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9 April 2009 | Draft

Considering All the Strategic Options

Whilst ignoring alternatives and disclaiming cognitive protectionism

- / -

Produced on the occasion of the NATO Summit (Strasbourg, April 2009)
immediately following the G20 Summit (London, April 2009). Also PDF version (0.5 mb)

Considering "all the options"
"Listening to everyone" and considering "all the feedback"
Designing out options and feedback
Learnings from democratic voting and polling systems
Misleading feedback solicitation: implications for democracy and consensual strategies
Implications for e-democracy and crowdsourcing
Simulation of communication challenges in democracy and strategy formulation
Information processing insights from large telescope design
Forms of cognitive protectionism in the light of trade protectionism
Framework for exploring attentiveness to new information
Cognitive corruption: deficiencies in feedback processes and identification of strategic options
Options for global governance: the Holbrooke Option Selection Quotient
E-democracy, swarm behaviour and swarm intelligence
Possible extensions to representation of option selection
Cycle-proof regulation of confidence


This exploration is inspired by the decision in March 2009 -- immediately before the NATO Summit in April 2009 -- that further military resources should be allocated to the Afghanistan/Pakistan arena as the prime source of "terror" on the planet. This decision was announced despite a succession of flawed assessments over years by arrogantly, overconfident military experts. Richard Holbrooke, the US president's special representative for that area, asserted on CNN (Transcript: David Petraeus and Richard Holbrooke on CNN, 29 March 2009) that in concluding on this policy "all the options were considered" as a means of eliminating terror as the greatest national security threat for the USA:

And in these discussions... I can assure you, and through you everyone who's watching, that every single option was considered, its pros and cons.

The assertion that "all options have been considered" is made relatively frequently to justify questionably repetitive international actions, or the lack thereof. Bill Clinton, as president of the USA, had asserted that "no stone had been left unturned" in exploring options for resolution of the Middle East crisis (pun not intended). A similar unilateral strategic response may be expected in support of geoengineering -- despite disastrous initiatives justified by similar patterns in the past.

Such strategic decisions typically involve "more of the same". This implies that the situation had been inadequately evaluated on previous occasions -- despite recognition of fundamental "intelligence failures" and "lack of imagination". The pattern must therefore be set against the assessments of:

Albert Einstein: To repeat the same thing over and over again, and yet to expect a different result, this is a form of insanity.
George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,

This pattern is placed in a wider context here in relation to the emerging process of online solicitation of feedback from large numbers of people ("send in your comments", "join the dialogue", "make your views known", etc). These processes are typically highly misleading in that they seek to engender engagement but are obliged by simple logistics to restrict themselves to extremely selective consideration of what they receive and how they use it -- whatever their claims to the contrary.

Considering "all the options"

When it is stated so categorically, by Holbrooke or Clinton, that "all the options" have been considered, it is typically far from clear:

The obvious response to such questions is that these all touch on matters of "national security" and are therefore the subject of the highest confidentiality. In this light:

It is especially intriguing in the case of Afghanistan, following failure of a current strategic there, when the exercise is repeated -- again asserting that "all the options have been considered". What was not considered on the previous occasion with equivalent expertise that enables such an assertion then to be made so confidently? How many times can the situation in Afghanistan be reassessed -- thereby questioning the process of previous assessments -- without recognizing that there is some assumption in the pattern of assessment which is fundamentally flawed?

What is wrong with the associated learning process? A remarkable account of the challenge is provided by the Studies Coordinator in the Lessons Learned Center (Office of the US Director of National Intelligence) Josh Kerbel, Lost for Words: the Intelligence Community's struggle to find its voice, US Army War College Quarterly, Parameters, Summer 2008). Kerbel introduces his commentary as follows:

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq intervention, most of the national security components of the US government have had some -- mostly overdue -- introspective moments. Such reviews can only be considered healthy. For as Sun Tzu, the Chinese military and intelligence theorist, said, Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. The fact is, however, that many of those governmental components did not necessarily like what they saw looking back at them from the mirror. This result was particularly true of the intelligence community, which found its own self-identity issues staring back with an unnerving intensity. To be blunt, the intelligence community, which for the purposes of this article refers mainly to the analytic component, still does not 'know itself.'

As he notes:

For the intelligence community, the linear mechanical metaphor remains the dominant linguistic and consequently mental model; it is the default setting.

Hence the exploration elsewhere of Engaging with Globality -- through cognitive lines, circlets, crowns or holes (2009).

"Listening to everyone" and considering "all the feedback"

Somewhat analogous to "considering all the options" in governance is the process whereby major media-based institutions claim to "listen" attentively to public opinion and to solicit feedback and comment. This is most evident in the case of proactive broadcasting services (BBC, CNN) and newspapers (The Guardian, etc) but is also evident on other scales in relation to the websites of interest groups, proactive search engines (Google, etc) or intergovernmental agencies seeking to claim legitimacy from such "wide consultation". The claim is then variously made that:

To ensure the viability of the process, typically it may involve:

Designing out options and feedback

Communicant perceptions: Less consideration is given to the logistics of the feedback process, as perceived by the communicant:

Exclusion criteria: Of particular interest are the criteria for any software algorithm designed to filter or channel incoming communications automatically. They may well be designed to label certain communications as inappropriate and to be trashed. This may be done, as with "nanny" programs, by the detection of problematic expressions or keywords. The content of such word lists is necessarily confidential. The receiving system may also use one or more blacklists to exclude communications from particular e-mail addresses, IP addresses or countries -- again without such information being available, or known to more than a very few. If one of the blacklists is maintained internally, the manner in which a communicant is placed on that list -- possibly automatically -- is also neither known nor the subject of any appeal. Given the increasing concern with security issues, any such blacklisting may be done on the basis of criteria supplied by security consultants possibly acting for government agencies with special mandates.

Given that the priority for the service is to be able to claim to be "listening", any issues held to be problematic can be framed as "marginal" and simply ignored as irrelevant irritants. The system is necessarily designed to solicit and cultivate interaction with a spectrum of "average" communicants and to avoid the costs associated with "long tails".

