The Red Queen Trap is to be found in the famous Red Queen paradox from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In this story, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice climbs into a mirror and enters a world in which everything is reversed. There, she encounters the Red Queen who explains to her the rules of the world resembling a game of chess. Among other things, the Red Queen tells Alice:
It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.
On the face of it, this is an absurd paradox, but it reveals an important insight about a critical point in the life of every system. Let me explain.
Every system, be that a single entity or a large organization must perform itself into existence from moment to moment. If it stops doing that it succumbs to entropy and falls apart. Spoiler alert, in the long run, entropy always wins.
To perform itself into existence every system must expend a certain amount of energy, which is a function of the relationship between its internal state and the external conditions it operates in. In other words, it must expend some energy on keeping its internals working smoothly together, and then expand some energy on resisting and adapting to adverse external conditions.
The better adapted a system’s internal state is to its external conditions, the less energy it must dedicate to perform itself into existence, and the larger the potential energy surplus it can use to grow, expand, or replicate itself.
However, external reality is complicated [not to be confused with complex] and changes dynamically in ways that cannot be modeled over the long term and require constant adjustments by the systems [organisms, humans, organizations] operating within it. In other words, an external state observable at time A is no longer present at time B.
This is a problem for all systems because it requires them to change how they operate.
It is a small problem for simple systems which are usually internally homogeneous and highly distributed. Their homogeneity means they don’t need to spend much energy to maintain their internal state, and their distributed topology means they make decisions and react very fast.
It is a serious problem for complex systems [large organizations] which are usually rather centralized and heterogeneous. Their heterogeneity means they must expend a lot of energy to maintain a coherent internal state consisting of various qualitatively different elements, and their centralized topology means they react and make decisions rather slow.
It is a profound problem for complex hierarchical systems [large organizations with vertically integrated decision making] which consist of multiple heterogeneous elements stacked along one or more vertical axes. Vertical integration means that each successive layer going up is further removed from direct exposure to external conditions and is, therefore, slower in adjusting to them.
A system might be quite successful in adjusting its internal state to external conditions at time A, but a later time B might present a different configuration of conditions to which the internal state of the system at time A is profoundly inadequate. The more complex the system, the more energy it must expend in adjusting to changes in external conditions from time A to time B.
Complex hierarchical systems have the hardest time in making these adjustments because key strategic elements of their internal state [i.e. decision-making centers high in the hierarchy] are far removed from direct contact with external conditions. To orient themselves and perform the system’s OODA loop they rely on communication about external conditions reaching them from the periphery of the system, while orders on necessary adjustments must travel the other way, from center to periphery. This takes time, and the more layers the signal communicated from the periphery must pass through on its way to the center the more abstracted it becomes from external conditions. In other words, the center receives a highly imperfect version of the external conditions about which it must make adaptive decisions.
Over time, this generates a growing number of errors in the internal state of the system, requiring more and more energy to be routed to internal maintenance [i.e. bureaucratic paperwork], leaving less and less surplus energy for adaptation, growth, and expansion. Eventually, and this stage can arrive very fast, the system reaches a state of pseudo-equilibrium in which all energy it can produce goes towards internal maintenance and there is zero surplus energy left. This is where the Red Queen Trap kicks in:
The system does all the running it can do, to keep in the same place.
How does the trap work? First, from the inside everything in the system still seems to be operating smoothly and things are humming along following external conditions at present time A. However, this is a false perception of equilibrium, because when external conditions invariably change in future time Bthe system will have no surplus energy reserves to adjust to the new conditions.
The more imperfect the version of external conditions reaching the center of decision-making, the more pronounced the system’s inertia in this state of pseudo-equilibrium, and the deeper it goes into the Red Queen Trap.
Second, having eventually discovered there are no more surplus energy reserves left, the system must now make a choice. In the absence of surplus energy and provided there is no energy transfer from the outside, it must somehow free up energy from within its internal state to adapt. The question is, which internal elements should be sacrificed to free up that energy? This is where the Red Queen Trap’s simple elegance is fully revealed.
Essentially, there are two options – a seductively easy one and an unthinkable one. The seductively easy option is to sacrifice the periphery, or elements of it, and preserve the decision-making center. It is an easy choice for the center to make because it naturally sees itself as the key element of the system and this choice allows it to remain intact. It is a seductive choice because the center suddenly finds itself with a flush of spare energy which it can use to maintain the pseudo-equilibrium and often even to grow itself at the cost of the periphery. Alas, the elegance of the trap is in the fact that the seductively easy option removes the center even further from external conditions; less periphery equals fewer opportunities to observe and react quickly to external reality, thereby further magnifying the initial conditions that brought the system to this state in the first place. By making that choice the center sinks further into the trap.
By contrast, the unthinkable option is to sacrifice the center and preserve the periphery, thereby flattening the internal structure of the system into a less hierarchical form. It is an unthinkable option for the center to make because, as pointed out above, it naturally sees itself as the key element of the system, and this choice forces it to sacrifice itself. It is also unthinkable because it involves a thorough rethinking of the internal structure of the system, which until that moment was organized entirely around vertically integrated decision making, with little to no autonomy in the periphery. The center must not only sacrifice some of itself but also reorganize the periphery in a way allowing it to perform those functions in place of the center. This would allow the system to free itself from the trap.
Most systems choose the seductively easy option and the Red Queen Trap eventually grinds them into oblivion. Those few systems that go for the unthinkable option escape the trap and, if they remain persistent in their application of the unthinkable, learn how to go different places with running to spare.
The tragedy of the war in Ukraine is that it is not about Ukraine. This is a big-stage global drama with a small number of A-list actors and lots of unsuspecting and unwilling extras.
Ever since the 2014 coup d’état, Ukraine’s role was to be the casus belli between the West and Russia, and it played it perfectly in the opening act.
