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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

System paralysis and the role of mavericks

I'm a little behind the times here, but John Robb had a fantastic blog post a couple weeks ago about the complexity of modern society. He begins by summarizing an argument from the book The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter:

In the book, he makes the compelling case that complex societies are, at root, very successful problem solving systems. If they weren't, they would never have become complex in the first place. Why? Societies solve challenges by creating new rules and processes (new complexity) that are then added on to the existing system ad infinitum. More successful outcomes = more complexity.

However, as noted above, problem solving comes at a cost. Each solution leaves a residue, a layer of complexity that never goes away (laws, taxes, monopolies, treaties, etc.). It builds up over time and saps the social system's flexibility and efficiency. Eventually, ever new layer of complexity extracts more in costs than it provides in benefit (solution). At that point, according to Tainter's analysis of ancient civilizations, the complex society collapses.

It is almost impossible to reform and simplify these complex systems, which is why they ultimately collapse. Collapse, Robb writes, is the only remaining option for simplification. Robb speculates that there may be one other way out: "growing an alternative at the periphery of the dying system" which is so effective at problem-solving that it can permeate and largely replace the existing system.

Robb's post eloquently captures something that has frustrated me endlessly, but that I've had a difficult time framing: the bureaucratic knots the US government (and the US military) has tied itself into. I understand where that complexity comes from. I also understand that this complexity and paralysis is the inevitable consequence of being a large organization, but that large organizations are still necessary because they can do amazing things that individuals or small organizations can't. Still, I'm always looking (usually in vain) for ways to simplify the organization or even go around it to get the job done. I like Robb's model because it suggests there is a role for the mavericks and dissidents: they can look for radical new ways to introduce change from the periphery.

This model is particularly relevant to some of the books I've been reading lately. I plan to write full posts on each of them, but I'll touch on the highlights.

Greg Mortensen's second book Stones into Schools is excellent. I enjoyed it so much because it rewinds the familiar American experience in Afghanistan back to 2001, then starts playing it back again--but this time through the eyes of Mortensen's small crew of idealists and misfits who are trying to build schools in Afghanistan's and Pakistan's most remote regions. Mortensen is the quintessential outlier who has been able to accomplish something great, but it hasn't been easy. He has only succeeded because he works outside large systems and power structures. When he is forced to deal with these large organizations, the reader can sense discomfort and sometimes the incredible friction. It's painful reading about his efforts to get permits from the decrepit federal government of Afghanistan, for example. On a couple occasions, the only way to get things done was to surge ahead without the right paperwork. Despite these setbacks, Mortensen has been a truly effective outlier: not only has he made a big impact in Afghanistan and Iraq, his vision has permeated the US military and government. His previous book Three Cups of Tea is widely known in the US military, and General Petraeus has apparently been recommending the new book.

I've also been reading a lot about cyberwarfare and cybercrime. I'm engrossed in the book Fatal System Error by Joseph Menn, which follows a "white hat" hacker named Barrett Lyon through the digital underworld. It's amazing, eye-open, and really scary. Barrett's efforts to protect companies from denial of service attacks and identity theft lead him around the globe, through a lot of shady relationships (both real and virtual), and into the heart of the American and Russian mobs. I never realized the deep levels of connection between computer hacking, identity theft, mob business, governments, the porn and gambling industries, and financial services.

What makes this digital underworld really scary is that large organizations are so woefully under-equipped to deal with it. I'm only halfway through the book, but the clear loser so far is the FBI. The book is full of cringe-worthy moments, such as the time Barrett goes to the agency with detailed information typing organized computer crime in Russia to Chechen terrorists. A single FBI agent shows up for the meeting, who borrows Barrett's pen to scribble a few notes on a napkin before concluding the meeting. Even the well-intended federal agents that Barrett deals with largely have their hands tied because of bureaucratic and legal restrictions. As a private citizen and hacker, Barrett is able to employ tools and methods unavailable to the government. The FBI sets him loose to track down malicious hackers, with the caveat that they don't want to know how gets his information.