Unsubstantiated claims: The service may publicly make unconfirmable claims that "hundreds" (if not "thousands" or more) have responded to any specific request for feedback. The implication is that from this process communications have been carefully clustered in such a way that the most representatives comments can be further publicized -- due consideration having thereby been effectively given to all. Since, if done as claimed, this is potentially very labour intensive (or beyond the allocated budget), there is every motivation to simply "pick out" a few messages and imply that some intelligent processing is done. This mechanism may be seen in its simplest form when participants in a meeting are invited to submit written messages to the "chair" -- a few being selected (or apparently so) to be addressed by the "panel" as judged convenient by the "chair" (within the time constraints).

Whereas there is a more intensive degree of monitoring of "libelous" and discriminatory statements, "misleading advertising", and "fraudulent trading practices", there is no mechanism to verify the integrity of electronic feedback processes. These processes are effectively introduced and used as an extension of promotional and public relations processes. Any exaggerated claims that are contested can then be legally legitimated as "puffery".

Institutional abuse: A well-documented example of institutional abuse of such a process is the so-called Blue Peter competition-rigging scandal at the BBC in 2006. Phone-in feedback was solicited from listening children, at some cost to them, but the "responses" of such communicants were ignored in preference to fake responses fabricated as "more suitable" by the editorial service of the BBC programme in question. This is even more abusive when the purpose is to select correct answers to a phone-in quiz for which prizes are attributed.

More generally however, there is no mechanism to confirm that such logistically convenient abusive practices are not endemic and -- even when isolated cases are detected and corrected -- that the policy does not continue in some other form (as at the BBC?). Claims are made to the contrary and communicants are invited to have every confidence in a trustworthy institution -- such as the BBC or CNN. But there are no robust checks and balances as might be otherwise expected.

Spectrum of admissible communicants: The issue is what kinds of anomalous communication the feedback service wants to handle and how to frame and design out other forms of communication. Of particular concern is the range of problematic communications:

Transparency: Of particular interest is the fact that there is no obligation to indicate how many communications have been received on a given topic as distinct from how many are used in some way. Some systems indicate, seemingly transparently, how many registered comments have been received -- but there is rarely any sense of how many have been "removed" because they infringed some unexplained editorial constraint or "objection" from others. Processing inconveniences are presented as appropriate editorial sensitivity in what are increasingly non-transparent systems -- purportedly emblematic of emergent democratic processes of the future.

Fig. 1: Illustration of option/feedback selectivity processes from an authoritative perspective
Feedback selectivity processes from an authoritative perspective

Project methodology for the Assessment of Future National and International Problems (reproduced from a document of that title, published by the National Science Foundation, 1977, NSF/STP76-02573)

This methodology was criticized in the commentary justifying the more open methodology used for processing the 56,564 problems profiled in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

Although there is agreement that there are many problems and that many are serious, little concerted effort has been made to determine how many problems there are. Such efforts as have been made have generally been limited to identifying major or critical problems, usually guided either by political expediency or by the particular objective of a major agency.

For example, as illustrated by the diagram, one study for the President of the USA, resulting in 6 problems analyzed in detail, was based on a procedure whereby 1000 problems were deliberately filtered through a succession of phases down to 100, to 50, to 20 before the "final sort and aggregation". Only the final 6 were submitted to the President. No further mention is made of the 994, whatever their importance to particular constituencies. At that time UNESCO engaged in an exercise to identify the "major world problems" with which it was concerned and identified 12 (Medium-Term Plan 1977-1982. UNESCO, 19 C/4).

Related methodological issues were also discussed in Representation, Comprehension and Communication of Sets: the Role of Number (1978) where Fig.1 was reproduced.

Selection bias in politics: An unsuspected bias is implicit in the results of a recent study as to why different countries favoured people of different disciplinary backgrounds in government. The study focused on why different countries favoured different professions and why some professions are so well represented in their political system. To find out, The Economist trawled through a sample of almost 5,000 politicians in International Who's Who, a reference book, to examine their backgrounds (Selection bias in politics: there was a lawyer, an engineer and a politician... The Economist, 16 April 2009). The most common professions worldwide were: law, business, diplomacy, journalism, economics, medicine, academia, engineering. The study comments on the implication of any encounter between the USA (favouring lawyers) and China (favouring engineers). Implicit in such discip0linary bias, however, is the manner in which information is selected and prioritised. The Economist does not comment on this.

Learnings from democratic voting and polling systems

Since such feedback mechanisms are increasingly presented as a desirable characteristic of an open, responsive, transparent society, it is appropriate to note the challenges faced by the forms of feedback that preceded them -- and remain of vital importance:

Given the vulnerability to abuse in both cases, it is clear that the current approach to web feedback and voting is relatively naive -- if not extremely so -- and vulnerable to every form of abuse. An interesting contrast is provided by the process whereby an individual sends a communication (in the form of an envelope or a package) to a destination by courier service. A key feature of this process is the provision of a tracking number enabling the movement and receipt of the communication to be followed and confirmed. What kind of feedback service would result from the incorporation of such facilities enabling those supplying the feedback to trace its movement to its final destination or to determine where it might have been "held up"? As things stand, there is a developing sense that there is every probability that feedback communications are freely trashed when they are deemed inappropriate by the receiving party according to criteria that are seldom made clear.

USA: Citizen's Briefing Book
The challenge of using any form of e-democracy to enable such a process is illustrated by the Citizen's Briefing Book (2009) -- a compilation of recommendations for change in the USA, made electronically to Barack Obama in anticipation of his inauguration. Estimates variously indicated that 400,000 suggestions were proffered by over 100,000 respondents, with some 1.4 million votes on various proposals. The most popular proposal, ending marijuana prohibition, was dismissed out of hand by the recipient as not worthy of serious discussion (despite its current active consideration in other countries of the region). The contents of the exercise are no longer electronically accessible. This gives a strong sense of how meaningful such consultation is considered to be in practice. This is of a kind with rules for invited commentators on the website of the New Scientist, whereby any comment that is not esteemed to be based on fact is deleted (New Scientist house rules on commenting, 2009).
South Africa: Presidential hotline goes into meltdown

The Democratic Alliance says it tested the hotline 46 times during the past three weeks but has been able to register only four complaints, and has not been given a reference number for any of them. The party leader, Helen Zille, said that 42 calls failed to get through and its callers spent 572 minutes on hold - a total of nine hours and 32 minutes.

