Turbulent Environments and Possible “Pacing Problems”​ For Our Societies

The Greeks had an ancient myth of Cassandra, was one of the princesses of Troy, who had the ability to foresee the future. Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy by the Greeks. When she warned about the Trojan horse, no one in Troy believed her and the horse was admitted in the city, with known results for Troy. French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard later coined the term “Cassandra syndrome” for valid concerns of the future that most individuals don’t believe at the time.

I had a similar experience back in 2012, I had an email exchange with two well-recognized Silicon Valley folks about a potential “pacing problem” was on the horizon for the United States — and other societies with representative forms of government — to keep up with disruptive, emerging technologies.

My claim in 2012 was:

“[P]unctuated disruptions are straining government’s abilities to respond to them, straining our Western belief that ‘freedoms and independence’ are the right values to espouse in the 21st century.

In response, one of the two individuals with whom I was corresponding pushed back, saying:

“The financial disruption of 2008 indeed is a case of a sudden event resulting from intense globalization, but it seems of a kind with the energy-price disruption of 1973. The systems staggered, learned, recovered.

I share your interest in reshaping government, but I think it will go better in response to new abilities (such as Code for America does) than in anticipation of imagined new threats.”

Informing my perspective was an article I had written, with Professor Benn Konsynski, an article in 2006 entitled “How Information Systems Research Can Inform Current and Emerging Government Institutions: Two Views” in which my premise at the time was:

Government, as an information processing system, organizes and influences other human systems at local, state, and national levels. However, what if one of the subcomponents comprising our system of government fails? How fragile is our system of government?

And from what I was seeing in 2011 and 2012, storm clouds were on the horizon in terms of the fragility of the U.S. government and other forms of government that required members of the society to recognize the need to balance their own self-interests with the necessary contributions (and at time sacrifices) needed to advance to the good of the shared society. Specifically, free societies remain free only because each generation has a responsibility to commit to preserving those freedoms through hard work, action, and a willingness help the mechanisms of public service continue.

Side-note: brief hat-tip to Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier who also have written an excellent 2018 paper on Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy, noting in the abstract: “We demonstrate systematic differences between how autocracies and democracies work as information systems, because they rely on different mixes of common and contested political knowledge.” In addition, Bruce has noted in a 2018 blog post his similar observation that “Democracy is an information system”. Bruce also has an interesting post about an online account setup in his name — that wasn’t him.

Banging One’s Head Against the Wall

Back in 2012, I was not having success convincing these two other prominent experts of this. Here is what I wrote back:

“Great thoughts [name redacted] — and I hope you don’t think I’m only concerned about threats. I’m concerned the [representative governments] will miss *opportunities* too.

Opportunities to act smarter or make wiser decisions b/c gov’t is either overloaded with too many distractions (reduced to 5 second sound bites) or becomes so risk adverse in the age of 24/7 news that doing nothing is preferable to trying something and risking the optics of either stepping outside of party-lines or trying something that fails.

Hierarchies are great at encouraging consistent performance across divisions — but if you’re dependent upon passing information up the chain to them go down the chain to another unit, are they still optimal given the increased number of global actors gov’t must be aware of and the increased mobility and speed those actors can act? The military is finding at the ground level, bottom-up hierarchies (informed by the edge) and networked cells are superior to top-down hierarchies. Unfortunately, these lessons aren’t yet being incorporated into how D.C. operates.

As evidence, I’d suggest that the last 10 years of government reports have all said generally the same thing: government needs to be more agile, adaptive, and innovative. The challenge is, the design of government — hierarchies layered within a bureaucracy — make it extremely difficult to be agile, adaptive, or innovative with scale.

I believe Code for America has an instance where during a major snowstorm in Boston, they were able to develop quickly an app for volunteers to clear away fire hydrants covered by snowplows. This type of fast action would not have been possible within the traditional hierarchy of government agencies the Founders wanted to balance powers and prevent anyone person from becoming “king-like”.

Also, I enjoyed watching your talk where you indicate certain memes within society change at different rates — fashion and technology faster than government and culture. You’re right that gov’t isn’t supposed to change fast. But using your own analogy of wheels turning at different rates —

What happens when an organization’s internal culture, behaviors, and tools are so far out of pace with external culture, behaviors, and tools/technology?

If the organization is a for-profit institution, it goes bankrupt. If the organization is a government institution, it loses trust — citizens it serves are unsatisfied with the missed opportunities and unmitigated threats that the gov’t failed to respond too. The gov’t may eventually go bankrupt too.

