The Adversary and the Goal
(This post is part of a sequence of blog posts, trying to make sense of the 2016 election, and what it means about us, and how we move forward. The previous (and first) post in the sequence is “Let’s Be Less Wrong”. The next post in the sequence is “Observations: Data from the Election”.
Update Nov 16 2016: If, after reading this, you feel that I’m being too paranoid or conspiracy-theorist, you may be interested in my clarification in “Why Capitalize the E in Establishment?”)
To help myself better understand what happened in this election, and what to do next, I am going to employ a decisioning approach called the “OODA Loop”:
The phrase OODA loop refers to the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act, developed by military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Boyd applied the concept to the combat operations process, often at the strategic level in military operations. It is now also often applied to understand commercial operations and learning processes. The approach favors agility over raw power in dealing with human opponents in any endeavor.
As you can see from the description, this is a technique that is used when one is in an adversarial situation, and I wouldn’t be using this if I didn’t think we have an adversary.
I do not think that adversary is Donald Trump.
Sure, Donald Trump was Hillary Clinton’s adversary in the election. Prior to that, he was the adversary of Bush, Kasich, Cruz, Rubio, Christie, Carson… the list goes on. He remains the adversary of numerous victims of his shady business practices, as well as the women he’s assaulted over the years.
But if I don’t view Trump as my adversary, who or what is?
In my view, no matter what you may think about how Donald Trump ran his campaign, and no matter what you might think about his suitability for office, the more fundamental thing that concerns me is about the informational warfare from the Left and the Right.
I have friends who are (rightfully) concerned about the sudden increase in hate crimes and unabashed, public racial and sexual harassment. These are of grave concern to me as well, and as a patriotic American I will do my part to try to oppose these. But — and please consider this statement in the most analytical, dispassionate manner possible — I view these and related phenomena as more of a tactical, hopefully transient, matter.
Discovery of the Footsteps
My personality type is ENTP (“The Debater”) and one of my core traits is Strategic thinking. So, my natural inclination is to look at things from a high level and try to detect some deeper pattern, some greater threat to be countered, or major advantage to be gained. The exceptional event of Donald Trump’s election has forced me to think hard, and try to be Less Wrong about what “went wrong”, what’s been “going wrong” with our country for a while, and what major things may continue to “go wrong” if we don’t make some major changes.
It is in this spirit that I have detected what I feel to be something adversarial, and why I am choosing to align myself with others who feel the same way. The election was a liminal moment, and in this moment, it’s as if our normal trance — sustained by staring at hypnotic glowing screens of some sort, consuming the feed — was interrupted. The screens blinked; everyone’s minds blanked. Some people laughed. Many cried. I looked up, still in shock, and seemed to see a few others also looking around for a clue of what happens next.
Although everyone who I’ve connected with around this topic has their own perspectives and motives, ultimately I think we share a broad view that much of what happens in the public sphere of political discourse is, for lack of a better word, theater.
Actually, there is an even better word: Kayfabe, a term that comes from the world of professional wrestling. My friend Eric Weinstein has been writing about this for a long time — much longer than one would expect any theoretical-physicist-turned-quant-fund-manager to write about professional wrestling. (But, 2016 has been that kind of year.)
Whether by intentional design, or arising stygmergically, the dynamics of information flow in our modern, hyper-connected world does not lend itself to creating more joyous human connections, more effective governance, and a more prosperous world. In some cases it is absolutely, deliberately engineered to manufacture consent, stifle opposition, and enslave people in their own cognitive jails.
It’s just like professional wrestling, with one tweak: the spectators are compulsorily betting their lives and their fortunes on the outcomes — and they’re the only ones getting hurt.
I believe the liminal moment of Trump’s election has revealed, quite clearly, the existence of an emergent system dynamic which I dub “the Establishment”. (Others sometimes choose to call it Goliath.) Harnessed and controlled by global monied interests, it is the overriding dynamic that governs our world. Its innate power is probably not intrinsically malevolent, but it does not have the self-awareness to engage in systems thinking for self-preservation, despite its global reach and footprint.
I say this not as a tin-foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist raving about the Illuminati. Rather, this is my intuitive and strategic sense, as an informed natural philosopher, technologist, and humanist. The “informed” bit is important, because in the era of Wikileaks and Snowden and Mossack Fonseca, what was once suspected is now in broad view, albeit sometimes quickly swept away by the 24/7 news stream.