The second act hasn’t even begun yet. We are in the intermission. The Sultry Summer Special. It’s shaping up to be a long play, with big strategic and operational implications.
Strategic: Who Will Build Back Better?
The UK/US block has dominated the geostrategic chessboard partially since 1918, and completely for the last 33 years, since its comprehensive defeat of the Communist block.
Francis Fukuyama declared The End of History and the arrival of The Last Man in 1992, openly announcing the victory of the new and improved 1000-year Reich liberal democratic order. A new and final paradigm for the globe.
For various reasons, this paradigm proved untenable, and its builders knew it. What would you do if the system you’ve set up and controlled for a century is falling apart and cannot be salvaged? You lead the demolition of the old and the transition to a new system. Build Back Better as it were.
A global system has a vast number of moving parts, most of which are invisible to the masses. The masses usually see only the TV and the Fridge, or the other way around if the situation is desperate.
Panem et circenses. This is the dialectic under which the systemic transition dramas usually play out for the masses. If the TV is on top, everything is fine and the system is stable. When the Fridge prevails, as it invariably does, things are going badly and the system needs a realignment.
How amusing that the empire in the Hunger Games was called Panem. Get it?
With the war in Ukraine, the TV/Fridge dialectic is again in play. The visible moves in the global systemic realignment have finally started in earnest. The only question is who will be the last player standing, the one to Build Back Better.
By invading Ukraine, Russia triggered the strategic trap set for it by UK/US planners. Its prescribed role was to commit fully, place the Fridge on everyone’s mind, escalate until all of Europe is involved as well, and close the second act by leading the disintegration of the entire Eurasian political structure.
Interestingly, so far Russia has not mobilized and committed fully to the war, leaving the majority of its regular forces in reserve. Nevertheless, food and energy prices are going through the roof across the West, and shortages are very much on the agenda. Soon, the Fridge will be on everyone’s mind.
Europe is already involved way deeper than it would have seemed possible even a year ago. The energy and food sanctions the EU imposed on Russia are a fast-track systemic suicide for the union. So far, apart from Ukraine, the EU has been the biggest loser of this war. Also, winter is coming.
China has taken Russia’s side, which was to be expected, given it is one of the main contenders for Building Back Better after the play is wrapped up. The fact that Brazil, India, and the Greater Middle East, from Egypt to the Gulf States, Iran, and Turkey, refused to take part in any sanctions on Russia is far more telling. They are hedging their bets.
Not strong enough to win this round of the great game, Brazil, India, and the Greater Middle East will try to be on the winner’s side. The fact all of them are still hedging their bets this late into the first act demonstrates how uncertain the outcome is.
I think the UK/US dramatic sanction gambit early on was a strategic mistake. They played all cards of the sanction game in one go, denying themselves the ability to control the escalation pace through economic means. For comparison, notice how slowly the Russian counter-sanctions are unfolding. They control the pace for maximum effect.
Cutting Russia from the legacy Western financial network was part of this strategic gambit. All it achieved was to smooth Russia’s transition into China’s financial system. China’s alternative to SWIFT is called CIPS. Cross-border Inter-bank Payments System. China’s alternative to Visa and MasterCard is called UnionPay. We will be hearing a lot more about CIPS and UnionPay in the coming years, as more and more countries switch to the Chinese financial system.
Operational: Europe Goes For The Trifecta
On an operational level, this war is about Europe, or, more specifically, the systemic deconstruction of the European landmass from Lisbon to the Urals. The best illustration of how far this deconstruction will go is the interesting case of Switzerland.
Switzerland banned Russians from accessing its territory and/or using its banks. For reference, Switzerland has been neutral for centuries, neutrality was its main brand. The Swiss were the mountain goblins with whom everyone kept their gold. Even Harry Potter’s parents kept theirs with the Swiss!
Switzerland remained neutral even during WW1 and WW2. Not anymore. The mountain goblins will now take your gold if they feel like it. Not a winning long-term banking strategy.
While Switzerland suicided only its banking industry, the EU block, led by Germany, suicided all of its industry by sanctioning Russian funds and energy. Without Russian gas German industry faces catastrophic collapse.
Germany’s trade balance is already in catastrophic collapse mode, as is the Euro. The former has gone negative for the first time since modern unified Germany exists, and the latter has gone below the USD for the first time since its creation. Also, winter is coming.
Then, there are the future food shortages everyone is already talking about. Official food inflation is around 10%, unofficial at least double that. Yes, the Fridge is here.
Europe has the unique honor of being the only continent to achieve three (3) collective suicides in a row within 100 years. World War I, World War II, and the current play. The trifecta.
I recently spent some time in a rather isolated mountain village, where I was able to observe an interesting lesson about the modes of power in turbulent times.
The village head was a man born and raised there, elected repeatedly for the same position for decades. He was connected to a powerful political party, and doubled as the head of the regional hunting club. Clearly popular with the locals, on first names with the regional authorities, clearly bearing all the attributes of power. The person you go to visit when you just move in and want the local power to know you exist.
However, when the locals needed help organizing a festival they turned to an otherwise unassuming woman, a decade old addition to the village, who was quite frail after a recent chemotherapy. Why? Supposedly she could organize things. When an unexpectedly large number of people turned up for the festival and a number of foreigners found themselves without lodging, people gave them her number. She will help you, they said. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one night the throng of visitors ended up exhausting the village water supply. The village woke up to a looming disaster, or so I thought. The locals were not moved though.
As it turned out, the unassuming woman had called the head of the water company from the nearest large town first thing in the morning, asking him to activate a mountain water pipe bypass and supply the village until the visitors leave. Apparently, it was expected that she would know about things such as mountain water pipe bypasses and will somehow fix this problem. True story.
What to make of this scenario? It is easy to say the village head is an incompetent vestige of the patriarchy with visible but largely ceremonial power, while the empowered yet unassuming woman holds the less visible but real power. That is how this scenario would appear in a Netflix fantasy series. Let’s presume you have no use for cartoon stencils though.
