Asymmetry & hacktivism

December 10, 2010

For over a decade I have been immersed in issues around asymmetric warfare (otherwise known as terrorism, liberation struggles etc.) from a systems perspective; even longer from general interest and near-engagement. A large part of that work has been to understand how different perspectives and decision models enable or disable response. Reflecting over the past week on the various responses to Wikileaks, especially the denial of service attacks, I started to play with a framework to understand different responses. As I worked on it, I increasing realised that we had two key aspects or directions in any response to asymmetric threat, namely an information/systems response but also a moral or ethical dimension.

To make it very clear the diagram that follows is a first stab, rather than complete and aspects of it don;t really work so consider this as an early stage offering, commentary on which would be welcome. It needs a fair amount of work to make it simpler.

I should probably start by explaining the dimensions of the framework

  • Vertical (left) contrasts highly fragmented organisational forms with those which are highly structured. This is the traditional distinction between symmetric and asymmetric structure. You can probably overlay other ideas here, for example ranging from bureaucracy to anarchy by way of fiefs and clans.
  • Horizontal (bottom) looks at the number of discrete actors in play in the decision/cognitive process. This is a wisdom of crowds axis. On the left we have high connectivity and cohesion, as we move to the left connectivity is light or non-existent. So the axis is not about numbers, its about cohesion (which might be a better label.
  • Vertical (right) looks at the degree to which something is capable of direction, or deliberative and targeted action. At the base (which matches highly structured) then we can deploy distributed cognitive techniques with deliberative intent. At the top its a butterfly effect position, small changes may produce sudden shifts or changes. It can appear deliberative or organised but it is largely emergent/co-evolutionary/accidental/lucky.
  • Horizontal (Top) is the ethical dimension which contrasts being for something on the left with being just generally against things on the right (anarchy clearly belongs there together with most aspects of Libertarian thinking).
  • R-Zone is the reconciliation zone, the point at which divergent approaches can come together and make progress.

Now having creating this we can look at placing things and movements into the space. White represents things that we are aware of either as events or processes. Green represents some of the new ways of thinking that we (Cognitive Edge) have been working on. Yellow represents (very poorly) some of the current dangers. So let me expand on those.

  • If we take classic terrorism, such as the provisional IRA then we are dealing with an organisation that has clear objectives and a structure. We know what they want, and if we really want to we can probably find someone to talk to. The historical problem is that the symmetric power will generally refused to talk with terrorists. If the terrorist group has tacit support from a disadvantaged community, with a sense of injustice they it will be impossible to dislodge or defeat conventionally. Also as the war continues pragmatic actions (assassinations, Diplock Courts etc. etc.) blur the ethical boundaries and increase rather than reduce differences. In order to bring such movements to an end we have (i) to be prepared to talk (ii) shift the terrorist to the point where they have something to loose (this is a key change and takes also takes time and a failure of conventional techniques) and (iii) the symmetric organisation has to broaden its perspectives, to see things in other than a “defeat/victory” mode. That takes time, three decades in the case of Ireland but it does some eventually. That requires a double movement (show as white) in which both sides increase their perspectives and become more fluid in their organisational structures and high moral principles.
  • Since 911 we have faced a new type of terrorism which is the self-organising or home grown terrorism that characterises Al Qaeda. Here it is less a organisational form (such as a cell structure with brigades etc.) that provides cohesion, but more an ideological position in favour of something, but enhanced by feelings of isolation and threat. This lack of structure and the pervasive nature of information means that a major threat can arise without organisation and with minimal warning. I have argued for some time that this represents the major long term threat to society and we cannot resolve it with the language of symmetry; assuming we are dealing with something where cutting off the head will terminate the problem. Because we are dealing with something highly fragmented it cannot be overcome by negotiation or by elimination, instead we have to change the ecology in which it thrives.
  • Now in the Al Qaeda case there is clear awareness of illegality and a need to morally justify violence. Of course States justify violence all the time so its not difficult to do but it is a process. It’s an argument from necessity but it does entail a recognition that something is inherently wrong, but may be necessitated by the failure of other forms of remedy. While these are highly distributed systems they share the moral issues with more traditional terrorist groups and the State. All are arguing that the conditions for a just war pertain in some way (if not in that language). Demonisation of the other is always a major tactical error in terms of strategy (although it may not be in communication tactically). This point is made well by Terry Eagleton in Holy Terror where he says: Genuinely believing that your enemy is irrational, as opposed to pretending to do so for propaganda purposes, will almost certainly ensure that you cannot defeat him. You can only defeat an antagonist whose ways of seeing things you can make sense of. Some of the British People may have believed that the IRA had no goals other than to maim and slaughter, but British Intelligence took a different view. There is nothing irrational, as opposed to morally repulsive, about killing people to achieve your political ends. It is not on the same level as believing that you are Marie Antoinette. If one’s enemy really is metaphysically evil, then the chances of defeating him look rather small. Not even the SAS can stand up to Satan.
  • So we come to the most recent manifestation of asymmetric threat namely hacktism. This shared the fragmentation but the moral position and governance structure is more problematic. School children are downloading software that makes them part of a concerted attack on a major financial institution. While a conventional terrorist is aware of living two lives, the hacktivist (other than hard core) is no), in some ways engagement is an extension of a game with all the reality connection issues that implies. If we can trace people taking part in denial of service attacks will we really arrest them? Picking off ring leaders will make no difference, in fact it will simply create more leaders. Critically the ideology is not for something (so providing that or removing obstacles is not a way forward) it is a general perspective which is generally against organisation per se. This used to be called anarchism and still is, but these days the link to Libertarian ideology is also key.
  • We also here have the moral dilemmas of transparency. If a whistle blower reveals a Mi Lai few would challenge their moral worth. But revealing the day to day trivia of diplomatic conversation could be far more dangerous in that it will prevent communication beneath the surface. Study the Cuban Missile crisis and you will see the criticality of this for preventing what would have been a possibly terminal catastrophe for the human race. Equally is it right that someone should be exempt from laws on sexual harassment simply because they have published interesting material? Is it necessarily the case that someone who does something we consider right, is therefore exempt from the more general moral rules? Conspiracy theory is of course another matter.
  • The real danger is that by dealing with these new forms of asymmetric threat with the full powers of the State (the classic symmetric approach) we increase the fragmentation. Rather like those horror films where the hero cuts the evil beast in half and then faces two beasts and so on. This is a complex system so the issues are those of boundaries and safe-fail interventions. We need the change the landscape in which distributed decisions are being made. I attempted to show the danger of symmetric response with yellow arrows.

The green arrows on the other hand imply that the only way to handle the situation is to use small interventions to change the dynamics of the system to change the critical dimensions of the system. That means changing our sensor systems and our methods of response. Something I have termed asymmetric decision support. I’ll come back to that in the next few days (along with the Aging Workforce material, its all linked). That will involve, as implied in the introduction both a systems and a moral response

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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