9/11 would have been different in the 60s or 70s in terms of who could have afford the tickets, the span of transnational flights, and the sheer volume of passengers traveling. That said, I agree w/ you that 9/11 or anthrax weren’t that bad relative to either WWII or Vietnam — but what they do show is what some report claim is the lowest approval rating for the U.S. Congress on record. Significant distrust of government in general for missing opportunities to mitigate the damage with those events, Katrina in 2005, the flash crash you reference, and the missed reality of WMDs not existing in Iraq.

These are warning signs that the government we have isn’t aligned with the demands of what citizens need it to be — so we either need to defrag or “hack” its design to remedy the outdated operating system.

Collective intelligence is one approach — made possible now by increased access of internet tools/technology. Some succeed b/c they remain below the radar, as the bureaucracy has antibodies to resist changes and resist networked actors. Relatedly, on the idea that we’re experiencing “radical tech” — I don’t think I said that. I said the cost and accessibility of tech is what’s different. DIY communities are possible now because of this. PCs are cheap, as are other components.

… Would you agree that tools/technologies previously only held in the hands of national governments and militaries in the 60s and 70s are now easily affordable by individuals today? What does it mean when individuals now have that capability?”

Fast-Forward to Today

Now, with the summer of 2019, it appears more people are mobilizing solutions around these concerns of a “pacing problem” with our representative form of government. While definitely we do *not* want to go the path of an autocracy (which has the ability to move faster, at the expense of freedom of thought and differences among constituent), we need to identify ways to upgrade how we collaborate and co-exist to keep up with the rapidly changing world. Civics matters are for far too long most of us have had the luxury of being able to neglect investing in society and mechanisms that help ensure continued freedoms and co-existence.

  1. Friend and colleague Marci Harris, CEO of PopVox.com and Board Member with the People-Centered Internet coalition, has put together a great blog post here on Congress vs. the “Pacing Problem[s]”. I highly recommend reading it.
  2. As mentioned Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier who also have written an excellent 2018 paper on Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy. This relates to efforts that the People-Centered Internet coalition has pursued over the last few years to tackle the challenge of misinformation and polarizing social wedges in open societies.
  3. Hat-tip to Dr. Greg Treverton (former Chair of the National Intelligence Council), Dr. Molly Jahn (former Acting Undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture), Bill Valdez (President of the Senior Executives Association), and other fellow co-authors for our 2018 paper entitled “Are Declines in U.S. Federal Workforce Capabilities Putting Our Government at Risk of Failing?
  4. Hat-tip to Pablo Breuer and Sara-Jayne Terp for their amazing work on countering-misinformation and working to developed shared vocabularies so that taxonomies and labels are not a barrier to working across sectors.
  5. Also a hat-tip to the folks with Guardians.ai, including Dr. Eric Rasmussen, Zach Verdin, and Brett Horvath — with whom I had an opportunity to do a recent CxOTalk with Michael Krigsman on “Using Data Science to Detect Disinformation” embedded below.

Looking toward the future, I submit that open societies need to resolve one of the most important conundrums of our era, specifically:

How do we know if the things we each hold as “true beliefs” (because at the end of the day, everything we hold true is simply that, beliefs) aren’t skewed by our biases?

Because our biases are informed by world view. We’re biased to believe the sun will come up tomorrow. We’re biased to believe that if we drop an object it will fall to the ground. Science, in all its glory, seek repeatable, falsifiable experiments that if done enough convince us that we can “hold true” a belief about how the universe works. And as such, science is different from guruism, which simply asks people to believe something is true because some personality X has said it to be true. Science is cumulatively always learning and re-examining what it knows.

Yet we should recognize that as we construct our world view, it becomes a set of blinders. Which is why the National Academy of Science and others have shown that the best decision making *groups* are those that include a combination of experts and naive participants. That is, if we want to build — for example — a better, more light-weight suit for responding to the Eloba outbreak — we don’t just want to invite experts in building HazMat suits. We want to invite other folks in unrelated fields.

Because it turns out — and this apparently happened — the best suit design at the time came from a group that included folks that nothing at all about HazMat suits and a wedding dress designer who brought “new lenses” to the design problem.

Which circles back to the value — and the weakness — of representative democracies and republics and parliamentary systems. When any one party, whatever the party is, starts dismissing other views from outside the party as being adversarial or ‘against us’, then we’ve lost any of the values of such a system because we’ve devolved into autocracies of thought. And autocracies of thought become blinded by their world views. Because our world views are our biases, both for good and bad, and we’re better together in terms of adaptability to new challenges if we have a diversity of (non-hateful) thought.

Be the one who continuously opens the circle for views different than your own, and all of us will be a bit better as a result.

Onwards and upwards together.

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David A. Bray

David A. Bray

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Championing People-Centered Ventures & #ChangeAgents. Reflecting on How Our World Is Changing. Leadership is Passion to Improve Our World.