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While doing some research on foreign policy and military strategies of the Bush administration I happened to pull up some NCW articles by Dr. Barnett’s mentor, Vice-Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski which I found to be very stimulating reading. In particular, one powerpoint graph by Cebrowski had a segment he labelled ” Shared Awareness“that was adjacent to Network-Centric Operations to indicate the real-time, mutual, cognizance of the same information and concepts throughout the chain of command in a battle. I found the Shared Awareness concept an attractive one and upon reflection decided that Admiral Cebrowski had articulated a phenomena with far wider application than in the military scenario alone.

In public affairs we hear journalists and intellectuals refer to ” the marketplace of ideas ” and “the war of ideas “, usually to illustrate the conceptual competition between Right and Left for the public acceptance of their policy proposals and general political ideology. Marketplace is a kinder and gentler term or end of a continuum for a contest that in international relations or undemocratic societies often accompanies or incites ramped up levels of organized violence or implies that possibility. Despite claims of detente there was nothing peaceful about the coexistence of the Soviet Union and the West. Likewise, the caustic rhetorical contempt hurled on liberal democracy and on the Jews by the Nazis was a necessary prelude to trying to liquidate both. The Cold War and WWII both represented true “wars of ideas” as well as physical battles.

Memes and memetic theory are a popular explanation for the process by which ideas spread through a population by a sort of ideological Darwinist competition. Certainly some ideas seem to be more “contagious” than others, particularly those concepts that are produced via Horizontal thinking and cross the borders of domains. Some ideas, particularly political and religious concepts can inspire so much intensity of devotion that millions have willingly gone to their deaths to champion them or committed ghastly atrocities on ” non-believers”.

I’m borrowing here from both Richard Dawkins and Admiral Cebrowski when I suggest that wars of ideas are fought in the realm of Shared Awareness with the mediasphere of modern telecommunications being the primary transmission belt, allowing the rapid networking of adherents that was impossible fifty, thirty or even ten years ago. The speed of transacting attractive memes through self-organizing networks is what may drive public debate in the future, possibly today – a ” dominance of the intellectual battlespace”:

To dominate the intellectual battlespace, a network injects its memes into the Shared Awareness of the mediasphere either spread its worldview, achieve concrete objectives or discredit and frustrate rival networks. Memes do not need to be true to become contagious or be more ” right” than the memes of rival networks – just have a greater psychological attraction. What makes memes attractive ? I’d postulate that two factors weigh heavily – utility and versatility.

I use the term “utility” to refer to the capacity of the meme to fill a psychological need by lowering anxiety by either increasing an individual’s comprehension of the world ( positive) or by reinforcing denial ( negative) and screening out perceptions and innoculating the individual from concepts they consider disturbing. The flourishing of concepts like anti-semitism, Nazism, racism. Stalinism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, astrology and the like are evidence that truth or at least falsifiability are not directly related to a meme’s attractiveness.

I use the term “versatility” to refer to the horizontal quality of the meme – the extent to which it can be adapted across the boundaries of domains or cultures. Simple memes would seem to have a greater advantage over complex memes in terms of becoming attractive. String theory for example, has not spread as widely through our Shared Awareness as concepts from classical physics because String Theory is only well-understood by relatively few people and is difficult to analogize. Complex memes however, might have greater traction within a domain, among field experts or they might move to discredit the meme if it runs counter to orthodox ideas.

A meme that has high utility and high versatility would be a good candidate to ” infect” other networks and systems through the common space of Shared Awareness or to distract as an attention-diverting ” white noise” attack. A network that systematically and strategically plans the introduction of memes into our Shared Awareness is a network aiming to dominate the intellectual battlespace.

11 Responses to “”

  1. Dan tdaxp Says:

    Curse your astoundingly interesting posts mere hours before I leave for vacation!

    How can I compete with this?


  2. mark Says:

    Ha ! Art Cebrowski gets the real credit. He did all the mental heavy lifting, all I did was waltz in a year later and analogize. An amazingly smart man. Thanks anyway though, it was fun to do.

    Where are you headed for vacation ?

  3. mark Says:

    Err…by ” amazingly smart ” I meant the Admiral, not me -LOL !

