Domestic Security: Some Complex Thinking

The Idea: Maybe the reason we can’t agree on how to deal with terrorism is that we’re all using illogical, inappropriate and overly simplistic thinking. If we used ‘complex thinking’ would we stop arguing and start getting somewhere?

It is likely that the Department of Homeland Security (which is now the largest state-run organization on the planet) will go down in history as the poorest investment in human history — an operation that has churned through trillions of dollars (possibly enough to eradicate world poverty and a dozen of the biggest killer diseases on the planet at the same time), and accomplished absolutely nothing. The insidious nature of such ‘security’ programs is that no one can ever say for sure they haven’t or might not yet prevent a catastrophe — US government intelligence is now a black hole that sucks up money and from which nothing ever escapes.

A recent article by John Tirman argues that progressives have missed a great opportunity to stake out an alternative strategy for security that would be modestly less expensive than the conservative strategy that has been used since Bush took office, more effective, and provide a host of other social and environmental benefits in the process. The gist of his argument is shown in the first three columns below. I’ve added as a fourth column the preventative strategy that I have argued for on these pages, which has also been advocated in a number of European newspapers.

SECURITY AGENDA Conservative Progressive – Domestic Focus Progressive – International Focus
Domestic Security Strategy Offensive: Preemptively attack foreign nations that might threaten domestic security Defensive: Improve domestic infrastructure to enhance preparedness Preventative: Improve global infrastructure to reduce animosity
Spending Priority Defense, ‘intelligence’-gathering, prisons and interrogation Domestic health, education Humanitarian and infrastructure aid globally and domestically
Investment in Direct Security Massive and unprecedented Significant Negligible
Response Strategy Bolster police and emergency services, suspend civil liberties as expendable Bolster police and emergency services but balance against need to protect civil liberties No response: The world is too big to protect against all such threats, and civil liberties are sacrosanct (that’s what we’re defending)
Treatment of Domestic and Border-Crossing Minorities Persecute, prosecute and deport without due process Heightened bureaucracy but with due process Treated like everyone else
Principal Political Means of Galvanizing Support Emotional: Fear-mongering Rational: Reasonable measures commensurate with the threat Emotional: Show how these people live abroad and you’ll understand their desperation
Approach to Protecting Energy Supply Increase security at power plants & refineries, seize foreign oil supplies, eliminate environmental restrictions on exploration Shift to renewable energy sources and hence decentralize sources of supply Shift to renewable energy sources and hence decentralize sources of supply
Approach to Protecting Public Health Increased security at major health facilities, disaster and evacuation plans, bioterror ‘research’ Upgrade, network and decentralize public health infrastructure Upgrade, network and decentralize public health infrastructure
Approach to Protecting Transportation Increased security in transportation hubs, ban identification of vehicles carrying hazmat Improve mass transit and restrict transportation of hazmat Reduce transportation needs by encouraging ‘buy local’ and restrict transportation of hazmat
Effect: Preparedness for Another Domestic Attack By their own reports, not at all prepared Would be modestly better prepared Not even attempting to prepare

My recent study of complex systems (and the politics of international terrorism are nothing if not complex) and the approaches to dealing with them have given me pause. All of the agendas above are designed for complicated systems, not complex ones. They all presume to have a monopoly on understanding of the cause-and-effect relationships behind acts of terror. The very terms ‘deterrence’, ‘preemption’ and ‘prevention’ are rooted in complicated systems theory, and are meaningless and perhaps even dangerous when applied to complex systems. They are all about trying to understand and exercise control over a system that is simply unknowable and uncontrollable. Perhaps this is why neocons and all previous imperialists have striven to impose homogeneity over global culture, with the unattainable objective of making us all so much alike that civilization becomes a predictable, merely complicated system. Diversity is a dirty word to conservatives. Progressives support diversity as a matter of principle, but have been notoriously poor at understanding its implications — resulting in bizarre behaviours like ‘political correctness’, which no one seems to like.

Here’s a quote from Dave Snowden talking over on AOK about another social issue where conservatives and progressives disagree completely and have tried to impose policies based on different cause-and-effect oversimplifications. The issue is capital punishment:

Order in complex systems emerges from the interaction of multiple identities over time, within boundaries around attractors. If we want to see change then it will arise from multiple bottom-up initiatives which change the context and make certain types of negative pattern unsustainable. To take a political example, capital punishment has become largely an unsustainable approach for European governments over the last fifty years, but the same phenomenon has not yet impacted on the bulk of the US (or several regimes who the US regard as uncivilized). In Europe this is a pattern that has emerged from multiple interactions: cases of the wrong people being convicted, a gradual change to liberalization in multiple fields of human thinking which create a framework within which leaders and politicians are able to operate. For some reason this has not happened in the US despite similar evidence plus the general data on racial/social bias on who actually gets killed (lets not use the word execute: it hides the reality). With the notable exception of the film Dead Man Walking most interactions in US society create a different type of entrainment which is the opposite of the European position.   From a personal perspective I feel a physical sense of horror at the whole idea that you can take a human being and kill them in some public ritual, but that is partly because of the society in which I grew up, the political influences of a family deeply committed to politics and an historical age which allowed that thinking to take place.

