Monday, April 14, 2008

Guided Emergence

John Robb recently posed an interesting question at his blog, Global Guerrillas: is it possible to leverage decentralized decision making (in order to get inside your opponent’s OODA-Loop) while keeping the organization as a whole responsive to direction from above? In other words, can you leverage the power of decentralized decision making without ceding control to the mob? I think the answer is “partially yes.” Here’s my notion of how this can be done—and its limitations—something that I call “guided emergence.”

First, what is an OODA-Loop? It’s a topic mentioned by Robb, and one that I’ve written about many times in the past (1 2).

It’s the decision making cycle within any organization as defined by the steps Observe – Orient – Decide – Act. This is how the military—and any organization—processes information. We observe events, orient our goals and intentions to the changes that these observations represent, decide what to do about it, and then act on those decisions. When two opposing groups are in direct competition with each other—whether military or otherwise—the group that can go through the OODA-Loop process both correctly AND more quickly than their opponent prevails (or at least gains the upper hand). Now consider two opposing groups with two different organizational structures both competing in this OODA-Loop game. Group one (US military) is a huge, hierarchal bureaucracy. Group two is a small, decentralized network (al-Qa’ida). Group one’s attempts to go through the OODA-Loop process is bogged down by the information processing burden of hierarchy (see my writings on this topic in these three posts, as well as in Chapter 9 of A Theory of Power).

So that’s the shape of the problem: the US military can’t get inside al-Qa’ida’s OODA-Loop because it’s hierarchal, top-down decision making structure prevents it from executing the loop more quickly than its decentralized opponent. So back to Robb’s question: if the US military (or any other hierarchal organization) wants to speed up its OODA-Loop, can it do so while maintaining control of the organization? Robb presents two options. First, the US military can try to get all the decentralized decision makers to share the same objectives, the same understanding of acceptable means to pursue those objectives, and the same background information, and hope that they make decisions that are aligned with what a hierarchal decision making process would decide—only faster. The second option—one that is a priori unacceptable—is to let the decentralized decision makers do what they want without any control at all. This will invariably result in an even faster OODA-Loop because there is no need to waste time or resources attempting to get all decision makers in harmony with senior leadership (an impossible task in any event). Therefore, for the US military, the answer is “no,” it is not possible to fully leverage decentralized decision making to speed up our OODA-Loop. The best option that is both acceptable and implementable is to loosen the reigns of control over lower-level decision makers and provide some kind of training in advance that aims at harmonizing their actions within the acceptable range of senior leaders. We’ve been doing this for a long time already: military academies are intended, for example, to harmonize junior leaders with senior leadership to exactly this end, but they largely fail at this task because of their equally important task of generating junior leaders who are willing to think outside the box, innovate, and question authority when necessary. I’ll offer myself as case in fact for this problem—the best “harmonization training” available didn’t work. Because harmonization isn’t a real solution—just a stop gap (kind of like forming a “tiger team” to address a problem isn’t the same as addressing the problem)—an adversary who is not constrained by the need to “harmonize” decentralized decision makers will continue to operate inside the OODA-Loop of the US military. Hierarchy demands centralized decision making, and is fundamentally, structurally incompatible with decentralization of decision making beyond some boundary. Because the location of that boundary sets hierarchy at a permanent disadvantage to decentralized networks when it comes to speed of innovation and decision making, there is no solution to getting a hierarchal structure inside a decentralized structure’s OODA-Loop.

