John Boyd for designers

The first time I came across mil­i­tary strate­gist John Boy­d’s ideas was prob­a­bly through Venkatesh Rao’s writ­ing. For exam­ple, I remem­ber enjoy­ing Be Some­body or Do Some­thing.

Boyd was clear­ly a con­trar­i­an per­son. I tend to have a soft spot for such fig­ures so I read a high­ly enter­tain­ing biog­ra­phy by Roger Coram. Get­ting more inter­est­ed in his the­o­ries I then read an appli­ca­tion of Boy­d’s ideas to busi­ness by Chet Richards. Still not sat­is­fied, I decid­ed to final­ly buck­le down and read the com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of his mar­tial and sci­en­tif­ic influ­ences plus tran­scripts of all his brief­in­gs by Frans Osinga.

It’s been a huge­ly enjoy­able and reward­ing intel­lec­tu­al trip. I feel like Boyd has giv­en me some pret­ty sharp new tools-to-think-with. From his back­ground you might think these tools are lim­it­ed to war­fare. But in fact they can be applied much more broad­ly, to any field in which we need to make deci­sions under uncer­tain circumstances. 

As we go about our dai­ly lives we are actu­al­ly always deal­ing with this dynam­ic. But the stakes are usu­al­ly low, so we most­ly don’t real­ly care about hav­ing a thor­ough under­stand­ing of how to do what we want to do. In war­fare the stakes are obvi­ous­ly unusu­al­ly high, so it makes sense for some of the most artic­u­late think­ing on the sub­ject to emerge from it.

As a design­er I have always been inter­est­ed in how my pro­fes­sion makes deci­sions. Design­ers usu­al­ly deal with high lev­els of uncer­tain­ty too. Although lives are rarely at stake, the con­tin­ued via­bil­i­ty of busi­ness­es and qual­i­ty of peo­ples lives usu­al­ly are, at least in some way. Fur­ther­more, there is always a leap of faith involved with any design deci­sion. When we sug­gest a path for­ward with our sketch­es and pro­to­types, and we choose to pro­ceed to devel­op­ment, we can nev­er be entire­ly sure if our intend­ed out­comes will pan out as we had hoped.

This uncer­tain­ty has always been present in any design act, but an argu­ment could be made that tech­nol­o­gy has increased the amount of uncer­tain­ty in our world.

The way I see it, the meth­ods of user cen­tred design, inter­ac­tion design, user expe­ri­ence, etc are all attempts to “deal with” uncer­tain­ty in var­i­ous ways. The same can be said for the tech­niques of agile soft­ware development. 

These meth­ods can be divid­ed into rough­ly two cat­e­gories, which more or less cor­re­spond to the upper two quad­rants of this two-by-two by Venkatesh. Bor­row­ing the dia­gram’s labels, one is called Spore. It is risk-averse and focus­es on sus­tain­abil­i­ty. The oth­er is called Hydra and it is risk-savvy and about anti-fragili­ty. Spore tries to lim­it the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of unex­pect­ed events, and Hydra tries to max­imise their pos­i­tive consequences. 

An exam­ple of a Spore-like design move would be to insist on thor­ough user research at the start of a project. We expend sig­nif­i­cant resources to dimin­ish the amount of unknowns about our tar­get audi­ence. An exam­ple of a Hydra-like design move is the kind of playtest­ing employed by many game design­ers. We leave open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sur­pris­ing acts from our tar­get audi­ence and hope to sub­se­quent­ly use those as the basis for new design directions. 

It is inter­est­ing to note that these upper two quad­rants are strate­gies for deal­ing with uncer­tain­ty based on syn­the­sis. The oth­er two rely on analy­sis. We typ­i­cal­ly asso­ciate syn­the­sis with cre­ativ­i­ty and by exten­sion with design. But as Boyd fre­quent­ly points out, inven­tion requires both analy­sis and syn­the­sis, which he liked to call destruc­tion and cre­ation. When I reflect on my own way of work­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the ear­ly stages of a project, the so-called fuzzy front end, I too rely on a cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation to make progress. 

I do not see one of the two approach­es, Spore or Hydra, as inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or. But my per­son­al pref­er­ence is most def­i­nite­ly the Hydra approach. I think this is because a risk-savvy stance is most help­ful when try­ing to invent new things, and when try­ing to design for play and playfulness.

The main thing I learned from Boyd for my own design prac­tice is to be aware of uncer­tain­ty in the first place, and to know how to deal with it in an agile way. You might not be will­ing to do all the read­ing I did, but I would rec­om­mend to at least peruse the one long-form essay Boyd wrote, titled Destruc­tion and Cre­ation (PDF), about how to be cre­ative and deci­sive in the face of uncertainty.

A Battlefield of Disorder

In the first post of this year I start­ed out with a bit of video by Adam Cur­tis, which men­tions Rus­si­a’s use of “non­lin­ear war” to cre­ate con­fu­sion in its ene­mies. I said it remind­ed me of the ideas of John Boyd, because he talks about mis­match­es a lot: The impor­tance of min­imis­ing mis­match­es between your per­cep­tion of exter­nal real­i­ty and its actu­al nature, and max­imis­ing same for your enemies.

