Saturday, November 26, 2011

Reading :: The Sling and the Stone

The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century
By Col. Thomas X. Hammes

If you're looking for an overview of fourth-generation warfare - networked, dispersed, focused on persuading decision-makers, essentially politics (and rhetoric) through other means - this 2006 book is a very good start. It has flaws, which I'll discuss in a moment, but these are overshadowed by the insights Hammes brings to the table.

Those who have been reading my blog over the last few years may be familiar with the term "fourth-generation warfare" (4GW) primarily through the works of John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (although they tend not to use the term for reasons I'll discuss in a moment). Hammes describes 4GW in this way:
Fourth-generation warfare (4GW) uses all available networks - political, economic, social and military - to convince the enemy's political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. It is an evolved form of insurgency. Still rooted in the fundamental precept that superior political will, when properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power, 4GW makes use of society's networks to carry on its fight. Unlike previous generations of warfare, it does not attempt to win by defeating the enemy's military forces. Instead, via the networks, it directly attacks the minds of enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy's political will. Fourth-generation wars are lengthy - measured in decades rather than months or years. (p.2)
And a page later:
There is nothing mysterious about 4GW. Like all wars, it seeks to change the enemy's political position. Like all wars, it uses available weapons systems to achieve that end. Like all wars, it reflects the society it is part of. Like all previous generations of war, it has evolved in consonance with society as a whole. It evolves because practical people solved specific problems related to their fights against much more powerful enemies. ... Mao started this form of war ... (p.3)
Fourth-generation warfare is grounded in Alvin and Heidi Toffler's book War and Anti-War, which applies their wave theory of history to war (see Hammes p.10).  In this theory, different innovations (agriculture, industry, information) led to fundamental changes in social organization, and each form corresponded to a form (or generation) of warfare. (For more fine-grained examinations of the relationship between societal organization and warfare, see Bobbitt's books The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent and Max Boot's War Made New.) In Hammes' reckoning, the generations of warfare looked like this:

  • 1GW: From the invention of gunpowder in the feudal era, through the transition to nation-states, peaking during the Napoleonic wars. (Ch.2)
  • 2GW: From Waterloo to World War I, enabled by more taxes, more wealth to tax, more industrialization, better transportation systems, and more patriotism. (Ch.2)
  • 3GW: From the end of World War I, when the social contract had been dramatically altered; maturing in 1940 with the Blitzkrieg, which became the prototype for later doctrines such as the US' AirLand Battle (Ch.3). 3G warfare continues to guide the strategy and doctrine of nation-state warfare, although it is giving way to other approaches.
But, Hammes argues in Chapter 4, society has changed considerably since World War II. Changes include:
  • International organizations that infringe on national sovereignty, e.g., the UN (p.33)
  • The rise of regional organizations that  infringe on national sovereignty, e.g., the WTO (p.34)
  • An increase in the number and diversity of nations (p.34)
  • The number of stateless actors, including transnational actors (Greenpeace, al Qaeda) and subnational actors (the Kurds, the IRA) (p.35)
  • International financial markets (p.35)
  • The sharp growth of the information sector, which produces "wealth-generating assets [that] are easily moved - and are often part of geographically distributed networks in their day-to-day operations" (p.38)
Hammes summarizes: "Warfare is coming to parallel this model" (p.38). And he notes that this warfare often involves unrest, leading to "the severe breakdown of order within many ... postcolonial 'nations'" - the scare quotes denote how artificial the nations' boundaries are - resulting in "much earlier social organizations - tribal, clan, or gang" (pp.41-42). (Note the parallel with Ronfeldt's TIMN concept, also based on the Tofflers' wave theory of history, in which different organizational forms are concatenated but can decompose over time.) In sum, Hammes says, the Industrial-Age hierarchy is giving way to the Information-Age network, not just in societal and economic organization, but also in warfare (p.42).

