June 6th, 2012
in Op Ed
Defense, national security & finance industries have dominated US policy direction for decades, and large parts of the significant budgets of each of those three industries have become SECRET, outside the awareness of our supposedly democratic electorate. Can we survive this institutional momentum? Of course we can! But ONLY if we maintain a robust model for evaluating situations which may easily change faster than our public comprehension can follow.
Humility and ability to explore the meaning of data streams outside our present understanding is perhaps the #1 requirement for national survival.
To gain perspective, let's wander afield, then come back to our present situation from another angle.
There are countless examples of past species & empires, whose evolving methods failed to help them survive successive challenges. When a given aggregate fails to cross the next "chasm," the root causality is most evident NOT in the wrong moves it makes, or even in the "right" moves that seem obvious in hindsight. Root cause always lies one step further back in the causality chain, at the level where institutional momentum caused subsequent decision patterns to become inevitable, and a foregone conclusion.
The root causality of aggregate failure always stems from inability to innovate on an aggregate-wide scale - i.e., an inability to spawn alternate methods and then actually select and propagate their use, widely enough and soon enough. The survival of our current national aggregate depends on the same process affecting every known species - whether molecular, cellular or social.
Momentum and Innovation - Coupled or Adversarial?
The issue of sustaining & increasing adaptive rate rules the lifespan of every species or culture. If we can use adaptive process control in defined applications, then why not apply that same talent to our most pressing policy demands, which are make-or-break for our national progress and survival?
In the USA too, our rate of adapting and enlarging our own methods will determine the duration of our republic. We can use past examples, such as failure of the Roman Empire, as guides, but must adapt those lessons to our own, unique circumstances. Above all else, we must constantly scale up our aggregate-wide analyses to encompass the increasing degrees of freedom which we have in choosing failure vs survival paths.
Every aggregate grows by painstaking creation and utilization of its internal institutions, from mitochondria within eukaryotic cells all the way up to the Pentagon, CIA and NSA within the USA. Once you look upon each institution - no matter it's setting - as a component in an organized, evolving system ... then the specific details get very boring, very quickly, from our net perspective.
Yes, they all play a necessary but not sufficient role, and the details are important at the tactical level. Nevertheless, they're all just components that are devoid of meaning outside their responsibility to their host. The ongoing role any institution plays in the adaptive process of its host falls into very predictable patterns.
Entrepreneurial Aggregate's Task
The aggregate's task of successfully coordinating those subordinate patterns I call the "Entrepreneurial Aggregate's Task." The US-DoD currently masters this task more proficiently than any other cultural institution on earth. However, just by doing so it is always on the brink of being able to destroy the very aggregate it serves, just as Roman militarism slowly dissolved the republic that harbored it.
Compared to DoD officer-training, the level of strategic comprehension of staff in all levels of local, state and federal congresses is past the point of being a national embarrassment and ongoing calamity. That level of institutional decline in our democracy can only occur after prolonged, systemic neglect by a detached, dissasociated and increasingly inept electorate. It's our own fault. How do we recover from this increasingly widely distributed hangover? Let's take a look at the basic premises which every organized aggregate uses.
Interchanges Between Institutions and Aggregates.
By definition, all newly evolving institutions shepherd dramatic increases in resource throughput, and thereby create their own positive-feedback loops within their aggregate. Keeping that simple rule in mind helps us place any and all information about institutions as tactical details, curious but potentially distracting from the aggregate survival strategy. All existing institutions are needed, at least transiently, but none EVER fully speak for the aggregate.
Yet whole aggregates constantly find themselves with their own, institutional tigers by the tail, and therein face their greatest dangers. There are always future resource streams to pursue, and infinite numbers of additional internal tiger-tails to grab. Static measures of local "value" don't guarantee you'll survive transitions, only agile transaction chains will guarantee that. Survival defines a dynamic value-path, where the only purpose of any local or momentary value metric is it's use in keeping the aggregate close to a constantly emerging survival path. Face it. We are "Context Nomads," wandering through an unfolding, unpredictable future.