"When President Zuma launched the hotline, he said he wanted to create an 'ethos of accountability'," Zille said. "During his state of the nation address he undertook to treat every complaint as if it were the only one. As every day passes, that commitment rings increasingly hollow....At the end of the first week, it was clear the presidency had designed a system that could not meet the requirements of the undertaking. By the second week, things had not improved. And, by the third week the situation is completely inadequate and, at least in practical terms, dysfunctional."

On its first day of operation, manned by 43 liaison staff at the presidential headquarters, the free hotline took 27,000 calls. More than 2,500 were received in the first hour, increasing to 7,000 in the third hour.

(David Smith, Jacob Zuma's presidential hotline goes into meltdown Complaints line overwhelmed by angry callers, The Guardian, 8 October 2009)

Misleading feedback solicitation: implications for democracy and consensual strategies

Some general conclusions may be drawn both with respect to policy consultation in which it is claimed that "all options are considered" and electronic feedback solicitation ("we want to hear your views"):

Binding contractual agreements are increasingly significant in determining constraints on public policy, as indicated by the unquestionable respect for the contractually-binding exorbitant executive payouts to those responsible in some way for major corporate failures in 2008 -- leading to the financial crisis and considerable public anger.

Curiously no such constraints are attached to the electoral or other commitments of politicians and policy-makers. Whereas legislation provides for commercial malpractice taking the form of "misleading advertising" or "fraudulent trading practices", no such provisions are envisaged for those involved in policy-making. They are free to make any claims (possibly to be excused as legitimate puffery) and are not required to substantiate them. Indeed failure to do so may be justified as being a matter of "national security". Furthermore they are typically well protected by forms of parliamentary immunity (or its diplomatic analogue) against being held legally to account for any abuse.

Challenge of effective communication as symbolized by the European Parliament hemicycle
-- a case for exploratory simulation of representation and misrepresentation?
Communication potential within European Parliament hemicycle?

Implications for e-democracy and crowdsourcing

Since EU elections by direct universal suffrage began 30 years ago, turnout has dwindled progessively. On the last occasion the average turnout was less than 46 percent. To raise public awareness and encourage voter engagement in anticipation of the European elections of June 2009, Europe's voters are being invited by the European Parliament to step into room-sized, interactive multimedia cubes in prominent public places, such as city centre squares. Within such a "Choice Box", the intention is to prompt people to record a video message, giving their views and opinions on what the European Parliament should do. Is the Choice Box an unforeseen metaphor of the in-the-box thinking by which choice is enabled by authorities for their consideration?

Might this offer an avenue for Tony Blair to accelerate his ongoing campaign to be President of the EU (Blair speech sparks EU presidency speculation, Euractiv, 14 January 2008; Tony Blair for president of Europe? The Guardian, 9 January 2009)? Perhaps by encouraging his supporters to express this "choice" in multiple video recordings? How will these then be processed and used?

Some video recordings will be screened daily outside but it is quite unclear how the views so expressed in (hundreds of) thousands of video recordings are then to be processed for the Parliament. Presumably a small selection will be made -- purely as an exericse in public relations -- some to be shown in the hemicycle above? Will they be uploaded to YouTube and tagged by enthusiasts -- as a means of communicating effectively with Members of Parliament? Or perhaps rendered succinctly into text messages for them via Twitter?

Would such representatives be satisfied by presenting their own views for their peers in the hemicycle by a similar process? Would that assist in the consideration and selection of strategic options -- especially if representatives in the hemicycle were to Twitter?

How effectively can the views of millions of people be "represented" through such mechanisms -- or through "voting" -- with so many poorly explored constraints on meaningful comunication? Or is the undeclared purpose merely tokenism and pretence? At what cost?

Technically there is considerable potential for widespread electronic consultation, leading to enthusiastic proposals for e-democracy, participatory democracy and crowdsourcing. The basic challenge involves use of the scarcest resource -- the "attention time" of those charged with processing large quantities of input, notably elected representatives -- as discussed elsewhere (Practicalities of Participatory Democracy with International Institutions: Attitudinal, Quantitative and Qualitative Challenges, 2003; Possibilities for Massive Participative Interaction: including voting, questions, metaphors, images, constructs, melodies, issues, symbols, 2007)..

As Head of the Unit for e-Government of DG Information Society, Paul Timmers (Coherent Agenda for e-Democracy: an EU perspective, 2005) outlines the initial efforts at Interactive Policy Making for input to policy-making through spontaneous feedback and online consultation. As an example, an internet-enabled consultation resulted in the collection of 6,500 contributions published on a Commission website for full transparency to show which organization, company or individual had advocated which amendments. This does not clarify how final decisions were made in the light of this consultation. Furthermore it is not clear how the evolution of such a possibility (in 2005) is related to current decision-making with the benefit of Choice Box input as a means of popular consultation (in 2009).

It is intriguing that the hemicycle is an architectural configuration dating from the construction of arenas in classical Greece and Rome. Whilst these were admired for their acoustics, the acoustics of the European Parliament are deplored. Is this too a metaphor of the unexplored challenges of communication -- even amongst those charged with considering strategic options and selecting amongst them? Curiously electronic communication equipment was only permitted in the French model of that hemicycle, in the Palais Bourbon, in 2008 (Les ordinateurs débarquent dans l'Hémicycle, avril 2008). Whilst a major proportion of the EU administrative budget is devoted to interpretation and translation -- perhaps to be augmented for Choice Box feedback -- it would appear that no significant funding is devoted to other challenges of the communication process, if they are recognized.

