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The Abbottabad raid: tellings and retellings

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]


My friend Bryan Alexander‘s book, The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, hit the shelves a short while ago (recommended) — and this month Bryan is exploring the various forms of digital story-telling on his new digital storytelling blog.

I’m interested in narrative, too – even when it isn’t digital – because it’s the prime way in which we humans figure out what’s going on around us…

Here, then, are two “tellings and retellings” of the Abbottabad raid and the death of Osama bin Laden.

1. The fog of war

In his first briefing on bin Laden’s death from the White House, John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism, dismissed bin Laden with the words, “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”

Narrative is important, and the narrative John Brennan was proposing as a corrective to bin Laden’s version went as follows:

here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield. I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years. And so, again, looking at what bin Laden was doing hiding there while he’s putting other people out there to carry out attacks again just speaks to I think the nature of the individual he was.

A writer in the Atlantic commented today:

And that’s the message our counterterrorism officials would, I expect, like the world — and especially any potential followers of al-Qaeda’s anti-American ideology — to get about our newly vanquished enemy, responsible to the single deadliest attack on American soil. The leader of the terrorist group was soft, a coward in the end who hid behind a woman’s skirts like a little girl, having grown accustomed to living in luxury in a mansion. Almost everything about this narrative seemed calculated to diminish any possible perception of strength or masculinity in bin Laden’s reaction to the raid by an elite team of U.S. Navy Seals — men who are in contrast among the most mythic and valorized in our armed forces, known for slogans like “pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

But just a day after Brennan’s briefing, the President’s Press Secretary, Jay Carney, gave a second briefing, in which he revised the official narrative, saying:

Well, what is true is that we provided a great deal of information with great haste in order to inform you and, through you, the American public about the operation and how it transpired and the events that took place there in Pakistan. And obviously some of the information was — came in piece by piece and is being reviewed and updated and elaborated on.
So what I can tell you, I have a narrative that I can provide to you on the raid itself, on the bin Laden compound in Pakistan.

I have a narrative…

The revised narrative featured an unarmed bin Laden in a far from palatial house with no visible air-conditioning, who didn’t in fact use a woman as a human shield… all of which “really just speaks to just how false” Brennan’s own original narrative was.

But then – you don’t believe everything you read in the press, do you? And besides, the first news reports of almost any big story are almost invariably inaccurate, it takes time for clarity to emerge… which adds up to the idea that it’s not so easy to distinguish between how the world actually spins — and how the world is spun.

So that’s a telling and retelling of the Abbottabad raid in “real life” as transmitted to us by various media and recorded on the web…

2: The twitter-stream and the analyst

A little earlier a more “purely” digital version of the story – no less confused by the “fog” that inevitably surrounds the reporting of highly volatile situations – had emerged quite spontaneously via Twitter, when the delightfully-named ReallyVirtual (an IT specialist who had moved to Abbottabad for some peace and quiet) was kept awake by the noise of helicopters overhead and sounds of explosions, and tweeted a couple of late-night friends… and a stream of tweets began which quickly led to an almost thousandfold spike in Yahoo searches on bin Laden, and bin Laden related searches occupying all top twenty spots on Google trends

You might call that spontaneous, distributed story-telling – but it’s also the raw material for a collated and curated twitter narrative, using Chirpstory, a tool for curating and presenting stories from the twitter-stream:


We’re not done yet…

That in turn provides grist for the analytic mill of B Raman, a highly-regarded Indian analyst, blogger, and former chief of counter-terrorism with India’s R&AW intelligence agency – who winnowed out the chaff and added in his own commentary to create a denser, tighter analytic narrative of his own:


To my way of thinking, the spontaneous twitter-stream version, the Chirpstory adaptation and B. Raman’s midrash on it are at least as interesting as the successive White House narratives…


3. Further reading:

Also relevant to our narrative here, and your own readings on the topic of our tale:

How the Bin Laden Announcement Leaked Out
Bin Laden Reading Guide: How to Cut Through the Coverage

Social and Individual Components of Creativity

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

This is very good. And it is fast.

I have enjoyed several of Steven Johnson’s previous books, Emergence and Mind Wide Open and his latest one, Where Good Ideas Come From looks to be a must read, though I think those of you who have read Wikinomics or works like Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi will find some of Johnson’s points in the video to be familiar as will those long time readers who have seen my views on horizontal thinking   and  insight.

My students watched this and reacted by defining themselves as those who were creative mostly through social collaboration but a decided minority required solitude and an environmental filter to think clearly and creatively – not a catalyst of a series of  social-intellectual stimuli. For them, the cognitive load generated by the environment amounted to an overload, a distracting white noise that short-circuited the emergence of good ideas.

This suggests to me that there are multiple and very different neuronal pathways to creativity in the brain and a person’s predisposition in their executive function, say for example the classic “ADHD” kid at the back of the class, may have different requirements to be creative than a peer without that characteristic. It also means that creativity may be subject to improvement if we can cultivate proficiency in several “styles” of creative thinking.