It's when we get too absorbed with any transient, institutional-tiger that we over-adapt to an inevitably fleeting situation. When that happens, excessive pursuit of any given example of institutional momentum can take us too far off our unpredictable, adaptive path. When that happens, our aggregate agility declines, and we lose access to the future.
Internal Checks and Balances Smoothing Transition Between Tiger Tails
Surviving aggregates invent timely, context-specific checks and balances to survive. Their task is to design catalysts to herd their multiple, emerging institutions into productive and away from unproductive interactions. Yet how exactly do they get all emerging institutions to cooperate? What are the internal signals for adjusting very dynamic tolerance limits? It boils down to extracting some distributed signal that is a reliable indicator of net aggregate agility or resilience. That has to be done by aggressive trial and error, since most combinations of individual and institutional behaviors - no matter how locally impressive - are dead-end diversions from the aggregate survival path.
Never Bet the Farm
Never bet the farm? That's one useful rule. Keep a very long return path? That's another good rule. If a statistical or probability model of all existing resource streams is visualized, it becomes far easier to remember that most income-patterns produce local as opposed to global maxima or minima. Simply put, the approach you use to accumulate personal wealth may well preclude survival of your descendents. How do you mitigate that threat? By producing agile citizens and institutions, able to QUICKLY undo any unpredictable dead-end we've previously explored.
Never let examined, distributed trends box your aggregate into instances where the farm is already bet, and return paths are dangerously constrained? That sounds vague and daunting, but it has to be done. How?
Adaptive direction is best estimated as a time-weighted average of the net rate of changing outcomes. This is reflected in the corrected, net-present-value calculations used in investment schemes. If you're beginning to wonder why looking ahead is beginning to sound like common sense, don't feel alone. Why on earth don't we follow that same logic when investing in policy, and also for investing in aggregate agility and resilience?
Now recall that aggregate behavior is all statistics, and mistakes are inevitable, not just possible. Given all this, why are we so sophisticated about engineering, mathematics, or sequestering local resources, and so pathetic about investing in aggregate agility? Why are there no investment forums on investing in democracy, or in a "more perfect union?" We've done that before, and can obviously do it again, so the question translates to "why aren't we making the effort?"
How to Invest in Emerging Methods for Scaling our Rate-of-coordination?
It's here that we can return to looking at our own, national aggregate in a new light. For centuries, philosophers advised that "to know the truth, ask 'why' 5 times in succession." Iterative questions about causality peel back the institutional momentum that dominates aggregate decision-making at any given time.
In the case of the Roman Empire, the subtle, internal inversion from a stakeholder-driven military to military-dominated stakeholders is offered as one clue to empire collapse. From our perch, however, it's a bit comical to visualize military leaders increasingly adept at mastering the complex interplay of multiple forces and logistics support throughout whole regions - while remaining simultaneously blind to the analogous factors changing the fabric of their own nation!
Yet today in the USA, are we doing any better? Or are we only living out a bigger example of the same process? Has our inversion from stakeholder-driven fiat finance to fiat-dominated-stakeholders already triggered inevitable dissolution of the USA? Is our demise now only a matter of time?
That depends on how aware, perceptive and responsive our electorate is. If US policy must become more agile every year, are WE capable of re-designing the distributed methods that guarantee a successful aggregate? Can we generate the social catalysts that will generate newly agile methods, year after year? Sure we can! It's a question of whether parents actually want this outcome for their children - and whether the children want it whether the parents will or not.
Sometimes, when a distributed train of thought is taking too long to board at a station, emerging imagination just hops on board and leaves without it. It's called uncovering options by exploring them, before they're fully understood. Our current US culture is rapidly losing moxie and innovative steam in part because we're not giving our youth enough practice at solving challenges.
If the DoD formally develops discernment through rigorous officer training, then why isn't citizen training and far more professional politician briefing our #1 priority? For us, a simple question arises, one that should be asked in the "citizen training process" of every person in every institution. "Can our aggregate survive over-domination of public policy by YOUR institution?"
Information but Not Informing
Our ability to improve that citizen-training, I predict, will define the culture of the USA more than any other process we use. At present, we're training citizens to store massive amounts of information, with negligible practice at selecting what little is needed to improve aggregate outcomes. The result is citizens who are less comfortable taking responsibility for change.
