🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 72
October 20th, 2022
Episode 72 — October 20th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/72
Contributors to this issue: Ben Mathes, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Justin Quimby, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, 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.
“Organizational culture comes about in one of two ways. It’s either decisively defined, nurtured and protected from the inception of the organization; or — more typically — it comes about haphazardly as a collective sum of the beliefs, experiences and behaviors of those on the team. Either way, you will have a culture. For better or worse.”
— Brent Gleeson, quoted in Working Backwards
🏺📖 Kintsugi narratives
Our personal narratives help us make meaning. Groups and organizations have narratives too. Good group narratives are coherent. They are evocative enough to attract commitment and bind us together for a common purpose. They tend to offer clarity to those who join, answering the question, “Why am I part of this group and not another?” When our personal narratives align well (or well enough) with the group narrative, we feel like we belong.
Conversely, when these narratives are in tension with one another, we feel the need to escape. These narratives are separating, rather than binding: they push our group apart. Perhaps an “us versus them” mentality takes root. Perhaps we only see our culture’s flaws. Perhaps we look back on the “good old days” with a sense of longing rather than that of grounding.
Our initial intuition may be to expunge the poison. Ignore the bad. Remove the so-called troublemakers. Emphasize how great we will become if we can just swear off the “bad” separating narrative. However, all those “bad” narratives generally have something real at their core. Context or incentives may have changed. New revelations may show that the past was not as perfect as it seemed. Once we recognize this underlying reality, we may be tempted to throw it all out entirely and rebuild our culture from scratch.
In the end, neither approach works. Narratives are too densely connected. We cannot simply throw out the ones we do not like, keep the ones we do, and rebuild the rest. In the end, such efforts result in truly delusional narratives.
Instead, we can take inspiration from kintsugi: the art of repairing broken pottery in a way that tries to retain as much of the original vessel as possible while also making the seams part of an object’s beauty in their own right. Although harder in practice than in metaphor, we can bring a similar attitude toward repairing our narratives.
We can look for ways to turn our narratives of separation — our cracks — into binding narratives that show our capability to grow and change. We can look for ways to keep as much as possible of our old binding narratives (our original pottery), only filling in the parts that cannot be repaired. The result will look messier than the ideal of retrenching to the old or throwing out everything in favor of something new, but it will have a resonant authenticity with both the good of the past and the challenges of the present that neither artificially perfect ideal can achieve.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🛩 A billionaire sold his private jet so people on Twitter couldn’t bother him anymore
Many Twitter accounts track the movements of billionaires’ private jets, and each flight report is often accompanied by loud criticism of the many tons of carbon dioxide that every flight emits. Perhaps tired of this constant tracking and pestering, fashion mogul Bernard Arnault (the second-richest man in the world) sold his private jet, saying that now “no one can see where I go because I rent planes when I use private planes.”
🚏🌁 Seattle briefly had the worst air quality of any major city
For two days in a row, Seattle’s air quality index (AQI) was the worst of any big city on the planet — even higher than infamously smoggy places like Delhi, Lahore, or Beijing. The normally lush Puget Sound region has been choking under the smoke of wildfires raging in the nearby mountains; it doesn’t help that Seattle has received barely any rain in the last 4 months.
🚏🗳 A new Danish political party is led by an AI chatbot
An experimental new political party in Denmark is led by an AI chatbot called Leader Lars, which you can talk to on the group’s Discord. The party’s political platform includes some AI-derived planks, including universal basic income (which Leader Lars advocates for). The artist who created the party has argued that AI is already populist (it’s trained on data from the internet), but it’s not necessarily democratic just yet.
🚏🌥 The White House is working on research to cool the globe by reflecting sunlight
The US’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is developing a five-year research plan for “rapid climate interventions,” including reflecting sunlight to reduce the greenhouse effect. Several techniques are reportedly being considered: spraying aerosols into the stratosphere, increasing the reflectivity of clouds over the ocean, and thinning cirrus clouds that trap atmospheric heat.
🚏🇨🇳 China will indefinitely delay the release of GDP and other economic stats
China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that it was “delaying indefinitely” the release of third-quarter GDP data, along with numbers on industrial production, retail sales, and fixed asset investment. Economists say that this move is virtually unprecedented; countries typically keep publishing economic data even in times of “pestilence and conflict.”
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
A Study of Lights at Night Suggests Dictators Lie About Economic Growth (The Economist) — Shares intriguing economic research that shows that, the more authoritarian a country is, the more it tends to overstate its GDP growth. A major reason for this is that dictators’ power rests on their reputation for strength and competence; weak growth figures would shatter the fragile social contract they have with their citizens.
