Rhys' Newsletter #37

Documentaries using deep fakes for good. Plus, malaria vaccines!

This newsletter goes out to more than 1,000 ambitious frontier people. If you like it, share it with a friend or support me on Patreon!

If you want to go deeper on these ideas, apply for my online school, Roote—a community of world-class systems thinkers looking to understand and build the future.

Hey y’all,

1) I love watching Oscar Documentaries. We don’t yet know the nominee list for 2021, but Welcome to Chechnya is in the running, and it’s damn good.

It tells the story of LGBTQ+ oppression in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim province in Russia. In the last 5 years, the state has conducted multiple “gay purges”, where they torture hundreds of gay folks, some of which are killed in custody.

To escape this, international queer groups have set up a Rainbow Railroad to help gay folks escape. They’ve saved 151 people thus far. This documentary covertly films those escapes.

Part of the reason why I love Welcome to Chechnya is the story itself. It’s a sad but inspiring tale of oppression, freedom, and international collaboration.

But most of my love is for how they use deep fake technology. To ensure the privacy of the queer folks in the film, the filmmakers swapped their faces with folks from NYC.

The clip below is a “reveal” scene in the movie. It starts with the deep faked face (from an NYC person), then removes it until we’re left with the original face. It’s subtle but different. Pretty amazing.

I love this because it shows a positive use of deep fakes—to protect the identity of oppressed peoples. Hell yeah.

Here’s more backstory (1, 2, 3) on the filmmakers’ process:

  • For the 22 deep faked Russians, the filmmakers found 22 queer activists in NYC who had similar faces. They shot them with many camera angles and expressions so they could map the face onto any angle from the real footage. They also had them say a Russian pangram—which is a sentence that includes phonemes for all the mouth shapes in Russian.

  • To keep the original video private “against the interests of state actors”, they immediately downloaded the video onto encrypted drives (which are illegal in Russia!) and did all of the editing in an internet-less room in LA.

  • They shot most of the video on a covert iPhone 10.

I’m excited to see more of this tech used in future documentaries. (And for humanity to eventually get to the point where it’s not necessary. ❤️)

In related news, the creators of South Park have a new Youtube show called Sassy Justice that hilariously uses deepfake tech. Here, Zuck is advertising deals at his dialysis clinic.

2) Podcast this week: #76 Cassie Robinson: Allocating £60M with a Systems Lens.

I interviewed Cassie Robinson—the Senior Head of UK Portfolio at the National Lottery Community Fund (the UK lottery), where she leads a £60 Million a year fund. She’s also an IIPP fellow with Marianna Mazzucato.

I was inspired by how Cassie gives money to strengthen civil society in a unique bottom-up way. For example, one of her programs is helping 52 UK towns reimagine their post-COVID recovery. With this, she’s building “repeatable infrastructure for storytelling.” Another one of her programs is looking to reverse the governance dynamic of tech platforms. Instead of people receiving top-down decisions from GAFA, she’s looking to move on-the-ground sensemaking upstream in the civic tech development process.

She’s a great example of a systems thinker in the (professional) wild—solving root-level problems with a bottom-up approach.

3) Until the end of 2020, applications are open for RF3 (which begins Jan 11, 2021). If you’re interested, apply here!


1) We’ve discussed metamodernism (and Roote Pillar #2—Coherent Pluralism) a lot in this newsletter. It an epistemological stance that balances modernist truth with post-modernist critique.

My friend Simon de la Rouviere just finished a sci-fi novel, Hope Runners of Gridlock, which touches on metamodernism. He wrote a blog post on how he incorporated this philosophy into his book: Exploring Metamodernism & Optimistic Nihilism in Sci-Fi. I found it helpful to more deeply understand metamodernism.

Starting with the “metamodern awesome”:

This last metamodern quality—the feeling of understanding something, or at least thinking of it as “coherent,” without being able to deconstruct it into its parts—is sometimes called “the metamodern awesome.”

I had never heard of the term “metamodern awesome” before. But it’s a great label for what Donella Meadows points at in “Thinking in Systems”:

It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment.

Simon also mentions the Heroine’s Journey, which I had never heard of. It is aligned with metamodernism. Simon writes:

The Heroine’s Journey is focused on the female protagonist rejecting the feminine, failing at employing masculine methods, and eventually reconciling the alternatives into synthesis. This is closely related to metamodernism—a reconciliation attempt at seeming dichotomies.

At the end of the article, Simon notes:

I like metamodermism as a structure of feeling because it gives me a mental framework that does not involve having to throw out other mental frameworks. It’s a dialogue with oneself.

