Rhys' Newsletter #68

César Hidalgo on Sociotechnical Systems, Long COVID, Selfish Genes, and Big Disinfo

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Hello from San Francisco! I drank a lot of Turkish coffee with cardamom in Egypt and have been addicted to it back in the states. Buy some here.

1) New travel TikTok from my Africa trip: How Colonial Powers Invented Tribes To Make Governing More Legible.

2) The next Roote Fellowship, RF5, is coming up! We have some awesome folks confirmed, like a social technologist from Azerbaijan. Share it with your friends and apply here: roote.co.

3) Podcast This Week: #90 César Hidalgo: How To Understand Sociotechnical Systems

Cesar is an amazing multidisciplinary systems thinker. He wrote the excellent Why Information Grows and recently released How Humans Judge Machines, which he paid to make available as an e-book for free (so cool!).

Here’s an excerpt of us talking about the medium and the message:

Rhys: Let’s talk about the medium is the message. How did the printing press change who was famous?

César: Prior to printing, most of the famous people (as judged by Wikipedia) are involved in religion or politics.

After printing, there are two interesting things. The number of people that we remember increases, meaning that our collective memory doubles very quickly. And also the new people that we remember are people in different categories. Printing was the start of society remembering composers, artists, astronomers, and mathematicians. 

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0205771

César: As printing develops and we go from printing books to printing science journals. Then the sciences start to bloom and we divide them into physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth.

Then all of a sudden you have film and radio. That completely shifts the arts from the playwrights and composers to the performers, actors, musicians, and singers. This resonates very strongly with Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”—as you develop new technologies to communicate things, there are certain messages that are better adapted to those mediums and those are the ones that spreading further.

Actors existed at the time of the Greeks. But famous actors only existed when there was a medium that was able to capture the performance. But when there was a medium that was only able to capture the play, it was the playwright who became famous.

That is really interesting because it tells us that these technologies are truly transformative. They shape our society and really show us these breaks in our history that are the result of changes in communication technology.

Rhys: Yeah, I love that. Let’s double click on that for a second. This is a very macro question, so good luck. From a “medium is the message” perspective, what things are optimized for the Internet?

César: Today we're in this weird Twitterocracy because politicians have direct access to their audiences versus 30 years ago when they spoke through TV interviews. This has developed our politics to be much more aggressive.

In the US, Trump’s removal from Twitter had more impact than the impeachment attempts.

Technology allows people to have direct instant fame. That fame is not mediated through work or through other people. That has generated a very strange dynamic where people become famous by sharing opinions or sharing conspiracies.

César: The technology that we have right now is good at some things like the ability to express yourself. But it’s so bad at other things like trying to aggregate preferences through participation and deliberation. As these movements grow and the only way for them to survive is to find a very simplified language.

At night, I've been reading my daughter Animal Farm from George Orwell. Honestly, it's such a fantastic book. As the revolution begins, Napoleon and Snowball create the principles of Animalism. They soon discover that there's some animals that could learn to read and write while other animals like sheep that were stupid. So they had to start to dumb down those principles and Animalism ends up being “Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good.”

I think Twitter and Facebook have changed the world, but that trend towards simplicity seems to be still in place.

Information wants to be simple! Be wary of slogans that simplify like MAGA or BLM.

César: At the margin of that, though, there are still people that have stuck to the utopia of the Internet as a medium for democracy.

During this semester at the Center for Collective Learning, I ran a seminar series and interviewed civic tech people. I invited people to participate in the seminar like Audrey Tang, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and City Madrid (a big participatory budgeting initiative).

There are a lot of isolated efforts to create these new institutions. They're growing. It is very much alive among younger generations. They believe that the Internet is not just another medium but an integral part of society that should be part of the way that we make collective decisions, a la democracy. 

Rhys: Yeah! Gen Z kids are part of a Minecraft group where everybody co-builds things together on Discord servers and remixes on TikTok. Then they grow up and turn 18, and they're like, oh, now, I get to vote and I get to give one bit of information every four years. Is that really how this works? They get disappointed by that.

