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Commentary on Politics and Strategy

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.

Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.

I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.

Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.

Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.

By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause.  That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.

If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.

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Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

Read the whole thing here.

Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.

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Happy New “Creative Leap” Year

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- wondering whether a von Kármán vortex street might be a good place to take a Paul Lévy walk one of these days -- when I'm out and about, foraging for new ideas ]
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"Named after French mathematician Paul Lévy, a Lévy walk is characterized by many small moves combined with a few longer trajectories."

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M’friend Bill Benzon of the New Savanna blog posted two paras out of an NYT blog piece, Navigating Our World Like Birds and Bees, today:

What they have found is that when moving with a purpose such as foraging for food, many creatures follow a particular and shared pattern. They walk (or wing or lope) for a short time in one direction, scouring the ground for edibles, then turn and start moving in another direction for a short while, before turning and strolling or flying in another direction yet again. This is a useful strategy for finding tubers and such, but if maintained indefinitely brings creatures back to the same starting point over and over; they essentially move in circles.

So most foragers and predators occasionally throw in a longer-distance walk (or flight), which researchers refer to as a “long step,” bringing them into new territory, where they then return to short walks and frequent turns as they explore the new place.

I can’t help but think that this may give us a closer approximation to the way minds can think than our usual terms, linear and lateral, or on a wider scale, disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking, with the short walks involving thoughts that require investigation but not analogy, and the long steps being leaps by analogy into new territory — the familiar hop, skip and jumps we also call creative leaps.

From my POV, seeing both linear and leaping thoughts this way allows for the fact that what we’ve been calling linear thoughts aren’t so much linear as local, while analogical thoughts by their very nature take us from one thought domain to another — via parallelism or opposition — leaping conceptual distances.

Which is why I can wish you a Happy New “Creative Leap” Year! — even though 2014 isn’t divisible by 4 and there will still only be 28 days this February.

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Gaming the Connections: from Sherlock H to Nada B

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- the game of Connect the Dots in play and practice ]
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CIA's (now ret'd) Nada Bakos examines the Al Qaida board in the HBO docu, Manhunt

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Manhunt, the HBO documentary, does what (not having been there and seen that at the time) appears to be a decent job of recreating some of the cognitive stratregies employed by CIA officers in the OBL hunt. The one I’m interested in here is the building of a “link chart” or cognitive map — law enforcement “evidence board” — the idea being (a) to note known connections visibly, and (b) to encourage the mind to make intuitive leaps that reveal previously unknown connections between nodes… or “dots”.

Sophisticated software does this sort of thing algorithmically with regard to (eg) network connections via phone-calls, but the human mind is still better than AI at some forms of pattern recognition, and that’s the aspect that interests me here.

Aside:

For more on the cognitive significance of the link chart in Manhunt, see my post Jeff Jonas, Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Puzzles.

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Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock lays out the way it works –

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Okay, so one way to visualize connections is to make a fairly random collage of relevant photos, names, dates and places, and tie it together with links of string or ribbon. That’s the equivalent of what in HipBone games terms we’d call a “free-form” game, and it works well for the “divergent”, initial brainstorming phase of thought. But it does little to bottle its own energy, to focus down, to force the mind — in the no less powerful “convergent” phase — into perceiving even more links than occur spontaneously in building the link chart in question.

HipBone‘s preformatted boards take the cognitive process to that second stage. They work on one of the most powerful ingredients in creativity: constraint. Business writer Dave Gray of Communication Nation puts it like this:

Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.

But that premise doesn’t just hold true for business problem-solving — it’s at the heart of creative thinking at the Nobel level, too, in both arts and sciences. Consider mathematician Stanley Ulam, writing in his Adventures of a Mathematician:

When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality…

Here’s how the poet TS Eliot puts it:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas.

A Hipbone Gameboard such as the Waterbird, Dartboard, or Said Symphony board is chosen precisely to challenge the mind with third, fourth and fifth rounds of “creative leaps” — thus adding both divergent and convergent cognitive styles to this form of graphical analysis.

That’s my point here — and a plug for HipBone-Sembl style thinking.

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I can’t resist adding a couple of instances in which the meme of “connecting the dots” via a link chart or evidence board has crept from TV series that I enjoyed into the world of games — this first one based on the terrific French detective series, Engrenages, retitled Spirals for British consumption:

— and this one for fans of the US TV series, Breaking Bad:

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The Automatic State?

