Episode 84 — January 26th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/84
Contributors to this issue: Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, Spencer Pitman, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Scott Schaffter, Ade Oshineye, Ben Mathes
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Dimitri Glazkov, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Julka Almquist, 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.
“To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke
🤝🎁 Undignified gifts
Imagine treating a romantic partner to a 5-course dinner at a restaurant on their bucket list. The food is spectacular, the ambiance lovely… and you are extremely nervous. Suddenly, as they are eating dessert, you say, “This is really hard, but I don’t think this is working out anymore. I’m moving out this weekend.”
Your partner would likely feel betrayed. They felt safe and well-treated, only to have it crumble away in a moment. The dinner, which had been something special, is now tainted. Not only was the breakup itself painful, but your former partner can no longer stand pistachio ice cream. The ending makes them re-evaluate the dinner in a different light. It turns out that being treated with generosity is not always the same as being treated with dignity.
To dig into this distinction a bit more, let’s define our terms. Generosity is a granting of kindness or plenty. Dignity, following Donna Hicks’ model, is the desire to be heard, treated fairly, and made safe. Respect is often used as a synonym for dignity, but in Hicks’ model respect must be earned while dignity is inherent. The model breaks dignity down into ten elements. In this example, the violated element of dignity was safety: you used the generosity of a nice dinner to put your imagined partner at ease before springing the psychological danger of a sudden breakup which removed the past and present sense of safety of the dinner itself.
How could we do better? Let’s start with safety. Negative exchanges, be it a breakup or critical feedback, are usually best handled in person and in private. (An exception: if you fear for your safety when alone with that person.) It also helps to create space to hear their concerns and perspective. This might look like pausing after the first statement — “I don’t think this is working out anymore” — and creating space for a mutually vulnerable discussion about the state of the relationship. Jumping straight to the conclusion — “I’m moving out” — closes that opportunity.
Embracing another person’s dignity often requires daring to be truly vulnerable yourself. Perhaps it is vulnerability to their negative emotions: their confusion, their frustration, their anger. Perhaps it’s the vulnerability of acknowledging that they might be right and you wrong. There is an important distinction between what makes us feel safer versus what benefits the other person’s safety and dignity. We knowingly expose our own vulnerability in order to help them retain their dignity. Breaking up in public says that we would rather protect ourselves than safeguard their dignity. It also suggests our generosity was merely a shield for ourselves against our guilt.
Whether you focus on these elements or others of the ten elements in Hicks’ model, dignity is the foundation. When you don’t honor the other person’s dignity, generosity can come across as meaningless or even insulting. Whether you are the one upset or the cause of someone else’s upset, it can be valuable to understand if a dignity violation is in play. If so, don’t turn to generous gifts. Instead, turn back to the foundation and see if you can restore the elements of dignity.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏💼 67,000 tech workers have been laid off so far this year
According to tech layoff tracker Layoffs.fyi, over 67,000 technology-sector workers have been laid off since the start of 2023, with the biggest job cuts coming from Amazon (18,000), Google (12,000), Microsoft (10,000), Salesforce (8,000), and IBM (3,900). This is over 40% of the entire layoff total from 2022 (160,000 jobs), even though we’re less than one-twelfth of the way through 2023.
🚏🧑🎨 Artists filed a class-action copyright infringement lawsuit against AI art companies
Three artists have filed a class-action lawsuit against Stability.ai (the makers of Stable Diffusion), Midjourney (the makers of a popular AI art Discord bot), and DeviantArt, alleging “copyright infringement, DMCA violations, publicity rights violation, and unfair competition.” Even though AI art doesn’t directly reuse the artworks in its training set, the plaintiffs argue that:
“Every output image from the system is derived exclusively from the latent images, which are copies of copyrighted images. For these reasons, every hybrid image is necessarily a derivative work.”
🚏🍽 England is banning the sale of single-use plastic plates and cutlery
Following similar bills passed in Scotland and Wales, the English government is rolling out a new ban on many single-use plastic items, including plates, trays, bowls, and cutlery. Some types of polystyrene (Styrofoam) cups and food containers will also be banned. The government said that “95% of those who responded to our consultation” approved the ban.
🚏🚴 Amsterdam residents want to crack down on “souped-up” e-bikes
Electric bikes in Amsterdam are supposed to travel no faster than 25 km/hr, but some popular bikes have higher top speeds — and other speedsters have modified their bikes to remove factory-programmed speed limits. The Dutch parliament voted to ban the latter trick last year, but these ultra-fast e-bikes are still a “menace”: a cyclists’ union in Amsterdam is warning about modified e-bikes traveling as fast as 42 km/hr, causing traffic accidents. The union is campaigning for crackdowns on these fast bikes, plus “fat bikes” with ultra-wide tires.