The technical possibilities have been widely, enthusiastically and insightfully debated (Frank Bannister, e-Democracy: an information systems perspective; Steven L. Clift, Government and Democracy: representation and citizen engagement in the information age, 2004). But beyond the unquestionable technical feasibility, where are the above issues given due consideration through meaningful simulations? At the World e-Democracy Forum? Where is the feasibility of simulating the democratic challenge considered -- despite recognitiom of the democratic deficit and voter apathy? Curiously the point has been ironically made that (as a sham) many processes of democracy are already, as they stand, "simulations" of what they might become (Dmitriy Yefimovich Furman, Simulation of Democracy Seen as Possibly Developing Into Real Thing, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 11 April 2007).

At the same time, it is clear that aspects of the process can give rise to satisfactory outcomes in some cases -- in the form of open source projects, including the development of software, hardware and databases, otherwise known as community-based design or distributed participatory design. An unusual example is the (playful) collective design of dynamic mechanisms by the Soda Constructor community -- suggesting organizational and strategic analogues (Animating the Representation of Europe: visualizing the coherence of international institutions using dynamic animal-like structures, 2004). The successful extension of such paradigms to community democracy has yet to be demonstrated -- if only as a test of assumptions about alternative social forms. The operation of virtual or cyberparliaments remains to be effectively explored by simulation (The Challenge of Cyber-Parliaments and Statutory Virtual Assemblies, 1998; Using Research in the Participative Orchestration of Europe, 2004).

In terms of the challenge for representatives of managing information overload, there is a vital need to simulate how this is handled, especially when some vital information is excluded from consideration by that process. It is indicative that one of the processes typical of MBA educational programmes is to give students far more information than they can possibly process (each evening) in the expectation that they will develop techniques of selectivity that do not select out vital anomalies (when tested on the following day). The challenge also lends itself to analysis in terms of techniques of information clustering and the attention span with respect to clusters exceeding a certain size or requiring "drill down" beyond a certain level. These issues are discussed in Representation, Comprehension and Communication of Sets: the Role of Number (1978). The challenge calls for innovative use of mnemotechnics (In Quest of Mnemonic Catalysts -- for comprehension of complex psychosocial dynamics, 2007).

Simulation of communication challenges in democracy and strategy formulation

The communication challenge can be expressed mathematically and lends itself to computer simulation. Such simulation is to be contrasted with use of the term to refer to mock-parliaments or model parliaments, as is the practice of the EYP Parliament Simulations Programme or the internet game Become a Member of the European Parliament. The computer simulation could be defined in terms of:

Curiously no consideration is given to such challenges to assumptions about representative or participatory democracy. As with the absenteeism issue, they may even be subject to internal sanction on the person raising the issue. There is an unexamined assumption that the process of filtering input can be handled appropriately and transparently by some form of self-regulation (by worthy people within a worthy institution) whose constraints have not been explored, notably in simulations.

Also of relevance, despite the feasibility, is the apparent lack of comparative simulation of the variety of voting systems whereby representatives may be (s)elected. Such simulations, suitably adapted for the media, would inform debate on alternatives when such are under consideration (as with the constitutional crisis in the UK in 2009).

The set of constraints might be combined to constitute a measure of what is absorbed by representatives from the pool of concerns, expertise, isnights and suggestions of the people represented. Bluntly:

A simulation might usefully lead to the elaboration of a Group Think Index (GTI) -- a measure of the ability of the process to break out of reinforcement of comfortable, constraining patterns of the past. Potentially as vital as GDP as an indication of capacity to respond to challenges of the future, a GTI would be a measure of how much does the democratic process enable emergent insight rather than repressing it?

Information processing insights from large telescope design

One useful approach to analyzing the challenge of information processing is indeed through conventional forms of simulation. Another might be developed as an analogue simulation based in the light of the challenges of the design of very large telescopes. Examples associated with the European Southern Observatory include:

As a simulation, the gathering of light from distant parts of the universe (with maximim resolution and minimum distortion) has called for telescope mirrors of every increasing diameter. The design of such mirrors is extremely challenging because of their tendency to distort under their own weight -- thereby losing the appropriate curvature and the ability to focus. One design approach is to ensure that a single large mirror adjusts its shape a thousand times per second to compensate for distortion. Current innovation lies in the use of a segmented mirror, namely an array of smaller mirrors designed to act as segments of a single large curved mirror. Examples include:

It might be argued that the configuration of the parliamentary hemicycle (above) constitutes a design choice that is likely to have given inadequate attention to the challenge of avoiding "distortion" and maximizing "resolution" in the collection of "light" from very distant members of the population. In particular, to the extent that members of parliament function like "hexagonal mirrors", there is a real challenge to ensure that they are appropriately adjusted to one another in the hemicycle to constitute a "curved mirror" capable of focusing and achieving resolution. The pressure to design every larger telescopes is an indication of what should be the pressure to design more adequate arrays of members of parliament to achieve appropriate resolution of distant "objects" (whether issues or objections). The possibilities for such design are ever more feasible using web technology to configure arrays of decision-makers in response to macro-systemic challenges -- as intimated in an early study by Joel de Rosnay (Macroscope, 1979).

To the extent that collective stategy development remains heavily dependent on optical metaphors in clarifying any "vision" for the future, careful attention to the insights from the optical systems of telescope design would seem appropriate, if not essential.

Forms of cognitive protectionism in the light of trade protectionism

Another approach to framing the challenge that merits consideration is through the learnings to be derived from the extensively studied processes of trade protectionism -- especially the various subterfuges employed to disguise and disclaim such protectionism. Generically it could be argued that the tangible features of the trade case offer a template through which the intangible features of the cognitive situation can be more clearly comprehended.

The argument is that any group, especially of those most closely associated with processes of governance (or other vested interests) frames a boundary -- a "circle of trust" -- within which it operates and which it seeks to protect from the disruptive effects of outsiders (and their information). This cognitive closure is increasingly replicated in "administrative complexes" and gated communities -- in both cases emblematic of forms of cognitive closure offering a requisite sense of belonging and identity (Dynamically Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge society, 2004). It has been argued by Matt Frei (Taming the cyber beast, The Guardian, 24 January 2009) that:

The Bush White House circled the wagons and lived in a bubble; it turned loyalty into a test of service and largely disdained the clutter of opinions from the world outside...

