March 24, 2007

I have been interviewed by a lot of journalists over the years and realise that, with a few exceptions, their desire to tell a story leads to a loose connection to context, and a looser connection to the facts. Even nice guys like Jerry Ash can’t resist this; his column in Inside Knowledge is appropriately titled Wandering off. His latest column wanders away, using highly selective quotation and the Brutus is an honorable gambit man gambit to portraying him as the noble champion of Knowledge Management in the face pessimistic prophets (thats me folks). Either way readers of that magazine can see the balancing article I wrote in the next edition. Its based on my blog Whence goeth KM? topped and tailed with some reference to Jerry’s use of journalistic license.

However Wired manages to wander off the rails to fantasy land with its reporting of the RAHS project. I realised when they contacted me that there was a danger of them choosing to sensationalize the project by linking it to the Total Information Awareness (TIA) project in DARPA and the name of John Poindexter. So right up front I explained the difference. There had been two DARPA projects, working off two very different philosophies. One (TIA) sought to obtain and search all possible data to detect the possibility of terrorist events. That raised civil liberties concerns and much controversy in the USA leading to resignations and programme closure. A parallel program Genoa II took a very different philosophy, based on understanding nuanced narrative supporting the cognitive processes of decision makers and increasing the number of cultural and political perspectives available to policy makers. I was a part of that program, and proud to be so. It also forms the basis of our work for RAHS and contains neither the approach, not the philosophy of TIA.

So having made that distinction I proceed to explain the nature of our work. This includes the fact that we have found a way to overcome the legitimate ethical issues of knowledge sharing between government departments. I explain that a group of experts can create a data set of relevant material, indexed against highly abstracted properties (emotional intensity, intent etc). This is then converted to a set of algorithms which are sent to different government departments to run across data that is already available to those department officials. The algorithms return a metadata set (none of the original data) that can be combined with other meta datasets to create a highly abstracted landscape representation. In order to make this even clearer I provide an illustration of one of these which is replicated in the article. We then finish up the last few minutes of the interview with some causal post interview chat about ethical issues, the practicalities of counter terrorism (which raises real ethical dilemmas for civil liberties that do not permit of simple black and white answers). I also express my admiration for John Poindexter although I did say that I think he was naive in not understanding how people would take his early attempt at prediction markets. Ironically that idea is now common place and the subject of positive articles in Wired and elsewhere.

So what does the journalist do? In blatant contradiction of the facts she directly, and sensationally links RAHS to TIA, reports the metadata point in page two but briefly and indulges in some stereotyping of Singapore. A country whose openness to new ideas, cultural diversity (it has one, if not the highest rates of inter-racial marriage in the world) and legal system stands comparison with most other countries in the world. Its history has periods of excessive control, but then the US has within my own lifetime (as has the UK) its own failures in that respect. Remember McCarthyism?. The casual endgame conversation we had provides the bulk of her report of my interview, rather than the serious material on the nature of the system and most of the quotes are taken out of context to create a different meaning.

I suppose this nonsense is nothing new, and to be expected. The additional irony for me is that I have been engaged in a debate with someone on a list serve who has argued that the press has self-regulatory mechanisms that are not present in the blogosphere. This is support of an argument that called blogs pollution, comparing them with SPAM and suggested that misrepresentation of endemic in the blogosphere. I said at the time that there was little evidence that the self regulation of peer review within the blogosphere was any less effective than the formal control of the Press Commission and other like bodies. I referenced theDreyfus Affair by way of an historical example. The press likes to use the pillory, it improves circulation and tells a story in the worse sense of that phrase. Maybe their reporters and editorial staff should arrange to spend some time there (the pillory) themselves, for the sake of their education but also for their victims delectation.

Incidentally, its very easy to stereotype people if you don’t know them putting people in a box based on a few signals. We all do it, including yours truly; some theory argues it is a form of cognitive effectiveness, we simply cannot afford to spend time with everyone, but we have to respond. When we encounter the person and invest some time we see things from a different perspective. I have noticed that among some of my liberal friends in New England, not to mention other left leaning friends and acquaintances else where in the world the mention of John’s name can result in a stereotypical reaction which results in a failure to listen or attend to issues of import. I first met John several years ago and have worked with him on and off since that time. On our first meeting we discovered a mutual fascination with the novels of Patrick O’Brian, and I realised the dangers of stereotyping people based on press reports rather than personal knowledge. My own political background would never have predisposed me to any member of the Reagan White House, but I rapidly gained a deep respect for John’s intelligence, integrity and humanity and am proud to call him a friend. He had the foresight before the events of 911 to realise that then current approaches to asymmetric threat needed radical (and yes risky) thinking. There is no learning in stereotypes, nor is there insight in pavlovian responses. The article in Wired starts with a pavlovian response and proceeds to a stereotype or two.

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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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