Posted by Charles Cameron on October 29th, 2010 (All posts by Charles Cameron)
[ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]
Let’s call this one Hopscotch across the disciplines.
…our intelligence community failed to connect those dots…
President Obama, Remarks on Security Reviews, Jan 05, 2010
I’ve been giving quite some thought over the past fifteen years to this issue of connecting dots.
My internet handle, hipbone, does double duty for me, since it refers to Ezekiel’s apocalyptic prophecy as featured in the lyric, “hip bone connected to you back bone”, in the old spiritual, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones. On the one hand it points to apocalyptic, by which I mean the soon expectation of a sudden and complete transformation in world affairs, very possibly accompanied, triggered or accomplished by extreme violence, with the end result being a highly favored “new heaven and new earth” or “new world order” depending on who is doing the expectation. On the other hand, it points directly to the idea of “connecting the dots” itself, since the entire song is about connections. I have been working on both fronts at least since 1995.
Connecting the dots is a matter of thinking, and there are two basic strategies of thought available to the human mind: linear thinking, which proceeds via cause and effect along a single track, and which is the major style of thought used within disciplinary silos, and lateral thinking, which skips sideways across silos and disciplines on wings of metaphor and analogy. Machines can crunch numbers and do some of our linear thinking for us: but it’s up to the analysts to cover the lateral front.
Let’s go aphoristic:
Expectation is algorithm: there are no algorithms for the unexpected.
I’d like to connect the dots … to blind spots.
Blinds spots are the spots we can’t, or won’t, and in any case don’t see. They fall into the category of the invisible. Visionaries are those who can see the invisible, who peer into our blind spots, into those places where we can’t see the connections between the dots, and can therefore easily be blind-sided. There’s an almost Borgesian thickness to the way things tie into one another here: the unexpected is by definition what we can’t predict, what blunt force thinking can’t predict — but it’s not invisible to those whose practice is to peer into the invisible, to aficionados of the subtler associative / metaphorical strategy…
Let’s go mythic.
There are two major strategies in life, two main ways of tackling problems, just as there are two heroes in the ‘Spider Woman” myth, which Joseph Campbell said was the central myth of the Americas. In Navajo terms, these twin heroes are called Monster Slayer and Child Born of Water, and their names may already give us the sense that one represents a brute force approach while the other is cannier, subtler — and able to achieve things his twin could barely imagine.
The Massive Ordnance Penetrator may be able to penetrate 60 feet of concrete, but the Grand Canyon was created by the natural flow of water — and as Lao Tzu said, “Nothing under Heaven is more soft and yielding than water, yet for eroding the hard and strong, nothing can surpass it.”
You can pitch this one-two punch at a variety of levels. The military can be seen as the nation’s Monster Slayer, its intelligence community as the Child Born of Water. You could see Thomas Barnett’s Leviathan as Monster Slayer, his SysAdmin as Child Born of Water. Or within the IC, you could say that software that can “crunch mega amounts of data” takes the Monster Slayer approach — but it requires cognitive skills and insight of a Child Born of Water sort to know when a student’s slightly eccentric interest represents a threat to the lives of three thousand office workers…
Let’s go analogic.
I’m thinking of the flight school students who “focused on learning to control the aircraft in flight, but took no interest in takeoffs or landings” — who asked one instructor where they could take lessons on jets without learning to fly smaller planes first, a request he concluded indicated they were “either joking or dreaming”.
In the not-so-terror-conscious atmosphere pre-9/11, a lack of interest in takeoffs and landings might have seemed quirky — but the “connections” weren’t obvious enough for the info to travel all the way up the FBI food-chain to the very top, as it would today. In post-9/11 retrospect, such things look a bit different – but I presume it still took reasoning by analogy for an instructor in a SE Asian diving school to recognize that a student who appeared less interested in the business of avoiding the bends and surfacing safely than in learning underwater swimming might pose a similar threat.
With 20/20 hindsight, this sort of thing seems glaringly obvious: even Monster Slayer could see it.
Let’s think about ignorance for a moment.
There’s Rumsfeld’s famous quip about known unknowns and unknown knowns, there are the genres of black swans and unintended consequences, there is what’s obvious and non-obvious, there are blind spots and hidden assumptions — and it’s the non-obvious that blindsides us, right?
We could rephrase the Spider Woman idea to state that Monster Slayer proceeds in terms of the obvious, while Child Born of Water works with the non-obvious. Jami Miscik, at that time Deputy Director for Intelligence at CIA, once remarked, “To truly nurture creativity, you have to cherish your contrarians and give them opportunities to run free”.
Child Born of Water is the contrarian, the maverick, the one whose oblique angle on things provides insight by… making non-obvious connections between the non-visible dots.