Visualcy at Complex Terrain Laboratory

Recently, I agreed to join Complex Terrain Laboratory, a British “think tank 2.0” as a contributor along with Matt Armstrong , Tim Stevens and Michael Tanji. There is a good synthesis there at CTLab between full-time professional academics and horizontal thinking bloggers and, I think, the potential to become an intellectual hub for intersecting fields.

The following represents my first post at CTLab which I am cross-posting here at Chicago Boyz:

Visualcy and the Human Terrain

COIN and public diplomacy alike tend to encounter significant barriers to effective communication between the state actor and the intended audience. In part, this is due to gaps in cultural intelligence that will only be remediated by degrees with the careful advice of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and the experience derived from an extended immersion in another society. The other aspect of the problem is that the target audience often has greater complexity and cognitive heterogeneity than the Western society from which the warrior or diplomat hails.

As a result of public education, the rise of mass-media and commercial advertising, Western nations and Japan, some earlier but all by mid-20th century, became relatively homogenized in the processing of information as well as having a dominant vital "consensus" on cultural and political values with postwar Japan probably being the most extreme example. The range between elite and mass opinion naturally narrowed as more citizens shared similar outlooks and the same sources of information, as did the avenues for acceptable dissent. A characteristic of modern society examined at length by thinkers as diverse as Ortega y Gasset, Edward Bernays, Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler.

The situation is more complicated in states and regions enduring the legacy of colonialism and failed state-centric (often Marxist) national development policies. Here the educational and technological gap between a very sophisticated, Western educated elite and a rural villager or tribal member may be exceedingly wide. Basic literacy levels may be low enough to leave substantial portions of the dominant population group outside of the literary tradition and reliant upon word of mouth, radio, television and – increasingly – images on the internet via handheld mobile devices.

These are broad generalizations, of course. Western societies contain cultural "holdouts" like the Amish or digitally deprived underclass populations who are relatively disconnected from the mainstream and some developing countries have high, even enviable, levels of educational success and popular literacy. Nor are Western societies as homgenous in terms of information flows as they were two decades ago. But because images have powerful cognitive responses in the brain, the "Visualcy" effect is a factor that cannot be ignored in COIN, IO or public diplomacy. Images will have broad societal effects – at times akin to that of a tsunami.

Interestingly enough, despite complaints by American conservatives regarding the political bias of news outlets like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, these organizations are packaging news in the familiar "Pulitzerian frame" in which mass media have been structuring information for over a century. Effectively, habituating their audience to a Western style (if not content) of thinking and information processing, with all of the advantages and shortcomings in terms of speed and superficiality that we associate with television news broadcasting. This phenomena, along with streaming internet video content like Youtube and – very, very, soon – mass-based Web 2.0 video social networks will overlay the aforementioned complexity in regard to the range of education and literacy.

What to do ?

While acceptance of a global panopticon paradigm is unpleasant, due to decreasing costs for increasingly powerful technology and web-based platforms, this trend is irreversible in the medium term. Concepts and messages to be successfully communicated to the broadest possible audience will have to be thought of strategically by statesmen, diplomats and military officers with images as starting points, followed by words rather than the reverse ( to the extent that images are currently considered at all, except after some PR debacle). In the long term, greater prosperity and rising general education levels in developing countries may blunt the negative political effects of "visualcy".

Or, given that the social media revolution is just getting underway, it may not.

2 thoughts on “Visualcy at Complex Terrain Laboratory”

  1. I think the internet will drive the fracturing of culture even in the developed world. This will make governments even more inefficient at communicating.

    There is a limit to the amount of information that anyone human being, no matter how smart, can process. As the absolute amount of information increases, each human understands less and less of the total amount. In 1792, a highly intelligent individual could have a functional understanding of the eras best mathematics, science, technology, philosophy, political theory, art and popular culture. Now days, such a grasp is impossible. The same effect dogs ordinary individuals. It is now possible to push one’s self to the absolute limit of one’s information capacity and still not exceed the bounds of one limited field of endeavor. People only see a subset of the much, much larger set of all information.

    Freedom of information makes this situation worse, not better. People don’t have to consume information that makes them uncomfortable. Now people can essentially buy their own reflections.

    Peer-to-Peer communications means that even persons with extreme views held by only a minority can find a reinforcing community of like minded people who will feedback a person’s prejudices and make them appear widely accepted.

    These factors lead to the creation of an informationally balkinized society in which no message finds majority acceptance.

    Info war and diplomacy is going to tough. No single message will find broad acceptance.

  2. Well said, Shannon. There are upsides – the fracturing also generates synthesis and consilience as well as splintering into little compartments – but the downsides are what plague effective communication and public discourse.

    Mastering the ability to first gain attention is going to be a critical 21st c. communication skill

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