My solution to the problem is not to fight these fundamentals, but rather to change the structure of the larger organization to a decentralized one—what I call “rhizome.” I recognize that the US military just isn’t going to accept this—I think that’s fine, and I think it serves as an example of how the era of the Nation-State is in decline (see The New Map). I also recognize that the world is never going to convert to a wholly decentralized structure, a perfect “rhizome.” Likewise, this is not how structures exist in nature—nature is a dynamic balance between hierarchal and rhizomatic structures (see Manuel de Landa’s 1000 Years of Non-Linear History). So this leads me to what I consider the really interesting question here: how to effectively balance hierarchal structures with decentralized, rhizome structures. My answer: guided emergence. Use a limited hierarchy to create, reinforce, and maintain institutions that generate a balanced, minimally self-sufficient, harmonized rhizome structure and then “let it go”—accept that you can’t affect the direction of such a structure, but that because a balanced structure is created in the first place, the emergent actions of that structure will remain “harmonious.”

That’s a lot of fancy-sounding theory that probably comes off as gibberish. Let me run through three examples of this in action: guided emergence in biology, for a terrorist organization, for a national military (notice I’m not calling it a “Nation-State” military), and for a local community.

Guided Emergence in Biology

Guided emergence already exists in nature. As one example, consider DNA. That molecule effectively guides the emergence of a vast diversity of life while simultaneously ensuring its own propagation. Perhaps an even more interesting example is that of mitochondria, specifically mDNA. mDNA maintains its basic structure quite consistently (though not statically) while facilitating its own propagation through the dynamic, innovative system of carbon-based life. Talk about getting inside the opponent’s OODA-Loop. Sure, this is a pretty theoretical example, but one that’s worth keeping in mind as we move on to a very concrete example in human society next…

Guided Emergence and the Terrorist Organization

Al-Qa’ida already implements the theory of guided emergence in its organizational structure. Currently, al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership acts as a “doctrine center” as well as sometimes provider of training, direction, and financing. Al-Qa’ida does not, however, exert direct, hierarchal command and control of its forces in the field. In fact, it’s really impossible to say who al-Qa’ida’s forces are—some openly pledge allegiance, such as al-Qa’ida in Iraq or al-Qa’ida in the land of the Islamic Maghreb, but many more, perhaps most, are only influenced to some degree by the core function of al-Qa’ida. In this sense, al-Qa’ida is an excellent example of guided emergence operating successfully. It is also an excellent example of the reasons why traditional hierarchal structures such as the US Military are so incapable of adapting this highly efficient, highly innovative structure: the requirement to cede ultimate control of actions. Al-Qa’ida is limited, in “guiding” the emergence of a global Islamic jihad, to arguing why this jihad should be prosecuted, how this should be done, and on occasion directly interjecting personnel or training into the emergent system. This is also its strength—it can act symbolically, and greatly leverage its available resources by persuading others to directly act on, or roughly on, its behalf. It also forces al-Qa’ida to directly confront a prerequisite to ultimate political victory that is normally only given lip service by Nation-States in their pursuit of political-military victory: winning the hearts and minds. The US military, as others before it, is often lulled into thinking that winning hearts and minds is of secondary concern because direct application of military force can control the situation in the absence of control of hearts and minds. This tends to work well in the short term and disastrously over any much longer time period (witness: the very notion of “blowback” arises from this problem). Al-Qa’ida, by virtue of the fact that it does not and cannot directly control the kind of military force required to be tricked into this short-term perspective is forced to take a long-term approach that requires addressing hearts and minds first, and then looking for a military solution. While this allows temporary military setbacks such as the one it suffered in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, it ultimately leads to victory against an opponent who thinks that hearts and minds are an unnecessary sideshow. Hearts and minds will always, ultimately, be most attracted to an organization that permits unfettered, bottom-up innovation, because that directly allows the actual interests of people (as opposed to the theoretical interests advanced on their behalf by world aid organizations and “benevolent” Nation-States’ international policy programs) to dictate the actions of the emergent entity. It is very hard for a Nation-State to win hearts and minds when those hearts and minds realize that the Nation-State is not organically arising FROM them, but rather is attempting only to leverage them toward its own goals. A bottom-up, emergent organization doesn’t suffer from this weakness. This makes attempts to guide the emergence of such a bottom-up system—ultimately nothing more than an argument for why it is in THEIR best interests to follow the proposed course—so much more successful because it is inherently persuasive rather than coercive.

