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19 May 2003

"Tank-thoughts" from "Think-tanks"

metaphors constraining development of global governance

- / -

This paper was subsequently the basis for a slide presentation on behalf of the Union of International Associations, with Nadia McLaren, for a Workshop on Networking the Future: Think Tanks and Building a European Knowledge Platform (Conference on the Futures of Europeans in the Global Knowledge Society, Louvain-la-Neuve, 13-14 April 2005)
Fish tank (Aquarium, Vivarium)
Battle tank
Reservoir tank (Gas tank, Water tank, Air tank)
Holding tank (Holding pen, Decompression tank, Cryogenic tank)
Septic tank (Wastewater disposal system)
Sensory deprivation tank (Float tank)
Cultivation tank (Breeding tank, Vat)
Simulation tank (Simulators)
Integrative perspective: configuring the set of tank metaphors


It is from "think-tanks" that the new understandings of the challenges of world society and global governance are now widely assumed to emerge. As the working environments of the "best and the brightest", they are the source of new policy options valued by governments. In particular right-wing think-tanks have been the source of the policy inspiration for the emergent American Empire and the strategies to ensure its predominance. Concerns expressed regarding the "intellectual failure" suggested by the recourse to force in Iraq presumably reflect their inability to formulate viable alternatives -- a weakness shared by all think-tanks from within the Coalition of the Willing. [more]

Think-tanks are often created, or linked to, more conventional institutions -- typically universities, corporations, governments, political parties or other bodies. In the status competition between institutions, creation of a think-tank may well signal a capacity to act as an attractor for intellectual excellence. think-tanks tend to pride themselves on their interdisciplinarity -- in contrast to universities -- and possibly their intercultural and international qualities.

The web provides many resource pages linking to such bodies [more; more; more; more; more]. In particular, NIRA's World Directory of Think Tanks provides a systematic introduction to the world's most prominent and innovative public policy research institutes, better known as think-tanks. The 2002 edition contains information on 320 selected think-tanks from 77 countries and regions.

Such environments may well have been carefully designed to optimize certain processes -- and may do so successfully in the light of quantitative criteria of productivity: titles published, patents, value of contracts or grants, awards, etc. The concern here however is whether there is a particular quality to the think-tank environment that, beyond political affiliations, may limit or distort conceptual processes relevant to global governance.

Work on the role of metaphor, notably by George Lakoff and colleagues (Metaphors We Live By, 1980), explores in particular the unforeseen cognitive effects of use of the "container metaphor". Given that "tank" is indeed a form of container, there is a case for exploring how the term "think-tank" may inadvertently be affecting the way in which conceptualization is sought, undertaken and delivered from such environments. It is however important to recognize the degree to which "think-tank" may be an externally applied label to a range of institutions that may not perceive or define themselves in terms of "tank". This does not detract from the consequences of such bodies being treated by their clients as "think-tanks" -- imposing upon them a requirement to think "within the tank" rather than "out of the box", as some might otherwise believe to be necessary if the much-sought "new thinking" is to become available.

The work of Gareth Morgan (Images of Organisation, 1986) has also proved to be seminal in describing the 8 metaphors through which organizations tend to be viewed: Machine, Organism, Brain, Culture, Political System, Psychic Prison, Flux and Transformation, and Instrument of Domination. In this light, operating in any one of these metaphors of course reveals its own truth. The question is what are the truths revealed by operating in relation to the metaphors associated with a "think-tank"?

The exploration here follows from an earlier and more general paper (Missiles, Missives, Missions and Memetic Warfare: Navigation of strategic interfaces in multidimensional knowledge space, 2001) and from previous work on metaphor and governance (see Metaphor as a Language for Global Governance, 1993; Governance through Metaphor Project).

In the spirit of Gareth Morgan's inquiry, the following sections explore the implications for strategic thinking due to understanding a think-tank as being in some way patterned on any of 8 "tank" metaphors: fish tank (aquarium), battle tank, police holding tank, septic tank, gas tank, sensory deprivation tank, cultivation tank, or simulation tank. In a final section, as a tentative exercise, these individual tank metaphors are interrelated in a framework to highlight patterns of commonality and complementarity in think-tank operation.

The concern here is that, with whichever interpretation, a "tank" is merely a form of box filled with water. Whether their occupants or clients desire it or not, a "think-tank" will then tend to produce "tank thoughts" that are very much "in the box" rather than "out of the box".

