zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Book Review: TEMPO by Venkatesh Rao

Book Review: TEMPO by Venkatesh Rao

 TEMPO by Dr. Venkatesh Rao

Venkat Rao of Ribbonfarm has penned an important and fresh look at strategy by engaging in a deep examination of the epistemic building blocks of cognitive process that we commonly call “strategic thinking”. This metacognive approach has been underutilized in a field given more to historical case studies of military campaigns or the parsing of exquisitely refined theories undergirding nuclear deterrence.

Furthermore, Rao’s use of clear language in an everyday context in explaining such components of strategic situations such as binary relationships, optempo, mental models and decision making removes the dynamics of the discussion from the dead weight of sectarian conflicts between schools of military strategic thought. This permits a wider public of intelligent lay people and experts frm other field (ex. psychology, anthropology) to more easily enter into the debate. Clausewitz is there in TEMPO, but so is William James. Or William Shakespeare.

Some examples, here Rao writes on “Archetypes and Doctrines” where bounces from abstract to concrete and back again:

Mental models acquire and shed transient momentum in specific situations, as you enter and exit situations. But there are parts that persistently accumulate momentum through a lifetime. A lot of this momentum is tied to the one common feature of all your experiences: you. Your mental model of yourself is a self-archetype. More generally, your mental models of people are archetypes.

….Archetypes are your mental models of people. Fox and Hedgehog are particularly thought-provoking ones, but don’t look for a taxonomy or more/less “fundamental” types. Though you can bring some discipline to your understanding of archetypes, they are essentially artistic rather than analytical constructs….Some, like those of Freud and Jung, acquire modest amounts of rigor. Eric Berne’s bestseller, Games People Play,15 is a study and catalog of interpersonal interactions based on Freudian archetypes, while the popular Myers-Briggs test is based on Jungian archetypes.

Some archetypes, like Soccer Mom, exist for a while as abstractions in popular culture, while others get personified, like Joe the Plumber(“working class American”) and Britney Spears (“pop-icon-train-wreck”). Still others only exist in specific fictional universes, like Lady Macbeth or Sherlock Holmes, that are influential enough to influence everyday language.

But the most interesting archetypes are very local: the informal and implicit models we all develop of ourselves and those around us.

Lately, we have had discussions at ZP on narrative and metaphor and these concepts play a critical part of TEMPO:

…We are about to enter truly dangerous territory. Narratives, especially cradle-to-grave life narratives, are powerful, unavoidable, and dangerous tools. The dangers led one of my favorite writers, Nicholas Nassim Taleb to argue, in The Black Swan, 19 that all narrative thinking should in fact be considered flawed. An entire chapter of the book is titled The Narrative Fallacy. Other thinkers in the decision-making tradition that Taleb represents (behavioral economics) adopt an even stronger position against narrative thought.

The critiques are valid, and are based on the observation that thinking in terms of stories leads to all sorts of biases. What critics miss though, is that there is no such thing as non-narrative thought, free of possible worlds and ongoing enactments. There are always multiple narratives at work, framing our perceptions, memories, active thoughts, decisions and actions.

The idea that there is always a narrative at work is one aspect of the overall decision-making philosophy in this book, which is a situated decision-making philosophy. It is based on the assumption that there is no meaningful way to talk about specific decisions outside of a narrative frame and a concrete context, any more than it is possible to talk about physics without reference to a specific, physical coordinate frame (the basic idea in Einstein’s relativity).

The narrative aspect of Rao’s argument tilts toward the concept of grand strategy articulated by John Boyd and more recently by Charles Hill.  The following is certainly sympathetic to Boyd’s construction of the *attractive* rather than the destructive element of strategy as well as the implicit guidance provided by an orientation consistent with reality:

To make sense of a complex, ambiguous and confusing set of facts, you should look for an organizing insight that dissolves the complexity and provides you with a compelling and elegant way to look at the situation you are in.

To be compelling your view must be comprehensive and provide you a way to organize as much as possible, from what you know

To be elegant, the resulting mental model must be as compact as possible. In general, these models will be very local and unique to the immediate situation.

Boyd would have approved of that, I suspect. 

TEMPO is in my view, an important book that deserves to be widely read in the community concerned with strategic theory, professional military education and operational campaign design. Not everything Rao discusses in TEMPO fits with the manner in which strategic discussions are commonly expressed or has immediate application to all questions of tactics or strategy faced by all ranks of soldiers or statesmen. No book could do that and Rao’s scientific background and interests preclude that kind of subcultural intimacy, but TEMPO will sharpen the reader’s awareness of their own thinking and the situational dynamics in which strategic and tactical decision making must occur. TEMPO seeks to clarify and succeeds.

Strongly recommended.

5 Responses to “Book Review: TEMPO by Venkatesh Rao”

  1. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Zen, Very good post, I’ll add to the list. Last night a friend sent a short email which included this quote from Kennan: "History is always a product of the interaction between…the judged and the judger…There is no historical truth-at least not…in any sense useful to us independent of the eye and the position of the viewer…" When I read your first quoted paragraph, the quote came to mind. "To make sense of a complex…" I suspect the organizing element is the assembly of familiar patterns. 

  2. Review at Zenpundit.com Says:

    […] Safrinksi at zenpundit posted a review of Tempo. TEMPO is in my view, an important book that deserves to be widely read in the community […]

  3. zen Says:

    Scott, did you read the recent Tony Corn article in SWJ?

  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Zen, I just finished the Corn essay, and all I can say is "wow"! Particularly his quote from Hart’s preface in strategy concerning "indirectness" had me pulling my copy from the shelf and re-reading. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Small Note « The Committee of Public Safety Says:

    […] his recent review, Mark Safranski of ZenPundit excerpted this passage from Dr. Venkatesh Rao‘s new book TEMPO: […]

Switch to our mobile site