Guided Emergence and a National Military

So, given the problems of adapting a bottom-up, emergent, decentralized structure to a Nation-State military, is there no application of this kind of theory in the world of modern military affairs? I think that there is a very direct application, but that we must first remove “State” from “Nation-State” before attempting to apply guided emergence. “State” is an inherently centralized, hierarchal edifice erected (in theory, though never precisely in practice) upon the exact boundaries of an ethnic, religious, or cultural “Nation.” I’ve written before about the impossibility of erecting a state with Cartesian boundaries upon the inherently non-Cartesian space occupied by a Nation. However, if we dispense of “State,” it is very possible to apply a decentralized, emergent, bottom-up decision structure on a Nation’s military defense system. As I’ve discussed in “Defending Pala,” it is probably not possible to adapt this to a Nation’s offensive interests, but, that by confining the power of a Nation’s military to actual (as opposed to politically “spun”) operationally defensive engagement, the very problem of “blowback” and the current “need” for the very notion of “offensive defense” may be reduced or eliminated.

Guided Emergence and a Local Community

I find it interesting that John Robb has recently been applying much of his “global guerrillas” theory to local communities. I have long found this to be the foundational element of our post-Nation-State future, and think that developing a theory of guided emergence for local communities will pay great dividends. Communities may be the most appropriate place for guided emergence of minimally self-sufficient but cooperating and interacting individuals, families, and family groups to come together in the absence of some centralized, hierarchal structure organizing them. These communities, just like Nations in the Nation-State context, can function in a “guided emergence” environment with or without exclusive boundaries (where, for example, everyone in a geographic town may or may not participate in the guided emergence “game”). Traditional, hierarchal, and centralized “government-run” communities generally cannot function in this way, and therefore greatly inhibit the amount of innovation available to a community to essentially the “one organizational structure per geographic area” maximum. Guided emergence could, on the other hand, support multiple competing organizational schemes within a single geographic area (what might today be the boundaries of one “town”) without conflict arising—if people are drawn from one scheme to another, then it grows, but there would not necessarily (key word here—exclusive religious notions, as with al-Qa’ida, make motivation for conflict possible) be motivation to out-compete or eliminate other schemes.

It may be clear by now that this notion of guided emergence as applied to local communities nests nicely with my outline for resilient and self-sufficient communities from The Problem of Growth. It may be a bit difficult to understand outside that context. But consider the ability to use guided emergence to persuade, rather than coerce, others to pursue the exact program outlined in Problem of Growth: establish minimal self-sufficiency in extended family nodes (along with regionally-appropriate means of doing that, best practices, etc.), establish mutually beneficial but optional interaction between these nodes, drive innovation in both of these areas, and serve to advocate for collective courses of action that may require temporary leadership or that work best with greater unity of effort.

This may be the key benefit to guided emergence: to the extent that guided emergence is only available to bottom-up, decentralized organizations, and that these kinds of organizations are capable of getting inside the OODA-Loop of their centralized/hierarchal competitors or opponents, there exists a structural trend in favor of just these decentralized and bottom-up entities. I think that decentralized and bottom-up entities are more likely to be compatible with human ontogeny, to be environmentally sustainable, and to allow for resilience and diversity of practice within human society without oppression. Any theory that helps speed along the erosion of centralization and hierarchy and the rise of a decentralized replacement seems welcome in that context.

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Theo_musher said...

Jeff here are a couple examples of Guided emergence I can think of:

The way way business works and also the pioneers of Early America.

First business. You have entrapreneurs. They tend to be mavericks,think outside the box type people, they come up with innovations, tap new markets, the successful ones build big businesses from scratch. They are very creative. In contrast, big old corporations are hierarchical and conservative with big beurocracies. But generally, the maverick entrapreneurs sell out to big corporations that then take the new ideas and make them successful on a bigger scale, even creating monopolies.