After writ­ing that post, Alper shared an arti­cle crit­i­cis­ing Adam Cur­tis. In it, Dan Han­cox says Cur­tis impos­es his (over­ly sim­plis­tic) world view on us, while dress­ing it up as reveal­ing jour­nal­ism. Along the way he men­tions this LRB arti­cle by James Meek on the British cam­paign in Afghanistan’s Hel­mand region. It makes for an intrigu­ing read. To men­tion two things: 

  1. Meek talks about how there was a mis­match (my words, not his) between the con­cepts that made up the British doc­trine, and the nature of the real­i­ty they encoun­tered. For exam­ple, they were unable to account for a large part of the pop­u­la­tion resist­ing them.
  2. Meek also talks about the British army’s inabil­i­ty to learn in peace­time. There seems to be a lack of inter­est for intel­lec­tu­al analy­sis and the devel­op­ment of new ideas.

The same day I fin­ished read­ing Meek I watched Restre­po, a doc­u­men­tary about a US pla­toon in Afghanistan’s Koren­gal Val­ley. One of the things that stood out for me was the appar­ent mis­match (again, my words) between how the US forces we fol­low in the doc con­cep­tu­alise their oppo­nent, and what we know about their true nature. They often talk about Al-Qae­da as if it is some well-organ­ised army mir­ror­ing their own, when as with British in the Hel­mand, we can see that more often than not they are being resist­ed (while some­times simul­ta­ne­ous­ly being exploit­ed) by a local pop­u­lace who does not con­sid­er them bringers of free­dom and prosperity.

The feel­ing crept up on me that part of what is going on with those US sol­diers may also be wil­ful igno­rance, because for them that almost seems the only way to be able to keep fight­ing. (They go home bro­ken men regard­less though, it is ter­ri­ble to see the change in them wrought by such violence.)

All the same, con­ceiv­ing of your oppo­nent as a well-ordered force which can at some point be deci­sive­ly defeat­ed, plays into the ene­my’s hands. It also mis­un­der­stands the nature of con­tem­po­rary war­fare, which isn’t a con­test of tech­nol­o­gy, but a war of ideas. This is also what is men­tioned in Cur­tis’s film, when he talks about Surkov’s non­lin­ear war.

I lat­er dug up a For­eign Pol­i­cy arti­cle which delves even deep­er into the nature of Rus­si­a’s approach to war­fare. Read­ing it, a pic­ture emerges that the Krem­lin may very well under­stand non­west­ern per­spec­tives on the cur­rent world order bet­ter than the west does, which they lever­age to their ben­e­fit. Or, if this under­stand­ing is present in the west, then the Rus­sians are sim­ply bet­ter able at act­ing in accor­dance with it.

Peter Pomer­ant­sev, the arti­cle’s author, says we can com­pare the Krem­lin’s view of glob­al­i­sa­tion as a sort of cor­po­rate raid­ing, “the ultra-vio­lent, post-Sovi­et ver­sion of cor­po­rate takeovers.” Even if Rus­sia is weak, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly speak­ing, through non­lin­ear war it can lever­age its rel­a­tive weak­ness. And if we think Rus­sia is iso­lat­ed, we might be too eager to stick to our own view of glob­al­i­sa­tion as (again) a lib­er­at­ing influ­ence which brings pros­per­i­ty to less devel­oped nations. Accord­ing to Pomer­ant­sev, BRIC coun­tries see the “glob­al vil­lage” as a rigged game (jus­ti­fi­ably so, I would add), thus they have no issues with Rus­sia not play­ing by the (that is to say the west­’s) rules.

In short, Rus­sia seems to have a more sophis­ti­cat­ed grasp of con­tem­po­rary war­fare as a war of ideas than the west does.

Cir­cling back to Boyd, in the final sec­tion of Osin­ga’s book on the Mad Major he refers to a 1989 arti­cle by Bill Lind, one of Boy­d’s asso­ciates, which talks about idea-dri­ven fourth-gen­er­a­tion war­fare. Its prac­ti­tion­ers wage pro­tract­ed asym­met­ric war. For these actors it is a polit­i­cal, not a mil­i­tary struggle.

Lind says the bat­tle­field has shift­ed from one of order, to a bat­tle­field of dis­or­der. But west­ern mil­i­tary organ­i­sa­tions are still organ­ised on first-gen­er­a­tion prin­ci­ples, oper­at­ing in an order­ly fash­ion, in stead of being struc­tured so that they can deal with and lever­age disorder.

Osin­ga also talks about Van Crev­eld, who makes the point that for these 4GW prac­ti­tion­ers, war is an end, not a means. West­ern rules do not apply to their con­cep­tion of the strug­gle. War does not serve a pol­i­cy, it is pol­i­cy. In addi­tion, war is not fought in the tech­no­log­i­cal dimen­sion but in the moral dimension.