The familiar duality
There is such a thing as visible power, and it does not need to be exercised often in order to be effective. It is visible because its attributes have to be easily recognizable in the leaders of this or that hierarchical organization. Warlords, CEOs, kings, bowling club presidents, generals, popes, village heads. The larger and more vertically centralized the hierarchy, the more visible the power of its head.
All power is a function of architecture and aesthetics, of topology and appearance.
The architecture of visible power is hierarchical, its topology – tending towards centralization. Its aesthetics and appearance involve visible attributes which can be observed from outside the structure. Visible power is not omnipotent, like all modes of power its architecture and aesthetics simply allow it to be effective in a given context, while severely limiting it in others.
However, not all power is visible. There is a type of power that is very effective but does not carry any of the aesthetic attributes of visible power. Let’s call it flow power. It doesn’t compete with visible power, it stays mostly latent, but when something breaks everyone turns to it because of its ability to get things done. I call it flow power because it allows the network to operate and resolves or routes around blockages. Again, it doesn’t lead in the context of the larger system, as visible power does, it just gets things done. Like the unassuming woman.
If you’ve spent an extended amount of time in a hierarchical organization – large corporations, the army, academia – you’ve learned to intuitively recognize flow power. If you need something done, or a problem fixed, you look for flow power. Often, say if you are new to an organization, you need to go to visible power first so that it can point you to flow power directly. Flow power is usually found somewhere in the middle of large hierarchical organizations, where it is close to the action, is not crippled by the requirements of visible power and has enough room to maneuver and get things done. That is the level of company mid-management, or the army ranks from lieutenant to major – close enough to the action and to the decision center.
Paradoxically, the architecture of flow power is also hierarchical – it is a binary of visible power and needs it to function effectively. Of course, up to a certain level of complexity the two can be combined, the unassuming woman could also become the village head, and would perhaps be far more effective than the old village head as a wielder of both visible and flow power at that level. However, the more complex and hierarchical the organization, the harder it is to hold both powers in the same center. This is because to remain effective, flow power has to be close to the action, while visible power has to be at the top of the pyramid.
Startups usually begin with both types of power in the same hands, and this persists until the organization stratifies to a level that makes it impossible to effectively keep both types of power in the same node in the network. The more complex the topology of the network, the more the aesthetics of flow power differentiate it from both visible power and everyone else in the network.
Every hierarchy relies on visible power to represent it externally, and flow power to keep things together internally.
You can see this clearly with the evolution of power modes in the military. In a warband, both visible and flow power are in the hands of the war chief. He visibly leads from the front and keeps the simple structure together. We see this evolving with the organized armies of antiquity. Alexander the Great kept the visible power and led from the front, but his army was complex enough that it could function without him, because of the flow power of his generals. Once Alexander and his companion cavalry would charge into the fray the army held together and adapted only because each of his generals wielded delegated flow power.
By the time of Caesar and the far more complex organization of the Roman legionary army, the architecture of power had evolved further. Caesar wielded the visible power, but did not need to lead from the front. Flow power was even more decentralized, and now in the hands of the centurions at the head of each cohort. The military and personal genius of Caesar was in the fact that at times of ultimate stress, when his heavily outnumbered army faced catastrophic collapse, as at the battle of Alesia, he was able to fluidly assume flow power locally as needed, and then immediately relinquish it when he was not necessary in that sector.
This evolution can be pursued to the present, and it is fairly easy to spot a common trend. Both visible and flow power are emergent, and will appear organically in a group of people even without formal organization imposed from outside. With the rise of complexity in an organization the two powers diverge. Visible power remains at the top, while flow power is distributed to an ever expanding number of nodes.
Now, if you look at an organization from the outside, as an attacker, and if outright takeover of visible power is impossible or undesirable, obviously you would try to target flow power. Doing so can cripple an organization while its visible power attributes remain intact. The more complex and centralized an organization, the easier it is to locate its flow power nodes. This brings me to an important point.
There is a third mode of power.
It is not visible, and not as easily found as the mid-level flow power which makes things run. It is best explained by thinking about organizations as networks. Centralized networks – think pyramids – are hierarchical and vertically integrated. They are very resilient, scale well up to a point, and provide a visible power structure. The pyramid is good at mobilizing resources, and has strong inertia which allows it to deal with most static resistance.
This is why historically the dominant form of social organization has been a flavor of monarchy – from warbands to corporations. Both warbands and corporations exhibit the most stable form of visible power – the elected monarch. In warbands that role is played by the war chief, in corporations – by the CEO. As the pyramid’s organization evolves, flow power separates from visible power and travels midway between visible power and the periphery where the organization encounters reality.
By comparison, decentralized networks – think bazaars – are far less hierarchical, if at all, and integrate horizontally rather than vertically. They are even more resilient than pyramids, and under certain conditions – think insurgencies – can grow stronger when put under pressure. Unlike pyramids, bazaars are usually ruled by oligarchies which are not necessarily visible from the outside. The optimal bazaar does not have any visible power, and you might spend a long time engaging with it without ever finding its power centers. Why is that?
Because, since power is a function of architecture and aesthetics, bazaars exhibit a third mode of power, different from visible and flow power. The bazaar topology is either decentralized, or completely distributed, without a visible central command node and its supporting structure. Bazaar aesthetics is therefore not related at all to visible power, but rather to the amorphous and fluid architecture of the bazaar. It is chaotic and transgressive.
I am calling this third mode hermetic power, after Hermes, the Greek messenger god. Hermes is the messenger between the realms of the gods, humans, and the dead. His winged sandals carry him between domains, he is a connector and carrier of information. In antiquity his holy places were situated at the crossroads, symbolizing the amorphous and transgressive nature of the information domain.