The poineers were very tough and independant and self sufficient, they probably fit your definition of "minimal independance" quite well. They could grow all their own food, hunt, fish, defend themselves, build their own houses, dig wells, raiuse livestock you name it. But they were generally very patriotic to the idea of America and manifest destiny etc. Eventually they turned the frontier into the rest of the United States.

BTW, I am not really bummed out by the death of the nation state. I see the coming market state as a good thing. I am coming to see the free market as a good thing. I was talking to may Dad about this over the weekend. He is a successful small businessman and an investor, and was bummed out by the huge national defecit. We discussed the implications if the emerging market state an the passing of the nation state and he was encouraged by it.

Theo_musher said...

How about maverick entrapreneurial muslims? They are devout muslims but also free market capitalists and pro-democracy. These people already exist. Find ways to identify them and support them. Let them transform their own society from the inside.

I am sure people are already taking this approach. But I guess the people in the pentagon don't think that way. I guess if you are a hammer evrything looks like a nail. But there is the argument that the US military is just an arm of US business.

What could be better for bussiness than a bunch of muslim entrapreneurs?

Theo_musher said...

I look at it like agriculture. The goal is to go into an area and grow wheat and raise cattle. But the wheat and cattle from your area can't grow there. So you hybridize them with hardy local strains.

Obviously total overt colonialism of democracy and free market capitalism won't work in the muslem world. What is needed is a hardy hybrid of Islam and liberal democracy. One that can actually take root and survive and become productive there.

Theo_musher said...

You know like the line from Dune.

"We need desert power"

Jeff Vail said...

I think your examples all illustrate the power of innovation in decentralized decision making, the ability to innovate in regionally appropriate manners, etc. The problem that I still see with encouraging "pro-capitalism Muslims" or innovation through big business is that there is no guarantee that the pro-business Muslims won't become anti-American (via local innovation in the form of trade barriers, mercantilism as we're already seeing in the oil front, or some interesting mix of business and religion such as Islamic Finance that manifests in such a way as to effectively shut out competitors. Likewise, while big corporations may be good at bringing some innovations to the market, they are inherently interested in bringing those innovations that will maximize profit to themselves, not benefit to the consumer--while these things are often correlated, they certainly aren't always so.

I think this comes back to the core problem that I have with hierarchal anything--dependence on others to provide, even if it is to provide highly innovative and profitable merchandise--still forfeits freedom. I think that most people actually like this bargain--at least for now. I'm semi-ambivalent at present--the market provides for me very well--but I'm very concerned about where this pattern of control is going. Here's the key: right now we're in a market that lives off of consumer spending, so it is necessary to force consumers to spend to drive the economic engine. However, this is still fundamentally the economy forcing serfs to perform as needed. For the time being, this is a pretty good deal--in the West we're "forced" (through marketing, preying upon and expanding our inability to provide basics for ourselves, peer pressure, etc.) to consume goods, and have been convinced that this makes us "wealthy." However, all it would take to change this to "forcing" us into forcing grueling manual labor in an ethanol-plantation would be for that to become what is best for the profit-power-structure of our economy. We do--temporarily--have enough power to set up a system where we could be largely self-reliant, but if we don't capitalize on this window of opportunity we may no longer be such an "empowered" consumer class.

As far as the decline of the Nation-State, I can't say that makes me sad, either. I see it as a threat an an opportunity. IF we proceed to a market state, then I think that will actually be *worse* than the Nation-State for exactly the reasons that I outlined above. When a state grounds its constitutional raison d'etre in the support of an ethnic or cultural "nation," then it must, at least ostensibly, try to work to the benefit of that nation. However, when a state's constitutional basis is the maintenance and facilitation of a market structure, then the only benefit that the state must pursue is the Market's, and it is no longer necessary to even pretend to benefit the nation.

