[FKPXLS] VOL.50 / In the long run, almost anything is possible
Maybe it’s rational, and necessary, to embrace and protect our madness.
|Tina He||Jul 12, 2020|| 10|
Hey, happy Sunday. I am sitting in my apartment in New York City, listening to Feel Good Inc. by Gorillaz that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this.
What we share is Fakepixles, a space for creative courage and deep thinking. Here, we are not afraid to ask big questions and aim to find answers by bringing together the most brilliant and eclectic minds. This is our 50th issue ✨ Beyond grateful for all the kindness and brilliance you share on this ride.
Keynes and Lydia
For the past few days, I’ve been immersed in the life of John Maynard Keynes.
Zachary D. Carter gives an engrossing and vivid portrait of one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century in his debut work The Price of Peace. Hours feel like minutes as the pages turn themselves. The book feels like an intimate invitation to stand alongside the thinker on a watchtower, seeing the turn of tides that weave together the past and the present. The world we once knew, undone in a matter of weeks, would have been all too familiar to Keynes, whose adult life was bookended by the two world wars and punctuated by the Great Depression.
Carter begins with a love story Keynes, who despite being openly queer fell madly in love for Russian ballerina Lydia, and ends with an elegant explanation of a credit default swap. Even readers without a background in high finance will learn how to appreciate the drama of both. The book’s enticing prose and the insightful analysis echo the two worlds that Keynes lived: he was committed to the vision of the good life he had developed as a young man and to the spirit of social, intellectual, and romantic experimentation with his early artist friends of Bloomsbury, even as he ascended to a position of high political prominence.
To Keynes, they carried a deep emotional resonance. These were decrees from the ultimate authority in his ethical hierarchy: the struggling artist, the great source of so many Apostolic organic unities and good states of mind.
He would later use his personal financial success to fund Athenaeum, a literary journal where his Bloomsbury friends could publish their work. Although he was thoroughly embedded within British political institutions, he embraced a philosophy of desire and artistic creation in his private life, and was influenced by work of philosopher G.E. Moore, who argued what mattered most in life was inculcating in oneself a “state of consciousness” that would be open to “the good”— with goodness being understood as intrinsic to art, literature, music, something “simple, undefinable, unanalyzable.”
We know Keynes as an economic thinker, and that’s why I was surprised by his polymathic explorations into the worlds of philosophy, arts, and literature. The “Keynesian” methods I learned in econ classes in college never exposed us to the primary writing of Keynes himself. Carter humanizes the character and adds the color that elucidates some of Keynes’ most important arguments. Though an able mathematician himself, Keynes held blatant disdain for those who sought precise solutions to big, imprecise problems. He discovered that financial markets were very different from the clean, ordered entities economists presented in textbooks:
The fluctuations of market prices did not express the accumulated wisdom of rational actors pursuing their own self-interest but the judgments of flawed men attempting to navigate an uncertain future. Market stability depended not so much on supply and demand finding an equilibrium as it did on political power maintaining order, legitimacy, and confidence.
These observations would become the central tenets of Keynes’ magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money:
A large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than on a mathematical expectation, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive…can only be taken as a result of animal spirits—of a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities. Enterprise only pretends itself to be mainly actuated by the statements in its own prospectus….Only a little more than an expedition to the South Pole, is it based on an exact calculation of benefits to come. Thus if the animal spirits are dimmed and the spontaneous optimism falters, leaving us to depend on nothing but a mathematical expectation, enterprise will fade and die;—though fears of loss may have a basis no more reasonable than hope of profit had before.
The phrase “spontaneous optimism” felt cathartic. I’ve been struggling to express myself. Words like hope, optimism, dreams, unity start to sound vapid, but I can’t do any better. That’s why when my friend D called me to catch up, I was particularly excited to hear his perspective.