Branding Thintanks

There are two main types of thinktank brand. Those that favour the Greco-Roman effect of classical names - Localis, Politeia, the Fabian Society, Civitas, Demos - in a bid to conjure the image of ancient systems of governance and wise philosophers. And those that have adopted the prefix "new". Gravitas by name In the world of thinktanks, the really serious brainpower goes into the right branding Ellie Levenson The Guardian, 28 June 2004

Fish tank (Aquarium, Vivarium)

There seems to be some uncertainty as to the origins of the term "think-tank". One of the most obvious is by association with a fish tank or aquarium for fish. This perspective is reinforced by the conference "fish bowl" technique in which participants, possible seated in a circle, view the process of an interacting panel seated together in the centre of the circle.

Possible framing and conditioning effects of this metaphor then derive from:

A number of instructive approaches have been taken to simulating fish tanks:

The construction of such models for fish tanks suggests the possibility of analogous models for think-tanks. The following report points in that direction:

We have developed a virtual fish tank in which computer users are represented by animated fish. The actions and interactions of the fish in the tank are meant to reflect the actions of users in the real world. Our first attempt at creating a programming environment that allowed people to customize their own fish did not work very well because users did not want to explicitly write programs to control their fish. Maintaining the fish tank metaphor, we attempted to solve this problem by having users teach fish rather than write code. We borrowed ideas from the literature on programming by demonstration and developed a method of programming by conditioning in which users demonstrate behaviors and also reward (or feed) fish that are behaving appropriately. Rewards give users the ability to define high-level behaviors (sets of specific movements) and complex relationships between situations and responses. [more]

The challenges for think-tanks, perceived in terms of the fish tank metaphor, are perhaps admirably captured by the following tale:

A prominent zoo had a highly specialized aquarium of which it was especially proud. Therein was a fish tank with an exceedingly rare species. The problem for the management was that, despite every form of precaution and costly expertise, the special fish remained morose and unmoving in their tank -- with the scales peeling in a manner clearly indicative of disease. By chance one day, a new tank cleaner -- unaware of the value of the fish -- scooped them into a neighbouring tank to enable theirs' to be cleaned. The second tank happened to contain a predator of those temporarily moved there -- forcing the displaced fish to move dramatically to protect themselves -- including setting up a small protective barrier of pebbles. The director of the aquarium happened by an recognized that the problem of the special fish, in their beautifully designed environment, was that they were exposed to no meaningful level of challenge. He therefore arranged for a competing species to be placed in their tank with them. The new dynamics ensured that the special fish maintained a healthy tone and finally engaged in reproductive behavior.

Battle tank

The association of a "think-tank" and a "battle tank" is not new. Thus the US Center for Security Policy declares itself to be a non-profit, non-partisan organization that believes in the philosophy of American military might as the surest guarantee of international peace and security. Its 2001 annual report, says that the CSP "isn't just a 'think-tank' -- it's an agile, durable and highly effective 'main battle tank' in the war of ideas on national security." [more]. An interesting contrast is however offered by Chad Parmet: "The M1 Abrams is the antithesis of a think-tank; it is the nemesis of a thought. Tanks destroy things that think. Tanks are designed to homogenize the stuff inside skulls." [more]

Possible framing and conditioning effects of this metaphor then derive from:

As suggested by the quote at the beginning of this section, there is an intimate relationship between battle tanks and think-tanks. Recommendations regarding the former may come from the latter. Given the above similarities, it is to be expected that the logic of battle tank strategy may also influence the mindsets of those in think-tanks. This raises the old question, if all one has is a hammer, do all problems look like nails?

Reservoir tank (Gas tank, Water tank, Air tank)

The notion of a gas tank -- as a source of fuel -- may have powerful associations for a think-tank seen as a source of intellectual power. Similarly, other forms of reservoir for water or air may be associated with vital resources of survival and nourishment important to the community which the think-tank serves. Much more pejoratively, such a reservoir may be seen as a source of "hot air". The gas tank metaphor has also been applied in motivation workshops with reference to "emotional tanks", namely the need to ensure the self-esteem of a group -- such as a think-tank.

Possible framing and conditioning effects of this metaphor then derive from:

Holding tank (Holding pen, Decompression tank, Cryogenic tank)

Distinct from the notion of a reservoir as a source of vital reserves, is that of the holding tank as a transitional storage facility to allow adjustment with respect to the external environment to take place. Most common is the holding tank used for the detention of those arrested, prior to being interrogated, placed on remand, or sentenced. Think tanks may also be used as a holding facility for people who may be transferred to more active policy roles in government or alternatively as a graceful transition to retirement. The term holding "pen" is used in a similar way for animals (or humans so-defined). Think tanks may also be used to "pen" individuals with problematic views as a form of confinement in anticipation of disposing of them more permanently.