Over the next few chapters, Hammes identifies 4GW's birth in Mao's insurgency (Ch.5), then examines its  development in Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap's model in Vietnam (Ch.6), then via Nicuragua's Sandanistas (Ch.7) and the Palestinian Intifada (Ch.8). Hammes examines each of these in detail, making his admiration clear for how the leaders of each phase developed 4GW (strategically, tactically, and operationally - he doesn't evaluate their objectives themselves). A critical turning point is in Chapter 9, when hardline Palestinians led by Arafat "squandered" the gains of the Intifada and turned to clumsy conventional warfare. This clumsy move was exploited by hardline Israelis, who themselves began to expertly use 4GW tactics to provoke Palestinians to open defiance and violence (p.119). These tactics gave the Israeli hardliners the upper hand in the public relations battle - and as Hammes points out, 4GW is about messaging (p.128). Israel learned to excel at 4GW, using its insurgency-derived tactics in the service of the nation-state.

In Chapter 20, Hammes begins to discuss al Qaeda, particularly its focus on messaging. For instance, one "critical aspect of al-Qaeda's image among Muslims" is that "he [bin Laden] is careful to fulfill the requirement to declare his intent before attacking" (p.146), ensuring that AQ doesn't just appear to be appropriating others' attacks. From there, Hammes moves to Afghanistan in Ch.11, particularly examining the conglomeration of anti-governmental forces (AGFs), including AQ, the Taliban, smugglers, drug dealers, foreign powers, Pashtuns, and other tribal leaders. "The AGF is a true networked, 4GW enemy and will display all the resilience characteristics of such enemies" (p.166). He doesn't use the term interessement, but that's what came to mind for me. 

Chapter 12 brings us to Iraq's anti-coalition forces (ACFs), which represents a similarly interessed group of different associations. "Each [member of the ACF] fights for its own goals. The goals of each group may be at odds with others," he says (p.179), sounding much like Ronfeldt's description of the networked organizations that supported the Zapatistas.

These different cases bring us to Ch.13, where Hammes discusses the disadvantages that the US faces due to changes in technology. Although we are accustomed to thinking in terms of the advantages we gain in warfare, Hammes (sounding like Robb) argues that IT has actually eroded our lead because 4GW enemies can match and exceed our capabilities more easily, using continuous innovation with off-the-shelf tools and commercial networks. "New technology favors a new generation of war," he warns (p.192). Although the US' "systems are the most powerful, most capable, most technically advanced in the world," those systems don't give us an inherent advantage because of "our current organization and the changing threat we face" (p.192). The US military's organization is outdated and hierarchical, he says (p.192), while our assets are outclassed by the commercial assets available to enemies (p.194). Indeed, enemies "are free to exploit the full range of commercially available information technology" (p.195). More importantly, "today's terrorists are organized as networks rather than hierarchies" (p.196). 

In the next few chapters, Hammes attempts to answer the question: What do we do about it? "The future is flexibility," he argues in Ch.17, the final chapter. Among other things, he suggests using network theory to better examine 4GW networks and identify key leaders (who won't be major nodes, but will communicate with them). (Notice that network theory is different from networked organizations, although the two are often confused.)

Okay, that's the summary. Now a brief critique. Although Hammes does an excellent job describing 4GW, the wave theory of history - at least in this implementation - is a bit too deterministic and rigid. John Arquilla speaks out about this general tendency in his recent book Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits, in which he argues that "The generational concept is simply inaccurate": irregular, networked, decentralized warfare has been around a long time and has often been synthesized with dominant forms of warfare. Similarly, Arquilla's longtime writing partner David Ronfeldt - although he certainly subscribes to the Tofflers' wave theory of history - emphasizes that the organizational form of the network is the "first and forever form," perhaps newly emergent, but not representative of a historical stage. [correction 12.5.2011 - Ronfeldt writes to correct me: he called Tribes the "first and forever form." Mea culpa.] Ronfeldt similarly describes other organizational forms as being synthesized together (Tribes, Institutions, Markets, and Networks = TIMN) rather than each form giving way to the next. 

That criticism is more important in terms of theory than in practice, however, Although I disagree with Hammes about the notion of emergent historical stages leading to generations of warfare, I admire the depth and breadth of his examination of 4GW. It's an excellent book, informative, gripping, and well worth your time. Those of you who study rhetoric, as I do, may also find ways to apply it to other domains. Take a look.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reading :: On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods

On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods
By Bruno Latour

I really enjoy most of Latour's work, but I strongly prefer his case study-based work, which seems more grounded and richly illustrative, to his more philosophical work. Alas, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods is in the latter category. What's more, two of its three chapters represent extended but essentially warmed-over versions of work that Latour has already discussed in Pandora's Hope and Iconoclash. Latour has done some work to pull these chapters together, partly by overlaying religious references throughout (for instance, he says that his second chapter is about the Second Commandment and his third chapter is written as a sermon). But I wanted more out of the book.

