[FKPXLS] VOL.40 — A brave and startling truth

The danger of building forward with very little understanding of the past is to build for the problem that exists in a static snapshot of our current state.

Hey beautiful people —

For several hundred million years, there were no stars, no planets, no living organisms, no people, no poetry in our universe. Over 13.7 billion years, things appeared one by one. Species forked and multiplied and came together, creating qualities that had never been seen before. Just like molecules—carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids—come together with their own incentives. A lipid never attempts to conspire with a protein and said, “Let’s get together and build something marvelous” The lipid just wants to store energy or link with other lipids to create a cell membrane. 

This is why the idea of “emergence” so often seems magical and mysterious. Emergent properties are collective properties, which means they are a consequence of the relationships between individuals, not the properties of individual parts. The whole becoming much more than the sum of its parts is a mesmerizing concept. 

Having left NYC for a month, I miss the random eccentricity, the transient glamour, the fleeting sense of meaning, the constant reminder that I’m part of something bigger than myself. The impatient traffic relies on emergence, so does the encounter with an old friend when I miss my 6 train.

Teju Cole, in his novel set in post-911 New York, describes the magical property of the interconnected city: 

“Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks.”

Just like our lovely city, markets, companies, computers, software all exhibit mystical attributes. In Hayek’s words, markets serve as information processors that gather and utilize the knowledge that is dispersed among individuals. The market is the accidental aggregation machine that humans created to “conquer intelligence.” In the world of technology companies, emergence explains why some start-ups can have sudden explosions in their valuation and rapid expansions in their function. It’s not just the app or the website that creates the value, but the collective incentives of all the people plugged into it. 

Emergent systems create mesmerizing narratives. It’s pure magic when they work until they break. The economy from 1980 operated under the vision of a massively decentralized calculating machine until 2008. The early open-source projects on the Internet gave us a glimpse of Utopia until service providers turned community camaraderie into an offering without giving back. When things break, we see what we failed to consider. We’ve learned lessons of what led up to those system failures, which are really slow brewing of disincentives and misinformation than a sudden collapse. We’ve learned that these “emergent” properties are, in fact, not magical, but designed, both intentionally and oftentimes unintentionally.  

What we can do now better than any moment in the past, with more granular and robust data, tooling, and processing capability, to empathize with individual incentives and stories at an unprecedented scale. Unlike lipids, humans and human-designed actually get to talk to each other to coordinate, to collaborate, to learn from the past. We still don’t talk to each other enough.

The emergent system framework could facilitate a larger number of participants by breaking them up into smaller groups.(Source)

Everything is the way it is because it got that way. It’s a subtle way of emphasizing the importance of process and history in understanding why everything is the way it is. The danger of building forward with very little understanding of the past is to build for the problem that exists in a static snapshot of our current state, while the solution might only be informed by the underlying mechanisms that generate that state. 

It’s been inspiring to see constructions everywhere to build new systems. Last week, I wrote about the surreal experience of strolling through worlds after worlds. The pace of building will only accelerate, and the optimists in us know that we will arrive in the future by creating the path there. But in the time of panic, we also build with a sense of answer-seeking escapism and feel-good redemption. Trying to understand what has gotten us here, to hear the voices that got left out, to confront our blind spots, is just as important as the act of building. We want to be intellectually honest where we are allocating our energy, not just individually, but as a collective. We want to operate with a sense of urgency, but also take the time to reflect on how our worlds interact with each other, with worlds emerging from the past and into the future. 

On a different note, thinking about emergence and evolution also leads me onto a path of a personal expedition. I revisited this quote by David Brooks from The Second Mountain that I read a year ago. Obviously I reached my mid-life crisis when I was 22:

“The interesting thing about your personality, your essence, is that it is not more or less permanent like your leg bone. Your essence is changeable, like your mind. Every action you take, every thought you have, changes you, even if just a little, making you a little more elevated or a little more degraded.”

The pandemic reveals the design flaws of our systems and all the moving parts that evolve not just individually, but collectively. Every decision we make from now will reshape the world we will live in the future. That, to me, is a beautiful, profound, and sobering idea. 

Stay real, stay beautiful.


Dazed poster project

“Everything is Art. Everything is Politics.”

35 artists have contributed work to this project that’s being launched as part of Dazed’s #AloneTogether campaign. The result is a heady mix of wonderful design and thought, with each artist approaching the project in their own way – with the imaginations ranging from the future of the press, to personal growth, friendship, and consumption.

Art, in the period of chaos, amplifies the voices that need to be heard when we’re panic building and fixing. As Ai Weiwei phrased beautifully:

“Humanity is not an empty word. It relates to personal history, the individual’s happiness and sadness, all those things which when added together can be called humanity. It is not an abstract concept. It relates to each individual and each individual’s story gives humanity its meaning. Those stories are the most important way in which we can communicate and begin to understand one another. Every individual needs to speak out and express what has happened in their lives.”

“Dreams”, Jonas Lindstroem
“Afterwards 1”, Peter Kennard

The New Possible

Speaking of where systems break, the pandemic has resurfaced some of the worst in the world: racism, nationalism, anti-scientism, bigotry. But something strange has happened as well. Changes, ideas and solutions that were previously deemed impossible have suddenly become possible. The New Possible created a beautiful curation of changes in action.

4.30.20. US Local Districts Distribute Free Laptops To Children

New York City Department of Education has distributed 175,000 free laptops, Chromebooks, and iPads, and the School District of Philadelphia is planning to give out devices currently used only in schools.

4.17.20 Women Become Most Essential Workers

In the US, one in three jobs held by women has been designated essential. In Germany, 75 percent of all essential jobs are done by women.

4.08.20 Amersterdam Ditches Economic Growth Model

Amsterdam became the first city in the world to formally embrace 'donut' model of economics.

Netflix faces price pressure as subscriber growth slows

2008-2009: Netflix Thrives Despite The Recession

When the recession hit, many entertainment companies struggled to survive, but Netflix found its footing and attracted 3M new subscribers by the end of 2009, 33% growth over the year prior.

The company expanded into online streaming in 2007, which offered consumers a much more affordable alternative to costly cable and satellite TV services, resulting in a 22% bump in revenue between 2008 and 2009. The low cost per rental paired with the convenience of postal delivery has great appeal in the current economic environment as demonstrated by the increase in home rentals.

Through strategic partnerships, Netflix's streaming video can be delivered to subscribers through Blu–ray players (with LG), broadband-enabled TVs (with LG and Vizio) and Roku set-top boxes. These recent initiatives show the potential size of the streaming market, as Microsoft has sold more Xbox 360 consoles than all these delivery systems combined. Since the technology is available and the profit margins are higher, the company is looking at the possibility of terminating postal delivery and delivering videos only over the Internet.

Iran. 2016. © Newsha Tavakolian

Summertime bathers wade into waters colored red by salt-loving bacteria and algae. Tourists from across Iran have come here for generations, but the number of visitors has fallen as the lake has shrunk some 80 percent since the 1980s, raising fears that this will be the last generation to play in its waters.

What are the experiences that you miss the most, and might not come back anytime soon?

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Tina is a designer, writer, and investor who’s online 24/7 hunting for projects and ventures built with grit and purpose. Born in China. Based in NYC. You can find her elsewhere on Twitter or Instagram.