Here’s a guest post from uber-commenter Daniel Markham. It’s cross posted on his blog What To Fix
I’ve been doing analysis for most of my life, and I’m curious about the current state of world affairs, so I thought I would share with you my preliminary conclusions on the world situation as it is today.
I believe we are fighting the First Media War. I believe this war started sometime in the 1980s, and will continue for at least the next fifty years. Just like the American Civil War ended in the trench warfare that we saw again 50 years later in World War I, the Cold War ended with Vietnam with the Media War tactics we saw 20 years later in Middle East. In some sense, it may continue on forever, for this war will either evolve backwards and become explosively deadly or evolve forward into traditional multi-party politics.
This is an involved thesis, with a lot of information, so if you are looking for the cartoon-of-the-week, it ain’t here.All conflict has consisted of two things: messages and options. When we were cavemen and some other tribe raided our tribe for food and women, they were sending us a message about their strength, our weakness, their plethora of options, and our paucity of options. Indeed, killing an opponent has always been as much about exercising one of your options and sending a message to those that remain living than it has been about anything else. Over time, as we became more and more civilized, we have forgotten this. The relatively recent rise of nation-states has de-personalized these concepts for those of us in the west. We have civilized warfare to the point that we have forgotten what it means when it is personal.
First some definitions.
Messages – the information you are sending to the world. This includes your own population, and the population support base of the enemy. In the caveman example, seeing your opponent advancing towards you with a spear is an urgent message that your brain insists on your processing immediately. Civilized people believe that he rise of nations meant that only nations made and received messages. This is no longer a productive paradigm. Ideologies make and receive messages. People claim to send or receive them for an ideology.
Messages have two purposes. The first is marketing, or telling people things they did not know before. Marketing is based on spreading information to the point that there is a desire to hear more information. That’s it.
Sales is another person taking action based on the information they receive. When we talk about the Iraqi occupation, for instance, some commentators say that we need to convince the average Iraqi who is sitting on the fence which way to jump. That’s patently not true. We need only tell them about their options. No action — the inability to decide — is a victory for the civilized world. Most of us sit around unable to decide things all the time. It is a peaceful way to live. We have a marketing job in Iraq. The side wishing people to take up arms has a sales job. Sales jobs are much tougher. That’s not making a comment on how good or bad things are going in Iraq, just an observation on the difference between the message types.
Options – are your ability to take various initiatives, both diplomatic and military (or a combination) without perceived encumbrance. Options are a direct result of property ownership and social complexities. When I had an arrow, my option was simply to shoot you or not shoot you. If I have a million-man army with a deep sea navy and millions of rich, independent actors ready to take loosely coordinated independent action, I have a lot of options.
Note that treaties by nature limit options. So do cultural norms, unspoken assumptions, and tradition.
Increasing your perceived options decreases your opponent’s certainty about their position. Opponents with few options feel insecure and are more willing to come to terms. (a phrase which may have little meaning in the future) While decreasing your opponent’s perceived options has the effect of hindering their message and hampering their morale.
Actions – are coordinated groups of messages and changes in perceived options.
Campaign/War – The goal of any campaign/war is to increase the number of positive messages and options you have while eliminating the ability of your opponent’s messages to create sales and your opponent’s options to create uncertainty
Looking at war as a set of messages and options is a generalization of warfare over the last several millennia. During the age of nation-states and industrialization, it was understood that formal armies were the only entities that fought to negotiate disputes, but this is a very recent assumption, and does not hold true in much of the world. Armies are hierarchical organizations, pyramids. The message is to tell the enemy’s state to stop fighting. One message, one organization. Conflict was either armed or not. Armed conflict meant that the options were all based on military warfare.
This pyramid, industrial methodology is the most effective in fighting other pyramid organizations, such as North Korea. In fact, in a trans-national,post-national world, loosely networked but strongly opinionated people are the new players. Against these ideological, networked and distributed opponents, such as Iran, the hierarchical army is the wrong tool for the job. Old definitions cannot work effectively in a new environment.
Note that what I am talking about is something the west is extremely good at: the coordination of messages and options in such a way as to prove that your idea is better than another. It’s called branding and marketing warfare, and when combined with diplomacy and military action is unstoppable. Unfortunately, nobody (and I mean nobody) in government has any idea what an effective marketing campaign looks like in the third world or how to combine these three concepts into an effective Media War. As we’ve seen in the states, the Department Of State and the Department of Defense are pitiful at even communicating at times, much less coordinating complex actions. Some progress has been made here, but both institutions have flawed mission statements and reasons for existence.
I’m not going to expound on this a lot more — there is a book’s worth of material here for writing. I will, however, point out some interesting conclusions that can be drawn from these definitions.
