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Can Strategy Be Crowdsourced?

Criminal, terrorist, and insurgent networks have become powerful world actors. They utilize network forms of organization to make fast decisions, cover a wide operational space, remain resilient in the face of state reprisals, and have a capacity for learning and self-correction that many top-down organizations lack. Lately, many analysts have written about decentralized network forms that exhibit emergent behavior. Emergence occurs when many actors’ simple interactions combine to form a complex system. For example, mathematician Steven Strogatz shows in a TED talk how animals such as flocks of birds synchronize together based on simple evolutionary rule-sets. These are interesting observations that have been taken too far.

Business hype over wikis, networks, and crowdsourcing has led to some dangerous misconceptions about the nature of network forms in counterterrorism and irregular warfare. While network forms of organization are superior to hierarchies in many ways, their strength has been substantially exaggerated. Emergent intelligences cannot formulate strategy nor sustain momentum beyond the tactical level of conflict, networks are not as invincible as commonly portrayed, and hierarchies have certain advantages worth preserving.

Ants, Clausewitz, and Hackers

The widespread attribution of emergent behavior to human organizations is in itself a herd process. Actors ranging from ranging from social media-organized “smart mobs” to loose groupings of irregular warfighters are routinely labeled as emergent. A related trend is an instinctive loathing of hierarchies and a love of decentralized network forms, a trend that leads security analysts to sometimes overestimate the effectiveness of networks and underestimate the power of hierarchy. We are told over and over again to respect the wisdom of crowds, and in the field of security this means fearing the lethal intelligence of crowds—an intelligence whose power is often exaggerated.

Yes, emergent networks’ speed, mobilization power, and lethal simplicity give them ample ability to create havoc. But in the long run, emergent groups’ fatal weakness is that their hive-mind intelligences are incapable of conceiving or implementing strategy.

Biological hive-minds such as ants (often analogized to human self-organizing networks) have organization, a defined goal (survival), and an implicit order. While they adapt–in a largely mechanical fashion–to obstacles, they are incapable of reflexivity, intentionality, and understanding. The ability to repeat simple processes does not add up to a capability for abstract thought—a quality that philosopher John R. Searle argues is the real criterion of intelligence.

In his Chinese Room thought experiment, Searle imagines a computer whose expert manipulations of Chinese symbols allows it to pass the Turing Test, fooling an observer into thinking it is a human Chinese speaker. Searle then places a human who does not know Chinese at all into the same room that the computer was. The human processes the Chinese symbols according to the instructions of the computer program. Neither, Searle argues, really understand Chinese, they are just following a series of simple rule sets. Likewise, human emergent systems repeat a series of rules that give rise to patterns. But crowds do not think—the most basic perquisite for conceiving strategy.

Formulating strategy, as opposed to tactical or operational plans, is beyond the means of a largely mechanical intelligence that mechanically reacts to environmental stimuli. Strategy, as Peter Paret writes in the introduction to Makers of Modern Strategy, is “the use of armed force to achieve the military objectives, and by extension, the political purpose of war. …[as well as] the development, intellectual mastery, and utilization of all of the state’s resources for the purpose of implementing its policy in war.” Conceptualizing strategy requires calculating political, military, and economic variables of dizzying complexity—as well as dealing with the paradoxical nature of human conflict. In war, glorious victories morph into defeat, stable alliances shatter, and invincible weapons are countered by cheap small arms.

Both Carl Van Clausewitz and Edward Luttwak argue that strategy’s paradoxical nature is a consequence of adaptive human adversaries. Linear solutions and homogeneity, while effective in peacetime, are fatal in conflict. In his book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Luttwak explains this paradox by examining economies of scale. In peacetime, it is more efficient to mass-produce one product rather than a diverse array, as you can train workers and machines to quickly and efficiently turn out one object rather than many different ones. But in wartime, producing all of one weapon allows the enemy to easily counter it. Emergent intelligences can neither conceptualize this abstract level of conflict, nor develop an instrumental means of achieving a positive end state.

Confined to the tactical level, emergent groups often melt away once the tactical action they have formed to accomplish is over. While the anti-Scientology hacker collective Anonymous succeeded in bleeding the Church of Scientology (CoS), they failed to accomplish their stated task of destroying the organization. Anonymous took down some CoS websites, showed up on the streets wearing funny masks, and attracted some media attention. But without any mechanism for exploiting their tactical success, they could not sustain their momentum, making them a purely ephemeral phenomenon. Without the benefit of strategy, all Anonymous could do was cause disorder—but such petty nihilism has rarely accomplished anything of real importance.