There is unquestionable a major role for government in fighting cybercrime--such as passing and enforcing effective laws, investigating cybercrime, prosecuting hackers, and cooperating with foreign governments--but this is not a war that government can fight alone. Cybercriminals are the ultimate networked enemy; they benefit from tremendous resilience, freedom of movement, and an unrestricted flow of information. Their OODA loop and innovation cycles moves faster than any large organization's ever can. This is a war that will be waged among the people--between cybercriminals and a variety of stakeholders who cooperate to fight them. Government, business, and mavericks like Barrett will all have a role. I personally think the world needs to find a way to tap into the potential army of teenage hackers who are pounding Red Bull and writing late-night code in their basements. Cybercrime is waged by the crowd; maybe at least some of that crowd can be tapped to fight for the good guys. But all this is very unconventional and hard for a bureaucracy to swallow.

Bucking the System

As someone who tries hard to be a responsible renegade (or what a Coast Guard friend of mine calls "constructively discontented"), I enjoyed this Fast Company article titled How to Buck the System the Right Way. Thanks to Zenpundit for the link. The author, who is writing about GM's efforts to identify promising middle managers, suggests that effective mavericks need the following characteristics:

Credibility. You must know your stuff especially when you are not the one in charge. When you are seeking to make a case to senior manager, or even to colleagues, what you know must be grounded in reality. At the same time, so often, as is the case at GM, you need to be able to think and act differently. So your track record reinforces your credibility. That is, what you have done before gives credence to what you want to do in the future.

Influence. Knowing how to persuade others is critical for someone seeking to effect change. If you do not have line authority, how else but through influence can you succeed? Your influence is based on credibility, but also on your proven ability to get things done. Sometimes persuasion comes down to an ability to sweet talk the higher ups as well as put a bit of muscle on colleagues (nicely of course) in order push your initiative through.

Respect. Mavericks, which GM said it was looking for, may not always be the most easiest people to get along with on a daily basis. After all, they are ones seeking to buck the system. But mavericks who succeed are ones who have the best interests of the organization at heart and in time earn the respect of thier colleagues.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What I'm Reading: Daemon and Freedom

I'm always interested in what John Robb has to say, so when one of my commenters told me that Daniel Suarez's book Daemon should be considered "John Robb: the Novel", I downloaded it to my Kindle that night. Zenpundit gave these books good reviews, and Robb himself (who is friends with Suarez) often cites examples from the novel and its sequel Freedom.

Daemon is about a terminally ill computer genius named Matthew Sobol who leaves behind a devastating legacy: computer code that will activate upon his death, sow all kinds of mayhem, and ultimately lead to a war against civilization itself. It is a gripping novelization of a line that stuck with me from Robb's book Brave New War: the superempowerment of individuals and the lowering thresholds for war are leading us to a dangerous culminating point characterized by "the ability of one man to declare war on the world and win."

Suarez gets an A+ for ideas. What makes Daemon so creepy is how plausible many of Sobol's schemes are. You get the sense that this kind of thing could happen tomorrow. The book offers a tour into a bizarre but believable near future where a genius like Sobol can exploit the Internet, massive multiplayer online role playing games, augmented reality, and robotics to subvert the world order. His ambitious scheme ultimately rests on recruiting human talent. My favorite part of the book was watching the dead Sobol identify and apprentice a drifting young computer hacker, and harness his abilities to further his agenda.

Although the book's ingenuity makes it a must-read, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the characters are dull and uninteresting, with the notable exceptions of Sobol himself and Greg, the young hacker who gets entwined with Sobol's plans. Scenes that are supposed to be emotionally-packed fall flat. The writing style is clean, but lacks energy and vibrancy. In short, Daemon suffers from weaknesses traits that are unfortunately common among commercial fiction. Fortunately the gripping plot and the ideas overcome these weaknesses and make the book hard to put down.

Freedom picks up where Daemon leaves off. Sobol's daemon has grown in power. The plans he laid before his death have drawn together a new kind of human community that desires to overthrow and rebuild civilization as we know it. New ideas flash across every page: augmented reality, resilient communities, next-generation weapons and gear, new forms of economic systems, the merging of real and virtual worlds. I respect Suarez's tremendous imagination and the scope of what he is trying to create.