Guest Post: DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War by J. Scott Shipman

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

J. Scott Shipman, the owner of a boutique consulting firm in the Metro DC area that is putting Col. John Boyd’s ideas into action, is a longtime friend of this blog and an occasional guest-poster. Scott has an important report regarding the “war of ideas” against the Islamist-Takfirist enemy in Afghanistan after attending a workshop hosted by DARPA.

DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War

by J. Scott Shipman

 I had the opportunity to attend a DARPA workshop yesterday called STORyNet. The purpose was to survey narrative theories, to better understand the role of narrative in security contexts, and to survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools (see below): 

This STORyNET workshop has three goals:

1. To survey narrative theories.

These empirically informed theories should tell us something about the nature of stories: what is a story? What are its moving parts? Is there a list of necessary and sufficient conditions it takes for a stimulus to be considered a story instead of something else? Does the structure and function of stories vary considerably across cultural contexts or is there a universal theory of story?

2. To better understand the role of narrative in security contexts.

What role do stories play in influencing political violence and to what extent? What function do narratives serve in the process of political radicalization and how do theyinfluence a person or group’s choice of means (such as violence) to achieve political ends? How do stories influence bystanders’ response to conflict? Is it possible to measure how attitudes salient to security issues are shaped by stories?

3. To survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools.

How can we take stories and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent and repeatable fashion? What analytic approaches or tools best establish a framework for the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people? Are particular approaches or tools better than others for understanding how stories propagate in a system so as to influence behavior?

I was alerted to the meeting by a member at one of my “groups” at LinkedIn and just barely made the registration cut-off. It was a good meeting, but not reassuring on our situation in Afghanistan—you’ll see why  below.

As a “hobby” I’ve been tinkering with the implications of patterns with respect to language and communications. Just about every presumption I have articulated over the last several months is being pursued in one way or another—which is good news for our guys. While the on-going research is good, I do believe there is room for better and more imaginative thinking, although I didn’t say anything during the meeting for once, I kept my mouth shut and just listened.

This is exceptionally brief and decidedly non-techincal.  Here are some observations of interest:

  • In Afghanistan, stories (those who tell them and those who believe) are central to our geopolitical strategy and policies.
  • There is underway, a “battle of the narratives,” where any “counter” narrative developed by the US must have credibility. This seems obvious, but the speaker observed the “story telling” was more important than the story. Given the high illiteracy rate, this makes sense.
  • We [DARPA] are reviewing chants (which are wildly popular), video, magazines, poetry, the Internet, and sermons as thematic vehicles for analysis.
  • The language of the Taliban is not secular, and not the language of the insurgency—for the Taliban everything hangs on the legacy of jihad and religious struggle.
  • The Taliban not willing to negotiate on matters of jihad. They are using a unified vision of Islam giving their struggle a noble foundation against the corruption of outsiders who want to “Christianize” the nation.
  • The Taliban uses symbology to portray the struggle as a cosmic conflict against Christian invaders and US puppets (those cooperating with the US). Framing this symbology to communicate clearly the frame of the righteous vs. the infidels.
  • The Taliban manipulates the language to connect the current struggle to previous struggles of “warrior poets.” There is hope a “discourse” can be created that will counter this framing [personal note: I’m not optimistic]. The Taliban uses different language to subjugate rural and urban dwellers, and actually have standard operating procedures for dealing with villages that resist.
  • The cognitive patterns of rural Afghanistan are “foreign” to most Westerners and they use alien methods of knowledge transfer (chants, often under the influence of hashish).
  • We are adding a geospatial element to our analysis of local and personal narratives (which includes subject, verb, object) with respect to identified “master narratives.”
  • Internet data is indexed, with an eye toward predictive analysis and situational awareness (and interestingly, “sentiment” analysis). We are finding predictive power from the topology of “networks”  used in models.
  • From a neuroscience perspective, there was an amazing talk on empathy. It turns out, based on fMRI testing that empathy is quite predictable across subjects. Research indicates people “care more” about an “in-group” to which they belong more than an “out group.” The speaker defined the brain as a “parliament” of competing parties and nuanced spectrums [personal note: this elegant description tracks with everything I’ve read on the topic.]. 
  • One presenter observed that after 10 years of war, we’re finally “getting” the importance of Pashtun culture and language. This presenter also noted US is still in need of people with language skills sufficient to adequately support the effort.

– End


Zen here:

First, I’d  like to cordially thank Scott for letting me share his insights gleaned from the workshop here with ZP readers. This is one of those fascinating events largely unavailable to those folks residing outside a reasonable driving distance from the Beltway.