Tornado Cash Is Not Free Speech. It’s a Golem (Lawfare) — Weighs in on the debate about whether code is speech (and therefore, whether code is protected under the First Amendment). Argues that autonomous smart contracts like Tornado Cash are robots, and their source code is literal instructions for these robots, so it shouldn’t be considered free speech. Robot instructions should be fair game for regulation, lest we empower them to do terrible things without oversight.
Iceland’s Deserts Are Turning Purple: Here’s Why (Mossy Earth) — Explores the dilemma surrounding the invasive lupine plant, which the Icelandic Forest Service intentionally introduced to the island to replenish the soil and spur reforestation. The purple plant is indeed helping to that end, but it’s also threatening native species. What should be done about lupine, and is it a good idea to deliberately import useful invasive species?
Becoming the Boss (Harvard Business Review) — Writes that managers promoted from independent contributor roles are often stars and haven't made significant mistakes — but learning to manage is a tacit skill, learned through trial and error. New managers quickly realize that their influence comes not from formal authority and one-on-one control, but rather relationship-building and creating a strong team culture.
More Proof That This Really Is the End of History (Francis Fukuyama) — The author of The End of History and the Last Man doubles down on his (often-criticized) argument, writing that the recent blunders committed by authoritarian states like Russia and China prove that liberal democracy is the only governance form that’s stable in the long run. That said, maintaining these democratic societies takes work and an appreciation for the value of freedom.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Uncertainty Mindset: Innovation Insights from the Frontiers of Food by Vaughn Tan (2020, 304 pages).
The Uncertainty Mindset covers a fascinating subject that few people know about while dispensing advice that is useful for orienting in many uncertain and complex environments.
We learn that while most of the restaurant industry entrenches stability and consistency (same menu, same ingredients, high efficiency, scale), cutting-edge cuisine is nearly the opposite: restaurants regularly and dramatically change their menu to sustain the interest of the clientele. Such establishments must constantly innovate, looking for new dishes, new ingredients, new cooking methods and processes. To do this, they must embrace uncertainty.
To see how, the author takes us on an exhilarating journey, putting us right next to chefs and cuisine innovators. We see how they think, how they work together, and how they make seemingly impossible feats happen. The book is worth reading just for that. But for a systems thinker, the true treasure is the amazing insights about what makes these collaborative collectives tick. These insights are widely applicable in any industry with a high degree of uncertainty. If this sounds like your world, give this book a look!
🔮📬 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.
// A coffee room in a corporate office in the port city of Auburn, on the coast of the Central Valley Sea, California.
“Nishita, I need your help,” said Brian.
“Ugh,” Nishita thought. Brian never needed help with anything easy.
“You know that new performance review software we’re using this year…”
Of course she knew. How could she not? Managers had been arguing about it for months. Large AI models that summarized and generated text from the entire internet had changed the way students “write” their homework, how liberal arts professors “write” papers, and how engineers “write” their code. The technique had seen some lurching success: fans of cinematic universes had endless personalized and customized books to read. Some of it was even suitable for polite conversation. And now that tech was finally making it to corporate HR.
Brian continued, “Well, this new performance review software looks at all the employees’ work. ALL of it. And then it generates output based on 3 prompts: ‘$Employee should be fired because…’, ‘$Employee should be kept because…’, and ‘$Employee should be promoted because…’.”
Nishita jumped in. “Yeah, and then the committee votes on which output is more plausible, I know. It’s a new process. Let’s all do our best and see how it goes this time.”
Brian: “Here’s the thing, though. Do you really trust the AI to get it right?”
Nishita: “How would I know? To prevent bias, you know we aren’t allowed to see the source material the model was trained on.”
Brian: “Well… it’s more than that. I was just in one of those manager committee meetings… and… I’m not sure how to ask this…”
Nishita: “Spit it out, Brian.”
Brian: “OK. So in the ‘should be promoted’ output, there were some… irregularities. The AI justified promotion for an employee who talked about staging a heist to kidnap their manager. The AI thought that removing the manager was the reason the employee should be promoted.”
Nishita: “Hold on… just what have our best performers been feeding to the AI?”
Brian: “Documents with extended quotes from thrillers, action movie screenplays… I think they’re tricking the AI.”
Nishita: “Wait, who was the employee?? Why did you bring this to me specifically, Brian?”
Brian: “You know I’m not allowed to share that, Nishita.”
Nishita: “Oh... it’s Jack, isn’t it? He’s been so resentful in our 1-1s lately.”
Brian: “You know I’m not allowed to confirm that, Nishita.”
Nishita: “I’ve gotta go talk to Jack. Thanks for bringing this to me.”
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