To tune further capabilities from a changing aggregate, there's always something we should be doing differently, and some unpredictable surprises about things we no longer need to do. Why don't we find more time to practice coordination?
Answering that question requires staging, sequencing and linking of a few conceptual tenets - aggregate success, its 1st derivative and its 2nd derivative.
1) Defining Dynamic Aggregate Success. Model the spectrum of conflicting institutional lobbies that guide and constrain our aggregate path. View that spectrum not as static walls, but as a vibrant plasma that should be agile enough to sample many outlets, before settling on the outlet that - with reasonable certainty - looks like part of a net, adaptive path for our aggregate.
2) Methods for exploring aggregate options. A model of the spectrum of methods by which aggregate agility is managed and increased. View that spectrum of methods as also not static, and rather as a dynamic list of catalyst techniques for generating cooperation, no matter the situation.
3) Methods for improving, not just maintaining our coordination methods. A model of how an adequate supply of emerging social catalysts is spawned. With a model, we can better manage our own social-catalyst logistics, so that social innovations will be available to our, hopefully still vibrant list of lobbies. This boils down to a simple re-statement of evolutionary theory, ironically generated by our own Marine Corp, as a tenet of war campaign theory.
a) Success follows the quality and pace of distributed decision-making.
b) We generate pace by the very act of distributing decision-making.
Note: With social disparity, we're already half way to aggregate failure. Perhaps if we practiced staging, sequencing and linking of those 3 tenets, alone, we'd keep a higher proportion of our growing aggregate aware of aggregate conditions? It wouldn't be that hard to find out!
The answer seems to be that we simply don't discuss and practice coordination enough, by any measure. We're heroically overworked individually, simply because we're not investing enough in coordination.
One Step at a Time, But Don't stop Walking
We could be evolving even faster. So far, we rarely even get to levels 4 and 5 of philosophical questioning, because things change so rapidly. Perhaps in another 100 years or less, however, real-time, public analysis of those steps will be required even in everyday life, not just in the DoD. At present, wider practice of even the first 3 steps might revitalize our culture. With that, perhaps a higher proportion of our citizens and policy staff would remain more aware of what their entire range of constituents has to offer, now and in the future?
Who knew that DoD was Zen? I have no idea whether the CIA and NSA are even half that smart. As a start, they're too secretive! Perhaps if we focused more on our own, OpenSource institutional agility, would we ever need to worry about the stupidity of active Knowledge-Disparity, i.e., keeping secrets from ourselves? If we instead just practiced improving our own, aggregate agility, other cultures would always be so far behind that they'd pursue us through Cargo Cult responses posing no threat to us. That seems like a more audacious goal to set for ourselves.
Mistakes? Don't Prolong Them
It's our own neophytes, conned by the superficiality of their own perspectives which most often kill our aggregates, through pathologically naive, institutional momentum. Such neophytes, by definition, fail to factor the time-averaged, rate of change of aggregate options, most of which lie beyond the personal awareness of all individuals.
Youngsters initially always fail to allow for the inevitability that they, themselves - or their greatest imaginations - may be evolutionary mistakes and an aggregate dead-end. Get over it. It happens. When it does, it's still a service to your aggregate, even if only as a warning example, no matter baffling.
How to acknowledge and recover fast enough from our ongoing trials and errors is a more dire answer to pursue. Given changing contexts, everything is eventually a mistake, so the only crime is prolonging mistakes once they emerge.
Can we survive our next transition well enough to spawn further transitions? It boils down to discounting tradition enough to generate more of it. A tradition of audacity demands expanding - not constraining - our own traditions.
Editor's Note: In the following video author Chalmers Johnson, President of the Japan Policy Institute, discusses the history of Rome and parallels to the history of the USSR and the United States. It is a good companion to this article because it outlines the other path, not the one proposed by Roger.
About the Author
Roger Erickson is a systems entrepreneur based in Maryland. He worked for years in neurophysiology system research, at the Humboldt Stiftung, MIT, Yale, and NIMH before becoming more interested in community, business and market systems. Roger's newest interests are being pursued through several startups, as well as pilot agriculture commercialization projects with the USDA.