Much more in the podcast itself on the geography of knowledge, the difference in how we judge governments vs. corporations, and more. Thanks César!

LINKS

1) Long COVID: Much More Than You Wanted To Know and Delta and Long COVID.

These are two great pieces that help us understand the risks of Long COVID. After reading these my rough calculation is that, if I get COVID, I have a 1% chance of getting serious (more than 6 month) Long COVID.

Not the best odds (1% is still high!), but good to know.

I’m still staying away from indoor bars and restaurants until prevalence numbers go below 1/1000 again (currently 1/200).

2) Alleviating Supply Constraints in the Housing Market

Good overview from WhiteHouse.gov on how they’re trying to build more housing stock. The stat below is pretty bad:

Across the country, more than 10 million renters (one in four) pay more than half of their income on rent, and nearly half (47%) spend over 30% of their income on rent and utilities.

Graph below shows why:

3) Why The Selfish Genes Metaphor Remains A Powerful Thinking Tool.

Great overview of selfish genes. I especially liked learning about Dawkins’ summary of the key argument in limerick form:

An itinerant selfish gene

Said: ‘Bodies a-plenty I’ve seen.

You think you’re so clever,

But I’ll live for ever.

You’re just a survival machine.’

Selfish Memes are a powerful thinking tool too.

What Does Information Want? 🤔

4) Bad News: Selling the story of disinformation.

Good critical look at “Big Disinfo”, the field that has spun up to tackle the ill-defined “misinformation” (which is a scissor label!).

A reminder that any movement must sustain itself. Big Disinfo funnels Industrial Age profits (from Ford Foundation, etc.) into Information Age mitigation.

5) Babylon BeeDemocrats Start Reverse Underground Railroad To Help Unborn Babies Escape Texas And Be Killed (woof)

6) The Onion: Underwhelming Science Fair Experiment Converts Potato Into Baked Potato

7) Rhys: Vitalik Finds Private Keys Under Couch Cushions, Near Remote

8) Satire From The Crowd: I Had a Headline About the Texas Abortion Ban but I Decided to Pull It Before Publication

(Please send me other funny headlines you’ve written!)

9) TikTok of the Week: @ajabdullah_ with a cool way to share his favorite South Asian indie musicians

JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES

  • Jay Graber has officially announced that she’s leading Twitter’s Bluesky initiative. She’s great! They’re hiring a protocol and web dev. Apply here.

  • Open Philanthropy has a new Technology Policy Fellowship for ~tech folks who are looking to get into policy, especially around AI or bio risk.

  • MSCHF, an awesome experimental digital-first media collective (idk what to call them), is hiring a general counsel.

  • One of my favorite companies, Hive.one, is creating a PageRank for people to make trust abundant. They’re hiring a CTO.

  • The Berkman Klein Center is one of the best academic centers that study technosocietal systems. They’re hiring a new Executive Director.

  • Coinbase is hiring for an interesting position—Head of Crypto Recruiting.

  • Effective Altruism Jobs Board

EVENTS

MUSIC

Rhythms del Mundo is an excellent Cuban cover band featuring members from the Buena Vista Social Club. There are lots of cover bands, but not many in the Cuban style. My favorite cover of theirs is below.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, by U2:

My other favorite cover album is the Pickin’ On Series, which is a set of bluegrass covers. This “Clocks” cover is ridiculously good. The bass that comes in at 0:15 is deeply guttural. And the drop at 4:50 is just…wow. I’ve never heard string instruments make a noise like that.

What are your favorite covers?


Hope you have a good week! Warmth, Rhys

If you like this newsletter, check out the online community of systems thinkers that I helped co-found, Roote.

❤️ Thanks to my generous patrons ❤️

Chris Densmore, Maciej Olpinski, Jonathan Washburn, Ben Wilcox, Audra Jacobi, Sam Jonas, Patrick Walker, Shira Frank, David Hanna, Benjamin Bratton, Michael Groeneman, Haseeb Qureshi, Jim Rutt, Zoe Harris, 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.