Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 16, 2014

Exponential thinking in homeland security: what could it mean?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on December 16, 2014

In 1927, a New York Times reporter tried to explain quantum theory. He wrote “It is much like trying to tell an Eskimo what the French language is like without talking French.”

Over the years, one element of quantum theory – Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – has been translated, extrapolated, and culturally distorted into regular-person speak: “the act of observing alters the reality being observed.” One can measure the position of something, or the movement of something. But not both.

What is the status – the “position” – of homeland security? Lots of contemporary strategies, reports, exposés offer opinions on that question. For one example, see the September 2014 GAO report “DHS Action Needed to Enhance Integration and Coordination of Vulnerability Assessment Efforts.”

What’s happening to the movement of homeland security during the time it takes to produce what I’m terming “position descriptions”?

From the DHS response to the September GAO report (p. 65):

“The draft report contains six recommendations with which the Department concurs.”

The next three pages describes how DHS is already doing what the draft report said it should be doing – that is, “we’re already moving in the direction GAO wants us to go.”

That’s just one example.

The 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report offers another example. On page 29 it describes

“four potential ‘black swans’ that could materially change our assessment of overall homeland security risk and priorities over the next five years…. These changes are not planned for or expected in the next five years, yet if they were to happen, they would fundamentally alter the homeland security strategic environment described here.”

Three of the four potential swans have already happened. Maybe even all four.

Can’t measure position and movement at the same time. The world is not as linear as it used to be.

The argument I hear increasingly is the world has become exponential. (For brief illustrations see this video  or this one.)

Here’s Peter Diamandis  starting to explain the difference between linear thinking and exponential thinking (my emphasis).

As humans we evolved on this planet over the last hundreds of thousands of years in an environment that I would call local and linear.  It was a local and linear environment because the only things that affected you as you were growing up on the plains of Africa was what was in a day’s walk.  It was local to you.

Something would happen on the other side of the planet 100,000 years ago you wouldn’t even know.  It was linear in that the life of your great grandparents, your grandparents, you, your kids, their kids, nothing changed generation to generation.  It was pretty much the same.  You used the same stone tools.  You ate the same animals.  You pretty much lived in the same place.

Today we’re living in a world that is exponential and global. Something happens in China or Korea, it affects you in Manhattan literally minutes later, through stock prices, news, whatever it might be.  That’s a global planet we’re living on. The life of your grandparents, your parents, you, your kids is extraordinarily different in every possible way and we know this from going to Best Buy and finding a computer that is twice as fast or four times as fast for the same dollars as you bought it a year or two ago.  So we’re living in a world that’s exponential in that regard.

To give a visualization of this, if I were to take 30 linear steps, it would be one, two, three, four, five.  After 30 linear steps I’d end up 30 paces or 30 meters away and all of us could pretty much point to where 30 paces away would be. But if I said to you take 30 exponential steps, one, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two and said where would you end up? Very few people would say a billion meters away, which is twenty-six times around the planet.

That’s the difference between our ability to project linearly and project exponentially. It’s what’s really causing disruptive stress because as humans we think linearly, but the world is changing exponentially.

There are arguments against the exponential claim – such as it’s warmed over Malthusianism, or that it may only apply to the technological world, not the social world.

Linear thinking still works quite well in a lot of domains. I’m able to type words on a computer and place them on the internet because many people were very good at thinking linearly about circuit boards, databases, electricity, networks and wireless communication.

But I don’t think the argument is about replacing linear thinking. I believe it’s about augmenting linear thought.

If the exponential claims are correct, what are the implications for homeland security?

What does exponential thinking look like in homeland security? How does it differ from linear thinking?  What would a GAO report based on exponential thinking look like? How would one think exponentially about homeland security policy, strategy, law, threat, preparedness, leadership, education? Are there any advantages to thinking exponentially?

I don’t know. But like the uncertainty principle, it may be worthwhile to take the idea of exponential thinking and translate, extrapolate, and culturally distort it into homeland security speak.

N’est-ce pas?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 16, 2014 @ 2:37 am

No regrets as it is what it is! The world wide communications revolution has focused on novelty not “news’! And perhaps FAME!

Well humanity with great communications continues to fail in the basics, e.g. continuing to poison the earth.

IMO the production of plastics from petroleum derivatives may well outclass climate change before our apocalyptic end and Armageddon.


And to rephrase your point–going from the arithmetic to the geometric or algebraic easily very unusual for many! And differential calculus and integration even tougher.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 16, 2014 @ 5:02 am

Chris, I am a very linear — Newtonian — guy. This morning, as usual, I awoke at just before four, turned on the coffee, read scripture, meditated, wrote some poetry, checked my email, and then turned to HLSWatch where, because its Tuesday, I read your essay. Most mornings unfold in precisely the same order.

This morning I completed a first draft of a new poem. It has been my morning focus for about five days. It will morph in the months ahead. It is not yet a good poem, but it is good-enough to share in response to your essay. Especially given what your prose and my poem seem to share.

Clouds are not only clouds
We consider color contour
Speed for what’s to come

Constellations rise and fade
Ecliptically consistent
Meaning examined

Twice today strangers quoted
Me the same line from Lear
Mere coincidence
…… I fail to convince myself

We prefer patterns
Beginning middle
Predictable end

Our mind’s motion
Anticipating purposes
Even of pure randomness

In future drafts I want to more fully treat both the purity and power of randomness… and its exponential potential.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 16, 2014 @ 7:58 am

Thanks Phil and keep going! And Chris!


Comment by Donald Quixote

December 16, 2014 @ 10:41 am


An interesting concept: Will a DOD framework or lens work for DHS with the Southern Border Campaign plan?


Comment by Christopher Tingus

December 16, 2014 @ 11:31 am

Ray Kurzweil, a leading thinker, inventor, and futurist – book entitled, How to Create a Mind –

Comment by Dan O'Connor

December 16, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

If we continue to make linear decisions with regard to economics, governance, health care etc., we will find ourselves further and farther from a holistic resilience. Rigid policies are less adaptive and therefore always written on an issue that has already passed. Then, we make assessments or judgments on incidents or issues that have already passed thereby making linear decisions. This is the recipe for crisis and failure.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » A new homeland security-related blog: The Bifurcated Needle

December 17, 2014 @ 3:17 am

[…] I fell behind on some work this week and am not likely to post anything substantial today, so unfortunately I cannot personally provide Phil reading material to along with his (really early) morning coffee. […]

Comment by erik rau

December 29, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

Many thanks for a discussion about the scope of reality and causality that includes both far-ranging intellectual opinions and profound poetry.

To what extent is it possible that the past looks linear and the future exponential due to observer biases (collective, not individual)? Exhibit A: Simon Winchester presents the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 as the first modern disaster, owing to the rapidity of telegraph communications, among other things.

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