” Similarly, to describe that “seemingly-rare-but-actually-obvious” scenario, we don’t have to invent a brand-new lens. We can grab the “black swan” lens and the “elephant in the room” lens and portmanteau them together into a “black elephant”: an impactful event that appears hard-to-predict — like a “black swan” — but is actually manifesting itself very clearly in the present, albeit mostly ignored — like an “elephant in the room”. The new combined lens is just as easy to understand, since it combines two already-familiar lenses, and it also describes a nuance that would otherwise leave us struggling for words.
The process of portmanteau-ing lenses has another useful side effect: we get to be playful with our lenses, looking at them this way and that. By messing around and combining them into new, perhaps even nonsensical lenses, we exercise our muscle of not getting too attached to the lenses of our own — and who knows, maybe we’ll find novel ways of looking at the world around us. Anyone up for puzzling out what a “Tuckman’s S-curve” might be?
🔮📬 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.
// The opening scene of the 2049 Oscar-winning film “The Appalachian Refugees”
Two weathered people clad in Carhartts sit at a table. Between them sits a half-drunk bottle of whiskey surrounded by stacks of paperwork. A bare bulb overhead sways slightly in the evening breeze.
Bullard: I don’t know what we are going to do. <Downs a shot>
Trippe: Seriously. We’re screwed. <Downs a shot>
Bullard: You and me are both 10th-generation Appalachians. How are we supposed to deal with this?
Trippe: We’ve had to fight for everything. And now, after decades of trying to get people to come to Appalachia, now we’ve got too many people… and still not enough money!
[In unison]: Blame the Dutch!
Bullard: <Hiccups> The Dutch were supposed to be smart! They built all those dikes to fend off the sea. And when the water started rising in the 2030s, the oh-so-smart Dutch started investing in their national cryptocurrency to build at a level never before seen!
Trippe: And then the entire Arctic sheet collapsed on the SAME DAY someone found a bug in their smart contract.
Bullard: So now we’ve got 5 million Dutch refugees that the government is relocating here, on high ground, but with no supplies or support.
Trippe: And all their money is worthless!
<In unison, they down a shot>