One thing that Latour does do here, though, is to examine and defend religion in a more vigorous way. Specifically, he wants to stop seeing religion as contending with, or indeed even speaking about, the same things that science does. Here's a passage from his sermon in Chapter 3:
I have to note at the beginning that I am not trying to produce a critique of religion. That truth is in question in science and religion is not, for me, in question. Contrary to what some of you, who might know my work on science (mostly by hearsay), might be led to believe, I am interested mainly in the practical conditions of truth-telling and not in debunking religion, after having disputed the claims of science (so it is said). If it were already necessary to take science seriously, without giving it some sort of "social explanation," such a stand is even more necessary for religion: debunkers and iconoclasts simply would miss the point. Rather, my problem concerns how to become attuned to the right conditions of felicity of those different types of "truth-generators." (p.100)
That is, he wants to examine religion just as he has examined science: not in terms of how it reveals Reality but in terms of how it makes truth-claims. He attempts to do this not by talking about religion but rather by talking "religiously," that is, "by demonstrating it in vivo" through his sermonic argument (p.101). Unfortunately, although I am sympathetic to Latour's general argument, the sermon left me cold; it seemed quite similar to Latour's other arguments.

As a side note, I should note that Latour takes a few sideswipes at Durkheim throughout, most specifically leveling the same critique that I did in my recent review, the critique that Durkheim has overgeneralized the experiences of specific tribes as a developmental stage for all religion. This is vintage Latour.

If you're very interested in a Latourean take on religion, this book might be a good read for you, specifically because it draws together some of his previous work in a religious context. But although I find religion endlessly fascinating, I felt underwhelmed. See what you think.

Reading :: The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
By Emile Durkheim

(The above link goes to a different version of the book: mine is the 1915 version, reprinted by Free Press in 1965.)

Partly through this book, I tweeted that I wish I had read this book first, before Levi-Strauss' The Savage Mind. There, Levi-Strauss criticizes the notion of totem, which is Durkheim's starting point in his study of religion. In fact, I should have probably read Frazer's The Golden Bough before Durkheim, since Durkheim's book is in great part a critique of Frazer's position that totemism is magic, not religion.

In any case, Durkheim provides a meticulous and detailed discussion of elementary religion - that is to say, totemism as practiced in Australian and North American tribes - and argues that religion started with these elementary forms before developing into the more structured, personified forms we know today. He asserts that
before all, rites are means by which the social group reaffirms itself periodically. From this, we may be able to reconstruct hypothetically the way in which the totemic cult should have arisen originally. Men who find themselves united, partially by bonds of blood, but still more by a community of interest and tradition, assemble and become conscious of their moral unity. For the reasons we have set forth, they are led to represent this unity in the form of a very special kind of consubstantiality: they think of themselves as participating in the nature of some determined animal. Under these circumstances, there is only one way for them to affirm their collective existence: this is to affirm that they are like the animals of this species, and to do so not only in the silence of their own thoughts, but by material acts. ... the imitative rites appear as the first form of the cult. (p.432)
Durkheim makes this argument while maintaining respect for all forms of religious life. But I wonder about his argument, which rests on the assumption that tribal peoples represent a universal stage of development and thus their beliefs are a snapshot of the beliefs at that stage of development. Did the peoples living in, say, Crete or Okinawa or Ireland also go through these selfsame levels of development and evolve their own religions in the same way? Unfortunately, Durkheim provides only a few examples of how Western religions may have developed from cults.

Nevertheless, the book is a tour de force in examining totemism in Australian tribes specifically. Durkheim carefully and sedulously examines each aspect of totemism, relating all of them to his central thesis. If religion or tribal dynamics are interesting to you, certainly take a look at this classic.