Anonymous was kind of cyber-militia, not a band of cyber-soldiers. Galled by what they saw as the CoS’ heavy-handed censorship, they attacked it for a while before retiring back to their usual activities on the 4Chan IRC channel. Americans, ornery and independent by nature, tend to valorize militias and distrust professional militaries. But we often forget that our own militias lacked the means or motivation to battle the British for extended periods of time during the Revolution. Washington found it difficult to make them battle during harvest season, and could not force them to fight far from their homes and families. He required the likes of Baron Von Steuben to mold them into a disciplined and professional fighting force through the usage of repetitive drills and training. Our tech-hype about crowdsourcing is another form of militia worship that may be admirable and egalitarian in spirit but dangerous when it is used to overestimate the strategic abilities of emergent foes.

Network Strategy and Its Discontents

Decentralized insurgent networks—often confused with purely emergent organizations–face similar problems of strategic action. Even the strongest of shared beliefs proves relatively useless when it comes time to translate aspirational goals into strategy. Differing cultures, ideologies, personalities, and objectives among members inevitably clash, distorting the implementation of strategic objectives. Group implementation of a common strategy, however, assumes that all elements of a network participate in co-production of the organization’s strategy—a notion that is questionable at best.
Decentralized insurgent networks have an unhealthy dependence on a common forum for the free exchange of ideas and information. Their geographically diffuse members need a safe place to interact, exchange ideas, and plan. But clandestine groups’ very survival depends on their ability to remain hidden from the prying eyes of police and intelligence agencies. Social networking sites’ connectivity and accessibility make them horrible for security purposes, as counterintelligence operatives can easily access them. How do you know for sure whether the fellow jihadi on Facebook chat isn’t a Fed? After all, you’ve never met him before!

Online jihadist networks tend to be splintered into a dizzying array of password-protected forums and websites whose locations shift on a daily basis. Jihadists also extensively utilize darknets that search engines cannot index. Other times the conversation is taken totally offline in the form of private email lists, text messaging, and steganography. What was once a dynamic conversation splinters into a series of small groupings that are hardly sufficient to formulate a common strategy.

Additionally, autonomy and faster decision-making does not necessarily translate into wise actions, as the example of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader (AQI) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi demonstrates. Al-Qaeda’s leaders grew more and more concerned as Zarqawi’s grotesque massacres of Iraqi civilians began to undercut al-Qaeda’s public image in the Arab world. They wrote to Zarqawi expressing strong disapproval, warning him to stop his counterproductive violence. But without hierarchy, there is no way to exert control or accountability over errant members. Al-Qaeda lacked any means of bringing its errant Iraqi franchise to heel, as Zarqawi had developed his own network independently of al-Qaeda central.  Al-Qaeda soon discovered that normative sanctions are a poor means of exerting operational control over strong-willed men who view killing the innocent as a divinely inspired mission.

Most successful insurgent and terrorist networks are hybrid forms of network and hierarchal organization. As Naval Postgraduate School professor David Tucker details, hierarchy enables organizations to enforce standards, efficiently marshal resources, and formulate strategic goals. Even the most protean “leaderless” organizations often have a strategic class of dominant personalities who create the basis for instrumental action by formulating ideas and punishing deviant behavior. Wikipedia, for example, is commonly cited as an example of the wisdom of crowds. Anyone, after all, can contribute to it. But Wikipedia enforces standards through a class of privileged monitors who scour the online encyclopedia for errors. It is also important to point out that a small group of contributors produce the bulk of entries, in contrast to the casual user who edits a couple of minor details.

Many network organizations also co-opt pre-existing social networks as a source of manpower. Tucker gives the example of the Prophet Mohammed, who was forced to recruit in secret to avoid the predations of his enemies. He tapped groupings that were already available (such as his clan), allowing his movement to grow. While the astonishing growth of Islam had some viral qualities, it was guided by Mohammed’s brilliant strategic insight and charismatic personality. Without his guidance, early Islam wouldn’t have become the powerful, world-spanning religion it is today. Mohammed’s example, Tucker argues, is an inspirational model for militants seeking to generate their own political-religious revolutions. Al-Qaeda itself, despite its numerous franchise networks and spinoffs, has important similarities to an old-fashioned vanguard that seeks to incite revolt among the masses.