When talking about messages, the goal is to separate sales from marketing. We are currently using active metrics to determine message effectiveness, such as the number of phone calls in Iraq that turn in insurgents or the number of people killed by either side in the current conflict between Israel and Lebanon. This is like measuring the success of a picnic by going through the trash can afterwards. It’s countable, but it has no bearing on the changing conditions. Bean counters must count beans, sure. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. But you cannot measure what you do not define. If definitions are lacking, metrics are counter-productive.
Battles may be won without the sender or the receiver of the message being aware of it. In fact, the sender or receiver may be even unaware that a message exists. That’s because messages (and options) are about perception, not reality. If the Lebanese Prime Minister gets on TV and talks about how there was a massacre in Lebanon today because 20 people died, and the world perceives this to be true, it was a massacre. The message was sent and received.
Options can either increase or decrease perceived future options. Invading Iraq decreases future options if we believe we must be there until the place looks like Switzerland. It increases our options if we look at the pressure put on Iran and Syria and move towards having more ability to do unexpected things to these countries. Perception here, just like the previous example, is more important than reality. If US forces are perceived to be “tied up” in Iraq, then that sends a message. Likewise, Israel moving back into Gaza and Lebanon sent a message: we are going to act to defend ourselves even if we are unpopular. Bad message, but look at the number of options now available to Israel. They can distract the world in Lebanon while snatching up the Speaker Of Parliament in Gaza. In fact, the real problem with Israel currently is that they have such a bad message and too many options. It makes other countries uncomfortable. Especially the ones that want to exterminate Israel.
Messages are fought as stories, in MSM, blogs, and word-of-mouth. Messages fit into narratives, which are preconceived ideas of how the world operates. Controlling the narrative is the equivalent of controlling the high ground. The narrative will shape all future messages to fit into it.
Our industrial culture and structures are not suited to the new war. A lot of platoon commanders can organize a defense based on a piece of land, but none of them can organize a message/option campaign based on a Hezbollah/insurgent situation in an urban situation. Reading the situation is NOT like reading a topo map. To combat this a lot of times we say something pithy like “Get out into the people and listen” But getting out into the population is also not effective, because everyone has a different interpretation of the same interview. You’re also guessing at the sales effectiveness of your opponent, based on a regurgitation of his message. In other words, if I repeat your opponent’s narrative to you, that doesn’t mean I’m “sold” — that I have made a decision to take action. Maybe I just want to see your reaction. Maybe I tell you whatever I think will confuse you the most. You have to decouple your opponent’s narrative from the communication you are processing about your status. And you have to do it in a consistently repeatable fashion.
Governmental structures are supposed to operate certain processes for the citizens: water, electricity, sewage, conflict resolution, security, crime prevention. These processes provide perceived value — this is the “What’s in it for me?” or “Key Selling Point” of the marketing world. I have been studying organizational change for years and I can tell you that perception matters more than metrics when trying to change a complex system. The perception of the success of these processes, not the actual quantitative values, is the measurement of the campaign in an urban environment. Nobody cares if you have 20% more water than last year. Nobody cares if we have 400 calls into Baghdad this week. Those are wonk numbers. Those are facts, statistics, measurements. Without a message or a narrative, they are nothing for us. Maybe ammo for the enemy, but nothing for us.
The situation with our forces in Iraq is somewhat analogous to having a highly trained set of factory workers and managers, all world-class at making widgets. Only the widgets we were trained to make, nobody is buying those any more, and our management has no idea about how to develop a product and market and sell it. Our manufacturing, traditionally measurable activity is top-notch, but the perceived value of our product, the ability to match features of our product with needs of our customers, the perception of our brand in the marketplace — all key indicators of success, are not being measured or managed. We need to develop products within weeks or hours and have our factory workers crank them out with industrial efficiency. There is simply no room for multiple levels of command in such a fast-paced battlefield. The old McNamarra/statistical process control/industrial mindset was not-so-good even back in the 1960s. We need to give some folks a serious cranial-rectal decoupling.
Over the past few years, I have been developing statistical interviewing and measurement technology to answer the question of “how do we quantify all sorts of qualitative information about the way our company operates” for the civilian sector. I never really thought it had much application in the military world, until I started reading more and more about concepts like Fourth Generation Warfare and COIN operations. Now I’ve come to believe that we need to combine as many opinions as possible — this is a war of perceptions — adjust our output and cut our time to market to the bone if we are to win. Fighting a media war is not like anything we’ve ever done before, and our structure is against it, but we have the ability to win. We just have to adjust, adjust continuously, and adjust quickly. And by adjust, I mean, change the widgets, the message about the widgets, the narrative, and our options.
Daniel Markham is an Inventor and Organizational Change Architect for Bedford Technology Group. You can reach him by email here.