Secondly, I am heartened that the brilliant folks at DARPA are taking the theological-ideological discourse of the enemy seriously in analyzing the power of narrative. Charles Cameron makes that point here with regularity. Michael Scheuer, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy did so even before 9/11. Our political appointees and policy makers remain steadfastly allergic to this reality, unable to process or discuss in public with coherence how religious ideas are a root for political extremism. Col. David Kilcullen, who certainly understands political Islam better than most and whose creative and analytical acheivements in structuring a framework for countering insurgency are second  to none, eschews dealing with the topic in his theoretical writings on COIN where it can be avoided. That is the cost imposed by the political correctness to which our ruling elite are psychologically welded.

 It comes as no surprise to me that only after “10 years of war” are we finally “getting the importance of Pashtun culture”. 

Maybe at the dawn of the 22nd century we will be “old hands”.

Thinking With a Fresh Mind

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

A brief anecdote.

Today, a student came to me with a question that their science instructor could not answer (the curriculum is mostly intro to chem with some classical physics). I am in no way, shape or form, a scientist or even a teacher of science, but the students know I’m interested in many odd things and like to reason through intriguing problems with them. The student asked:

“How can a photon – which has 0 mass – have 0 kinetic energy even though it is moving? If it does have mass, how can a photon go the speed of light?”

Now, I knew that the answer had to be explained via quantum mechanics and was fuzzily certain it was because particles did not behave as particles should in this scenario, but the ability to give a coherent and scientifically accurate explanation that related to the student’s current knowledge base was beyond me. I do not have a good enough grasp of the basics of quantum physics to lead the student to particles and waves through a series of questions. So, after complimenting him on his insightful question, I said I would contact an expert, Dr. Von, and get him a concise, equation-free, answer, which Von helpfully provided.

The point here, however, is not the answer (Newtonian physics is invalid at this scale and momentum is redefined in relativity theory which leads to particle-wave duality, uncertainty and other aspects of quantum mechanics) but the excellence of the student’s thinking that went into the question.

The student knew very little about physics except what was presented in the course – essentially, some laws of Newtonian physics, basic constituent parts of matter, simple atomic models etc. Given that information and having – this part is critical – no prior assumptions, having understood the “rules”, in a few minutes he identified a contradiction or paradox that undermined the authority of an elegantly constructed system of great explanatory power, conceived by the greatest genius to ever walk the Earth.

Not too shabby for a younger American teen-ager. Remember him the next time some loudmouthed fool opines how worthless kids are today or how they learn nothing at school.

Obviously, my student is quite bright, but his reasoning was also not polluted with the preconceptions we all pick up as we gain ever greater depth of mastery of a field. It was fundamentally new to him, so he did not yet have the kind of blind confidence in “the rules that everyone knows to be true” possessed by most adults and nearly all experts. He was still skeptical. Few content domain experts are innovaters for this reason. They are mostly overconfident masters with answers – not makers who create or discover the novel by asking questions. They are not skeptics, they are guardians of received knowledge.

We all need to step back, periodically, from the rush of life and our own pride and try to look at the things we think we know with a fresh mind.

Metaphors and Analogies: A Two-Edged Sword

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Frequent commenter T. Greer had an outstanding post on historical analogies and cognition at Scholar’s Stage:

Musing – ‘Cognitive Consequences of Historical Metaphors’

You can summarize the history of the Second World War in two paragraphs. Squeezing the causes, campaigns, and countries of the war into these paragraphs would be a gross simplification, but it is possible. This does not hold true for the Thirty Years War. It is one conflict that simply cannot be related in a paragraph. The number of actors involved, the myriad of motivations and goals of each, and the shifting alliances and intrigues between them all are simply too complex to be stripped down to a single page.* Piecing together the events of the Thirty Years War inevitably takes up much more time and effort than single page summaries allow.

….The implications of this are worth contemplation.

The great majority of policy makers are familiar with the Second World War. If asked to, I am sure that most folks in Washington concerned with foreign affairs and security policy could provide an accurate sketch of the countries and campaigns involved. Indeed, we conceptualize current challenges from the standpoint of World War II; allusions to it are the lifeblood of both popular and academic discourse on foreign affairs. Pearl Harbor, Munich, Stalingrad, Normandy, Yalta, and Hiroshima are gifts that keep on giving – they serve as an able metaphorical foundation for any point a pundit or analyst wishes to make.

Most of these metaphors are misguided

Agreed. Read the rest here.

Actually, we have two cherished analogies: hawks look at a situation and see Munich, but doves see the same conflict and exclaim”Vietnam!”. Neither does much for recognizing unique circumstances or complexities. These analogies are political totems signifying group affinity; or are rhetorical weapons to bludgeon the opposition in debate.

Metaphors and analogies are extremely powerful cognitive tools. But like all forms of power, they can be used for good or ill, well or poorly. Those that capture the essence of previously unrecognized similarities are the basis for generating novel insights from which innovations are derived and problems are solved. Poorly constructed but attractive analogies or metaphors capitivate our attention and transmit misinformation that is efficiently remembered and stubbornly retained, at times in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

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