D is currently pursuing his Masters in education, and he’s dedicated the past years exploring how to democratize elite education to more people. We discussed what elite education provides that community colleges don’t, and he convinced me that elite education does an exceptional job of making students feel like they are capable of and responsible for changing the world. As we were talking, I was reminded of the talk that Richard Hamming delivered to graduate students at the Naval Postgraduate School in 1995:
I have to get you to quit your modesty. I have to get you individually, to respond to my challenge that you're going to be great. You have to say to yourself, “Yes, if that guy Hammond can go out and become a great scientist, I can. Or I can become a great person.” I have to get you to say to yourself that you want to. That it’s worth the effort. And you're going to try to be something more than just the average person.
What better way to inspire the “a spontaneous urge to action” than instilling such “spontaneous optimism” in hungry and curious students? The greatest feat sometimes originates from a split second of awe. Charles Darwin expressed such awe for his theory of natural selection:
There is grandeur in this view of life, optwith its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Similar emotions can also be found in evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow:
The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living, and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite.
Awe is when I see a founder take the company to its next chapter after weathering through a storm, when a new Testflight gets released before I turn off my phone at night, when users participate in building the product out of love.
Awe is when I unbox my first Apple product, when I cross the Brooklyn Bridge as the sky turns gold, when I see my family’s faces in HD from the other side of the planet, when I try out Oculus headset for the first time, when SpaceX takes off as we are all locked down at home, when I get lost in exploring the terrains in Zelda and know that millions of others are experiencing their own moments of wonder.
We have taken to a kind of complacency where we think that science can solve all our problems, without pausing to think about the marvels that science has revealed to us. How much of what initially inspired us are discarded in the name of rationality and explainability?
Philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote:
Modern man fell into the trap of believing that everything can be explained, that reality is a simple affair which has only to be organised in order to be mastered.
Maybe it’s rational, and necessary, to embrace and protect the kind of madness that inspires “spontaneous optimism” to create something awe-inspiring. Especially as a young person, it’s something I want to protect.
✨ If you have ideas on how to inspire “spontaneous optimism” in our digital-native education and work, I would love to hear from you. ✨
Decentralized TikTok & The Internet Computer
“We want to give the internet its mojo back.”
Dominic Williams, Dfinity’s founder and chief scientist declared at an online event.
“We’re taking the internet back to a time when it provided this open environment for creativity and economic growth, a free market where services could connect on equal terms.”
Dfinity emerged in 2018 amid the heat of investments in the blockchain space. It raised $102 million in funding at a $2 billion valuation in a round jointly led by A16Z and Polychain Capital, along with other investors.
A declaration of the Internet’s initial promise isn’t an act of nostalgia, but a recentering of priorities. For the past decade, we see how the dominance of a few companies, and the advertising business model that supports them, has pulled public discourse into the hate speech and misinformation and threatened the basic norms of individual privacy. The effective monopoly of these firms also endangers the kind of innovation that spawned them in the first place. There are few places online beyond the reach of these tech giants, and few apps or services that thrive outside of their ecosystems.
As a refresher, on the normal internet, both data and software are stored on specific computers: servers at one end and devices we interact with at the other. When we use an app, such as Zoom, software running on Zoom’s servers sends data to our devices and requests data from it. The traffic is managed by an open standard known as the internet protocol (the IP in IP address). These long-standing rules are what ensure that the video stream of my sleepy face travels across the internet, from network to network, until it reaches your computer milliseconds later.
Dfinity offers an alternative called internet computer protocol (ICP). With ICP the computers could be anywhere. Instead of running on a dedicated server in Google Cloud, for example, the software would have no fixed physical address, moving between servers owned by independent data centers around the world. This means that apps can be released that nobody owns or controls. Data centers will be paid a fee, in crypto tokens, by the app developers for running their code, but they won’t have access to the data.
On June 30th, Dfinity announced that the “Internet Computer” is now open to third-party developers and entrepreneurs to build that next generation. The vision is to “reboot” the internet in a way that destroys the ability to create virtual monopolies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
As its next technical demonstration, it launched “CanCan”, a TikTok-like app that will run in a browser and which is not owned by a company. The idea is that anyone can now build their own TikTok. The serverless architecture allows the internet to natively host software and services, eliminating the need for proprietary cloud services. Without web servers, databases, and firewalls, developers can create powerful software much more quickly, and that software then runs far faster than normal. Apps like CanCan can be built with less than 1,000 lines of code.