  4. phil Says:

    The spread of ideas is a fascinating topic worthy of much study. In today’s world, with the challeneges we face, getting a grasp on how ideas spread is necessary to not only winning the war on terror but also in opposing anti-Americanism and the continued popularity of leftist views. Hayek in his essay “Intellectuals and Socialism” says that proponents of liberty need to articulate a vision of their ideals that can inspire and motivate people. He said that socialists had been very good at this and thus saw their ideas gain dominance whereas the proponents of liberty concerned themselves with technical policy issues that were not capable of inspiring people.

    Today we face the challenge of defending the ideals of liberal democracy from various anti-liberal (classical that is) ideals. As we know the revolution in comunication technology over the past 15 years presents us with a vast new paradigm for the spread of ideas. One of the major characteristics of this revolution has been its decentralization. We are now able to bypass all the previous communications gatekeepers. This offers tremendous opportunities for the spread of ideas that in the past would have been marginally significant. For those of us who support liberal democracy, who are inspired by the vision of a free society that guarantees individual liberty through the rule of law, we need to take advantage of this new communications paradigm to create institutions to compete on the international stage. We cannot rely on the government’s public diplomacy, we have to take matters into our own hands, bypass gov’t and flood the zone with our ideas and visions to oppose Islamist fundamentalism, anti-Americanism and socialism.

  5. Larrt Dunbar Says:

    Go Phil!

  6. mark Says:

    I think Phil did an excellent job summing up a ” Blueprint for Action” as well as a fine analysis to boot.

    We’re going to have to push our elite – they have no stomach for the game, not at root, they want to negotiate, retreat and placate. They have been confounded though by an enemy who says ” Jihad and the rifle alone – no conferences, no negotiation and no dialogue”.

  7. Larry Dunbar Says:

    I know the precision Mark uses to analyze the comments in his blog. If he believes my comment to Phil could be mistaken for sarcasm then it must be so. I was commenting on the explicit content of Phil’s comments, not on the implicit laws associated with what he was saying. After I had looked up the word meme, I believed the way Phil changed the definition of liberal, from classical to his definition, was a great example of how meme works. Marks cross-reference to “Blue Print for Action” further supports what I thought Phil was showing us. Because meme is a new word and memetic theory a possibly new idea for me I apologize if I have used it wrongly in analyzing Phil’s comments. In the future I will try to make my comments as clear as Mark demands.

  8. mark Says:

    Hi Larry

    No criticism implied ( though perhaps…inferred ;o) )though I wasn’t sure which way your comment was meant, I was sort of leaning positive.

    I just thought that Phil was pointing to a need not being filled by our elite which has become, over the last couple of decades – somewhat removed from the rest of us in terms of self-identification. Wiliam S. Lind alludes to that in his latest post at Defense & the National Interest .

  9. phil Says:

    “I just thought that Phil was pointing to a need not being filled by our elite which has become, over the last couple of decades – somewhat removed from the rest of us in terms of self-identification.”

    Yes. 9/11 revealed to us the massive failure of our public diplomacy; and now several years down the road it doesn’t that there has been much improvement. We are faced with an entrenched PD bureaucracy that seems to be resistant to the kinds of changes that need to be made. So what to do?

    Domestically whenever the liberal/left propose yet another government program to solve some problem what is it that we limited government types (whether conservatives, libertarians whatever) say? We say “Let civil society institutions (churches, charities etc) and the market solve the problem.” So I am saying that this should be our solution to the problems of public diplomacy.

    We need to be entrepreneurial and
    create the kind of enterprises that can effect a change in how people around the world perceive America and our ideals. The left is already very successful at this. Michael Moore is the best example. But where is the pro-liberty, pro-American film director who can inspire people with our ideals?

    We recognize that there are all manner of non-state actors operating within and influencing the strategic landscape in the war on terror: Hollywood, MSM, soldiers blogging from the frontlines etc. Our strategy in the war of ideas does not have to be led from above. We can become non-state actors too, operating on our own initiative, independent of gov’t, and we can influence the strategic landscape to counter the effects of Moore, Newsweek, and the anti-American Arab and European media.

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