Decompression tanks are essential to the survival of divers moving from high pressure work (typically underwater) to normal environmental pressure -- in order to avoid the "bends" due to absorption of nitrogen by the blood. Think tanks may perform a similar function by providing an environment in which those working in high pressure institutional contexts can go to "unwind", perhaps before transferring to some "low pressure" context.

Cryogenic tanks are facilities in which human bodies are stored in frozen form after death in anticipation of technological breakthroughs permitting their resuscitation -- as a means of prolonging the life span of those with the resources to cover the cost of such storage. From this perspective a think-tank might be considered as an environment in which non-viable perspectives are conserved in anticipation of their revival. Pejoratively, a think-tank may also be seen, or used, as an environment to which the "brain dead" may retire (or be retired) in anticipation of a recovery of their creative capacities.

Possible framing and conditioning effects of this metaphor then derive from:

Septic tank (Wastewater disposal system)

Another common form of tank emphasizes the kind of independence often promoted in relation to think-tanks. In this case it is the "septic tank" vital to the wastewater disposal system of isolated dwellings that cannot be serviced by an urban sewage network [more; more; more]. The septic tank component is an enclosed watertight container designed to collect wastewater and segregate settlable solids from floating solids. Up to 50% of the solids retained in the tank decompose -- facilitated in unsealed water treatment systems by reed beds. The remaining solids accumulate as sludge in the bottom of the tank and must be periodically removed. Such systems are common: one in four homes in the USA is on a septic system. Many think-tanks dealing with problematic and negative consequences of policies can be considered to be processing the conceptual waste of social institutions. Individual think-tanks may be set up by institutions to this end -- effectively as their conceptual "septic tanks". In this respect it is amusing that think-tanks may well provide an environment for "sceptics".

Possible framing and conditioning effects of this metaphor then derive from:

Sensory deprivation tank (Float tank)

A sensory deprivation tank is an enclosed chamber in which the user lays in ten inches of water in which a large quantity of Epsom salts is dissolved so ensuring that the user floats like a cork. The chamber is sound proof, opaque, and both water and air are kept at skin temperature. The user's senses of sight, sound, and touch are eliminated and the senses of taste and smell become irrelevant. Over ninety-five percent of a person's mental activity is reportedly spent on interpreting information from these senses. Free of external stimulation, this mental capacity creates its own pictures and patterns -- enhancing the rich dream-like quality of the experience. Time seems to vanish. Such tanks are used for deep relaxation, meditation, self observation, prayer, creativity, visualization, solitude, rejuvenation, personal therapy, rest, and relaxation. This can produce a subtle shift in awareness away from the normally dominant "left-brain" thought patterns (logical, linear, analytical, detailed) towards the more intuitive, synthetic and large-scale thought modes of the "right-brain". The tank does not inhibit the left hemisphere, but simply changes its role from one of dominance to one of partnership with the other hemisphere, enabling floaters to use all their mental powers. [more; more]

Think tanks may be designed to severely reduce external input by emphasizing their isolation from the normal cares and concerns of the world. Such isolation permits the occupant to focus freely and creatively -- even speculatively. Free association with other occupants may be part of the pattern. The merits of "right-brain" modes of thought may be explicitly recognized. This aspect of think-tanks may be partly associated with that of an academic "retreat" involving a more relaxed approach to more profound or fundamental challenges.

Possible framing and conditioning effects of this metaphor then derive from:

Cultivation tank (Breeding tank, Vat)

Cultivation tanks are a characteristic feature of biotechnology and pharmaceutical technology, preceded by the processes through which yeast was cultivated for beer and bread. The term tends to be applied to vessels containing micro-organisms.

Breeding tanks are particularly used with respect to aquaculture and fisheries. Science fiction focuses especially on the use of such tanks to genetically modify and clone humans (as in the movie Matrix). Such fanatastic scenarios can be usefully compared with the Nazi Lebensborn breeding houses where carefully selected unmarried teenage Aryan girls were matched with carefully selected young Aryan men (from the SS). As part of the eugenic programme to build up the Herrrenvolk, it has been estimated that some 0.3 million children were kidnapped by the Nazis at birth throughout European countries and then given to "Good Nazis." After the war, a secretive organization of ex-SS men and Lebensborn breeders began searching for the children they made. [more; more]

It is worth considering the extent to which the contemporary concern with "centres of excellence", notably including think-tanks, is based on what might be considered memetic engineering, and a memetic equivalent of a eugenic programme (tentatively termed eumemics). In the case of think-tanks, much is made of their vital role in promoting the cross-fertilization of ideas and in cultivating excellence -- breeding a new generation of thinkers, etc. Such concerns are also associated with education of the super-gifted.