As is widely recognized, even within government administrations, or between the UN Specialized Agencies, information may be jealously guarded and not shared in ways that might be assumed as of value to the purpose for which the bodies were created. Information may then be selectively "traded" and any failure to do so may be subject to criticism -- justifying the exploration of the parallel with trade protectionism. Intergovernmental agencies purporting to operate in a knowledge society might themselves benefit from a form of Doha Round!

The degree of openness or closure to new insights or patterns may be expressed through a generalization of the notion of a "glass ceiling". It might take account of a set or sequence of conditions including (in no particular order):

Such processes are articulated in the row labels of Fig. 2 (below). At the time of writing a valuable case study of such processes is offered (The Guardian, 9 April 2009) as a consequence of the controversial crowd control operations by security services on the occasion of the G20 Summit:

Such a case study implies some form of "standard operating procedure" with which authorities respond through various stages to unwelcome investigation as it becomes progressively more difficult to deny. It is appropriate to note that "human sacrifice" is required before such incidents are taken seriously.

Framework for exploring attentiveness to new information

A single diagram (Fig. 3) may be used for such a framework, of which the basic structure is presented in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2: General framework for representation of issue recognition and denial over time
Strategic issue recognition and denial over time

Explanation (valid for Fig. 2 above and Fig. 3 below):

Fig. 3: Superposition on Fig. 2 of curves indicative of the focus of authoritative attention and recognition
Focus of authoritative attention and recognition over time

Explanation (valid only for those items in Fig. 3 not already mentioned in relation to Fig. 2):

Figure 3 serves to indicate how there are issues to which some are sensitive even though their implications have negligible impact on the short-term priorities of governance -- whether or not there is any recognition in the processes of governance of their longer term implications.

It should be stressed that it is the general form of Figure 3 that merits consideration rather than:

As a whole Figures 3 provides a framework in which the form and descriptors of the various curves could be adjusted for purposes of discussion about the probability of tunnel vision, silo thinking and group think -- and the nature of the disconnect with any grassroots sense of reality that has not been crafted or recognized by authority structures. Any such adjustment could best be done dynamically and interactively (with an applet) in support of reflection and discussion.

Cognitive corruption: deficiencies in feedback processes and identification of strategic options

Assertions to the effect that due attention is given to feedback ("trust us") and that every strategic option has been considered ("trust us") merit testing for the validity of such claims -- just as careful attention is given to testing the deficiencies of security systems (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?). In the latter case the test is for effective closure, here the required test is for effective openness to enable detection of unforeseen potentials and anomalies -- namely testing openness to feedback.

There is a case for an institution like Transparency International, primarily known for its focus on corruption, to develop indicators for closure to options and feedback -- despite vigorous claims to the contrary. In effect there is a need to measure "cognitive corruption". Such matters are of interest in the detection of anomalies in reporting procedures, notably in the light of unforeseen disasters. What rating system would be appropriate, analogous to that developed for corruption?

A classic example, after the tsunami disaster of December 2004, was the discovery that a detailed report documenting its probability had been provided in 1998 -- when the the head of the Thai meteor logical office had been obliged to retire under a shadow for having warned that the coast was dangerously vulnerable to such effects. He was accused of scaremongering and jeopardising the tourist industry around the island of Phuket. Similarly an Italian seismologist had predicted the disastrous earthquake in Italy in April 2009 (Seismologist predicted L'Aquila quake, Euronews, 6 April 2009). He had been reported to the authorities for spreading panic and warnings suppressed from the web.

In such cases it is not a question of whether there are deficiencies but of who checks whether there are and whether this can be done systematically -- as is done by health and safety inspectors (whether or not their recommendations are implemented or "adapted for a consideration"). Electronic feedback system lend themselves to such testing -- possibly facilitated with intelligent "bots". Ironically such agents are used by Wikipedia to mark up profiles for possible exclusion -- on the basis of unspecified criteria.

How might major solicitors of feedback, like broadcasting services and newspapers, fare under such testing? What processes do they have for complaints about the procedure or is such information itself excluded as an unwelcome anomaly -- as is apparently the case with the BBC?

Fig. 4: Detail of Fig. 3, highlighting constraints on claims to have considered "all the options"
constraints on claims to have considered "all the options"

In its manner of considering "all the options", governance is necessarily constrained to the central (darkened) zone as explained with respect to Fig. 3.

The detail indicates how only three of the Issues (the coloured curves) are selected into this arena, since those that have not yet emerged into the mainstream (top row) are necessarily excluded (coloured curves in the lower right part of the detail)

Although this is a purely indicative diagram, those Issues selected in (as at the G20 Summit) might be "economic meltdown", "terrorism" and "climate change". Within the central zone, clearly lower priority is necessarily given to "climate change", since its S-curve only reaches the mainstream row outside the short-term focus and the constraints of the various bell-curves. As an Issue, "overpopulation", indicated by one of the excluded S-curves (lower right), is rising outside consideration within the various authoritative (inverted) bell-curves -- and will only subsequently be recognized as an "unforeseen" mainstream crisis.

Options for global governance: the Holbrooke Option Selection Quotient

The challenge in determining how to process potentially available information is what might a viable option look like? And in whose eyes? How to be sure that a viable option is recognized? And what if two or more non-viable options together trigger a creative response that enables a viable option to emerge (by analogy with binary weapons)?

A major lesson of the financial crisis of 2008-2009 is the totally unforeseen, and extremely rapid, transformation in the status of giants of the conventional economy -- General Motors and Chrysler -- from motors of the economy to beggars in need of a safety net. But the question is whether the range of management expertise on which those giants can draw enables them to envisage anything more than "business as usual" -- and whether government has access to the imagination and expertise to encourage them appropriately to do otherwise.

Metaphor is much used in selling new approaches to management and policy-making. Thus a former editor of the Harvard Business Review authored a book entitled When Giants Learn to Dance: the challenge of strategy, management and careers (Rosabeth Kanter, 1989). Another by Dudley Lynch and Paul Kordis is entitled Strategy of the Dolphin; scoring a win in a chaotic world (1988). Is General Motors capable of "learning to dance" to the sound of a "different drummer" in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "however measured or far away". The phrase was echoed by M. Scott Peck (The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, 1987) in contrast with his study of the "people of the lie" (People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil, 1983).