Hermetic power is also emergent, but unlike the other two modes it is most effective when invisible from the outside. The less visible the information, the more valuable it is. Where the pyramid generates the visible pharaoh and his priests who run the structure, the bazaar generates anonymous people in the know. Where visible power relies on loyalty, and flow power on competence, hermetic power relies on trust. In a pyramid, you gain power either by moving to the top, or by keeping the bottom and middle together. In a bazaar you gain power by generating information the others in the bazaar can trust and act on. That’s the essence of hermetic power.
Hermes’ power was the ability to carry information between realms. Similarly, hermetic power is distinct from the other two modes, because, unlike them, it can move in and out of non-bazaar structures with ease. Visible power is limited to its own architecture, and so is flow power. You get to be middle management only in one organization at a time. You get to be pope, emperor, or village head only of this one pyramid. If you want to also be the head of another pyramid, you have to visibly take it over.
By contrast, hermetic power can connect to a number of pyramids simultaneously and extract information from them while remaining invisible. More, it can also inject and manipulate information within them, and still remain invisible. From the perspective of topology, this is because a distributed network operates at faster cycles than a centralized one, and can easily transect it, particularly if it also tries to keep its nodes invisible. From the perspective of aesthetics, the bazaar cannot be fully grasped by a pyramid because it always extends beyond it.
There is a lot more to say about hermetic power, but this post is getting too long, so I will leave you to consider the following scenario:
What would change if an adversarial hermetic power takes over the flow power of a state? What if it is a number of states? How would you recognize this is happening?
Preface: It took me way longer than expected to finish this essay. Apologies, dear reader! I had to cut out a lot, and it still is both too long and too short. If you are in a hurry, feel free to scroll down to the end and focus on the modes and strategies of propaganda.
Why is it important to think about propaganda? Because at a macro level propaganda is noise, and in times of turbulence there is nothing more valuable than the ability to see through the noise.
Nassim Taleb once said that the facts are true, but the news is fake. I always thought this a rather optimistically naive view of reality, full of faith in the inviolate good nature of facts. Facts are far more devious and complicated than Taleb gives them credit for. In a previous post I talked about what it means to recognize trends, how not to be confused with facts, even the “true” kind, and how to go about examining your assumptions. Here, I will consider how even if the facts are fake, and the news is fake, their effects can teach us a lot about what might be true.
In my experience, most people are quite confident they can recognize propaganda and, what is more, consider themselves more or less inoculated against it. Of course, this is the ideal environment for propaganda to thrive in, as most people willingly make the mistake of defending their opinions as if they were essential elements of their identity, and would rather suffer the consequences of their mistakes than admit they were wrong. Everyone has encountered people who offhandedly cancel large chunks of data with ‘that’s X propaganda’, where X is the designated enemy.
I recently witnessed the following conversation between a millennial (M) and a boomer (B).
M: What do you think about [something politician X said] about the war in Ukraine?
B: Why do you ask me that?
M: I think it’s important to raise awareness.
B: What’s so important about it? You are so brainwashed! Where did you hear this, the internet?
M: Yes, I saw it on YouTube.
B: Ah! That’s the problem with you young people. You are all so brainwashed with your internet. You should watch TV!
B: Yes, the truth is on the TV!
Of course, the problem is not just with the internet or the TV, and it’s nowhere near as simple as the cartoon stencil battle of fake vs true news. To begin with, propaganda is a consistent and enduring process targeting perception, and so to understand propaganda and how to defend against it you have to understand perception.
Perception and action
Contrary to the meme that we are now bombarded with more information than ever before, we humans have always drifted in an ocean of data. Everything known to us through perception is pure data, this is how our minds encounter the world. Reading a newspaper, listening to a bird, smelling crushed pine needles, feeling the wind on your face, or all of the above, these are all just sense-derived data inputs which our mind uses to dynamically build a perception frame of reality.
The white noise chaos of the real is comprised of infinite data streams out of which our minds frame the incomparably poorer picture of reality we can perceive. We sense an infinitesimally small sliver of the real, and for a good reason. We need to not only perceive, but also operate in this reality. We need to be able to make choices, predict potential outcomes, and act based on them in a fast changing environment. Given the physical limitations of how much brain processing power you can cram into a body evolved to survive in a scarce and hostile environment, a limited perception frame makes it easier to quickly eliminate non-essential data, make choices and act.
The limited frame works as part of our perception system even when our actions are misaligned with what was necessary to do, because we can quickly observe the results of our actions and correct them. Having less initial data in a complex environment speeds up and improves the decision feedback loop, given that the loop is iterative and we can access real data. This point is very important for what follows, so I will explain it in more detail.
Having the correct data on whether a mushroom is edible or poisonous can lead to a dramatic variance in the results of your decisions and actions regarding said mushroom. Obviously, there is a high premium on correct data if wrong data leads to death. Having the correct data in a rapidly changing environment is like having a shortcut, or a cheat sheet. In fact, that is exactly how our mind stores and processes data repeatedly proven as correct – as shortcut blocks [schema]. They can be very simple – red mushrooms are bad, and quite complex – if the government puts price controls on diesel better buy as much diesel as possible.
A mind operating based on such shortcuts has tremendous competitive advantage as it can act very fast and dedicate the freed processing power to other tasks. This is why every long-lasting and functioning culture has a long list of taboos and cultural norms derived from many centuries of experience. They are all just mental shortcuts packaging long data – decision – action – consequences loops into a simple cheat.
Where things get really interesting is in those cases where we have the wrong data, resulting in the wrong assumptions, decisions, and actions. Why? Because presuming you survived your wrong assumption-decision-action chain (congratulations!), you now have a choice:
1] You can decide to stop assuming, deciding and acting altogether. [Many such cases!]
2] You can ignore the entire episode and keep on as if it didn’t happen. [A crowd favorite]
3] You can decide to change your assumption-decision-action chain. [The rare choice]
The first two choices are always good value when observed from a safe distance, and can also be quite educational for the connoisseur observer, but let’s focus on the rare choice. You thought you are making the correct assumption-decision-action chain but it ended up being misaligned with what you expected as a result, and through some deductive reasoning you established that you’ve made a mistake. Something has to be changed.