The associated notion of an "incubator" is extensively used with respect to business incubators of innovations -- possibly derived from think-tanks.

Simulation tank (Simulators)

Simulators are used for a wide variety of training purposes, typically to facilitate learning to handle a vehicle (airplane, automobile, helicopter, spacecraft, oil tanker, etc). Some of these are distributed as home computer games. For training purposes however, users are placed in a "simulation tank" in which information is fed to them via appropriate audio-visual devices. The tank as a whole may be moved by hydraulic rams to provide feedback on the nature of corrective measures to the challenge of driving / piloting the vehicle. Simulation tanks also exist to facilitate learning to drive a battle tank under hostile conditions -- although full size "simulation tanks" also exist in rubberized material as decoys.

Possible framing and conditioning effects of this metaphor then derive from:

A think-tank may be understood to be a learning community whose activities can be facilitated and enhanced by interactive computer support. Although there is a Think Tank: Simulation Game to Promote Creative Thinking and a variety of "student think-tank simulations", there does not appear to be any effort to simulate the operation of a think-tank. However this may be considered a feature of the many groupware and collaborative software packages. But whether these effectively simulate a think-tank as a whole or merely the handling of a particular set of problems is another matter.

Integrative perspective: configuring the set of tank metaphors

(very tentative)

As an exercise it may be assumed that the individual tank metaphors identified above can be interrelated in a framework to highlight patterns of commonality and complementarity in think-tank operation.

There are 8 tank metaphors, so an attempt will be made to use the 8-fold binary coding system notably associated with the I Ching (see also Discovering richer patterns of comprehension to reframe polarization. 1998). This has the advantage of bringing to bear an inherently nonlinear system, emphasizing complementarity [more]. The following structure was explored for a related purpose (Alternation between Variable Geometries: a brokership style for the United Nations as a guarantee of its requisite variety, 1985)

Three-level Coding System
(applied to the patterns in the table below)



Positive image

Negative image

Significance by Level

Signifies: Consensus, unity, order, agreement, integration, co-ordination, solidarity, harmony, centralization

Signifies: Excessive order, conformity, rigidity, monopoly, dogmatism, exclusiveness, intolerance, etc.

Signifies: Diversity, creative variety, coexistence, cross-fertilization, mutual tolerance, exploration of alternatives, decentralization, etc.

Signifies: Disagreement, fragmentation, chaos, dissent, revolt, duplication, dissipation of effort, etc.

Inner: Objectives Principles Worldviews, etc.

Integrated objectives or world views

Rigidly unified objectives or world views

Complementary world views or objectives

Mutually incompatible world views or objectives

Middle: Policies Programmes Procedures Méthodologies Models, etc.

Integrated policies or programmes

Rigidly integrated policies or programmes

Complementary policies or programmes

Mutually incompatible policies or programmes

Outer: Concrete actions Institutions Field level, etc.

Co-ordinated actions or institutional structures

Rigidly co-ordinated actions (intolerant of alternatives)

Coexistence of alternative forms of action and organizational structures

Fragmentation and duplication of uncoordinated action and institutional structures

As a very tentative exercise in coding the various tank metaphors, this could give rise to a pattern like the following

Tank metaphor Feature Mobility Trigram code
Fish / Aquarium Auspicious display Within
Battle tank Frontline of conceptual defence External
Septic tank Problem-focused Throughput
Holding tank Transitional process Throughput
Sensory deprivation tank Reflective retreat Within
Cultivation tank Incubator Emergent
Reservoir tank Reservoir of expertise None
Simulation tank Scenario exploration Virtual

As explored in the previous paper, the interplay between the various think-tank metaphors may now be explored.

Towards a codification of variable institutional geometry
(with an indication of their positive and negative public images)

+ Creative diversity of actions derived from common policies and objectives
- Inability to co-ordinate actions due to rigid policies and objectives

+ Integrated objectives and policies implemented through an ordered framework of actions (world order)
- Rigidly dictated pattern of objectives, policies and actions

+ Co-ordinated policies and actions creatively based on fundamental differences in object.
- Superficially co-ordinated policies and actions undermined by fundamental differences in object.

+ Creative use of alternative models to interrelate common objectives and actions
- Disagreement on policies undermining implementation of shared objectives

Codification of variable institutional geometry + Common policies inter-relating diverse objectives and actions
- Consensus on policy concealing implications of fundamental differences in objectives and action.