With that said, Freedom didn't work for me. The ideas get too big too quickly. Plausibility, Daemon's core strength, goes out the window. As Suarez makes Sobol's community bigger and badder, it becomes less and less interesting. Greg, the fascinating hacker from Daemon, turns into a comic book villain whose amazing powers come at the expense of any personality or human story. A second villain is so evil that--like the one-dimensional villains in Avatar--he never becomes interesting. In Daemon, each of Sobol's nefarious acts was unique and carefully-crafted. In Freedom, we repeatedly watch a horde of robotic motorcycles slashing crowds of enemies to pieces with swords. The novelty quickly wears off, and the extra buckets of blood and gore do little to bring these scenes to life. Although it has its moments, the plotting isn't nearly as tight as in Daemon. I had to make myself finish the book.

Still, both books should be read together on account of their ideas. They are thought-provoking, introduce many of the technologies that will transform our society in the next ten years, and illustrate many of the ways that warfare could potentially evolve. These books are also as good of a primer on cyberwarfare as you're likely to find. If you can get past the shallow characters and the uneven quality of the writing, Suarez has written a remarkable story and imagined a frightening but plausible future.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Back from the Gulf

It was a long and bumpy road, but I finally jumped through all the right bureaucratic hoops to visit three countries in the Gulf: Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. It was exhausting toting two small children across three countries in ten days, and most of my time revolved around my family rather than sightseeing, but I was able to form at least a general picture about these countries.

Bahrain doesn't feel like a country; it feels like an economic enterprise. I had a rather unique vantage point, because my hotel was located deep in the machinery of this booming economic engine. On the way there, Bahrain's impressive skyline of soaring skyscrapers and five-star hotels receded farther and farther behind us. The GPS finally turned me onto a side street and then started to go crazy. We were soon lost in a maze of crowded one-way streets, lined by cramped shops and salons and coffee shops. The chaotic sidewalks were crowded with diversity: Filipina women in trendy clothes carrying shopping bags, a North African family eating pizza, Indians carrying sacks of groceries home. Every once in a while an Arab man in a white dishdashah robe would drift through the crowd like a ghost, or a covered woman would drive past in an SUV. I knew that a vast proportion of the population in Bahrain consisted of foreign workers, but it was still remarkable and disorienting actually being in this upside-down universe where foreign workers do most of the work. I don't think I ever heard Arabic spoken.

My 20 month-old son, who is possibly one of the finest diplomats the United States currently has in the Middle East, helped us befriend our Filipino and Indonesian hotel staff. Every morning when I went to breakfast, the waiters would sweep him off. I would catch glimpses of him being carried around hallways, sitting with employees in back offices, or sitting on a stool behind the check-in counter. One time he vanished, and I went upstairs to the balcony overlooking the lobby. I literally found him seated like an emperor on this giant golden throne that was part of the decor, with hotel staff standing on either side of him. When they weren't too busy spoiling my son rotten, I talked with some of them and heard their stories. They were so drawn to my son because they missed their own families (all of them had families), who were hundreds of miles away in their home countries. They traveled home to see their families once a year.

Our sightseeing included criss-crossing Bahrain in a rental car, going to the beach, visiting a nature reserve, exploring downtown, and going to the mall. We also visited the Bahrain National Museum, which was interesting because it teaches visitors about aspects of Bahraini life and culture--without mentioning the foreign workers who comprise half the population. Bahrain's wealth make the country a stark contrast to Jordan. Oil money was evident in the spectacular shopping malls and the stunning architecture of its skyscrapers.

Kuwait was much the same. Again, Kuwait didn't feel like much of a country to me; although Kuwait City is huge, it feels like an isolated outpost that exists solely to facilitate the oil business. After the second Lamborghini roared past our taxi on the way to the hotel, I thought, "Dude, that's great for you, but you still have to live in Kuwait." We only spent a full day in Kuwait (and spent much of that time in the hotel because the kids were exhausted), but we made it down to the beautiful w