Where do you start if you want to change your assumption-decision-action chain? Correct, you have to go back to the beginning of the chain and examine your data. Sure, the mistake may have been in your assumptions, or the decisions you took, or even in your execution, but since you already made the rare choice you might as well assume that the data you started with is wrong. This means you have to examine your environment again, and gather new data.
Interlude: the connoisseur observer
As an aside, since you like making rare choices you might also be a connoisseur observer, in which case there are many scenarios where you can observe when others make the wrong assumptions, decisions and actions based on the wrong data. As a connoisseur observer you can learn from that as if the experience was your own. What is more, often the connoisseur observer likes to speculatively imagine what having the wrong data, and therefore the wrong assumption-decision-action chain, would mean in a given scenario, and collects these imaginary speculative scenarios for fun and future reference.
The problem with data: what if all the facts are fake?
In any case, as long as you can access your environment directly and gather fresh new data we can say that you have access to real data. As long as you can keep examining your environment in order to refresh your assumption-decision-action we can say that your decision feedback loop is iterative.
What happens when you don’t have iterative access to real data? Quite simply, this means you can’t correct any wrong schema shortcuts you have in your mind. The schema cheat codes might have been true and tested at some point in the past, but are not true anymore. If you are inclined to make either of the first two popular choices above – stop bothering with decisions and delegate them to authority figures instead, or ignore your mistakes – it is likely you won’t even notice the change until the effects of the misalignment become unavoidable. If you are a connoisseur observer however, you still have the option of finding real data in the actions of others, even if you can’t collect data directly. You can also revise your assumptions by speculating on various data scenarios that are not yet true but might be. All fairly straightforward.
Where it gets really interesting is when you have iterative access, but the data you have access to is itself corrupted. This is a counter-intuitive situation, because we are evolutionary wired to trust our senses. You see stuff happen, and therefore it must be true. You saw it! Our narrow perception frame may be a competitive advantage in a dynamic environment, but it is also a bottleneck that can be targeted and exploited. If someone is consistently fed corrupted data over a meaningful period of time, most of their mental shortcuts will be aligned with the corrupted data and misaligned with external conditions. Moreover, they will be convinced their assumption-decision-action chain is correct because of the iterative access to data they think is real. Simply put:
Manipulating the data inputs will always result in control of the perception frames built from those inputs.
In other words, even if you took option 3, the rare choice, and tried very hard to examine your assumptions and get new data from your environment, if the data itself is consistently corrupted you won’t be able to make the necessary course corrections. Even if you make corrections they will be the wrong ones, since your starting data is wrong. Furthermore, you won’t have any way of knowing this is happening, unless, as a connoisseur observer, you are consistently entertaining various outlandishly speculative data scenarios and comparing their output, and the actions of those around you, to what you perceive.
If you’ve read carefully so far you ought to have noticed that everything I’ve discussed up to this point is at the individual scale. Scale matters, because humans are social animals and like to compare and cohere with each other, drawing cues about the surrounding reality from the behaviors of those around. The problem is that while the phenomenon of the connoisseur observer exists only at the individual level and cannot be scaled up, modern propaganda is a phenomenon of mass scale, and its effects only improve as it scales up further.
Scale, the masses, and the current thing
Our ancestors knew well the power of injecting targeted data into someone’s perception frame, hence why “thou shalt not bear false witness”. Even so, for most of known history Lincoln’s saying held true:
You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. Until recently, it was physically impossible to manipulate data inputs at scale large enough to affect entire populations. You could generate a completely synthetic picture of reality and drive the population of a given area to hysteria – as in the Salem witch trials or periodic pogroms against this or that minority – but it could only be done locally. Things changed dramatically with the industrial revolution, mass literacy, and the arrival of broadcast media.
The industrial revolution needed workers who can be disciplined to operate complex machinery, follow commands, and perform repetitive tasks as if they themselves were machine extensions. To achieve this, mass schooling was introduced in the 19th century to supply these workers, first in Prussia and then everywhere else. Gradually, the new paradigm raised hundreds of millions of people regimented to perceive and act similarly, obey authority [teacher-factory manager-political leader], and read abstract symbols encoding data. As everyone who has gone through the full cycle of schooling knows, you need to raise your hand in a silent plea for the teacher’s permission to speak. Mass schooling’s first and primary lesson – authority has to be obeyed and individual agency delegated to it.
The masses emerged, and with them the glories and wonders of the current thing and the long 20th century. The ability to target the perception of the masses at scale aligned just in time with the arrival of the first global current thing – WWI – known at the time as “the war to end all wars”. Broadcast media – first newspapers, then radio and television – gave the masses an unending stream of regimented data [it’s called a program for a reason] targeting the primary communication senses and already framed as coming from an authority. The masses were raised and trained to align with and follow whatever the authorities say is the current thing. The mass scale effect amplified every message, as everyone around seemed to be in agreement. All these people agreeing on this current thing can’t all be wrong, can they? Suddenly, you could fool not some, but most of the people all the time.
The regimented mind
The first person to think systemically about perception, and what can be done with it given the power of manipulating data inputs at scale, was Edward Bernays [Sigmund Freud’s nephew], known as the inventor of propaganda and public relations. This is how he describes propaganda – a term he coined – in his 1928 book [emphasis mine]:
Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.
Propaganda is creating circumstances and pictures in the minds of millions.
In its sum total propaganda is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.
Notice that according to this definition propaganda is all about the creation of entirely synthetic realities [events, circumstances, pictures], which, in turn, will generate entirely synthetic and controlled perception frames. As I pointed out above, if the initial data is synthetic so will be the perception frames built from this data. Again, manipulating the data inputs by “creating or shaping events” will always result in control of the perception frames built from those inputs.