The 2016 Election demonstrated two very important things about the Establishment:
- How little direct control the Establishment has in the informational battle space. This is because the components of the Establishment that define and manipulate narrative (maybe we call it “The Mouth”?) have mostly failed to recognize how fundamentally the world has transitioned into an Attention Economy. Human Attention is a finite resource, and if you live in the developed world, you’re the new oil. The media kept feeding Donald more oil, and it wondered why he wouldn’t go away.
- How ill-prepared the Establishment is to respond to any interruption of the regularly scheduled program. As we observe the normalization and narrative-crafting over the coming days and weeks (it probably won’t take longer than that, but Trump is full of surprises), we will get some measure of how fast the Establishment’s OODA loop is running.
Wikipedia has this to say about the iteration speed of the OODA loop:
In order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries — or, better yet, get inside [the] adversary’s Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action time cycle or loop … Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries — since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns they are competing against.
A Window of Opportunity
Fundamentally, I believe that the core concept of democracy — the consent of the governed — is not possible if that consent is not given intentionally, from a place of deliberate contemplation and knowledge.
For far too long, the Establishment has tamed and shaped the Fourth Estate into a vehicle for manufacturing consent and manufacturing dissent. That is tyranny by any other word. I don’t know if it’s an oligarchy, a plutocracy, a kleptocracy, or what — but it’s not my idea of democracy. Other countries like Russia and China are already learning how powerful a tool networked communications can be for manipulating and controlling a population.
It is clear to me that right now, we have a rare moment when the Establishment has lost its monopoly over what fits and doesn’t fit into the Overton Window of political discourse. There’s a hiccup in the normal narrative.
The Establishment’s lock on the Overton Window has been so static, and so out of touch with the mainstream of sentiment in America, that a bunch of the Americans whose views were excluded by it finally voted for a guy that ripped it apart. This isn’t purely a right-wing phenomenon: a HUGE number of people on the left voted for a Socialist for their presidential nominee; they shared a common set of economic grievances as their populist counterparts on the right. (If you want a different measure of how out of touch the Establishment narrative is, just look at the number of Americans who did not even bother to vote.)
If I (and other like-minded people) are correct in our appraisal that the Establishment-approved information infrastructure and interaction paradigms are structurally unfit to facilitate a healthy, thriving democracy, then we are faced with certain consequences.
The normalization that this Salon article speaks of is the Establishment attempting to self-heal. The trouble is, it’s self-healing around an outright demagogue, a thin-skinned narcissist who has shown tremendous susceptibility to be hijacked and converted into an outright fascist.
Even if Donald Trump surprises us all, and educates himself, and grows the humility and courage to actually govern our Republic, the point stands that next time we may not be so lucky.
And if we continue to allow the Establishment to dictate the narrative, and feed us our political leaders, and engage in the kayfabe of democracy, then There. Will. Absolutely. Be. A. Next. Time. (That one, however, may be the last time.)
Many have been writing about how “technology disrupted the election” and the responsibility that Facebook and social media should bear for propagating misinformation, stoking fears and outrage, and the like. I will write a lot more about this in a later blog post. But at a high level, this kind of finger-pointing is missing the deeper point: at least this time we know that Facebook’s machine learning algorithms failed us. Next time, we may be so busy feeling smug in our righteousness that we fail to notice that we voted for exactly who we were supposed to.
I’m not a Luddite. I’m not a chicken little, painting a bleak techno-dystopia. I’m just an immigrant from a Communist country that has studied his 20th century history and learned the mechanisms of authoritarianism. I also am a versatile and veteran technologist who is keeping abreast of the latest developments in machine learning, consumer engagement, IoT, quantified world, automated inference, storage, cloud, networking, and datacenter technologies.
Nowhere is it written that the quantified, networked, computationally-cognitive future must be an open one that facilitates Enlightenment values of human liberty. Left to their own devices, technology companies and multi-national corporate entities will create — and sustain, and enforce — a network optimized for the conversion of human attention into share price. Liberté, fraternité, egalité are externalities.
My very immediate, short-term goal is to do everything I can to extend this Liminal Moment. While that endures, I will work with like-minded people to create a more robust framework for engaged self-governance. This framework must necessarily include technological, social, intellectual, and financial components. It must provide mechanisms for narrative generation, curation, and dissemination that are more organic, more grassroots, more expressive of the concerns of all our fellow humans.
This overall framework must be conceived in a global context from the outset, as the Establishment system we seek to displace (or augment) is global, and the human and environmental damage caused by our political activities is global. By thinking about this problem globally, we will naturally be forced to consider intersections of vastly different value systems, and at the same time, we will be able to experiment with many different designs and architectures.
Now that I have laid out my goal, my next blog post will tackle the first “O” in OODA: Observation.