Who are the GMs and Chryslers of the "option production process" -- whose strategic insights are considered "too big to fail"? Is that a reason for the repeated convergence on "more of the same", notably in Afghanistan? Those complicit in the process seemingly include:

There would seem to be no process whereby large numbers of options are collected, held, refined and commented in a common database (a WikiOptions or a WikiStrategies) -- one that is open to a wide variety of creative input. This would be a complete contrast to that ensuring premature cognitive closure as illustrated by Fig. 1 above. Such a database could then be subject to data mining techniques (notably using intelligent agents) to identify viable new possibilities -- the "green shoots" of genuine strategic recovery. It would also give all concerned a sense of what was on the table and why -- and what was not, and why. [A major step in that direction has been the compilation of the online Global Strategies Project profiling some 30,000 strategies of significance to various international constigtuencies.] This possibility is discussed separately (Global Solutions Wiki, 2009)

Such an approach would go far to guard against the risks of dangerous groupthink and tunnel vision. It would also ensure that alternatives are juxtaposed with conventional proposals -- avoiding the accusation that alternatives are systematically ignored (Framing the Global Future by Ignoring Alternatives: unfreezing categories as a vital necessity, 2009) .

This frames the challenge as one of "insight capture" rather than "insight exclusion" -- currently engendering "electronic middens" outside cyberdomains into which insightful creative chat and listserv waste is dumped. Such middens may be fruitfully mined -- preferably now rather than by a future civilization.

Any assertion by such as Richard Holbrooke, that all the strategic options have been considered, should perhaps be evaluated in terms of a "Holbrooke Option Selection Quotient" (HOSQ) -- namely an estimate of the percentage of extant or potential options that had been effectively open to consideration. The challenge for governance would be to ensure that the Quotient is increased from 0.6% (as in Fig. 1) to a healthy proportion -- perhaps 30-40%. As an example, when the flaw in the mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope was discovered in 1990 some 25 proposals were put on the table as possible strategies for remedial action. Creative response to unforeseen crises is not facilitated by focusing on predetermined "more of the same".

As with IQ, a higher HOSQ could be considered a measure of organizational creativity and intelligence -- or as a measure of organizational learning capacity. Any such measure should however be integrated with an indicator derived from the slope of the S-curves, namely the delay in time between crisis recognition and global response, namely a measure of policy lag. The examples of the delays between isolated recognition of Thai tsunami vulnerability and Italian earthquake prediction highlight the problem. Given the fatal delays in emergency response once the disasters struck (as with Hurricane Katrina), such indicators should also be related to indicators of the institutional capacity to act on crises rather than simply to predict them (Remedial Capacity Indicators Versus Performance Indicators, 1981).

In a NATO context, for example, it would seem curious that the organization of rapid emergency response facilities are so ill-equipped to respond to non-military disasters (NATO's Split Personality: Why The Rapid Response Force Is Not Fully Operational, Atlantic Review, 6 September 2007). Curiously the delays in response to the Italian earthquake disaster of April 2009 were immediately preceded by the NATO Summit in Strasbourg -- headquarters of Eurocorps, the multinational army corps within the framework of the European Union and NATO common defence initiatives, declared operational in 1995.

Ironically, in the case of the Italian earthquake on the occasion of the NATO Summit, more police and resources were probably assembled to contain the protesters in favour of consideration of alternatives, than were marshaled in rapid response to the disaster. This offers a splendid example of the capacity of the purportedly best coordinated institutions of governance to respond to emerging crises -- even when scientifically predicted and marked by foreshocks felt by all over a wider area. -- al the while engaging in processes of self-congratulation and expansion. For what other issues does this offer a powerful metaphor?

E-democracy, swarm behaviour and swarm intelligence

Fig. 3 might be also used as a framework within which to consider the operation of e-democracy in focusing grassroots and marginal options for global consideration. Specifically the question how various approaches to e-democracy could be represented in relation to the main bell curve (E-E*) and how any filtration of its insights could be positioned in relation to the inverted bell curves within which global governance is nested.

Given the increasing interest in swarm behaviour (and simulation) as a model for intelligent agents including human beings, the question arises as to how the rapid shifts of public opinion -- and the temporary emergence of fashionable focal issues -- might be understood in relation to the operation of e-democracy (cf Dynamically Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge society, 2004). Provocatively, for example, when is such swarm behaviour to be compared with that of destructive locust swarming?

It is appropriate to note, for example, the development of the Joint Simulation System initiated in 1995 (Kari Pugh and Collie Johnson, Building a Simulation World to Match the Real World; The Joint Simulation System, January-February 1999, p.2; James W. Hollenbach and William L. Alexander, Executing the DOD Modelling and Simulation Strategy: making simulation systems of systems a reality, 1997).

This has seemingly now morphed, via the Total Information Awareness program, into the Sentient World Simulation (SWS) and will be a "synthetic mirror of the real world with automated continuous calibration with respect to current real-world information" with a node representing "every man, woman and child" -- presumably including those responsible for the SWS itself. "Sophisticated physics" were integrated into the simulation in 2007. Regrettably, as might be expected, this is being undertaken entirely in the interests of a US strategic defence strategy on behalf of the US Department of Defense (Mark Baard, Sentient World: war games on the grandest scale -- Sim Strife, The Register, 23 June 2007).

[More recently, as part of a EU research initiative named FuturIcT, a "Living Earth Simulator" is under development (Largest Supercomputers to Simulate Life on Earth, Including Economies and Whole Societies, ScienceDaily, 28 May 2010). The FuturIcT project (The FuturIcT Knowledge Accelerator: Unleashing the Power of Information for a Sustainable Future) aims to interrelate many distinct data gathering initiatives in order to simulate the entire globe, including all the diverse interactions of social systems and of the economy with the environment. The concept for the project has already been deeply explored within several European research projects. Again, however, it is unclear whether such initiatives, and the groups responsible, will themselves feature as integral elements of the simulation.]