Counterterrorism analysts should also take care to avoid regarding all forms of hierarchy as inherently rigid. Even the most brittle hierarchal organizations often contain network forms with elastic lines of command and control. The German military, a highly hierarchal institution, embraced infiltration tactics led by decentralized hunter-killer teams on the tactical level. Successful counterterrorist networks such as the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group (TEW), have fluid lines of control and a multi-disciplinary focus but still retain defined roles for each individual and a clear unity of command. Most hierarchies do tend to be stodgy and brittle but fixing them involves building resiliency, autonomy, and a capacity for self-correction, rather than wholly deconstructing them and hoping for the best.

Emergence and the Future

While emergent networks may be incapable of strategic thought, their actions sometimes have strategic consequences. Charles Kurtzman argues in The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran that the Iranian revolution was more of an emergent process than an instrumental revolution. The interactions of differing Iranian factions, the common people’s unrest, and the mistakes of the Shah’s regime converged to create a violent shock that caught Western analysts completely by surprise. Yet prior analyses of the Shah’s strength were not completely erroneous. A largely emergent process beyond the control of any foreign generated the momentum for his ouster or domestic actor or faction involved in Iranian politics.

In moments of great change, people rapidly assess and reassess their behavior based on the fragmentary information available to them and the actions of others. This emergent process of assessing the often-ephemeral viability of change produces a kind of viral action that can alter the course of history. Catastrophic global economic crashes are often driven by this herd behavior, as perceptions of economic chaos can often motivate irrational behavior that set in motion systematic destabilization processes. A human event does not have to be the product of an instrumental human action to radically change our lives.

While technology may never enable emergent strategic thought, the increasing sophistication of social media will continue to strengthen the power of decentralized organizations. Trends such as cloud computing, the merging of virtual and material worlds, and the growth of infosphere are lowering the barriers to collaboration. It is possible that such a process may eventually culminate in the realization of cyberpunk dreams of extensive man-machine cognitive interface, providing a mechanism for true emergent co-production of strategy. But to speculate about cyborgs, collective robot intelligences, and the Singularity means entering the realm of science fiction. We should leave these conceptualizations to the likes of dreamers such as William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and the legions of Japanese science fiction manga writers. If the time ever comes when we find ourselves trapped in the Matrix, our dog-eared copies of Neuromancer and Snow Crash (along with some Ghost in the Shell DVD), will be of more use to us than a paper produced by a counterterrorism analyst.

Additionally, increasing human connectivity and the complexity of the infosphere may strengthen single points of authority instead of the multitude. Edward Bernays, considered the father of modern propaganda, saw propaganda’s hidden influencing process as a solution to problems created by the chaos and complexity of modern life. Americans, Bernays wrote, had too many choices and were not intellectually equipped to make decisions about even a fraction of them. The purpose of propaganda, which Bernays had spent time crafting as a member of a government strategic influence unit during the first World War, was to subtly guide humanity in the right direction. Only then, Bernays argued, could democracy function in a harmonious manner. Were Bernays alive today, the often-vilified P.R. consultant would feel vindicated by the complexity created by the expansion of the infosphere and the beginnings of a genuine information metaverse. He would also sense a valuable opportunity to ply his trade.

The true inheritors of the future may not wisdom-filled crowds but hidden manipulators adept at hiding within the mass of information and guiding gullible human herds. A massively parallel information ecosystem driven by emergent and viral processes can be influenced by a phenomenon futurist Jamais Cascio calls “participatory deception”—the usage of social media tools to create fake viral trends and memes. Smart mobs, participatory networks, and layers of other unwitting proxies could very well be engineered into acting out processes set in motion by the strategic interaction of these manipulators.  This is a problem with special relevance to those engaged in security, counterterrorism, and the “war of ideas.”
Either way, technological changes are unlikely to alter strategy’s basic principles. Individuals, groups, and nations will continue to contest each other with the time-tested mechanisms described by Sun Tzu, Carl Von Clausewitz, and John Boyd. In fact, as blogger Lexington Green observed in an e-mail conversation, Clausewitz would probably be a blogger if he were alive today. The sarcastic Prussian would choose to dash off fragments of his sarcastic dialectics on a social media platform instead of codifying his principles in a massive, unwieldy book that many quote without actually having read.

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. His articles have been published in Small Wars Journal, Defense and the National Interest, Foreign Policy in Focus, Athena Intelligence, and other publications. His work has been cited in reports by the Center for Security Policy and highlighted by the Arms Control Association and the Project on Defense Alternatives. He blogs at Rethinking Security

Adam Elkus

Adam Elkus

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is also a Technology Research Analyst at CrucialPoint LLC, an Editor at Red Team Journal, and a PhD student in American University's School of International Service. He has published on technology, strategic theory, and emerging threats in The Atlantic, West Point Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Infantry, Small Wars Journal, and other publications. He holds an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University.