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

(by Adam Elkus. I will be guest posting occasionally at Zenpundit. I am a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University, and a blogger at The Fair Jilt, CTOVision, Analyst One, and my own blog of Rethinking Security. I write a column for War on the Rocks, and I once was a blogger at Abu Muquwama. You can follow me on Twitter here. )

I’ve been looking at some recurring themes regarding technocracy, control, elites, governance in debates surrounding the politics of algorithms, drone warfare, the Affordable Healthcare Act, and big data‘s implications for surveillance and privacy. Strangely enough, I thought of James Burnham.

Paleoconservative writer Burnham’s scribblings about the dawn of a “managerial revolution” gave rise to conservative fears about a ”managerial state,” governed by a technocratic elite that utilizes bureaucracy for the purpose of social engineering. In Burnham’s original vision (which predicted capitalism would be replaced by socialism), the dominant elites were “managers” that controlled the means of production. But other conservative political thinkers later expanded this concept to refer to an abstract class of technocratic elites that ruled a large, bureaucratic system.

Burnham had a different vision of dystopia than George Orwell, who envisioned a rigid tyranny held together by regimentation, discipline, pervasive surveillance, and propaganda. Rather, the managerial state was an entity that structured choice. The conception of power that Burnham and others envisioned issued from dominance of the most important industrial production mechanisms, and the bureaucratic power of the modern state to subtly engineer cultural and political outcomes. Building on Burnham and those he influenced, one potential information-age extension of the “managerial” theory is the idea of the “automatic state.”

Automatic state is a loose term that collects various isolated ideas about a polity in which important regulatory powers are performed by computational agents of varying intelligence. These beliefs eschew the industrial-era horror of a High Modernist apocalypse of regimentation, division of labor, social engineering, and pervasive surveillance. The underlying architecture of the automatic state, though, is a product of specific political and cultural assumptions that influence design. Though assumed to be neutral, the system automatically, continuously, and pervasively implements regulations and decision rules that seek to shape, guide, and otherwise manipulate social behavior.

Indeed, a recurring theme in some important political and social debates underway is that changes in technology allow a small group of technocrats to control society by structuring choices. The data signatures that all individuals generate and the online networks they participate is a source of power for both the corporate and government worlds. The biases of algorithms is a topic of growing interest. Some explicitly link unprecedented ability to collect, analyze, and exploit data with enhanced forms of violence. Others argue that the ability to record and track large masses of data will prop up authoritarian governments.  Activists regard the drone itself–and the specter of autonomous weapons–as a robotic symbol of imperialism.

While an automatic state may be plausible elsewhere, the top-down implications of Burnham’s technocracy does not fit America fairly well. Some of the most prominent users of the relevant automatic state technologies are corporations. While cognitive delegation to some kind of machine intelligence can be seen in everything from machine learning systems  to airplane autopilot functions, it would be a big stretch to say that the powerful algorithms deployed in Silicon Valley and Fort Meade serve a macro-level social regulatory function.

Certainly it is clear that mastery of computational intelligence’s commercial applications has made a new Californian commercial elite, but it is mostly not interested in governance. Faulty government information technology deployment of large-scale systems (as seen in the Obamacare debacle) also does not auger well for an American automatic state elite. However, some interesting — and troubling — possibilities present themselves at state, country, and municipal levels of  governance.

Cash-strapped state governments seeking more precise ways of extracting tax revenue for road projects are seeking to put a mile-tracking black box in every car. Drivers would be charged based on a pay-per-mile system, and government planners hope that it can better incentivize certain driving patterns. Tools like the black box may suggest the dawn of a new age of revenue extraction enabled by cheap, precise, and persistent surveillance. Why not, say, utilize a black box which (in the manner of a traffic camera) automatically fines the driver for going over the speed limit or violating a traffic regulation?

In contrast to Burnham’s vision of technocratic elites, those who benefit from these technologies are the same unwieldy group of local bureaucrats that Americans must inevitably put up with every time they drudge down to their local DMV. While this may seem innocuous, local government’s thirst for new revenue has led to disturbing practices like the drug war habit of asset forfeiture. Though legal, asset forfeiture has stimulated corruption and also incentivized constant drug raiding in order to secure more funds.