However, it is unclear that any such approaches will be taken to enrichen the selection of strategic options -- except by the intelligence services to inhibit unrest -- whatever the more fruitful possibilities (From ECHELON to NOLEHCE: enabling a strategic conversion to a faith-based global brain, 2007). One example of an expanded initiative by the US National Security Agency is described by James Bamford (The Spy Factory -- the New Thought Police: the NSA wants to know how and what you think, 2009). Known as AQUAINT ("Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence"), the project has been under development for many years at the NSA Advanced Research and Development Activity.

Curiously the highly controversial Total Information Awareness programme, abandoned as such, was a means of eliciting opinion from the local level -- effectively benefitting from the vigilance of neighbourhood watch committees. Whatever its actual current form it seems now to be related to the Terrorist Watch List, (which maintains the No Fly List). It is unfortunate that such capacities cannot be adapted to elicit creative strategic options and early warning signals -- beyond the questionably narrow focus on terror (Terror as Distractant from More Deadly Global Threats, 2009).

It is also curious that understandings of "global consciousness" would seem to be failing to distinguish themselves significantly from swarm consciousness, as manifested in the often beautiful collective behaviour of large shoals of fish, flocks of birds and insects. From a perspective of e-democracy, how indeed is the exploration of swarm behavior to be related through swarm intelligence into any genuine manifestation of collective intelligence?

In a review of the possibility of democratic choice via cyberspace, Gustavo Lins Ribeiro (Bodies and Culture in the Cyberage: a review essay, Culture Psychology, 1998, 4) concludes with the reservation:

As we see, it is not only the nature of community but of power in the contemporary world that needs to be debated in light of the discussion prompted by the cyber prefix.... Full-fledged electronic, direct democracy is a fascinating possibility. But it can also transform the democratic process... into a string of dull, sometimes meaningless referenda performed not at the open public scene but at ascetic and shielded individual electronic homes. The choice frenzy of consumer culture unequivocally migrates to the political market. Just push the button on any kind of issue and you will be partici-choosing. The very core of democracy, the transformative, discursive, and hopefully knowledgeable mediation of conflicts and interests, can be reduced to a technical and numerical event. If such a simulation of democracy (simdemo) is ever installed it will certainly represent a most effective mode of reproducing the status quo

In a valuable recent compilation (Mark Tovey, Collective Intelligence: creating a prosperous world at peace, 2008), with regard to the Global Knowledge (GK97) conference (Toronto, 1997), also calls for research:

However, an examination of the GK97 online discussions suggests the need for more research -- and more experimentation with findings of existing research -- on how to conduct effective online group thinking. Research is needed on what works and what does not work. How can people really be helped to think together online when they are scattered across five continents?

The compilation reports on current challenges and possibilities in the contributions of:

Robert Steele, as publisher of that compilation, is providing related studies of relevance. These are intermeshed with various understandings of Open Source Intelligence -- including its overlap with the intelligence community. Challenges remain. Simon French (Web-enabled strategic GDSS, e-democracy and Arrow's theorem: A Bayesian perspective, Decision Support Systems, 43, 4, 2007) points out with respect to any more substantive approach to participative democracy that:

Web-technologies bring the possibility of supporting geographically and temporally dispersed decision making. However, although technically feasible, it is not clear that there are valid methodologies for the use of web-based group decision support (wGDSS). Many approaches to decision support are driven by the perspective of a single decision maker. Yet there are many reasons to expect that the extension of individualistic theories to a group context will be fraught with difficulty.

E-Democracy has been the focus of a Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy (Madrid, 2008) prior to the finalization of the investigation of its Ad Hoc Committee on e-democracy (CAHDE) leading to adoption of a very comprehensive Recommendation CM/Rec(2009) 1 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on electronic democracy (e-democracy) (18 February 2009). It notes:

Despite the comprehensiveness of its guidelines with respect to ensuring that e-democracy methods and tools:

the Recommendations seem to assume full understanding of the challenges to communication in consideration and selection of strategic options -- implementation "within-the-box" of what is already known and assumed. For example, the closest it gets to any form of exploratory simulation of the strategic challenge is with respect to "e-democracy games" for education regarding existing processes. These are to be devised:

It is unclear whether the Recommendation asks effective questions about the communication link between e-democracy and consideration of policy options, or whether these are deliberately avoided through a form of unintegrated definitional "divide and rule" with respect to the components of e-democracy as encompaassing:

The closest it gets to identifying the need for further research to highlight the problems of communication in decision-making between these functions is:

The more fundamental challenge is well expressed by Olivia Judson (To expand knowledge, we must first admit ignorance, The Guardian, 26 February 2009) with respect to science:

Of all the limits on expanding our knowledge, unexamined, misplaced assumptions are the most insidious. Often, we don't even know that we have them: they are essentially invisible. Discovering them and investigating them takes curiosity, imagination, and the willingness to risk looking ridiculous. And that, perhaps, is one of the hardest tasks in science.

The argument could usefully be extended to the manner in which strategic options are considered and selected.

Possible extensions to representation of option selection

Figs. 2 and 3 suggest the possibility of other representations of the challenge -- as presented below.

Fig. 5: Indication of emergence of issues to global recognition with corresponding progressive embodiment locally
(stars on the line of emergence for Issue 1 indicate progressive switch
from strong resistance to proposals to their enthusiastic acceptance)
Fig. 6: Succession of issues of Fig. 4 arrayed in a circle around the central governance zone
(effectively a "vertical" view assuming "circular" time with phased emergence of issues in cybernetic response to the dominance of each)
Emergence of issues to global recognition Circular array of issues of global governance concern

Fig. 6 offers a means of highlighting the relationship between different functions (as issues or viable remedial strategies) in a psycho-social system -- where their progressive recognition is itself a challenge requiring learning (over time). The nature and urgency of any learning in response to crisis then leads to a form of excessive fixation on a particular function (or closely related set of functions). This fixation is effectively resistant to the recognition of the emergence of other issues associated with other functions. Excessive fixation necessarily neglects and engenders other issues -- effectively chaining the issues into a pattern of emergence as implied by Fig. 5. The "timeless" stability of such a dynamic system as a whole is however dependent on the ability to shift continually between functions according to the feedback on each such issue.

