Episode 95 — April 13th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/95
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Ade Oshineye, Erika Rice Scherpelz, a.r. Routh, Dimitri Glazkov
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Justin Quimby, 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.
“Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end, because once you get there you can move mountains.”
— Steve Jobs
🤷🏼♀️✨ Lost and found
In the face of constant change, all organizations eventually face the need to adapt. Why is this harder for some organizations than others? Why do some seem only temporarily lost while others appear genuinely sick, unable to find purchase on the changing reality? And how do we get back to thriving?
Change often negatively impacts our sense of purpose, leaving us feeling lost. But being lost isn’t a bad thing — it’s a natural part of life in a changing environment. As the pace of change increases, every organization experiences a bit of lostness. But embracing this uncertainty opens doors for growth and innovation. As long as we keep searching, we’re bound to find ourselves again — often in a surprising new form. When we rediscover our sense of purpose, we can thrive once more.
A sick organization also lacks a sense of purpose, but unlike a lost organization, it can’t reorient itself. Sick organizations are attached to entrenched beliefs, hindering reinvention. Be it a mission, technology stack, or business model, there’s something the organization can’t let go of — often something that once brought success. If an organization fails to release these attachments, it shifts from specialized to sick, remaining attached to something increasingly disconnected from a viable purpose.
Lost organizations can become sick as well. Uncertainty may lead us to grasp at anything offering stability. Pride takes over, and past successes become central to our present identity. We create organizational myths — people were 10x more effective back then! — and we selectively forget their unrepresentative nature.
To heal, sick organizations need intervention, often external, to reveal the truth and hold them accountable. Often, an existential shock to the system forces the organization to confront difficult choices. It is only on the brink of ruin that serious questions are asked and difficult choices made. Healing begins by letting go of the sacred — the very things that kept it unwell.
But letting go is just the first step. An organization must first move from sickness to lostness, embracing uncertainty. To thrive, it must regain its sense of purpose by examining its principles, practices, and cultural beliefs; discerning the ones that hold it back; and letting go of them. By understanding the changing world, an organization can reinvent itself and adapt to change, ultimately thriving in the new landscape. By embracing this journey, organizations can reach their full potential and create a brighter future.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🙊 China wants generative AI to take a pro-government stance
Chinese officials have published draft guidelines for generative AI companies working in the country, writing that AI outputs “should reflect the core values of socialism.” The algorithms should also “not attempt to subvert state power, overthrow the socialist system, or undermine national unity,” and they should not distribute “false information” or “content that might disrupt economic and social order.” (ChatGPT is banned in China, but local firms like Alibaba and Baidu are working on alternatives.)
🚏🚜 Colorado passed the US’s first agricultural right-to-repair bill
Agricultural equipment manufacturers like John Deere have drawn criticism for forbidding farmers from fixing equipment like tractors themselves, instead forcing them to get repairs from authorized service shops — which can make them wait for up to 8 weeks. This has frustrated farmers, who suffer major productivity hits when their equipment breaks in the middle of a harvest. Fortunately, the Colorado legislature has just passed the country’s first-ever agricultural “Right to Repair” bill, which allows farmers, mechanics, and independent repair shops to get the parts and documentation they need to freely fix their equipment.
🚏🚌 Scotland is launching the world’s first self-driving bus
Autonomous buses are coming to one route in the Edinburgh area next month; the five self-driving buses in the fleet will be able to travel at up to 50 miles per hour and collectively carry 10,000 passengers per week. The buses won’t be totally unstaffed, though: a safety driver will keep an eye on the steering wheel, and a “bus captain” will check tickets and help customers get on board.
🚏❤️🩹 A developer created a “self-healing” program using GPT-4
In a demo, one developer showed off a program called “Wolverine,” which runs Python scripts and uses GPT-4 to auto-edit them whenever they crash. The tool will keep fixing bugs and re-running the code until the script finishes successfully. This comes on the heels of so-called “agentic” AI tools that can spin up mini AI agents to autonomously accomplish tasks; Auto-GPT and BabyAGI are notable examples.