+ Diversity of policies and actions imbued by fundamental agreement on objectives
- Inability to co-ordinate policies and actions despite fundamental agreement on objectives

+ Decentralized institutional network with a variety of complementary objectives, policies and actions
- Unco-ordinated, anarchic fragmentation and duplication
+Cross-fertilization of objectives and policies resulting in harmonious action
- Minimal co-ordinated action resulting from fundamental differences in objectives and policies

Each of the eight institutional configurations (A to H) is identified by a unique pattern of lines. An indication of the significance of the elements making up each pattern :

The arrows indicate transformation between patterns that involve the modification of one element of a pattern only, namely those changes which are probably more easy to bring about.


The prime characteristic common to all these variations on the use of the tank metaphor is that of a closed system. In each case the tank is a separator from the external world -- however the tank relates to that world. A tank is about as far from an open system (ecosystem) perspective that it is possible to get. Closed-system thinking reinforces binary thinking. Either one is operating within the tank environment or outside it -- and anything outside it can often be usefully perceived as a threat to the integrity of the think-tank environment.

This closed perspective is replicated in thinking that emerges from the think-tank mindset:

Another interesting feature is the manner in which variety is excluded from a controlled system. In the case of think-tanks, dissent may be considered intellectually inappropriate. Like the religious orders, even networks of think-tanks may be distinguished by particular characteristics and interact with little enthusiasm.

Also interesting is the way in which tanks can be linked together in arrays or networks with appropriate communication systems. Variety is then achieved through separation into distinct tanks. In a sense the tank medium becomes the overriding closed-system message. The replication of this pattern by think-tanks in society typically gives rise to networks of elite centres whose emergence individual think-tanks seek to facilitate -- as with the historical parallel of the networks of monasteries (ashrams, convents, etc) of religious orders.

Means are sought to facilitate movement between such centres in networks of excellence. Communication and "movement" between centres may become increasingly virtual. As with the religious orders, there is a real challenge to ensure appropriate contact with open society -- especially if there is no question of adopting a vow of poverty! One interface curiously, is through the use of public "seminars" -- not "ovulars" (as remarked by feminists) through which those in closed systems inseminate the wider world with their memes, possible via the use of missives (as missile substitutes). From a biological perspective, these networks represent the emergence of the ganglia of primitive nervous systems (ganglionic networks) found in arthropods and other non-vertebrate groups. This perspective is important to ongoing explorations of the significance of a global brain (see for example Simulating a Global Brain: using networks of international organizations, world problems, strategies, and values. 2001)

The exercise in exploring the complementarity between the 8 different kinds of think-tank suggests that further exploration might lead to a richer understanding of think-tank potential in response to different challenges -- and notably in relation to the kind of thinking regarding global governance. Of particular relevance in relation to emergence of collective intelligence is the capacity of such a network of think-tanks to represent itself. Inability to do so in more than a directory listing is an indication of the failure of the self-representation process at a level below that normally considered a requirement for human intelligence.

Whether their occupants or clients desire it or not, will a "think-tank" then tend to produce "tank thoughts" -- "canned thoughts" from "canned thinkers" -- that are necessarily very much "in the box" rather than "out of the box"? Given the politico-economic realities of ensuring the viability of such vehicles of knowledge-making and their occupants, is the process of using them to be usefully thought of in the light of the "rent-a-car" business model -- "rent-a-tank"? Is this not consistent with the marked "rent-a-prof" tendency to fund researchers in support of particular commercial or political agendas? [more; more]

In response to the critical approach offered here, an immediate question might be what kind of metaphor would be more appropriate than a "tank" -- or could appropriately complement the "tank" metaphor. Aspects of this question have been explored in a separate paper (Renaissance Zones: experimenting with the intentional significance of the Damanhur community, 2003). The kind of possibility to be considered is, for example, a "knowledge garden" -- in that it offers a richer panoply of approaches to considering and elaborating knowledge ecosystems. Aspects of this metaphor have been explored elsewhere (see Knowledge Gardening through Music: patterns of coherence for future African management as an alternative to Project Logic, 2000). This effectively associates "think-tank" conceptualization with "Project Logic" as having been proven to be inappropriate to the conditions of cultures such as those in Africa. But perhaps "knowledge oasis" might be even more appropriate for the Arab world. The contrast between a "tank" and and an "oasis" stresses many useful points in relation to thinking regarding sustainable development -- especially at a time when pumping oil into tanks in the desert has become such a focus. With the emergence of interest in "knowledge ecosystems" pioneered by George Por, another interesting possibility is the use of "knowledge ecostery" to reflect a greater sensitivity to relationship to the environment.


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