Yet the ease of building apps doesn’t translate into wide adoption of enterprise or consumers. By the end of the day, the network effect of existing platforms and the value of a freemium model will make the transition slower than we think. But it's possible in the near future that the internet may be forced to change. As Professor Lalana Kagal at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab said:
“Privacy regulations could become so restrictive that companies will be forced to move to a more decentralized model […] they might realize that storing and collecting all this personal information is just not worth their while anymore.”
👉🏻 Further readings for the bold and curious
Consuming too much sugar? Too much fat?
Michael Moskowitz, CEO and founder of AeBeZe Labs, called himself a “digital nutritionist”. The Lab has created a number of tools, including a digital nutrition table of elements, digital nutrition labels, and personalized digital nutrition plans to guide people in creating balanced and nourishing digital diets and building “stronger behavioral and emotional health when consuming media.”
While the concept is beautifully laid out, it’s clear that an iOS app and a newsletter by a startup are ineffective in capturing our digital behavior. The diagnosis and synthesis of our behavioral patterns in the digital world will most naturally happen on the respective platform, and the patterns are the most meaningful when the data is collected across platforms. Even the most successful dieting and weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers or Noom rely on self-reported behaviors because my Apple Watch can’t capture what I had for lunch. Our digital behaviors are, however, captured at the most granular level, by all the tools we engage with. A program that visualizes and gives suggestions on our consumption pattern across platforms and devices can provide incredible utility. The question then comes: who should be doing this?
Fortune and SurveyMonkey polled 1,276 U.S. adults to understand whether Americans would trust their personal health information. The finding is summarized in the chart below. When asked specifically about health-care information, 7 in 10 of people are untrusting of all the tech giants.
Swapping the digital with physical, vice versa
Shanghai Shangkwan Sheshan Villa | Benjai Architecture
Only four short decades ago, China had a predominantly agrarian economy. Sino-Surrealism is a newly defined term used in the design world as an attempt to describe the incomprehensible transformation of the nation into a digital economy.
Throughout Sino-Surrealist spaces, particular objects or structures function as gateways, describing the user’s transition from routine physics into the disorienting territories of the digital, unlocking imagination and optimism.
The Other Place Hotel | Studio 10
A sense of transcendence imbues Sino-Surrealism. Shanghai-based Studio 10 designed The Other Place Hotel to create a "mysterious, infinite and impossible space", merging 2D and 3D elements to produce a series of optical illusions.
While China is rapidly expanding its physical infrastructure for retail and hospitality, brands globally start to experiment with digital retail channels with the high-touch physical concierge shop assistant service to increase conversion.
Fashion brand DIESEL and parent company OTB recently launched Hyperoom, a 360-degree digital buying platform, a more sustainable alternative to the traditional workflow. With this new platform DIESEL will meaningfully reduce the number of clothing samples and the need to travel to view new collections.
On a similar note, Microsoft announced last Friday it will permanently close its 83 Microsoft Store retail locations. It will instead focus on its online store at Microsoft.com, where customers can go for support, sales, training, and more.
It will likely take longer than we expected to return fully to our physical day-to-day, for now, it’s a good time to think bold, and dream.
In 1986, sociologist Michael Mann began a strikingly ambitious project — to give a theoretical and historical account of the history of power in human history.
One of the generalizing frameworks that he uses throughout all four volumes is what he refers to as the IEMP model of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political.
