The Aspen Security Forum offers a wonderful pastiche of theory and practice, creators and critics, ambitious aspirants and reflective achievers. The size, setting, and structure encourages authentic conversation and actual thinking. It could — should — facilitate self-criticism, but whether or not this is wide-spread is beyond my observational capability.
As I reflect on the plenary and side-bar discussions at last week’s mountain-top experience (7890 feet), I am struck by a persistent reductionist predisposition. Partly this is the healthy result of having a room packed with people who are working current assignments with serious consequences.
Hegel offered, “To generalize is to think.” William Blake countered, “To generalize is to be an idiot.” The difference, it seems to me, depends on whether our generalization is an accurate abstraction of reality or a convenient manipulation of reality.
To over-generalize — but perhaps not inaccurately — again and again I heard serious men and women trying to reduce our current risk environment to some set of binaries: us versus them, right versus wrong, if we can do this then we can be much better assured of that. Participants were trying to conceive a direct path from our current situation to a better place.
It may imply some helpful self-criticism that even as this earnest effort was made, almost no one found the proposed direct pathways entirely satisfactory. Some version of “much more consideration is needed” was referenced again and again.
Clark Ervin, if you’re reading this, for the 2016 Forum I suggest an early session that gives everyone a basic fluency in network theory. John Arquilla is typically a provocative panelist. Networks and Netwars could benefit from an update, but its core concepts would have advanced the cause at last week’s Forum. John’s colleague at Naval Postgraduate School, Ted Lewis, has done wonderful work on the role of network analysis in critical infrastructure, supply chains, and more. (See Bak’s Sand Pile: Strategies for a Catastrophic World).
Binaries are seductive. Pong was fun. But we live in a much more complicated — complex — world. Eulerian paths (or stigmergetic trails) accurately reduce excess information, noise and distraction to help us find — or confirm the impossibility of — an effective way from here to where we want to go. This often begins by plotting strategic intersections.
To avoid inaccurate reductionism I need to acknowledge that last week I heard at least three panelists/interviewees lead with a worldview that was non-binary: Jeh Johnson, Mike Leiter, and — even when she was not feeling well — Juliette Kayyem. Each of them described challenges involving multiple vertices. Each encouraged looking for intersections worth our sustained investment. Each attempted to show how the matrix could be used as scaffolding for our own architectures, our own destinations. They were being reductionist while embracing complexity.
But when I tried to discuss with others the potential solution trails I heard these three suggesting… Well, maybe I was the problem (even though I never mentioned Euler or ant analogies in any of these conversations).
Above is the view from Colorado Route 82 just west of the Continental Divide. There are many different ways to travel between Denver and Aspen. Some easy, others difficult. Many beautiful. Each with its share of contemporary banality. Some theoretical connections are practically impossible; or if not impossible, so difficult as to be foolish. Choosing the “right” way is a matter of time, resource, and purpose.