Fig. 6 also raises the question of how many distinct critical "issues" might be fruitfully recognized as vital to systemic stability over time -- perhaps in terms of knowledge cybernetics (Maurice Yolles, Knowledge Cybernetics: a new metaphor for social collectives, Intellect, 3, 2006, 1; Y.Zude and M. Yolles, From Knowledge Cybernetics to Feng Shui). Clearly any checklist of seemingly tangible "issues" can be transformed into generic terms and variously clustered for that purpose (Checklist of Peak Experiences Challenging Humanity, 2008; Memetic and Information Diseases in a Knowledge Society, 2008; Patterning the Problematique, 1995).

Cycle-proof regulation of confidence

Fig. 6 also highlights the value of generalizing the valuable comment of Raghuram Rajan (Cycle-proof Regulation, The Economist, 8 April 2009):

As the G20 summit showed, we typically regulate in the midst of a bust. That is when righteous politicians feel the need to do something, bankers' frail balance-sheets and vivid memories make them eschew risk, and regulators have their backbones stiffened by public disapproval of past laxity.

But we reform under the delusion that the regulated, and the markets they operate in, are static and passive, and that the regulatory environment will not vary with the cycle. Ironically, faith in draconian regulation is strongest at the bottom of the cycle, when there is little need for participants to be regulated. By contrast, the misconception that markets will take care of themselves is most widespread at the top of the cycle, at the point of most danger to the system. We need to acknowledge these differences and enact cycle-proof regulation.

As a former chief economist of the IMF, Rajan's focus is necessarily on the tangibles of economics understood through the eyes of finance. However the essential crisis in the financial system, which the IMF did little to prevent, is now framed in terms of the subtleties of the ultimate intangible, namely "confidence" -- for which economics has no measure. In this current period the British government has framed a solution to the crisis of confidence termed "quantitative easing" -- traditionally understood and disparaged as "printing money". Fundamentally money is of course a token of confidence in the validity of a "promise to pay". The British government, with other governments of the G20, have effectively framed their response in terms of "printing confidence".

Curiously, but consistently, the typical output of a summit conference is also a form of "quantitative easing", namely the press release. Prhaps to be considered as an exercise in "printing promises" to relieve public pressure regarding hopes and expectations -- "qualitative easing"?

Rajan's valuable commentary would be even more valuable if "confidence" were to be substituted for its surrogates therein with respect to the cycle-proof regulation to which he refers. It would then highlight the systemic significance of "bank capital requirements" at different points in the cycle. This would then relate his commentary to a variety of specific distortions of "confidence" that might be recognized as the destabilizing issues (of the above diagrams) -- issues that challenge systemic governance over time under various conditions. Effectively "confidence" underlies the dynamic pattern of relationships on which knowledge cybernetics may be expected to focus. "Business cycles" are but one manifestation of cycles of confidence and credibility (Credibility Crunch engendered by Hope-mongering: "credit crunch" focus as symptom of a dangerous mindset, 2008).

A similar point might be made with respect to the commentary of Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Ten Principles for a Black Swan-proof World, Financial Times, 7 April 2009), transforming his focus on financially significant surprises into those relating generically to the processing of surprising new information -- as highlighted by the above diagrams.

Rajan's analysis is especially valuable when placed in the context of C. S. Holling's adaptive cycle and the necessary resilience required in any civilization to be able to navigate it, as notably stressed by Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization, 2006). In particular Rajan's commentary would then offer an understanding of appropriate responses at different parts of any cycle illustrated by Fig. 6 -- a cycle of confidence in its most generic sense. As he says:

To have a better chance of creating stability through the cycle -- of being cycle-proof -- new regulations should be comprehensive, contingent and cost-effective.... A crisis offers us a rare opportunity to implement reforms. The temptation will be to over-regulate, as we have done in the past, only to liberalise excessively over time. It would be better to think of regulation that is immune to the cycle.

More fundamentally, this is the concern with respect to eliciting, managing and communicating confidence, represented in the arguments above by confidence in the process of eliciting (local) knowledge relevant to the stability of a dynamic (global) system -- and grounding any emergent global insight locally.


The argument is essentially an exploration of how "global" coherence emerges and is sustained -- and challenged -- given the selective partiality imposed by an attention span faced with ever increasing information overload. Whilst the argument has been developed in relation to global governance, the diagrammatic representation is also of value in representing the coherence of individual (or group) understanding in the face of emerging issues -- most evidently in how information available electronically is attentively processed or ignored (e-mails, web links, news feeds, blogs, etc). The fact that 97% of e-mail is now understood to be spam, is symptomatic of the challenges for a knowledge society.

As stressed, the various diagrams are purely indicative but they do suggest the possibility of varying the number, form and labelling of elements -- preferably dynamically using an applet -- in support of discussion and the representation and comparison of a range of variants.

The diagrams facilitate understanding of what is as yet "unknown" in relation to what is assumed to be coherently "known" -- progressively challenged by emergent "unknowns" (Unknown Undoing: challenge of incomprehensibility of systemic neglect, 2008). The focus on emergence helps to highlight the manner in which the focus on a currently prominent issue may obscure or distort others that are emerging in its wake -- possibly of even greater significance (Climate Change and the Elephant in the Living Room:, 2008; Systemic Crises as Keys to Systemic Remedies: a metaphorical Rosetta Stone for future strategy? 2007).

The diagrams have the advantage of integrating recognition of the process of "irrational" resistance to information regarding emergent issues that are necessarily destabilizing (threatening) to the current sense of coherence and relevance. Such information appears to emerge from "incoherence" appropriately understood as chaos. In this sense the "disconnect" in Figs. 2 and 3, represented by the horizontal separation, is between a sense of coherence (order, etc) and incoherence (chaos, etc.). The inverted bell curves of Figs. 3 and 4 might then be understood as nesting "governance" within the forms of coherence offered by various belief systems, business, media, etc.

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