The main issue here is that Bernays described the creation of synthetic data in the minds of millions at once. Suddenly, it is not a localized minority that finds itself temporarily misaligned from reality, but the majority or entirety of a given population all at the same time. A completely synthetic event is generated across all major media, everyone sees it, and the media keeps returning to it [iterative access]. The scale guarantees the ‘everyone agrees’ mass effect. It doesn’t matter if the event really happened in some actual physical form, or if it ‘happened’ but in a fully synthetic setting, or if it didn’t happen at all. What matters is that the masses saw it happen, and more importantly, saw each other see it happen.
To achieve this level of regimentation with minimum friction, good propaganda messaging is kept simple and coherent with little to no internal contradictions. After all, the aim of the process is to manipulate and regiment the perception of the masses at scale, and to therefore influence and to control their future actions informed by that shared perception frame. The frame has to be internally coherent. The ideal propaganda content is visceral and polarizing, without doubt or uncertainty. A well designed propaganda process leaves no place for distinctions or qualifications, everything is binary and stencil-clear. An important side effect of the mass-deployment of simple and internally coherent perception frames is that it now becomes much easier to detect individuals who think differently.
Interlude: the connoisseur observer
A careful reader would immediately realize that it is much harder to be a connoisseur observer when surrounded by a population enacting a synthetic perception frame. Due to the mass scale effect there are little to no spaces left unaffected by the synthetic frame one can retreat to. The connoisseur observer has to not only focus on maintaining iterative access to real data but also on camouflaging their actions in such a way so as not to reveal they operate with a non-synthetic perception frame. In effect, in such a scenario the connoisseur observer has to maintain an internal non-synthetic perception frame coupled with an external synthetic pseudo-frame.
What do we have so far in terms of propaganda characteristics? It creates synthetic realities, exploiting our narrow perception frame and the importance of schema. It works best at mass scale, the grander the better. It is internally coherent, visceral, simple and polarizing. It has a regimenting effect, generating predictable and controllable lockstep action chains in the masses. These are all useful, but I can unpack them further into a very crude but actionable schema of modes and strategies for recognizing the process on first encounter.
No matter how complex the various propaganda techniques, at its root the process can be described as having two primary modes, with the complexity emerging from the way the process oscillates between them. The primary modes of propaganda can be roughly described as mobilizing and integrating.
Mobilizing propaganda [MP] is the most basic form of the process. It aims to agitate its subjects towards a certain perception frame by shocking, provoking and agitating. It works by appealing to basic instincts such as fear, or basic emotions such as love and hatred. It always simplifies reality to stencil binary statements. Due to its crudeness it is most effective over the short term, but is also the most intensive form of propaganda. Most people fall victim to it due to its brutal intensity. Every time you see reality framed along the lines of ‘X sank our innocent passenger ship!’ [think Lusitania], ‘Y is killing babies’ [think first Gulf war], or ‘the children are drowning – we must do something!’ [think Europe refugee wave], you are dealing with MP. You recognize it best by observing your own emotions, and, if you are a connoisseur observer, the emotions and reactions of others.
Integrating propaganda [IP] on the other hand aims to sedate and co-opt its subjects towards a perception frame. It works by appealing to our socializing instincts, the desire to belong and be a part of something bigger than us, to participate in something good and meaningful. Where MP is intense and emotionally harrowing, IP is mellow and positive. It works through simple mantras such as ‘the right thing’, ‘one of us’, ‘yes we can’. While MP aims to shock into a polarized frame generating a course of action, IP aims to reinforce an idea, object, or action positioned within a frame of belonging. You recognize it best by looking for the central element of the frame generating the feeling of belonging. Whatever is positioned in the center of the frame is the element being sold through sedative integration.
The simplest example of these modes is footage of soldiers in the middle of violent combat, followed by soldiers lovingly embracing their loved ones. A well designed campaign oscillates fluidly between the MP and IP modes, first raising the emotional agitation and then reinforcing it through sedative integration.
Either of the P modes can be positioned in the minds of the masses through various strategies. The strategies can be, again very roughly, distilled into two primary types, with the variety emerging from the oscillation between them. The two primary strategies of propaganda can be described as vertical and horizontal.
Vertical propaganda [VP] appeals to the views of a hierarchy or an authority figure – ‘experts have decided’, ‘a source in the government said’, ‘scientists agree’, ‘celebrities take a stance’, ‘the Party points the way’, ‘most doctors smoke Camels’. The VP strategy is an exploit of the fact the masses are already trained by mass schooling to obey and delegate agency to authority. This is why VP is the easiest strategy to deploy in conjunction with either of the MP or IP modes. Notice that corporate propaganda [advertising] uses this exploit, in conjunction with the IP mode, to regiment brand loyalty. The brand is an authority and a frame one can belong to. This is how we end up with the phenomenon of millions of people professing anti-capitalist views while simultaneously acting as fanatical foot soldiers for the same few corporate brands. VP is easy to recognize, as it has to invariably appeal to an authority figure or a hierarchy. That is why more sophisticated P strategies work horizontally.
Horizontal propaganda [HP], as the name suggests, appeals to the views of one’s peers rather than an authority or a hierarchy. It works by generating the appearance of a consensus – ‘everyone agrees’, ‘my friends told me’, ‘people saw it’. While VP is a tried and tested strategy for broadcast media, HP became a truly powerful weapon only with the arrival of social media. The deluge of content on social media establishes a radical horizontal battle space for all content, where every piece of data competes for limited user attention. Most of these data comes from others ‘just like you’, not from authority figures. This is why the primary filter for quality of content on social media switches from authority to authenticity. The more ‘real’ the person, the more valuable their content. This is why HP thrives on exploiting the ‘authentic person’ point of view. Now, you can mask any synthetic data as coming from ‘an authentic person just like you’. Unlike in the VP strategy, here the propaganda message is delivered as if it was coming from the point of view of someone really there. HP can be very confusing to isolate at first, but it can be recognized by observing whether it comes packaged with an MP or IP mode. Non-synthetic data will rarely if ever try to agitate or sedate on its own.