Ideological Power derives from the human need to find ultimate meaning in life, to share norms and values, and to participate in aesthetic and ritual practices with others. (V3, 6)
Economic Power derives from the human need to extract, transform, distribute, and consume the products of nature. Economic relations are powerful because they combine the intensive mobilization of labor with very extensive circuits of capital, trade, and production chains, providing a combination of intensive and extensive power and normally also of authoritative and diffused power. (V3, 8)
Military Power. Since writing my previous volumes, I have tightened up the definition of military power to "the social organization of concentrated and lethal violence." (V3, 10)
Political Power is the centralized and territorial regulation of social life. The basic function of government is the provision of order over this realm. (V3, 12)
In Mann’s words:
We may distinguish distributive from collective power—that is, power exercised over others, and power secured jointly through cooperation with others. Power may also be authoritative or diffuse. The former involves commands by an individual or collective actor and conscious obedience by subordinates, and the latter spreads in a relatively spontaneous and decentered way. Finally, it can be extensive, organizing large numbers of people over far-flung territories, or intensive, mobilizing a high level of commitment from a limited group of participants. The most effective exercise of power is collective and distributive, extensive and intensive, authoritative and diffuse. That is why a single source—say, the economy or the military—cannot alone determine the overall structure of societies.
The four power sources offer distinct organizational networks and means for humans to pursue their goals. But which means are chosen, and in which combinations, depends on interaction between what power configurations are historically-given and what emerge interstitially within and between them. This is the main mechanism of social change in human societies, preventing any single power elite from clinging indefinitely onto power. The sources of social power and the organizations embodying them are promiscuous. They weave in and out of each other in a complex interplay between institutionalized and emergent, interstitial forces.
The framework is particularly helpful when evaluating crises in nations and organizations. What are we over-indexing on? What are we not paying enough attention to? How are these forces interacting with each other to restore a state of equilibrium? How do we prevent them from going out of balance?
👉🏻 Further readings for the bold and curious
The framework is also later extended to a "more holistic view” framed as NACEVP model, which now covers Natural, Artefactual, Cultural, Economic, Violence-related, and Political power sources.
Dnipro, Ukraine | Jason Guilbeau
Photographer Jason Guilbeau spent months traveling virtually and transported to Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and other countries that formerly made up the USSR. The compilation became a photobook entitled Soviet Signs and Street Relics.
Some signs are playfully artistic — a sliced watermelon in the middle of a seemingly deserted countryside, while others perhaps meant to signal power and strength — planes taking off into the, but all form a striking reference to the history of their surroundings, and the Soviet regime during which they were constructed.
Kherson Oblast, Ukrain | Jason Guilbeau
They are the last physical remnants of the Soviet Union, obsolete survivors, captured by an omniscient technology that is continually deleting and replenishing itself.
The irony at the heart of Guilbeau’s satisfying photographs is that the dominance illustrated by the towering monuments would eventually fade alongside the dissolution of the USSR, to then be meticulously documented by American technology giant like Google for anyone around the world to see. The cycle of life and power.
Artist Ralph Ammer created a series of brilliant animations on the evolution of software design.
In the beginning, engineers create powerful functionalities that could scare away the users, and with the maturity of abstraction layers like APIs and minimal interfaces, users are now left with deceptively little choices to be made.
And easy sells well. Thus more and more products are based on the promise to make our lives easier by using increasingly complex technologies with ever simpler interfaces.
There’s a catch. Taking these abstractions too far, we now have a user who’s kept in the dark.
An experience that has appeared nothing short of a miracle to people just 50 years ago — video conferencing, cashless payments, collaborative whiteboarding, and which requires the operation of a colossal infrastructure have quickly become normality.
When a problem occurs which hasn’t been anticipated by the designers, those systems are prone to fail. The more complex the systems are, the higher are the chances that things go wrong. They are less resilient.
We get really frustrated when they break, and the more complex the system, the further away we are from the problem that caused the problem, which makes it hard to empathize because we don’t understand what is going on.
Ammer suggests that simplification is a powerful design strategy by removing friction. And yet, we also need further design strategies that educate us to understand and interact with complex systems.
Scott Belsky also tweeted about this tension between ritual vs. convenience:
Ritual, it turns out, is made of friction - a friction that forces us out of mindlessness and into awareness. Anything that forces us to escape muscle memory and our screens yields unexpected dividends - especially when it comes to creativity.
🍇 Fruit for thought: what are some of the friction we want to remove and ritual we want to establish to live commensalistically with technology?
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We are slowly becoming a community of curious thinkers and impact-driven builders who believe the future will come fast, and we can make it better.
If you are interested in contributing or being a part of it, I would love to have you join the club.