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Google Ideas SAVE conference

[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted with brief intro from Alix Levine‘s blog — topic: Google’s Summit Against Violent Extremism ]


Google Ideas — the Google “think/do tank” — recently co-hosted (with the CFR and Tribeca Film festival) a conference on countering radical extremism in Dublin, with a mix of “former extremists, activists, academics, survivors, executives and public sector officials” in attendance.  Blog-friend Matt Armstrong was there, live-tweeting with enthusiasm. Dr William McCants of Jihadica and CNA wasn’t terribly impressed with the outcome, and posted at Foreign Policy:

I am not ready to give up on the enterprise of countering violent extremism just yet, but I am less sanguine about its chances of success than I was before I started working on the problem. Google Ideas’ summit has not increased my optimism, but its resources and potential do.

Alix Levine of Cronus Global attended the event, and reported back on her blog. I’ve commented briefly on McCants’ piece on FP, but wrote a longer piece as a comment on Alix’ blog, and am cross-posting it here in the hope that it will stir further discussion…

I’m comparing Will McCants‘ response to the Google Ideas conference on FP with yours, and I’m glad you wrote as you did.

McCants – whose work I generally admire — opens his comments by quoting Jared Cohen to the effect that the purpose of the conference was to “initiate a global conversation”. McCants then more or less dismisses the conference itself a couple paragraphs later with the words “If these are indeed the conclusions of the conference, Google Ideas needs more thinking and less doing in its approach”.

Conclusions? How does he get so quickly from “initiate” to “conclusions”?

Okay, we all know that a conference can lead to a volume of proceedings read mostly by the authors themselves and a few aspiring students eager to follow-my-leader and dead end there – but this conference was very clearly intended to be the start of something, not the wrap-up.

So your comment, Alix, “Instead of critiquing Google’s effort, it will be more productive and valuable to work in unison with Google on their mission to ‘initiate a global conversation'” seemed to me to bring us back to the actual intent Google had announced for the conference, and you reinforce that when you write, “I hope that more people will join in on the conversation in a meaningful and (gasp) positive way.”

My questions are: how and where do we do this?

There will have been contacts made at the conference that will lead to an exchange of emails, no doubt – but that’s not a global conversation.

Here are some of the problems I foresee:

(a) siloing: the conversation limiting itself to a few constituencies, each of which talks mainly among its own members, leading to

(b) group think: in which the widely assumed gets even more firmly entrenched as “wisdom”, with

(c) secrecy: meaning that potentially relevant information is unavailable to some or all participants, all of which add up to

(d) blind spots: topics and approaches that still don’t get the attention and exploration they deserve.

The solutions would need to include:

(a) networked diversity: by which I mean a structured means of getting the unpopular or minority opinion front and center (compare business brainstorming in which a facilitator ensures even the “quiet ones” get heard, and that even poor ideas are expressed without critique until a later, evaluative stage),

(b) contrariety: meaning that whatever ideas are “easily dismissed” get special attention, with

(c) transparency: meaning that whatever could be redacted and made partially available is made available, not (as in US Govt “open source” material, closely held), so that

(d) oddballs and outriders get to participate…

Jami Miscik who was Deputy Director for Intelligence at the time, caught my attention when she said in 2004, “Embrace the maverick”. Oddballs aka mavericks make the best contrarians, because they start from different premises / different assumption bases. Miscik accordingly invited science fiction and film writers to interact with her analysts at CIA, and found that when they did, they produced 80% already known ideas, 10% chaff, and 10% new and “valid” scenarios. But even then, “science fiction and screen writers” is a box…

Cross-fertilization, questioning of assumptions, passion, reverie, visualization, scenario planning, play – the number of strategies that could be employed to improve the chances of a successful new insight emerging are many and various – unkempt artists probably know some of them better than suits with high IQs and clearances, and Google clearly knows this, too…

But where?

I mean, what Google+ circles do any of us join, to join this global conversation? What twitter hashtag brings us together under one roof? When’s the follow up in my neck of the woods, or yours?

What’s the method for getting the conversation widespread, well-informed – and scaleable, so the best of the grass roots and local ideas can find their way to the influential and informed, and the best insights of the influential and informed can percolate through to the grass roots and local?

Lastly, I’d like to thank Google for getting a dialog going between those with a range of subjective experiences of radicalization, and those whose job it is to understand and thus be able to interdict it. Demonization never got the situation in Northern Ireland anywhere near peace – listening did.

And thank you too, Alix, for your own contribution. Let’s move the conversation onwards.