🚏🇯🇵 Japan’s PM warned of a “now or never” moment in its demographic crisis
In a recent speech, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned that Japan’s collapsing birth rate (which stands at just 1.3, far below the replacement level of 2.1) signaled a society “on the verge” of collapse. He urged the Japanese people to have more babies and promised economic changes to help parents, but commentators argue that Kishida isn’t addressing the structural barriers to childbearing, such as the high cost of education and brutally long working hours. His administration has also not been considering immigration as a potential solution.
🚏🏡 Facing high housing costs, some people are buying homes with friends
According to a 2022 study from Zillow, 13% of successful home buyers bought their homes with an unorthodox arrangement: splitting the cost with a friend or relative (rather than a spouse or significant other). Similarly, 13% of prospective buyers said they intend to buy a home with a friend in the next 12 months. These co-buyers cited increased affordability, companionship, and greater ability to get approved for a mortgage as reasons for their decision.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Layoff Brain (Anne Helen Petersen) — Writes that layoffs are irrational business moves (they tank productivity and fail to save money), but companies do them anyway as “imitative behavior”; they “compete to signal most strongly that they’re tightening their belts and/or pushing back against employee power.” This has led to many employees developing “layoff brain”: a permanent defensive crouch, mistrusting employers, always aware of their own economic precarity, and lowering expectations of job security into the ground.
Goodhart’s Law Isn’t as Useful as You Might Think (Commoncog) — Argues that Goodhart’s Law is too often invoked as an objection to any attempt to use data in business operations. This is an overreaction; you can’t run your company without numbers! A more useful version of the law is to focus less on quantifying outputs and more on quantifying input metrics as a way of improving the overall system and processes.
The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok (Wired) — Cory Doctorow observes a predictable path that many two-sided marketplaces and aggregators (including TikTok) go down as they follow their financial incentives. “Surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they're locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they're locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit.”
Nature Is Always Listening: The Science of Mushrooms, Music, and How Sound Waves Stimulate Mycelial Growth (The Marginalian) — Asks why lightning strikes are more likely to hit mushrooms than other organisms. A mycologist suggests that mushrooms have “learned” over evolutionary time that a rolling tide of low frequency sound (that is, thunder) is correlated with impending rain, water, and electricity — all of which help the mushrooms grow and spread. Evocatively, these low-frequency sounds act as a “mycelial clarion call for duty.”
The Problem With Adapting Video Games To Other Media (Swolecialism) — Argues that movie adaptations of video games often fall flat because the interactive experience of the game (which is usually core to its storytelling) can’t be translated to a linear, non-interactive medium like film. A better way to make video game adaptations is to adapt the world rather than the story.
Trapped in The Josh (Ned Resnikoff) — Examines the common lamentation that so much of the American built environment has become generic, gray, and monotonous. Proposes a few economic and material causes for this “cultural malaise”: ill-advised construction regulations have limited creative expression in home design; the companies that produce entertainment (Disney, Netflix, et al.) are fully controlled by profit-seeking shareholders; and engagement-maximizing algorithms select for bland, non-threatening pablum.
🕵️♀️📆 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 bullwhip effect.
Back in the 1960s, American systems scientist Jay Forrester introduced colleagues to a seemingly straightforward, somewhat boring game. Players were asked to simulate a beer distribution supply chain, each assuming the role of one of the hops along this chain: factory, regional warehouse, local warehouse, retail. Each round, players procured (or, in the factory’s case, produced) and delivered units of beer along the supply chain. The objective was simple: keep inventory low while meeting customer demand. The twist: players were only allowed to exchange the number of units ordered or filled, and there was a one-round delay imposed on each hop along the chain.
Sounds easy enough. However, as the players got on with the game, something weird started to transpire. After a few rounds, participants started experiencing increasing swings in their inventory, quickly resulting in a total loss of control and abandonment of any semblance of play: each person along the chain was hanging on for dear life, just trying to survive the next swing. The players questioned their sanity, suspected other players of sabotage, and generally felt a queasy discomfort that something really wicked was happening to them.
The beer game, as it came to be known, demonstrated an important property of any system that has delays and limited communication: the bullwhip effect. The bullwhip effect is very common in traditional supply chains. Even when demand is stable, a minute variation at the front of the chain can result in earth-shattering oscillations at the end.
Any pipeline with restricted and delayed information and multiple hops is vulnerable to the bullwhip effect. For example, an engineering team that works downstream of a rapidly changing code base will experience the effects of those changes more severely. This is why maintaining an active fork of an open source project is expensive and painful.
Jay Forrester used this game to showcase the importance of paying attention to the structure of the system. His work led to development of system dynamics. Forrester’s hope was that, through a seemingly simple game, folks would appreciate the significance of systems thinking and realize that there are patterns that could be spotted and mitigated beyond just the simple game. Seeing patterns is an important skill in today’s complex world — especially when a system consists of real people and the bullwhip effect impacts their livelihoods.
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How might Dignity be seen as an inherent human characteristic, and not necessarily defined by the way in which one is treated (with dignity)?