23 November 2010

Crowdsourcing Intelligence and Foresight

James Surowiecki had an interesting and meme-worthy idea when he published his 2004 bestseller, The Wisdom of the Crowds. However, when reduced to its simplest ad absurdum, the concept breaks down in ways that are hugely problematic. It is not necessarily the case that an arbitrarily large group of poorly informed, often disengaged, and self-interested individuals will magically coalesce into a wisdom-dispensing oracle. Nonetheless, it is also the case that, putting aside disengagement, collective cynicism, apathy, and selfish interest, together we are all smarter (which is why I release most of my stuff under Creative Commons).

National security, going beyond the current burlesque sideshows at airports, is quite another matter. Its practitioners and purveyors are certainly engaged and often overly informed. (That they have multiple self-interested, ideological, and political interests is another matter.) However, a case can be made that the massive interactions among a myriad of environmental, economic, social, technological, cultural, philosophical, and yes, political circumstances and factors suggests that the more minds that can be directed towards the extreme complexity of global problems, the better.

Such is the case made by Carol Dumaine, a deputy director in the Office of Intelligence and Counter-intelligence at the US Department of Energy. Writing in Seed Magazine, she proposes a Global Foresight Commons that:
would expose discoveries, assessment processes, and foresight methodologies to the evaluation of a larger and more diverse community of people than currently possible. A single agency, government, or nation could not achieve the requisite diversity, involving millions of participants worldwide, that such a global foresight commons would entail. It would need to evolve organically, initially in a bottom-up fashion, with an international mix of early contributors, and would eventually need to attract the support of organizations that encourage their members to contribute their ideas to the commons. This system can be thought of as a robust and strategic form of Wikipedia, but with capacities for globally distributed synthesis, and for evaluation of non-proprietary, non-classified, forward-looking assessments: a “StrategicPedia,” as it were.
Interestingly, she echoes Marshall McLuhan's opinion of the artist, the person who lives their lives on the edge that demarcates the future from the present.
The gift of the artist is to reperceive the present by thinking what no one else has thought about. Great artists—and great scientists—detect the early tremors of seismic change in society, politics, technology, religion, and philosophy and represent the world as they see it through new eyes and new understanding. But the shock of the new often challenges orthodoxy, branding many creative minds as threats to the stability of society.
Sadly, governments are BAH organizations. I know of not a single one that has either the foresight or fortitude to give up what a government (and those individuals drawn to exercising the power of government) crave: control. To succeed, a proposal such as that which Carole Dumaine suggests must acknowledge that its participants are actually engaged in a UCaPP endeavour, and hence, must embrace principles of a UCaPP organization. A foundational principle of UCaPP leadership is that the leader must cede control to be able to create an environment of individual autonomy, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability. This, of course, is anathema to conventional (pseudo-)democratic processes based on partisan politics and geopolitical neo-liberal ideologies that are driving most of the Western world today. It also stands in stark opposition to what is presumed to be the risk-reducing, best-practice-du-jour based on a cult-of-the-experts, not to mention the experts' vested interest in their own expertise. Such abdication of true UCaPP leadership (by those who may have been elected to high office, but are often not worthy of those positions by any objective qualification) inevitably results in a collective inability to employ novel methodologies, to seek undiscovered possibilities, and to draw on the associative pattern-discerning power of para-disciplinary minds. UCaPP leaders welcome dissent in the context of a culture of inquiry; demands for compliance and hewing to a party line poorly serve a complex, massively interconnected world.

What Carol Dumaine proposes may be radical, but it is far from new. She simply points out that solving complex problems during a disruptive periods of change - like the one through which we are now living - necessitates Renaissance minds, "what Leonardo da Vinci called saper vedere, or knowing how to see. Da Vinci’s relentless questioning of everything challenged the conventions and taboos of his time."

The challenge is not to see what no one else can see, but to think new things about that which everyone already sees.

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