Foveal and Peripheral Vision Threats

July 11, 2011

What are the nature of the threats we face in the 21st Century?

Dave and I were at a defense conference on complexity and collapse recently, where senior intelligence, military, academic and business people debated this very question.

One attendee told a story that stuck with me. He had been an intelligence advisor for almost forty years. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, his job was to correlate intelligence about threats from Soviet invasions or nuclear strikes.

“In those days,” he told us, “everything was easier.”

“Basically you were looking out for two threats; were Soviet tanks rolling across the border into Germany and had they just launched nuclear missiles. Because we all knew the gravity of what would happen if we said ‘yes’ to either of these questions, we spent billions of dollars and countless careers coming up with very elaborate monitoring and verification systems.

“Did you have confirmed visuals of a launch? Did the satellites pick up an IR signature? Did you have multiply confirmed radar signals? We called this ‘multi-factor authentication’.

“We all knew that if we picked up the phone and said, ‘Mr. President, we are confident to 10x-6 that we have a confirmed launch from the Soviets,’ the consequences would be a nuclear retaliatory strike within 30 seconds. So we had to get that right.

“But basically that was an easy problem. It was a focal vision problem. We knew what we were looking for, we knew how to look for it, and the more we stared at it the clearer it would become.

Those days are over. Now we live in a world of peripheral problems, where we don’t know what they look like, we don’t know how to look for them and the more we stare, the more difficult they are to see.”

This distinction, foveal versus peripheral problems, stuck with me. Focal vision problems may be complicated, but they are solvable. Peripheral vision problems, are diffuse, fleeting and potentially unresolvable. Like Ghosts, they are gone by the time you think you see them. And like Ghosts, the realisation that they are there brings a deep, unsettling fear to those who have spent their entire careers training for one kind of threat, only to discover that the real danger is right beside them, just beyond their field of view.

Learning how to see will therefore be the theme of my next post, which I am honoured to contribute to the CE blog.

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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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