Similarly to the deployment of the primary propaganda modes, a well designed campaign oscillates fluidly between the VP and HP strategies, appealing in turn to the authentic figure from the masses and the authority figure from higher up in the social hierarchy, Think of the use of influencers and celebrities to sell the current thing.
This is how the two primary propaganda modes and strategies, and their combinations, align together:
It’s a fun exercise to observe various data streams and position them along this framework. If they can’t fit anywhere chances are they are not propaganda.
Finale: the connoisseur observer
What can an individual connoisseur observer do in the midst of all of this? Observe, analyze, compare, speculate. Generate a synthetic external pseudo-frame where necessary. Repeat. This is the way.
I’ve been meaning to write about the events in Ukraine for a while now, but discovered that what I wanted to say can be broken into at least three different posts. This is the first post in that series.
Allen Dulles, one of the founders of the CIA and the gray cardinal of the US establishment for decades, once said that people can be confused with facts, but it’s very difficult to confuse them if they know the trends.
What does it mean to know the trends?
In simple terms, it means that if you, dear reader, find yourself on a ship that has suddenly come to a jarring stop in the middle of the North Atlantic, and there are rumors [fake news!] of flooding on the lower decks, it is highly likely that there will be a very high premium indeed for each seat in those life rafts everyone ignored during the first day’s safety instruction by the guy in the dashing uniform. Maybe you should be heading for the life rafts, like, immediately.
Fine, you say, I get the trend stuff. But then, you ask, what does it mean to be confused with facts? A great question! In the simple terms outlined above, it means having your mental bandwidth jammed by the sudden avalanche of facts such as:
– The captain said everything is under control, just a little maneuver.
– The orchestra keeps playing.
– Everyone in first class is joking about some puny thug of an iceberg that dared come in our path and we easily avoided thanks to ourdemocracy the great skill of the guy in the dashing uniform.
– The orchestra keeps playing, and they are pouring free champagne in the club room.
– Apparently the iceberg has the GDP of a Manhattan street corner and no chance at all against us. Ha!
– Those rumors of flooding in the lower decks are fake news!
– Apparently a Chef’s apprentice went to the lower decks with an ice pick and single-handedly broke the iceberg into 100 harmless pieces. Everyone in first class calls him the Ghost of the Engine Room.
– The orchestra has composed a little ditty for the Ghost of the Engine Room and plays it on a loop.
– We have closed all hatches to the lower decks in order to prevent the spread of fake news.
– The guy in the dashing uniform said we may have hit a small iceberg but the Ghost of the Engine Room is taking care of it as we speak. The iceberg has a laughably low GDP and no chance!
– Apparently some irresponsible passengers have started lowering the life rafts on their own and one or two have already left the ship. The captain has put armed guards around the remaining life rafts.
You get the picture.
Trends are built out of events locked in a causal chain. Events are built out of other events that we call facts out of convenience. Facts are built out of other facts. Yes, it’s turtles all the way down. To understand a trend and spot it in the wild, you need deep knowledge of past events, broad knowledge of related facts, and the ability to evaluate their second order implications without emotional attachment. Let’s break this down.
Knowing past events means understanding their causes, the events themselves, and their effects. Wikipedia tells us that WWII, or at least it’s European front, started with the German attack on Poland on 1 September 1939. That’s one isolated fact we can designate as the start of the event. We could choose another fact as the start, but in either case it would be only a very small part of the event.
Other elements of the event might include the history of Polish-German relations in Pomerania and East Prussia, the history of the city of Gdansk [or Danzig], the events of WWI, the ethnic geography of the region, the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the British security guarantees to Poland, and many many more. Events, even the most mundane ones, are complex phenomena resulting from the tangling agencies of multiple little factoids arranged in a causal chain.
Everything might matter, and nothing should be forgotten or ignored.
On top of that, we have the broad pool of related facts that might not be in a direct causal relationship with an event, but are of indirect importance due to their second order effects. The collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the discovery of oil in the Caspian basin, the Wall Street collapse in 1929, and so on and so forth. Not directly related to the chain of events we are focused on, but good to know about them as their second order effects influence our chain of events.
Finally, there’s the problem of evaluating facts and second order implications without emotional attachment. Most people are usually fond of themselves. Most people have opinions about reality that they take very seriously, and more often than not associate with their identity and sense of self-worth. This means that most people are emotionally attached to their opinions.
If you’ve been paying attention you might see why that is a very serious problem. You cannot be expected to accurately evaluate a fact or its second order implications if you are emotionally invested in a specific alignment of that fact in the causal chain.
This problem is made even more serious by the upstream problem of the language we use to describe facts, events, and other people. The facts we think about are downstream from the language we use to do the thinking with. If the narrative tools you use to build your reality frame with are hopelessly damaged by emotional and totalizing language [see my post on cognitive mercantilism], the rest of your analysis is useless white noise. How does this problem look like in practice?
Here’s a scenario. All legacy and social media suddenly fill up with serious analysts discussing whether this month’s Enemy of the West is an irrational lunatic, a desperate thug, an evil autocrat, or all of the above. After a few days of intense pontificating a consensus emerges that this month’s Enemy of the West is in fact an evil thug made irrational by his desperate situation. Following that, the fine analysts – with backgrounds as disparate as politics, finance, sport and cryptocurrency – proceed to deliberate on the possible future strategies of mitigating the inevitable demise of the Enemy. Two weeks into this uplifting discussion, a veritable genius among the analysts discovers the evil thug made irrational by his desperate situation controls the largest nuclear triad on the planet. All intricate calculations have to be discarded. Back to the drawing block! How do we stop this guy?!
