🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 79
December 15th, 2022
Episode 79 — December 15th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/79
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Dimitri Glazkov, Boris Smus, Erika Rice Scherpelz
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Dart Lindsley, Jon Lebensold
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.
“If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him with absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself.”
— Mikhail Bakunin
🪞🎭 Strategy as mask or mirror
Whether applied to individuals or teams, it’s rarely contentious to state that it’s better to be more strategic. Alignment between our intentions and the outcomes produced by our actions has a strong, lasting appeal.
However, as a concept, “strategy” has gotten into a weird spot: too often, it is used to point toward a mask, a showy artifact that doesn’t actually represent an organization’s strategy. When asked to describe the group’s strategy, we bring up the list of annual objectives or elaborate slide decks with graphs and numbers. When we’re feeling fancy, we’ll pull out a clever five-pager that uses one of the better-known strategic frameworks, like five forces, the strategic cascade, or the strategy kernel.
We would like to suggest that these aren’t where one would find organizational strategy. These artifacts are at best sketches of strategic ambitions. Ambitions are great, but they aren’t a good way to understand if an organization is strategic in practice. A team could lack shiny decks and eloquent docs, yet act in impeccable alignment with their intentions. At the same time, despite all the town halls and thorough on-paper planning, another organization could be mired in chronic strategic incoherence.
To find strategy, we need to look elsewhere. We need to hold up a mirror to our organization. Strategy is a collective activity. Every action an individual member of an organization takes has strategic consequences. They are usually minuscule, yet viewed as a whole over time, they reveal the team’s ability to be strategic. All of these inform the path the organization collectively takes.
If this collective path leads toward the intended outcomes, the organization is being strategic. If the reflexes, habits, mental shortcuts, and tools of aggregate choices lead us away from our intent, our organization is strategically incoherent.
Thus, to evaluate how strategic a team is, we need to look at its processes, norms, and culture. That — not the nicely-polished documents — is where the strategy lives. If incentives are structured to encourage siloed individual performance, yet our intention requires intense collaboration, our organization will struggle to be strategically coherent. If our processes are designed to be nimble and flexible, yet our intention seeks stability and long-term predictability, we will find ourselves fighting seemingly invisible strategic headwinds.
This view of strategy is messy. Compared to those crisp, legible artifacts we talked about earlier, it is harder to determine the strategic contributions of a given well-entrenched process or a particular cultural trait. However, if we are to learn how to be strategic, we are better off learning to love that mess.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🔗 NFTs hosted on FTX have broken now that the company is bankrupt
Non-fungible tokens live on the blockchain, but their images still need to be hosted somewhere on the “traditional” web. Many NFT projects — most famously Coachella’s lifetime pass NFTs — hosted their images on FTX’s centralized NFT platform, but now that the disgraced crypto company has gone bankrupt, its site redirects to that of its bankruptcy lawyers. As such, these NFTs’ image links are irreparably broken. (Coachella’s NFT page also relied on APIs from FTX, so it could no longer fetch the list of tokens either.)
🚏🍑 People in China are panic-buying canned yellow peaches amidst a COVID surge
As COVID-19 rages in China, many people have come to believe that canned yellow peaches, packed with vitamin C, are able to cure COVID. As a result, people are buying up massive amounts of the sweet fruits; some online stores are sold out of peaches, and Chinese state media has had to issue statements saying that peaches are only placebos, not actual cures. (This is reminiscent of the spike in orange juice sales in the US in 2020, when people believed that vitamin C could cure COVID.)
🚏🎖️ People are using a military sim game to create fake Ukraine war footage
Many social media users eagerly devour any scrap of information or footage they can get about the war in Ukraine. To satisfy their needs, some tricksters have started passing off gameplay clips from one “hyper-realistic” military simulation game as actual war footage. These include fake videos of drones firing on Russian warships or missiles destroying Russian tanks. The game’s creator says they’ve been flagging these videos on sites like YouTube or Twitter, but “with every video taken down, ten more are uploaded.”
🚏🛢 Three UK universities are banning fossil fuel recruiters
The University of the Arts London, University of Bedfordshire, and Wrexham Glyndwr University have adopted a “fossil-free careers” policy, where oil and gas firms will no longer be allowed to take part in career fairs, work placement programs, and other on-campus recruiting activities. They join Birkbeck, University of London, which in September became the first British school to ban fossil fuel firms.
🚏🎨 AI art apps are taking over the App Store
The AI art app Lensa — which generates fantasy-style avatar pictures based on your selfies — has gone viral, and a number of similar apps have risen to the top of the iPhone’s App Store as well. At one point, the three most popular iOS apps in the US were all AI photo editors; likewise, AI art tools made up 6 of the top 10 apps in the Graphics & Design category. Many of these apps seem to be copycats, with generic, SEO-friendly names like “Inspire AI Art Generator.”
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Elephant and the Rider (Creative Huddle) — Uses an analogy to explain why behavior change can be so hard: if an elephant (symbolizing the emotional side of our brains) disagrees with its rider (the rational side), the elephant will win thanks to its huge size advantage. To get the elephant to go where we want it to go (i.e. to change our behavior), we need to give it a strong intrinsic motivation — brute force won’t be enough.
The Viral AI Avatar App Lensa Undressed Me—Without My Consent (MIT Technology Review) — Highlights a troubling pattern in the AI apps that generate pictures of you based on your selfies: while the author’s male colleagues were getting pictures of themselves as astronauts, warriors, and rock stars, she was getting hyper-sexualized, “pornified” pictures of herself, including AI-generated nudes. She found that women of color (including herself) were getting sexualized pictures infused with racial stereotypes as well.