All of this leaves me even more con­flict­ed about con­tem­po­rary war­fare than I already was. (And let me say here that my inter­est in the sub­ject comes not from blood­lust but an almost naive desire for world peace, or at least an ever-increas­ing dimin­ish­ment of suf­fer­ing. But I try to face real­i­ty regard­less.) Per­haps one of the most trou­bling impli­ca­tions is that for us to have a chance at “win­ning”, we need to aban­don our old rules of conduct. 

This is the type of essen­tial­ly ille­gal war being engaged in by the US, as doc­u­ment­ed in Dirty Wars. I was and still am appalled by the prac­tices of remote war­fare described there­in. But hav­ing read all of the above it now also makes a per­verse kind of sense. If you’re at war with non-state actors, you are at a severe dis­ad­van­tage if you must adhere to inter­na­tion­al laws and the sov­er­eign­ty of states. 

The alternative—if we accept that for us war is a means towards an end but for our adver­saries war is an end in itself—is to exer­cise a much larg­er amount of restraint as nations, even in the face of all man­ner of ter­ror­ism, than we ever have before. Some­times Oba­ma’s drone pro­gram is framed as this more restrained, con­trolled response to ter­ror, but I can’t help but think that any kind of vio­lent response plays into our ene­my’s hands, as today’s drone strikes clear­ly do.

And any­way, remote war­fare miss­es the point about the shift from tech­nol­o­gy to ideas: We’ll nev­er “win” if we don’t start to make con­vinc­ing argu­ments about the moral­i­ty (but not moral suprema­cy) of our way of life to those pop­u­la­tions effec­tive­ly being held hostage by those actors ben­e­fit­ing from per­pet­u­al war.

Because, if we hope to win by aban­don­ing things that made us who we are (the rule of law, democ­ra­cy, eco­nom­ic and social jus­tice) in many ways we are already defeated.

Adams Systems, an addendum

So after the pre­vi­ous post, Alper asked for a con­crete exam­ple of the loop, and Boris asked for a draw­ing of it. I fig­ured both would be use­ful exer­cis­es to see if the Adams Sys­tems idea holds any water. (Yes, I’ve decid­ed to name these intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed sys­tems of deci­sion and action after Scott Adams, the cre­ator of Dilbert.)

A Diagram…

Adams System diagram

Yes it’s messy and maybe illeg­i­ble in places but I do think this shows two impor­tant things: One is mak­ing a con­scious effort to reflect on action out­comes and in par­tic­u­lar to make intrin­sic out­comes (more) appar­ent to your­self. The oth­er is to adjust actions based on the per­ceived odds of expect­ed and unex­pect­ed out­comes happening.

… And an Example.

OK. Let’s say we are inter­est­ed in blog­ging. The intrin­sic moti­va­tion for this is, we enjoy the process of artic­u­lat­ing our think­ing, and pro­cess­ing ideas that we’ve encoun­tered else­where. An (arguably extrin­sic) moti­va­tion might be that we get recog­nised by oth­ers for our abil­i­ty to come up with new ideas. 

One desired out­come of the blog­ging activ­i­ty would be posts, which we pro­duce at some fre­quen­cy, and which make sense and are inter­est­ing to read, and which take ideas from oth­ers and recom­bine parts of them into inter­est­ing new ones. Such out­comes would sat­is­fy our intrin­sic moti­va­tion to blog.

An addi­tion­al out­come might include ques­tions, com­ments and encour­ag­ing words from read­ers, which would sat­is­fy our extrin­sic moti­va­tion for recog­ni­tion. How­ev­er, this par­tic­u­lar out­come is much more out of our con­trol than the pre­vi­ous one.

Increas­ing the odds of out­come num­ber one could be done by ensur­ing there is time for the occa­sion­al blog­ging to hap­pen. It would also help to keep track of things we read, and to record inter­est­ing quotes that we might want to use in future posts. We might in addi­tion set a low bar for what qual­i­fies as a blog post, and to force our­selves to write in one go. All of these things make it eas­i­er for the writ­ing to hap­pen in the first place. The appear­ance of a blog post sat­is­fies our intrin­sic moti­va­tion, and thus increas­es the like­li­hood of us set­tling down to write anoth­er one at a lat­er point in time.

Out­come num­ber two is hard­er to con­trol. Increas­ing the odds of this hap­pen­ing might include delib­er­ate­ly pick­ing sub­ject mat­ter which is pop­u­lar or con­tro­ver­sial. It might also include for­mat­ting our posts in such a way that they read eas­i­ly and invite a response. The dan­ger of doing these things is read­i­ly appar­ent, because they can eas­i­ly con­flict with the things we need to do to blog reg­u­lar­ly, such as set­ting a low bar.

It would there­fore be advis­able to put more effort in mak­ing Out­come One appar­ent to our­selves, and to not obsess too much over Out­come Two. Sheer vol­ume in posts also increas­es the odds of read­er response, after all. But if we start obsess­ing over read­ers sta­tis­tics and com­ment counts, we might lose sight of the things we wrote in the first place. How­ev­er, by re-read­ing old posts we remind our­selves of our past think­ing, which serves to bol­ster our con­fi­dence in stay­ing the course.

So two adden­da to the Adams Sys­tem idea. I think I’ll leave it at this for now.