🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 66
September 1st, 2022
Episode 66 — September 1st, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/66
Contributors to this issue: Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Dimitri Glazkov, Boris Smus, Dart Lindsley, Spencer Pitman
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Robinson Eaton, 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.
“History reminds us that revolutions are not events so much as they are processes; that for tens of thousands of years people have been making decisions that irrevocably shaped the world that we live in today. Just as today we are making subtle, irrevocable decisions that people of the future will remember as revolutions.”
📝 Editor’s note: We’ll be off next week for the US’s Labor Day holiday. We’ll see you again the week after!
🏋️♀️🏃 Keeping fit
We at FLUX are big fans of bottoms-up, evolutionary approaches to change. You will generally find us advocating for the incremental over the grandiose, valuing the illegible alongside the legible. We understand Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned. However, appreciating the power of organic change can often lead to overlooking the power of top-down guidance.
Most people find it intuitive that organizing principles — such as goals and values — are important. Even if we never reach our goals or follow our values perfectly, it feels like we would do worse without them. Maybe we would end up someplace unimaginably spectacular were we to throw off all sense of planning and let the mercurial gradient of the moment guide us… but we doubt it.
How do we reconcile these two tendencies? How do we embrace the resilience and creativity of evolutionary change while still making sure we’re going somewhere? How do we work toward our goals without getting stuck in rigid command-and-control structures that collapse our odds of success?
We find it useful to think of goals and values as providing the fitness function on top of our random walk through life. In evolutionary systems, the fitness function is what determines which participants make it to the next generation. In biological evolution, the fitness function is survival and reproduction; only then can an organism pass on its genes. In traditional social media, the fitness function might be the number of clicks: whoever gets the most will thrive.
Any system with evolutionary tendencies — so pretty much anything that’s not stagnant — has a fitness function, be it implicit or explicit. What helps us reconcile evolutionary creativity with the direction of goals is understanding that this fitness function can be chosen, at least to some degree. We do not just have to accept the fitness function of our broader context — we don’t have to stop at life or death, making money, gaining stuff. Instead we can say, “What do we want to achieve, and how can we design a system which selects for that?” If we make a system that rewards positive social impact, for instance, we’ll naturally find ourselves drifting toward tasks that make the world better, even without an explicit goal.
The key is that we want to resist the temptation to design a system that achieves the goal. We want this system to select for our goal. This is a challenging task in its own right. However, if we can change our mindset from the false binary of either doing the thing or giving up all control, we might be surprised to discover how much of what we see around us is influenced by our choice of fitness function.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🏊 The French government used ML to spot swimming pools not reported to the tax authorities
Since last October, the French government has been running a program that uses machine learning to analyze public aerial photography and spot backyard swimming pools that haven’t been reported on tax forms — and it’s found over 20,000 of them so far. Swimming pools increase property values and therefore property taxes, so the French government has collected nearly €10 million in additional taxes thanks to this program. The tax office thinks it can pull in €40 million more once the program is rolled out nationwide.
🚏🖼 AI-generated art won first place in a fine art contest’s digital category
At the Colorado State Fair’s fine art competition, the first prize in the “Digital Arts / Digitally Manipulated Photography” category went to a piece named Théâtre D'opéra Spatial, which had been generated by the AI art tool Midjourney. Some artists were upset at this, but the creator of the artwork argued that he’d had significant input: he spent a long time crafting the phrase he fed into Midjourney, edited the generated image with Photoshop, and used a separate AI tool called Gigapixel to increase the picture’s resolution.
🚏🚉 Germany’s €9 train ticket promotion saved 1.8 million tons of CO₂ emissions
This summer, the German government piloted a program that let residents get unlimited travel on local and regional trains throughout the country for just 9 euros per month. According to new research, that scheme sold 52 million tickets (a fifth of those to Germans who “did not ordinarily use public transport”) and eliminated 1.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions — equal to the emissions made by powering 350,000 homes. Many riders also praised the program’s ease of use, since it cut out the complexities of different fare zones and ticket types across the country.
🚏☸️ 600-year-old Buddhist statues are emerging out of the drying-up Yangtze
As China scorches under a heat wave that’s blazed on for 70+ days — virtually unparalleled around the globe — its mighty Yangtze River, essential for everything from hydropower to agriculture to trade, has fallen to its lowest level at this time of year since record-keeping began in 1865. In fact, previously sunken Buddhist statues, estimated to be 600 years old, have emerged from beneath the river near the city of Chongqing.
🚏🏺 British archaeologists reburied a major Roman-era find
Last year, archaeologists in the north of England discovered a sprawling set of ruins dating back to the Roman era; it was likely an expensive villa or high-end social club. This find was called “one of the most important Roman discoveries in the past decade… easily,” but an English preservation organization plans to rebury the fragile site to protect it from exposure to the elements (and tourists).
🚏🇧🇾 Belarusian hacktivists minted an NFT of the president’s “stolen” passport
A “hacktivist collective” named the Belarusian Cyber-Partisans got access to a database containing the passport data of all of the country’s citizens. The group proceeded to start selling NFTs containing pictures of faked passports (though using real data) of unpopular Belarusian officials, including president Alexander Lukashenko, the prime minister, the head of the country’s KGB, and Lukashenko’s press secretary. The funds they raised were to go toward opposing the “bloody regimes in Minsk and Moscow.” (The NFT marketplace OpenSea quickly de-listed the tokens.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Tsars Like Dust (Hugo Book Club Blog) — Argues that science fiction falls back on monarchy as the default form of government because, from a storytelling perspective, it’s difficult to make nuanced forms of government interesting and easier to explain policy decisions as the result of one person’s choice. These fictional monarchies are often “based on a presumption that there is an inherent superiority to those within a specific lineage,” reified even in the latest Star Wars trilogy.