What technologically-enhanced  local governments may bring is the specter of automatic and pervasive enforcement of law. The oft-stated notion that millions of Americans break at least several laws every day suggests why automatic and pervasive enforcement of rules and regulations could be problematic. As hinted in the previous reference to asset forfeiture, it is not merely a question of a rash reaction to substantial fiscal problems that local political elites face.

Politics is a game of incentives, and it is also a question of collective action and cooperation. As many people noted in analysis of mayoral corruption in the District of Columbia, many local politicians often have little hope of advancing to higher levels of prominence. Thus, they have much less incentive to delay gratification in the hope that a clean image will help them one day become more important. They can either reward themselves while they have power, or forfeit the potential gains of public office. Second, the relative autonomy of state and local governments is possible due to the lack of a top-down coordination mechanism seen in other, more statist political systems. The decision horizon, of, say, a county police department is extremely limited. So it will be expected to advocate for itself, regardless of the overall effect. These mechanisms are worsened by the fiscal impact of government dysfunction, the decay of infrastructure, privatization, and the limited resources increasingly available to state and local governments.

This mismatch is somewhat understandable, given the context of Burnham’s original theory. His inspiration was the then-dominant corporatist models seen in 1930s Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy, and other centrally planned industrial giants. He also misunderstood the political importance of the New Deal, claiming it was a sign of American transformation to a managerial state. As Lynn Dumenil noted in her history of interwar America (and her own lectures I attended as an undergrad), the New Deal was not a complete break from Herbert Hoover’s own conception of political economy. Hoover envisioned a form of corporatist planning in which the biggest corporate interests would harmoniously cooperate regarding the most important political-economic issues of the day,with the government as facilitator. The technocratic corporatism implied by Hoover’s vision was Burnham-like, and the New Deal was a continuation of this model. It differed only in that it made the government the driver of industrial political economy instead of designer and facilitator.

However, sustainment of a New Deal-like corporatist model depends on elite agreement. This was not to last. George Packer, Chris Hayes,  and Peter Turchin have all noted that today’s American elites do not have the level of cohesion necessary to sustain a technocratic state. Instead, they are competing with each other in a zero-sum manner. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have flirted with the idea of secession. The US government cannot pass a budget that funds the government for more than a few months. A “submerged state” of  sub rosa government regulations twists policy towards an affluent few and private interests. The notion that financial regulation was compromised by regulatory capture is not controversial. Finally, a normative conception of elite appropriateness is no longer shared.

What this all suggests is that the impact of an automatic state will be scattered and aggregate. It will be experienced in large part locally through revenue-extracting technologies open up hitherto untapped sources of advantage. Political rent-seeking, not social engineering is the byword. The mechanism of extracting rents, however, is very “managerial” in its operation. In my home state of California, overt attempts to increase revenue have been consistently thwarted by political resistance. The potential for automatic state technologies to become “political technology” that fixes this problem through much less obvious revenue extraction mechanisms is understandably very attractive. However, the ability to process a constant stream of data from automatic state technologies will be contingent on computational power available, which will vary contextually.

Where the automatic state becomes politically and culturally influencing beyond pure rent extraction is also an area where localism will likely matter more. Computational capabilities for automatic enforcement and subtle structuring of political choice is difficult to accomplish on a national level except on a fairly piecemeal way due to national political constraints. However, on a local level where one party or interest may have vastly less constraining influences, it is much more likely that a computational instantiation designed to structure cultural or political choices toward a preferred result could occur. Even without such partisan considerations, there is always a school district that acts to ban a student’s behavior that they dislike or a prosecutor seeking to ramrod a given result that would see such technology as a boon.

All of this isn’t to completely dismiss the potential for federal usage of these technologies. But, as seen in the NSA scandal, mass domestic surveillance in an environment where the public is not afraid of a 9/11-esque event occurring may not be politically sustainable in its current form. A patchwork of “Little Brothers” tied to a revenue extraction mission, however, is a far more diffuse and difficult political issue to organize around.

If the automatic state comes, it is not likely that it will come in the form of a Big Brother-like figure hooked up to a giant machine. Rather, it might very well be a small black box in your car that measures your mileage–and is so successful that it is soon modified to track your speed and compliance with traffic regulations.

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