🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 63
August 11th, 2022
Episode 63 — August 11th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/63
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Dart Lindsley, Ade Oshineye, Scott Schaffter, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, 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.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
— James Baldwin
♨️🐸 Escape of the boiling frogs
One of humanity’s superpowers is our adaptability. We can survive close to anywhere on Earth, deal with unfamiliar circumstances, and still pull through. We can adapt to extreme climates, albeit in limited ways. When COVID hit, we — at the cost of great suffering — adapted on a global scale. Argentina has gotten used to over 30% annual inflation since 2018. These situations might not be ideal, but we make it work, and that is truly amazing.
But this same adaptability can be harmful when it leads us to forget that what we consider “normal” may not be what other people consider “normal.” We might be accustomed to taking public transit everywhere and not realize that driving personal cars everywhere is the norm in other places. We might have cut our teeth in a “command and control” workplace and think it inconceivable that other styles of work exist. We might enjoy bento boxes and green tea ice cream at our baseball games without realizing that hot dogs and nachos are standard ballpark fare elsewhere.
In short, the (often arbitrary) adaptations we make to our environments quickly stop seeming like conscious decisions and start feeling like the default, natural state of being. This is true for individuals, organizations, and cultures.
The risk we run is that we can forget that alternative ways of doing things exist, and we might find ourselves instinctively adapting to a suboptimal situation instead of looking for a new perspective. How do we prevent our adaptability superpower from making us into the metaphorical slowly-boiled frog?
External disruptions can be advantageous because they force alternatives into view. The pandemic forced the workforce to jump out of the water (à la David Foster Wallace) of long commutes and in-person work norms; many workers are reluctant to jump back in. The Innovator’s Dilemma is a generalized pattern of this, where incumbents are forced to consider new perspectives as disruptors start to catch up with them.
Can we reach such a perspective more deliberately? Broadening our exposure to different ways of being helps dramatically when we do so from a humble posture of learning. Don’t look at the differences directly in a strict compare-and-contrast mode. Focus on the space around these differences, trying to unpack what caused things to be this way. Understanding what lies beneath seemingly-bizarre behavior can teach you a lot about your own bizarre behavior and help you realize that we are more the products of our environment then we might like to admit.
In areas where you have (or can build) expertise, you can use jootsing (jumping outside-the-system-ing). Jootsing is an approach to creativity where you use your understanding of the system to intentionally jump outside of its norms and rules to look at things from a new and creative angle.
When you join a new team or company, pause to reflect on how the things that strike you as odd in the first 90 days might be more about you than the organization. They are often working as intended — even if you don’t yet understand why. When you travel to a new country, consider what history might be behind a given custom, outlet type, or food. What insights can you gain from unpacking how the past led to the present?
Keep this attitude of humble learning in mind as things we thought were stable realities change — traveling without a mask, global supply chains, abortion rights, and even our climate. We don’t have to like the new normal; we may even be actively working to change it. However, unpacking what led to a given outcome is often far more revelatory than we imagine — and can help us avoid mindlessly adapting.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🎨 Artistic AI bots can now be plugged into each other
Some people on Twitter have started to take text generated by GPT-3 and feed it into DALL-E to create hyper-detailed imagery. One can only imagine what would happen if you plugged in an alt text generator to set off an endless back-and-forth loop.
🚏⚖️ AIs can’t legally be called inventors, a US court ruled
A computer scientist argued that his AI-powered “creativity machine” should be considered the sole inventor of two patent applications it dreamed up. The US Patent Office rejected the claim, saying that patents must have a human inventor, and the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (the nation’s top patent court) recently issued a new ruling that agreed: legal inventors must be human.
🚏📰 People are tricking Google into making automated Knowledge Panels for them
A number of young men in northern India seem to have found a way to build enough “credible” online clout to convince Google’s automated Knowledge Panels that they are indeed famous. Techniques include editing IMDB pages for hit movies to include yourself as an actor, paying websites with good SEO to publish a biography of yourself, and mashing together existing music to fill up a YouTube channel while evading copyright bots.
🚏🌪 After a crypto mixer was sanctioned, someone used it send money to celebrities
This week, the US Treasury slapped sanctions on the notorious crypto mixer Tornado Cash, which laundered (often stolen) funds by mixing together users’ coins and handing them back out at random. US persons were now banned from using the Tornado Cash smart contract. Later, some apparent prankster used Tornado Cash to send 0.1 ether (about $190) to celebrities with well-known crypto wallet addresses, including Jimmy Fallon, Shaquille O’Neal, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Deployment Age (Jerry Neumann) — A lengthy overview of Carlota Perez’s theory of technological change. Progress advances in surges, and each surge has two major stages. The first is “Installation,” where a new technology irrupts and results in a speculative frenzy. The bubble pops, leading to a lot of broken hearts and empty wallets, but the frenzy leaves behind useful infrastructure. The second stage is “Deployment,” during which time the new technologies reach maturity and actually change the world.
Redrawing the Map: How the World’s Climate Zones Are Shifting (Yale Environment 360) — In seven maps, shows how climate zones across the world are moving due to climate change, then explores these shifts’ impacts on farming, extreme weather, and habitability.
Hockey Sticks Don’t Look Like Hockey Sticks (Matthew Ström) — Writes that exponential growth looks pretty linear (or even flat) for most of its existence; concludes that “incrementalism” shouldn’t be seen as a dirty word, since it’s the slow compounding of incremental additions that eventually leads to explosive growth.