You see the problem here. The base assumptions of the narrative are built on a frame hopelessly polluted by emotive language and cognitive mercantilism. Everything downstream of that frame is so much hot air and should make you immediately question all other opinions of the serious analysts. Clearly, they either don’t know how to, or don’t want to, pick the right tools to think with.
To make this even simpler, if you are basing your analysis of the ship’s situation on a frame populated by the exploits of the valiant Ghost of the Engine Room your chances of getting on that life raft are infinitesimally small. Unless. Unless you are in fact already on one of those life rafts that made it out, and are singing praises to the valiant kitchen hand with an ice pick simply to buy more time for your boat as it moves away from the sinking ship. In that case, nothing I’ve written here is new to you.
As we proceed with our analysis of trends, we have to operate based on one or several assumptions. These are tricky to do properly, for all the cognition and language related reasons outlined above. Let’s say you have done your framing properly and are looking at events as they unfold. You are trying to understand how they fit in a trend, but the problem is you cannot make any sense of the enemy’s moves. Why are they doing that, it doesn’t make any sense? We wouldn’t do that in the same situation, no rational actor would!
The fact you do not understand the enemy’s rationale does not mean that the enemy is not a rational actor. It means that you a] have insufficient data, and/or b] your data is no good, and/or c] you do not want to acknowledge the existence of the enemy’s rationale. The last possibility would suggest that you are, in fact, the irrational actor in this sordid little tale.
So far so good – facts, trends, assumptions – but right about now you might be wondering which facts to focus on and build assumptions about in our search for the elusive trend.
There is an apocryphal saying attributed to a KGB colonel, which goes more or less like this:
If the leaves are falling, someone with a name and address has ordered them to.
What is the mysterious colonel actually telling us? It’s about assumptions. Assume even the most mundane phenomena are part of causal chains. Why? Because they usually are. Asking why something is happening is not enough though. You have to follow through upstream the causal chain to the name and address of the originator of the event chain. No matter how mundane the chain. The trick is to do this long enough so it becomes a habit, while ignoring the white noise which will invariably fill the space you are trying to analyze. Then, maybe, you get to pick an empty life raft.
The Australian government’s recently introduced News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code is not an isolated phenomenon. I believe it sets a firm precedent for other countries and trading blocs to introduce similar legislation in the near future. This is part of a complex process of an evolutionary realignment of the internet with long-reaching consequences. To simplify, we can look at this realignment at three scales, let’s call them tactical, operational, and strategic.
On a tactical scale, media bargaining codes of the type recently negotiated between the Australian government and Google and Facebook give established legacy media companies a stable income from their content circulating within the Google and Facebook walled gardens. This is represented by these same legacy media as a victory against the social media giants but is in fact a victory against smaller media competitors who would find it much harder to negotiate similar payouts. The income stability gives legacy media companies in the newspaper, TV and radio sectors a brief life extension in the face of collapsing audience numbers and advertising revenue. However, the respite will be brief because Millenials and Gen Z consume their news and media entertainment in completely different formats, and from platforms outside of legacy media control. In the short term, the media bargaining codes do not affect the social media giants in any meaningful way because their revenue does not come from content but from leveraging the behavioral data of their users.
There is an argument that tech giants can retaliate against this type of legislation by scaling back their operations in a given country. I think this is a possibility in a few isolated cases where the loss of users does not seriously affect advertising revenue. However, tech giants are far more dependent on their users than their users are on them. Of course, they do not like their users to know that, but the logic of revenue generation is simple. The business model of social media giants is built around content delivery and advertising based on user behavioral preferences. When users start migrating to other platforms advertising revenue starts falling and the entire model is in crisis. Facebook made an important mistake in closing news channels in the Australian market as this only managed to generate bad optics with the public and more support for the government to call Facebook’s bluff. Which it did, and Facebook folded immediately.
On an operational scale, media bargaining codes set a precedent for direct government interference in the revenue streams of internet and social media companies. From now on this interference will only intensify, with governments around the globe pushing the envelope on what is possible. If content qualifying as news can be legislated in this way, then so can all other content. For example, governments can start legislating different monetary values for different content, based on content types or the semantics of the information being displayed. Or, they can start imposing penalties for censorship, as the legislation currently being discussed in Poland, or for its absence. In other words, what is at stake is the entire modus operandi of social media, built around content delivery and advertising based on user behavioral preferences. Break content delivery, or make it too expensive, and you break the entire model.
Fundamentally, the tech giants have no effective retaliatory measures against these types of legislation, short of lobbying against them with legislators. After years of creeping selective censorship, they have long lost whatever good will they had with users. Remember Google’s “don’t be evil”? After the spectacle of US social media giants coordinating to shut down and censor the voices of a sitting US president and his supporters in an election year, no sane government will stop to consider the ethics of legislating against these companies. Their time is up.
On a strategic scale, this realignment is part of a tectonic process of clusterization of the internet. The network was built to be information-agnostic, that is, data was to be able to travel freely across the network regardless of the semantic value it carried. The internet was, and to an extent still is, a “river of copies” as Kevin Kelly put it. With the selective legislation of content, we are seeing the appearance of dammed lakes on the river of copies. The long-term effects of this process lead to the emergence of different sovereign internet clusters with their own legislative frameworks around content, and a highly filtered information flow between them.
I don’t think it will be a full fragmentation, because the network is far too valuable to break it completely. Instead, I believe we will witness the emergence of sovereign internet clusters organized around national and supranational borders. The Chinese internet is an obvious example, and I think Russia will soon close off its own fully sovereign internet as well, to be joined by an EU internet, possibly a Commonwealth internet, and so on. Information flow between clusters will still be possible, just like it is possible to access the open internet from within the great Chinese firewall by using a VPN. However, I think clusters will try to keep content within the cluster as much as possible. There would also probably emerge a fully distributed internet 2.0 which would act as a wild west periphery to the sovereign clusters.