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When the problem is a moving target

[ by Charles Cameron — the AUMF and “wickedness” ]
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The essence of the insight that Horst Rittel and more recently Jeff Conklin bring to our attention under the rubric of “wicked problems” is the idea that what is viewed as a problem from one standpoint may be seen from another perspective as having a different emphasis, a different center of gravity — so that a move that solves a given problem from the first viewpoint may partially or wholly fail to solve it from that second perspective.

Add to that, the idea that the problem may itself morph as circumstances vary over time — as some interested parties drop out and others become interested, deadlines pass and new techniques and avenues of approach arise — and it becomes clear that the naive label “the problem” covers something far closer to an evolving and poorly defined entity than to one that is clearly defined and unchanging.

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Gregory Johnsen had a fine piece on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Buzzfeed titled 60 Words And A War Without End: The Untold Story Of The Most Dangerous Sentence In U.S. History. Those sixty words say:

That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

In his extensive commentary on how those words have been interpreteted, he writes:

Unbound by time and unlimited by geography, the sentence has been stretched and expanded over the past decade, sprouting new meanings and interpretations as two successive administrations have each attempted to keep pace with an evolving threat while simultaneously maintaining the security of the homeland. In the process, what was initially thought to authorize force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has now been used to justify operations in several countries across multiple continents and, at least theoretically, could allow the president — any president — to strike anywhere at anytime. What was written in a few days of fear has now come to govern years of action.

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It seems to me somewhat naive as a general principle to think that words framing in a problem and or solution from one perspective, in one time, and under one set of circumstances, will necessarily “fit” it some later time, under changed circumstances and perhaps from a different perspective.

One could surely apply these words of Conklin’s in Wicked Problems & Social Complexity to the AUMF:

Moreover, the field is changing so fast that new options become available, and others drop into oblivion, almost every day.

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My question is: what do we do about the fluidity of change in a world of verbally-fixed laws? And I see that as an inevitable question arising in light of Lao Tzu‘s twin dicta which I have variously phrased or seen phrased as:

  • The pronounceable name isn’t the unpronounceable name
  • The flow that can be capped isn’t the overflowing flow
  • The quantity that can be counted is not the unaccountable quality
  • No way the way can be put into words
  • The problem that can be described isn’t our actual situation
  • the path that can be mapped is not the pathless path
  • and so forth.. or as Korzybski has it:

  • the map is not the territory
  • 2 Responses to “When the problem is a moving target”

    1. Kurt Says:

      I suppose the starting point might be, to borrow from Hegel, that wisdom only comes at dusk. Logic is seen in reverse, not going forward. If you are trying to describe a path to the future, all possibilities then become narrowed to your own, limited perspective. I believe Bohm was trying to get at this via the holographic principle, and to accept that our limited, individual perspective is merely a representation of what is real, and not reality itself.
      In a practical sense, my rule of thumb is to diversify perspectives to capture the many logics inherent in a problem.

    2. larrydunbar Says:

      From my perspective, and I am reminded of a quote from a comment by Curtis Gale Weeks that says, “Agreeing somewhat with Larry above, at least to the extent that I’ve been able to understand his p.o.v. in this and other recent threads,…” (http://zenpundit.com/?p=3653#comment-25578)that my perspective may be pointless, ethics are the forces that builds the structure of a society. Logic is the way those forces are created. By changing perspective and capturing the many logics, societies change.
      So in answer to a quote from the article CGW commented on, “I’d been wondering just what an atheist state was doing threatening “holy” or “sacred” war…” I think it is the singularity of the logic of North Korea that are the sacraments of holy war.
      As I have written before, I don’t believe China is afraid of North Korea, as someone once wrote, the leadership of China love North Korea and only wish they could be exactly like them, but, as perhaps Mao showed, they can’t. That ship has sailed.
      North Korea’s simple logic of a society ruled by a benevolent leader must feel like a breath of cool fresh air to a Chinese society that is always on hot, from the friction in their changing perspectives.
      Perhaps my point of view could be best described as: I think North Korea represents the original (God?) source code for most of Asia, and many of its neighbors want it back or to replace it with their own logic.
      The map may not be the territory, but it is a way.


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