The Market-State at first sounds good in theory because of the claim that "the Market will need to maintain an active consumer class, happy and motivated to work and innovate, wealthy and motivated to spend." The difficulty here is that concomitant globalization of the market for labor forces human input--whether that is manual labor or skilled/innovator/professional work--to become nothing more than another business factor to be optimized. *Perhaps* in a world with infinite and cheap energy and no ecological limitations the economy would always be able to grow faster than the population and labor (regardless of skill level) would maintain sufficient negotiating power to maintain and grow wealth. But in a declining energy future, I see the small and shrinking capitalist class able to effectively play populations off one-another in the Market-State context until even doctors, lawyers, and engineers are effectively plantation laborers, even if still better off than their non-professional peers.

I think that the most effective way to protect the needs of the individual from the priorities of the Market-State is for individuals, or very small groups of individuals, to establish minimal self-sufficiency and remove themselves from the Market-State. The greatest advantage that I see to the dawn of the Market-State is that the notion of geographical continuity that--at least theoretically-exists between Nation and State need not exist between Market and State. There could be an effective "opening of the map" to allow for geographical regions outside of the Market-State, since the Market-State should be less concerned with control of physical territory than with control of the market.

Theo_musher said...

Jeff Do you think RAW was correct when he said wealth is created by people using their brains better?

This sounds like a side track but Its really related.

I think if nearly all food production was decentralized, like for example, if nearly everyone in the world had a little veggie garden, or for more urban people, a local co-op, and didn't need to buy food, there would sill be a huge free market.

Because I think most people don't find fulfillment in subsistence farming.

But maybe it can be done in such a way that most people do it, and its easy so then they have time for other stuff. Like go online, watch movies, buy luxury items etc.

I would be interested to see an opening of the map. I see isolated areas as possible testing grounds for rhizome. Maybe the testing grounds would prove fruitful.

If the Market states are partially organized around cities, green cities, say, I think most people will be drawn to the bright lights. The cities will also have a hierarchy with a monopoly on violence and police, security etc.

So that would be another draw if the outlaying pockets of subsistence farming communities devolve from somthing like rhizome and into warring clans.

As for Al Quieda and the muslim world, Jihad, etc.

I think a lot of these groups could be more like Dubai, but chose not to. Iraq could have been one huge Dubai. But Saddam would rather be a big fish dictator in a little pond, then "sell" out.

But looking beyond him. I think there are more and more people in third world countries that are suspicious and Fearful of the US but desirous of doing bussines with us and gowing with the global economy.

Theo_musher said...

Here is another question:

What is the purpose of defeating al Quieda? Is it simply to "prevent another 911?"

or is Al Quieda, simply in the way of spreading liberal democracy and free market capitalism to the muslim world?

My impression is that Arab Muslim countries are far more hierarchical and autocratic in their leadership, than is the case in the US. I also think the majority want democracy and free trade. I think they just want a way to get it that saves face and allows them to honor their religion.

That is my impressiuon from reading articles from Al Jazeera like this one

And from watching c-span and so forth.

Manuel said...

Winning hearts and minds! yep ! Sure!
I think that Al Quaida is based on a perspective "against" (that's the important word here). To outperform Al Q, just simply build a resilient network of communities "with". And without being naive about it.
Just to complete your views, Jeff, what I see is a build in three phases. Round one : people are rising against the former system using system strategic blindnesses (hierarchy for example). Round two : the system "against" is empowering and gains legitimacy and sympathy from people within the former system (Hamas for example with social action and elections). The "former" system is weakening. Round three : relationships between the two systems become vital for both of them. Colapse of one or the two or none is possible depending of the way each system is looking at the other (cooperation, competetion...). This is happening in free software where strong communities and good free products (OS, browsers...) are here now. Competition is here the underlying relationship between the two systems.

freeman said...

Someone whose work may be of interest to some here is free market anti-capitalist Kevin Carson, in particular his recent guest entry at the P2P Foundation's blog and his current book project on organization theory.

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