Reading :: Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Innovation and Entrepreneurship
By Peter F. Drucker

This book is one of Drucker's classics. Unfortunately, I had a hard time maintaining interest - perhaps because I'm not an entrepreneur, but also perhaps because it's not sparkling prose. Nevertheless, it's a classic for a reason - Drucker packs a lot of information in here.

For instance, here's Drucker's pithy explanation of what an entrepreneur does: "the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity" (p.28). Indeed, "entrepreneurs, by definition, shift resources from areas of low productivity and yield to areas of higher productivity and yield" (p.28). Entrepreneurs must innovate systematically, and that means "monitoring seven sources for innovative opportunity" (p.35). The first four are symptoms of change within the enterprise:

  • the unexpected
  • the incongruity
  • innovation based on process need
  • changes in industry structure or market structure (p.35)
The last three "involve changes outside the enterprise or industry":
  • demographics
  • changes in perception, mood, and meaning
  • new knowledge (p.35)
In the rest of the book, Drucker examines each of these points in turn, in great detail. He cautions us to always expect and look for change so that we can get ahead of it. Specifically, he says that every three years, we should put everything on trial - "every single product, process, technology, market, distributive channel, not to mention every single internal staff activity" (p.151). Essentially, he says, don't become comfortable in routine. Don't ossify. 

And this is an important point. Although Drucker is talking to the enterprise, he says that 
'Planning' as the term is commonly understood is actually incompatible with an entrepreneurial society and economy. Innovation does indeed need to be purposeful and entrepreneurship has to be managed. But innovation, almost by definition, has to be decentralized, ad hoc, autonomous, specific, and micro-economic. It had better start small, tentative, flexible. (p.255)
 Sage words. If you're interested in innovation and entrepreneurship, read this book.

Reading :: The Lean Startup

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
By Eric Ries

Eric Ries had a problem. As cofounder and CTO of IMVU, a Silicon Valley startup, he knew what his customers wanted: to connect instant messaging with virtual reality avatars.

Initially, the idea was to create avatars you could use to interact virtually with your friends. Your friends might be on different IM networks such as AIM, Yahoo Messenger, or iChat – which might sit on your desktop like separate spigots at a soda fountain. But IMVU would interoperate with all of them, serving as a sort of universal service for connecting your friends across all of these networks.

Users hated it. Adoption at first was incredibly low.

In fact, in IMVU’s in-house tests, users enjoyed creating avatars and using them to chat with strangers. They enjoyed meeting new people anonymously. But they did NOT want to tie together their IM networks, and they certainly did not want to allow these strangers in their AIM buddy lists. They were strangers!

Ries says that he and the others at IMVU had a hard time accepting this. He kept dismissing what the test users were saying, assuming that they simply didn’t represent IMVU’s market. But every new batch of test users said the same thing. Meanwhile, IMVU’s usage stats remained essentially flat.

Ries had seen his product as a way to help old friends interact in new ways in the same place. That’s what would make the service sticky. But the test users consistently told him they didn’t want that. They wanted a way to create virtual identities and use them to meet new friends who also had virtual identities. In essence, he wanted a clubhouse and they wanted a costume party. The two objectives implied different products, different services, different marketing strategies – in fact, they implied that IMVU would have to pivot.

As Ries makes clear, they could very well have ignored this issues and consequently failed in the marketplace, chasing after nonexistent users. But instead they decided to pivot. They wrote off the sunk costs in the first option, including a considerable amount of interoperability code that Ries had written himself. And they reformed their strategy.

But they didn’t capitulate – they synthesized their vision with what the customers would accept. That synthesis involved changing the product, of course, but also the process and internal structure of the company. Ries instituted a set of continual feedback metrics to better regulate this synthesis, building a product and service that helped users discover needs they didn’t know they had. As Ries put it:
We adopted the view that our job was to find a synthesis between our vision and what customers would accept; it wasn’t to capitulate to what customers thought they wanted or to tell customers what they ought to want. (Reis 2011, p.50)
It worked. The flat growth became steep growth. And Ries developed a set of techniques for establishing continuous feedback and improvement in startups. These include qualitative and quantitative measures, but also guidance on when and how to pivot. It's a fascinating book: fascinating as in well written and interesting to read, but also fascinating as in sparking ideas for innovating quickly and interpreting feedback on a fast cycle. If you're involved in startups, software development, or other fast-paced innovation, read it.