Indeed! Check out his book if you’d like to see metamodernism in sci-fi.

2) This recent academic article was titled: Evaluating the scale, growth, and origins of right-wing echo chambers on YouTube. Aside from the conclusions itself, there was a debate about the authors’ categorization of left and right. They categorized channels like Rebel Wisdom as IDW, which was then categorized as far-right.

This led to a 400-comment thread in the GameB Facebook Group. GameB folks don’t see themselves as far-right. Why were they categorized as such? I especially liked this comment:

No one was “labeling” IDW as far-right, the algorithm found these patterns in the data. Users who consume far-right content, also consume IDW content. This is interesting. We should be asking—why?

The data here does not lie. If the IDW has a big far-right following based on the communities detected in the data, then it could in fact have a major positive social impact by working to de-radicalize many in the far right. They can do this using similar tactics that the alt-right, Russian trolls and other groups use to infiltrate a social network. Over time, they can influence the information flow and culture of the group.

Moving beyond this comment thread, David Fuller of Rebel Wisdom emailed the authors themselves. He wanted them to differentiate between heterodox (IDW) as opposed to reactionary (far-right). The authors responded—they decided to update their study with a new tagging system from transparency.tube. This system tags Rebel Wisdom as Center and Anti-Woke, which (imo) is much closer to its actual place in the media ecosystem.

I like how transparency.tube organizes around two axes: left vs. right AND anti-woke vs. social justice. They’re correlated, but not the same.

It also makes me think—for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There’s left and right; social justice and anti-woke.

For more on ways to view groups in a non-binary way, check out my piece from last year: 5 Mindsets To Understand Our Uncertain World. (Inspired by Memetic Tribes and Culture War 2.0.)

The image below gives 7 rough groupings of memetic tribes:

3) The three Door Dash founders made roughly $3B each in their IPO. Brian Chesky of AirBnB is worth $11B after their IPO. The question around these IPOs is always—is this fair? Did the founders make too much money? Or were they adequately compensated for their risk and work?

My main answer is this—tech platforms should pay their users in equity in addition to cash. For example, on the day of their IPO, AirBnB made this great video thanking their 4M hosts. Unfortunately, those hosts had no chance at AirBnB equity until IPO. If you were employee #1, you just became a millionaire. But if you were host #1, you got nothing. In fact, in 2018 AirBnB petitioned the SEC to give hosts equity, but it was denied. However, there is progress! A couple of weeks ago, the SEC announced a pilot program to allow gig workers to make 15% of their income in equity. Woo hoo!

Saying “tax the billionaires!” is an ok answer, but it’s ex-post. A better answer is to tightly couple value creation to value capture in real-time.

4) In non-COVID vaccine news, we are getting closer to a vaccine for malaria. This would be a huge deal! More than 400,000 people a year die of the disease. In Africa, a child under five dies every two minutes. The vaccine is currently in a final trial with 4,800 children and could be ready by 2024. Fingers crossed!

5) We’d love your feedback on microCOVID. Please spend 5min to give some feedback here. Thank you!

6) The Onion: Facebook Announces Plan To Break Up U.S. Government Before It Becomes Too Powerful




I love learning the origin stories of music I love. I recently learned the story of deadmau5’s The Veldt (Rolling Stone’s 48th best song of 2012).

deadmau5 recorded the instrumental tracks for the track during a 22-hour live stream. One guy on Twitter, Chris James, added some vocals and @mentioned deadmau5. Here is deadmau5’s live reaction on-stream:

deadmau5 loves it! (His Simon Cowell impression at 6min is hilarious.) A bit of fine-tuning and boom—here’s the 8min track in all it’s glory. Three cheers for internet collaboration!

I’m taking the final two weeks of 2020 off for vacation. So I won’t see y’all until next year. Hope you have a good holiday and excited to see y’all in a vaccine-filled 2021. Warmth, Rhys.

❤️ Thanks to my generous patrons ❤️

Brady McKenna, Shira Frank, David Hanna, Benjamin Bratton, Michael Groeneman, Haseeb Qureshi, Jim Rutt, Zoe Harris, Yancey Strickler, Jacob Zax, David Ernst, Brian Crain, Matt Lindmark, Colin Wielga, Malcolm Ocean, John Lindmark, Collin Brown, Ref Lindmark, James Waugh, Mark Moore, Matt Daley, Peter Rogers, Darrell Duane, Denise Beighley, Scott Levi, Harry Lindmark, Simon de la Rouviere, and Katie Powell.