How to Make Living Systems (Mystical Silicon) — Muses on Christopher Alexander’s “Fundamental Process” for generating living systems, concluding that the gradual, evolutionary process by which a system (such as a city) is created is the very thing that makes it full of life. Argues that this generative “Fundamental Process” is often stifled nowadays because rules, deliberate planning, and legibility make administration easier at scale.
How Our Brains Cope With Speaking More Than One Language (BBC) — Neurolinguists explain the strange ways our brains juggle multiple languages (several languages are “activated,” and our brains have to “inhibit” the ones we’re not using) and describe the bizarre phenomena that sometimes result, like when polyglots accidentally utter a word in the right language but with the wrong accent.
Collapse Won’t Reset Society (Palladium) — Identifies “collapse enthusiasts”: people who look forward to the end of the current order so that, through a period of difficult anarchy, their ingroup can emerge victorious. Historically speaking, though, there is surprising continuity even through anarchic periods, abrupt shifts don't normally last, and radical resets are pretty much unprecedented.
80/20 Is Half-Ass When Value Is Logistic (David Golden) — Cautions that the famous 80/20 rule only applies in realms ruled by power laws, where most value comes early, with diminishing returns thereafter. But in logistic realms, where most value comes late in a project, stopping after doing just 20% of the work will get you nowhere.
The Voynich Manuscript (Lisa Fagin Davis) — A medievalist describes the mystery behind a bizarre 15th-century book that uses an unknown script to encode an unknown language, along with illustrations of exotic plants that nobody has been able to identify. She then describes the headway that linguists, chemists, and paleographers have made toward understanding this strange codex.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
FLUX’s own Dart Lindsley has launched a podcast named Work for Humans, which explores what happens when we view the people in our organizations as customers instead of one-dimensional inputs to production, and how to use design principles to build work that people love. His first guests include Gary Hamel (Humanocracy), Barry Schwartz (Why We Work, Practical Wisdom, and The Paradox of Choice), and Aaron McEwan (Gartner top 100 influencer). Coming soon: Susie Wise (Design for Belonging) and Geoffrey Parker (The Platform Revolution).
🕵️♀️📆 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 cobra effect.
The story goes that the British colonial government, in an effort to reduce the population of cobras around Delhi, offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Despite initial positive signs, it quickly became clear that the idea backfired: people started breeding cobras for income, and the population of cobras actually increased. (When the British Raj eventually ended the program, these breeders released their cobras into the wild.)
A perverse incentive (of which the cobra effect is just one example) tends to arise around any change when a few conditions are met. First, there must be a large number of interested participants involved (the general population, in the story above). Second, the change must affect the interested parties in a meaningful way (compensation for bringing in a dead cobra). And finally, the change must be path-dependent: the outcome of the change feeds into the overall state of the system, forming a feedback loop that takes it out of control (people can breed cobras to increase their population). Put differently, the third condition is that the intended audience for the incentive has room to change the rules of the game.
Whenever trying to design and implement a change, consider if these conditions are met. If so, consider reframing your change in a way that selects for the desired change, rather than aiming to achieve the goal directly. Otherwise, be prepared for the cobra effect to raise its hooded head.
🔮📬 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 might be the implications of 5 million Dutch climate change refugees flooding into the Blue Ridge region of Appalachia? (A sequel to the Appalachian Refugees postcard.)
// 2095. A conference room at the headquarters of the Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority.
Two tall and tired people clad in Carhartts sit at a table. The overhead LEDs are off, with only the light from numerous digital displays lighting the room. The evening breeze coming in through an open window rustles the pages of a large report sitting next to the half-drunk bottle of whiskey between them.
Jansen rests a leathery hand on the report. “So, Gazzie, five million Dutch resettled here in Appalachia ‘cause of the climate catastrophe. Your grandfather and my grandmother among them. I knew it was hard. But I didn’t realize how hard it was. They often had nothing but the clothes on their backs and the backpacks from aid organizations.”
Gazzie shrugs. “Locals didn’t trust them. Heck, my grandmother told me stories about the anti-immigrant protests. The interviews talk about the brutal brawls in the early years. Locals who mined coal for generations resentin’ the new folks.”
Jansen: “But, over time, both groups realized that they had more in common than they first thought. Strong pride, belief in the value of hard work, and the importance of local governance.”
Gazzie gestures at charts on one screen. “The demographic shift was immediate. The 5 million Dutch injected a whole new set of cultural norms and expectations. And the bond over the value of hard work.”
Jansen: “It took a decade, but towns in decline made reversals. And the media attention made the EPA jump into action dealing with some of the long-standing pollution from mountaintop removal mining.”
Gazzie: “And when water levels kept on risin’ and Miami, Boston, New York, New Orleans, and Tampa found themselves underwater… where did folks want to move? Right here. Inland. In the newly restored and surprisingly bike-friendly Appalachia.”
[In unison]: “Op avontuur gaan!”
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