Reading :: What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants
By Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired, wrote this 2010 book as a meditation on how technology has developed and how it might develop autonomously. He coins the term technium to delineate what he's examining:
The technium exists beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections. (pp.11-12) 
"Technium" is thus a very broad term, essentially covering civilization from the first use of language onward. That breadth allows Kelly to argue that
after 10,000 years of slow evolution and 200 years of incredible intricate exfoliation, the technium is maturing into its own thing. Its sustaining network of self-reinforcing processes and parts have given it a noticeable measure of autonomy. It may have once been as simple as an old computer program, merely parroting what we told it, but now it is more like a very complex organism that often follows its own urges. (pp.12-13)
The Latour fans out there may warm to the notion that Kelly is embracing a form of symmetry, seeing nonhumans in the same way that he sees humans. But that's not Kelly's viewpoint. This is not an ontological text.

Rather, Kelly is actually arguing that the technium - in which we are important but minority partners - is evolving as an organism (not as an actor-network). He makes his argument by starting with homo sapiens's discovery of language (Ch.2) and moving on through various stages of technology. Based on this discussion, he proposes that evolution's triad of vectors - functional (adaptive), structural (inevitable), and historical (contingent) (p.123) - is matched by a triad of vectors for technological evolution: intentional (open), structural (inevitable), and historical (contingent) (p.183). Indeed, he strongly argues that inventions seem to be inevitable at certain periods, and selects a number of examples of inventions that appeared at different points on the globe at roughly the same time. (The examples don't include what I would consider to be the most important and germane one, writing, which was invented only three times in the world's history, at very different times.)

Kelly, then, makes a very insistent argument for a teleological understanding of technological change, one in which we will be surpassed by and (Kelly hopes) integrated with our technological creations. It strongly reminds me of Kurzweil's book The Age of Spiritual Machines.

Unfortunately, I don't think the book's argument holds together well. At many points - such as Kelly's argument that technological inventions pop up at roughly the same time across the globe - evidence is thin and seems cherry-picked. We don't get to see many counterarguments or concessions. Since Kelly's claim is extraordinary, we might expect some extraordinary proof, including a better explanation of why technological change could occur similarly in very different places under very different conditions - and neither the strong proof nor the strong explanation are forthcoming. Due to these issues, I can recommend What Technology Wants as an interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking read, but I can't say that it lives up to its claims.

Monday, November 21, 2011

(someday I will blog again)

I see that it's been over a month since I blogged last, and even longer since I blogged a book review. This makes me sad. But I've fallen behind because (a) I've been reading books that don't relate as deeply into my core scholarship, so I haven't felt so compelled to write about them and (b) I've been even busier than usual.

As a result, I have about 5-6 books that I need to review. (That's not all I've read, just all I plan to review.)  Those include a book I finished this summer. Hopefully I'll get to these over the break.

MA in activity theory

A remarkable opportunity. From Yrjo Engestrom:
Dear Colleagues,
The next round of selection of students for our Master's Degree Program in Adult Education and Developmental Work Research (entirely conducted in English) starts today, the 21st of November. The application period will end on the 31st of January, 2012. For those who are not familiar with the Finnish education system, we would like to emphasize that high quality university training in this country is free of charge (there are no tuitions) for all students, including those coming from abroad. 
The Master's Degree Program in Adult Education and Developmental Work Research is based on cultural-historical activity theory and trains competent developers and interventionists in workplaces, organizations and other communities. The program selects 12 students every second year to ensure close individual supervision and collaboration in a compact academic community. 
The program was launced in 2006 and is based on the 20-year tradition of developmental work research conducted in the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning CRADLE at the Institute of  Behavioural Sciences (IBS) of University of Helsinki. This is an interventionist research approach rooted in the legacy of Vygotsky and Leont'ev and internationally recognized as an innovative framework to study work and learning. During their studies students are typically involved in research and development projects conducted in the CRADLE and in its partner organizations. 
Please circulate this call and encourage students to apply. 
For more information, see: and 
With kind regards, 
Yrjö Engeström      Reijo Miettinen     Annalisa Sannino     Anne Vierros