12 Responses to “Google Ideas SAVE conference”

  1. zen Says:

    Hi Charles,
    "they produced 80% already known ideas, 10% chaff, and 10% new and “valid” scenarios"
    A 10 % return is a pretty solid investment. In terms of creativity, I wager that the norm is more like 2-3 %

  2. Lexington Green Says:

    “…listening did.” Exhaustion and an aging population with fewer young hoodlums and economic growth did it. Hard variables preceded and enabled soft ones.

  3. jarret Says:

    great piece, Zen-

  4. zen Says:

    Ah, thanks but this was the work of Charles, not me -but I am happy to claim credit for anything that makes me look smarter 🙂

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Zen:
    I quoted the numbers Miscik gave, but (a) I’m sure they were a way of getting across her sense that some of the outsider input was old hat to her analysts, some was unworkable and some was pure dividend, and (b) in any case, from my POV the best creative inputs aren’t "measurable" any more than the best new ideas can be produced by following what our blog-friends the Eides would call "turkey" rules.
    Or as Dave Gray puts it in Gamestorming: Design Practices for Co-creation and Engagement:

    If you are Nokia right now, and you need to make the iPhone-killer, the next generation — you know, you’re up against the iPhone, you need to come up with that next thing — there is no simple repeatable process, there’s no business process, there’s no linear process, step by step, there’s no set of rules that’s gonna get you there.  And this is a problem in business, right? We have to be creative.

    So the question isn’t so much, can science fiction writers suggest additional plausible scenarios to guard against? as who can see the situation from a strange enough angle to recognize previously invisible patterns?
    Because that’s what "connecting the dots" is really about… intuiting the deep patterning of things.  As in, who can peer deeply enough into the unknown to see constellations, where others just see a jumble of stars?

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Lex:
    I’m sure the resolution in N Ireland was multifactorial, and indeed, less than tidy… but I think you’re looking at a different "layer" of the process.  Exhaustion, an aging population and economic good times may have had a lot to do with how they came about, but the withdrawal of demonization and willingness on both sides to listen, to talk, and to compromise were the keys to the opening of negotiations.

  7. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles, You captured the crux with these two paragraphs

    "So the question isn’t so much, can science fiction writers suggest additional plausible scenarios to guard against? as who can see the situation from a strange enough angle to recognize previously invisible patterns?
    Because that’s what "connecting the dots" is really about… intuiting the deep patterning of things.  As in,who can peer deeply enough into the unknown to see constellations, where others just see a jumble of stars?"

    Two things are at play: deep tacit knowledge and a willingness to "see" differently (requires courage). "Peering deeply" required a level of competence beyond the familiar and superficial. I don’t read science fiction, but I appreciate their craft—and the truly imaginative ones hold great potential—many of our present day gadgets were "seen" 40 years ago…and since these folks are already at the edge, their egos can endure the nattering nabobs of negativism. 
    Great post! I may have move the second Margolis title to the top of the stack! 

  8. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Of course, I’m all thumbs using the text editor; my apologies.

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Scott:
    I hope I’ve fixed things for you.

  10. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Indeed, you did, sir! Thanks! I’ll eventually get the hang of this!

  11. Bryan Alexander Says:

    It sounds like a fascinating event.
    Answering your questions, Charles: sounds like a mega-conversation, discussions on top of discussions.  The intentional framework you describe could carve out many such exchange domains.

  12. Charles Cameron Says:

    Well, Bryan, you’ve gotten me started in on a post about the types and formats of discourse that I think are badly needed, everywhere complex situations are addressed.
    The koan I am currently sitting with is about this, I think:

    Yunyan asked Daowu, “How does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion (Kannon) use so many hands and eyes?”
    Daowu said, “It’s just like a person in the middle of the night reaching in search of a pillow.”
    Yunyan said, “I understand.”
    Daowu said, “How do you understand it?
    Yunyan said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.”
    Daowu said, “What you said is all right, but it’s only eighty percent of it.”
    Yunyan said, “I’m like this, senior brother. How do you understand it?”
    Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”

    As far as I can tell, the hand that reaches behind me to adjust my head and pillow in the night factors in a great many things — the softness of the pillow, support given by the mattress, angle of my skull to the spine, degree to which my spine is already in better or worse shape, state of my neck muscles, degree of relaxation possible in sleep, energy cost of movement of pillow, strength of hand grip, to name but the most obvious. And it pulls this multifactorial task off "effortlessly" — without even bothering to wake "me" up.
    If that’s how intelligent my hand is when I’m half-asleep, no wonder reverie was what procured the aha! of the benzene ring for Kekulé!

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