🚏🧼 Newly-invented electrical components can be recycled using only water
One team of engineers has developed a method for printing transistors (a key building block for computers) using an ink made of carbon nanotubes and graphene. These transistors are easy to recycle: just wash them with water, dry them, and print on them again. This is a major improvement from traditional electronics, which can only be recycled using hazardous chemicals (and lots of energy).
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web (New Yorker) — Ted Chiang critiques generative AI as a writing tool, observing that LLMs serve as blurring and interpolation tools over the large corpora of data they are trained on; he likens it to lossy image compression. Chiang observes that, as a writer, “your first draft isn’t an unoriginal idea expressed clearly; it’s an original idea expressed poorly,” and starting with a blurry copy of unoriginal work (as ChatGPT does) isn’t a good way to create original work.
Risk, Uncertainty and Ignorance in Investing and Business — Lessons From Richard Zeckhauser (25IQ) — Shares 12 quotes on risk from a prominent economist, focusing on how risk applies to business and investing. Introduces interesting lenses like unknown, unknowable, and unique (“UUU”) situations; the difference between risk, uncertainty, and ignorance; and how financial markets are complex adaptive systems.
What Putin Fears More Than War (Polymatter) — Argues that Vladimir Putin’s popularity in Russia is based largely on his promise to pay out generous pensions and keep economically stagnating regions on “life support.” But, as Russia’s population ages, Putin has had to raise the retirement age and walk back his promises, which poses a huge risk to his regime.
The End of Silicon Valley (Bank) (Stratechery) — Ben Thompson reminds us that the $250K FDIC insurance limit was originally introduced after 9,000 banks failed during the Great Depression. To Thompson, the run on SVB, its failure to pay back depositors, and the government's eventual intervention is indicative of a low-trust environment, which will have negative implications for the industry: “the costs of replacing trust with explicit rules and regulations will accumulate.”
‘Overemployed’ Hustlers Exploit ChatGPT to Take On Even More Full-Time Jobs (Motherboard) — A look inside the “overemployment” trend, where workers do multiple white-collar jobs simultaneously. ChatGPT has proven especially useful for marketing, product management, financial analysis, and (to a lesser extent) software engineering jobs. One worker, thinking about the future of his industry, quipped: “It's gonna be one loom operator, as opposed to, you know, 100 weavers.”
🔍🐳 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: whale fall, redux.
Back in Episode 45, we explored the concept of a whale fall: “When a large entity dies, its slow decomposition may create a long-lived local ecosystem that gorges itself on the remains. We can apply this lens whenever any large concentration of power and resources starts to decay. As the decay accelerates, so does the rain of riches upon those below.”
In that lens, we explored the consumption of the rich resources provided by the whale fall. However, we didn’t look at the other side of things. It turns out that whale falls are generative… but not for the whale. When we look to the future or assess how the present arose from the past, we tend to take a binary perspective: it will be good, or it will be bad. We will have utopia, or we will have dystopia. Even when we see the future as more mixed, we still tend to separate it: this will be good and that will be bad.
But what the whale fall lens teaches us is that good or bad are often inextricably mixed. The positive upside that comes from a glut of resources arises from the tragedy of a whale’s death. This often happens when paradigms shift. The industrial revolution led to previously unimaginable improvements in standards of living and life expectancy while also causing huge economic and social displacement. Indeed, this cycle of “creative destruction” is a hallmark of modern capitalism.
Sometimes the good and the bad really are separable. In those cases, separate them with enthusiasm! But often, there is at least some intertwining of the good and the bad. Resist the urge to say “I would simply…” and work to understand the underlying dynamics that make the problem hard to solve without a broader systemic change.
Some days you’re the whale, and some days you’re the whale fall’s beneficiary.
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"sick organizations need intervention, often external, to reveal the truth and hold them accountable"
This is great advice. I would also add that sick organizations often don't know they're sick due to causality. If an organization knew they were getting sicker, they would invite external intervention early. Thus by needing external intervention, the organization probably does not know they are sick and thus can't act by inviting external intervention.
We've been talking about exposing healthy debate between senior engineers publicly as a way to show others that it is important to speak up when you see signs of sickness.