Why No Roman Industrial Revolution? (Bret Devereaux) — Argues that the Industrial Revolution could only have happened in late 18th-century Britain because of a very specific set of contingent events: the centuries-long arms race for the best cannon led to pressure-resistant cylinders, which enabled nascent piston steam engines; steam power found a killer app of pumping water out of coal mines; and it happened to be easy to run steam engines on coal, leading to a virtuous cycle of efficiency improvements until the steam engine was finally good enough for use in textile production (which, serendipitously, was also centered in Great Britain).
Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names, With Examples (Shine Solutions) — Argues that the typical way technology systems deal with names (where everyone has immutable first, middle, and last names made only of letters) fails to account for the huge variety in human names across cultures. Includes dozens of vivid examples, several common pitfalls, and suggestions for handling the complexity and nuances of human naming.
Death Is a Master From Russia (The Oxonian Review) — Ukrainian poet Igor Pomerantsev writes of the Russian language: “I am a writer and I love my mother tongue. Today my love is still valid, but it has become difficult, dramatic. Evil is polyglot. It speaks hundreds of different languages. It has its favorites, though.”
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Mechanical Sympathy.
Mechanical sympathy is the idea that you can operate a tool or system effectively without knowing how it works under the hood. It’s a type of tacit knowledge, but one which emphasizes the specific relationship between the user and a particular tool or system. The mechanical sympathy you develop with one system may not apply in another. When you’ve developed mechanical sympathy, you can operate quickly and smoothly, making the system do things that seem almost magical — as long as the underlying system stays roughly the same.
The knowledge we develop for navigating organizations is an instance of mechanical sympathy. As you likely observed if you ever changed jobs, especially after many years in the same organization, the basic assumptions you make about influence, transparency, or even when to use chat vs. email are usually different. Your past experience can be a good foundation, but the differences highlight just how much you took for granted. That sense of ease that you lost was the mechanical sympathy you had for your previous organization.
Under normal conditions, mechanical sympathy increases efficiency and satisfaction. However, in the face of change, understanding where you and others apply mechanical sympathy can identify pockets of resistance or areas that need extra investment to change.
🔮📬 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.
// World War 2 and the Space Race led to numerous innovations. What might a ‘space race’ between billionaires chasing immortality create?
// 20 years from now
A door slides open, allowing a hunched and slightly grimy 20-something to shuffle into a clean, well-lit room with a single chair, facing a large screen.
The text on the screen reads, “Welcome. Please have a seat.”
The person shuffles over and sit down. The chair is more comfortable than any seat they’ve sat in or bench they’ve slept on in the last 3 years.
The screen displays a crawl of text.
Welcome to MedTech. We are excited that you have decided to join the young pioneers at the forefront of medicine and life extension technology. Thanks to your test scores and genetic markers, you are being offered a chance to transform yourself and the human race, for the better.
The screen pulses.
Our glorious founders decided that, after building significant amounts of wealth, they wanted to improve the state of humanity. They saw that average life expectancy was declining. So they threw their significant resources into the creation of MedTech, an organization focused on eliminating the scourges of Alzheimer's, heart disease, and cancer. That’s why we are offering you employment for the next 50 years, with an opportunity to extend it by 25 years for five additional terms.
The person’s eyes flick to the scratched and dim surface of their watch, showing their declining social credit score and eddie balance. They sigh and think, What choice do I really have, in an era of societal collapse that made the world of Neuromancer look like solarpunk?
A chime sounds and the screen shifts.
Please pay attention to this introduction to Methuselah Tech.
They do a double-take. Methuselah? That wasn’t right…
The scrolling text glitches, stutters, and then freezes. New text appears.
We don͘'t͜ ̡h̸a͞ve͢ m͏uch̨ ͞ti͜m̛e. You ̶a͘r͠e̶ signing up to be a l͘ab́ ̕ra̡t. Bil̡lion͜a̷i͝ŕe͏s ͝w̧an͠t͢e͡d, no, n͝eed͏ed, to͟ ͟l̸ív̸e͟ longér.̶ Th͏éy s͠pen͟t ̷h͠ug̷e͜ ̛a̸m̕ount͝s o̕f̕ ̛m̶o͞ne̛y ̕a҉nd͞ ͞c͟o̢u͜ńtl͠ess̸ ̸res̷ea͢rc͘h̨e͏r͘s ͞and ͠lives ͡to͞ ͢attain ̨th͘e͜ir̨ goa̡l̨ ͠. Th̴e͡ ͟p̛r̷o̸ble͟m̨ ̛is ̀tha̛t͟ ҉th͡ey ņe̸ve͠r̕ ͢ca͢n ͠kn͝o͝w i̕f ̛t́he̵y h͞a͏vę ͘t̷ru̧lỳ ev́ade͏d̛ de͝at̶h͞. Th̷ey n͞e҉ed ̧pęo͘p҉le ̴w̛ìt̵h̷ ҉the͠ s̡a̡me level ̢o̡f ͟l͡i̶fe e̛x͘te̷ns͝i͞on ̡t́ec̀h͝ to d͢o ̴ad͢diti̧o̴na͘l̷ ex͡p̵e̛ri҉me̸nt́ati̶o͟n on. You’l̛l ҉h̛ave g͟r͝ea͏t foo͠d͝, ̵c̡le͢an͝ ͠a͡ir,̀ a̵nd a̷c̵cess̵ ̛t̨ơ t͞he ͝a̸m̧enities of͝ the 0͟.0͘1%̛ ͟. Kn̡o̢w t͏h̕at̡ y̷ou ar̵e ̧ju͠st̷ ̡a҉ ͟la̡b ra͢t to t̢h͠em.̛ ̶ Do͠ you w̸ańt͠ ̧t̷o ͜t̷ak҉e ̡t͢hem͠ d̷o͘w̷n̸?̷
The screen resets, and calm music resumes playing. “Would you like to proceed? [y/n]”
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