Now this is not an argument that Europe is more enlightened that the US because it isnít (although it is more liberal), it’s an argument that many different things are connected and social systems arise from multiple interactions which cannot be directed top down, and it would not make a scrap of difference if you changed the mind set of senior leaders because their patterns personal and collective will respond to the emergent patterns of the societies in which they operate. The Grameen bank case that I quote in the article is a great example of complex thinking ñ its bottom up, no one changed leaders to some model of thinking, someone just went out and did something simple which created change ñ the more people do that the more chance the world has.

Apply this thinking to the Schiavo case and it will make your head spin.

The article cited above explains the Grameen bank case as follows:

The Grameen Bank was created in Bangladesh to provide small loans to poor people. The name Grameen comes from the Bangla word for village. This is a market which the conventional banking system finds unattractive. Most commercial and private loans are based on credit scoring, an ordered concept in which the characteristics of good and bad debtors are identified and used as predictors and therefore controls for future lending. This increases the cost of lending as the various processes have to be administered, and small loans this become uneconomic. In the Grameen Bank everyone who took out a loan was required to be a part of a self regulating borrowersí group in which each member of the group had to take responsibility for the debts of the others. This simple rule which costs little to administer produced a 97% repayment rate comparable with best achievements of the large banks; there are now over two million clients of the Grameen bank and the approach has proved both scalable and portable. I find the Grameen Bank an inspiring case, and an illustration of the great benefits that complex or unordered thinking can bring. Managing the starting conditions not an idealized end state can produce lower cost more effective solutions. Complex thinking is not a nice to have in modern management, it is a fundamental necessity. It is a new and exciting way of thinking about the world

Some of the techniques for ‘complex thinking’ he suggests:

  • Manage by monitoring for the emergence of pattern to sustain or disrupt, rather than managing by objective, to plan or to a model;
  • Focus on effectiveness (with requisite diversity and allowance for inefficiency for adaptability) rather than efficiency;
  • Explore don’t exploit;
  • Strive for resilience and adaptability not stability;
  • Measure the stability of ‘barriers’ and ‘identities’, and the attractiveness of ‘attractors’, rather than using reductionist measures like ROI;
  • Simulate emergence to see the patterns of possibility, rather than analyzing and relying on ‘experts’;
  • Understand that our different ‘identities’ make decisions based on personal experience and stories representing collective knowledge (we usually think of individuals making decisions based on enlightened self-interest).

So how might we apply ‘complex thinking’ to domestic security? Rather than trying to solve causality, or rank and address all of the potential security risks, how could we discover and ‘disrupt the patterns’ of acts of terror? Does this imply that until/unless we can discover the patterns, it’s a waste of time and money doing anything? Decentralizing targets and diversifying sources of supply would seem to be a good way to build resilience into critical systems. What else could we do? If we acknowledge that the barriers we have erected at borders are unstable (and next to useless for combating terrorism, while particularly effective at disrupting commerce and tourism), are there other barriers we could use instead? Are there ‘attractors’ we could put in place that would draw those with an axe to grind against the West elsewhere (Iraq seems to be an unexpectedly good attractor these days)? What kinds of simulation could we run that might help us see what the impact on terrorist activity might be of various interventions — would building good schools in the Mideast help or hurt for example? And what kind of stories can we surface and tell that would inform the decisions of those inclined to loathe us and act on that loathing?

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4 Responses to Domestic Security: Some Complex Thinking

  1. Mike says:

    “how could we discover and ‘disrupt the patterns’ of acts of terror?”With iPods? Seriously, see . There’s an FM transmitter and an am/fm receiver, but no transceiver. What happens when you can simultaneously broadcast and receive? No doubt many will just rock out but with multiple channels there’s the possibility of group awareness. Picture two groups of people at opposite corners on a busy city street at rush hour, and it’s a few years hence when wearing displays and some sort of narrow beam transmitter (like a laser) for pointing. The WALK sign comes on, as folks cross they recognize the regulars, the expected. Nobody knows everyone, but everyone knows someone; not acquaintances, just the people you see some days going about their business. Given a group situational awareness (mediated by constant realtime data flows between the iPods, the pointers, etc), the ones who don’t belong become visible. Much the same could apply to entire city blocks; anywhere where there’s almost always enough eyes looking everywhere. Even in a busy city a terrorist cell might stick out like a Mossad hit team in Lillehammer.Structurally, I favor totally decentralized security, made of overlapping areas of heightened group situational awareness. After 9/11 I *looked* everywhere, like when on the metro, and I observed considerably less reading, and lots more looking, and looking *out*. It didn’t last, of course, but though born of tragedy, it was a great feeling.RSS/Atom feeds will do more for our security than a hundred homeland security departments. Successive layers of soft defenses, designed to deter and deflect. Of course this would be anathemical to federal government. But I would think we could get a lot of libertarians, states’ rightsists, and other such to join us.

  2. Mike says:

    Well, it looked better formatted :-(

  3. Raging Bee says:

    Dave: you’re kidding, right?

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Mike: Some of this makes sense, though I suspect that, under the right circumstances, there is a ‘terrorist’ (by someone’s definition) in each of us. Snowden talks about multiple identities, and I think that would complicate (complexify?) what you’re talking about. But I’m intrigued by your vision of iPods as identity recognizers. McLuhan said that the car is the extension of the leg, and the computer the extension of the brain, so if the iPod is, in effect, an extension of the computer we may be seeing in the iPod the very early stages of connected group consciousness and intelligence — something he thought was promised by the computer and the telephone (and he lived in the age before laptops, PDAs and cellphones). Some really interesting possibilities here.

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