Why Andrew Yang’s New Third Party Is Bound to Fail (New York Times) — Jamelle Bouie argues that the Forward Party, which advocates for depolarization and middle-of-the-road, “common-sense” policies, has missed a key lesson from American history: successful third parties in the past succeeded by re-polarizing the electorate along new axes and shifting the political battle lines, not by trying to coexist between the two major parties.
How to Host a Jeffersonian Dinner (Purpose Generation) — Describes how, by engaging in a single unified conversation, with only one person speaking at a time, Thomas Jefferson and his guests were able to unlock the power of their collective wisdom. The purpose was simple: to listen, learn, and inspire one another through meaningful dialogue around a particular topic. Includes tips for hosting your own such gathering.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges and Susan Bridges (2017, 208 pages).
This book presents a model of transitions in times of change. It is short and practical, containing many ideas that can be directly applied in organizations or groups — and even in your own life.
The central idea is that change creates transition. These two things are not the same. Change is the event itself. Transition is a psychological process that people go through as they internalize change. It starts with an end, goes through the neutral zone, and ends with a new beginning.
The end is when people let go of what came before. Changes should not be dragged out, but people do need time and space to heal and recover from loss.
The neutral zone is the time when the old ways no longer work and the new ways have not started working yet. People feel immobilized. They've lost their sense of identity. But this can also be a time of creativity, when old assumptions and constraints can be questioned.
Make it through these, and you reach the beginning. The beginning is a time of new identity and new energy. People are willing to make a new commitment, but they haven't fully done so. Someone needs to explain the purpose (sell the problem, not the solution), paint a picture of the new state, lay out a step-by-step plan for how individuals can get there, and give each person a part to play both in the new beginning and during the transition itself.
These stages may feel obvious, but think back to the last major change that was imposed upon you. Were you given time to grieve? Was there acknowledgement that the next steps were unclear? Were you given a clear picture of the role that you had to play? Odds are, at least one of these was missing. By understanding that a change only kicks off a transition, we hope that you can navigate transitions more effectively.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: the katana deficit principle.
Why do seemingly precise and beautiful solutions create side effects just as severe as the problem we started with? The new process we invested so much into was supposed to accelerate the team, not slow it down. That reorg was supposed to reduce the ongoing friction, not hemorrhage expertise. The Internet was supposed to bring about the long boom, not… whatever we have now. What the heck happened? Looking around, we can likely think of other instances where we thought that this for sure would be the right fix, only to have it backfire in weird and unexpected ways.
In these situations, the katana deficit principle provides a useful rule-of-thumb. Unlike your usual “run of the mill” double-edged swords, katanas are single-edged blades. When we discover a sharp, powerful tool that helps us achieve our aims, we tend to assume that this tool’s effects are like that of the katana: cutting only in our desired direction. Yet as we observed above with human adaptability, most powerful tools come with side effects — they are double-edged swords. The application of the tool results in unintended consequences, proportional to the sharpness of the tool. By presuming we’re holding a katana, we don’t discover these side effects until too late. Alas, there are precious few katanas in the world.
A good marker of this principle in action is when you expect a particular benefit, but the theory of change for how that benefit will come about is unclear or dubious. A successful bank heist might seem like a clear win to the crooks, but there is a load-bearing middle step in between:
As the looming global environmental catastrophe so prominently illustrates for us, there are no simple solutions. For example, carbon offsets led to a booming industry — one which often over-promises and under-delivers.
It’s not that we shouldn't use powerful tools. It’s that we must recognize that, alongside the gains we hope to get from their use, we’re likely assuming responsibility for side effects we can’t yet observe. Upon finding an exciting new source of power, it’s worth considering: what might be its negative effects? How might applying it to solve our problems create more problems that we didn’t expect? What’s on the other side of the blade?
🔮📬 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.
// What will happen when human-directed AI content-generation reaches large-scale availability? Tools like OpenAI, Midjourney, and others enable a person to textually describe something, and then the system generates the content. Today’s tools generate text and imagery, but where might they go next?
// 2075. The intro video for a class on “The Media Landscape of the 21st Century.”
Welcome, and thanks for joining me today. The media landscape today looks nothing like that of a century ago, or even 50 years ago. This class will take a case-based approach to investigate some of the notable, and not-so-notable, events of this century. We will focus the first half of the semester on guided content generation. While most of you use it on a daily basis today, a hundred years ago the idea that a computer could generate a painting, story, or video based on a few words would have been pure science fiction.
Among the cases we will be looking at are:
Wix’s introduction of a “procedural website generation tool.” letting customers create a full-blown website through simply typing out a description of their desired website.
Instagram’s bid for relevance by enabling users to say, “make a photo album of the last weekend.” If the user was in Paris, it generated a photo of the user standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, along with touching up any photos that were actually taken.
Netflix’s revival: after being battered by streaming competitors, they introduced “movie generation on demand.” Customers write a description of the film they want to watch, and 30 minutes later their custom short movie begins to play. Horror movie fans go bananas.
Twitter’s downfall after unveiling a premium subscription service which would auto-generate tweets in response to the user’s timeline and followers.
McKinsey’s unveiling of a system to automatically generate public earning call scripts for C-level executives at public companies.
Amazon’s addition of bots that automatically create product listings and recommend pricing based on just two photos.
Ivy League schools’ removal of essays as part of their application process, as essay generators had flooded the teenage market.
The transformation of the romance novel industry when readers could create their own customized romance novel series with hundreds of novels.
Unity and Epic Games’ introductions of “custom games on demand.”
Extra credit will be awarded to the student who guesses most precisely what percent of this course’s content was manually generated by a human.