By John Boyd
This review is the first in a series of reviews of John Boyd's briefings on strategic theory, collectively known as A Discourse on Winning and Losing. For background on Boyd, see my review of Osinga's Science, Strategy, and War — but also see this recent article for more on how Boyd has been received in strategic studies (skeptically).
Long story short, critics seem to have two critiques of Boyd.
First, he had a critical limitation: he was an autodidact who read broadly. Autodidacticism isn't necessarily a problem, and can often lead to innovative synthetic thinking. But without the underlying rigor of a discipline, it sometimes amounts to trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle by grabbing pieces from different boxes.
Second, the key insight that people associate with Boyd—the OODA loop—grew out of a tactical insight (from Boyd's days as a fighter pilot), but Boyd attempted to apply it as a strategic insight. The OODA loop posits that entities (from single-celled creatures to nations) all cycle through phases in which they observe the environment; orient to those observations based on their genetic and cultural heritage, previous experiences, new information, analysis and synthesis; decide their next action; and act on it. A simplistic application of the OODA loop treats it as a stepwise cycle (I'm reminded of programming loops in C). A more complex application recognizes multiple feedback loops across each step. Boyd draws from an eclectic variety of sources to establish the OODA loop, including Bateson and Maturana, but also contemporary popular books.
So the briefings have some limitations. These limitations are compounded by the fact that Boyd primarily left behind just the briefings—essentially slideshows—rather than longer form texts. These slideshows were revised over the course of years, and it's unclear whether Boyd really regarded them as finished. Consequently, the briefings are a bit like reading Bakhtin's fragmentary notes in Speech Genres: are they finished thoughts? To what extent are we inserting our own assumptions into them? However, you can find Boyd delivering the briefings on YouTube, and his oral comments may clarify some of these questions. I confess that I have not watched more than a few minutes of them.
Still, let's see what we can glean from them. We'll start with the first one, Conceptual Spiral.
In the first briefing in this series, Boyd discusses the "conceptual spiral," in which he proposes "To make evident how science, engineering, and technology influence our ability to interact and cope with an unfolding reality that we are a part of, live in, and feed upon." Conceptual spirals are often talked about within the dialectical tradition (e.g., Vygotsky, Ilyenkov, Engestrom); Boyd seems to fit into this tradition as well. As he says early in the slide deck:
For the interested, a careful examination will reveal that the increasingly abstract discussion surfaces a process of reaching across many perspectives, pulling each and every one apart (analyses), all the while intuitively looking for those parts of the disassembled perspectives which naturally interconnect with one another to form a higher order, more general elaboration (synthesis) of what is taking place. As a result, the process not only creates the Discourse but it also represents the key to evolve the tactics, strategies, goals, unifying themes, etc., that permit us to actively shape and adapt to the unfolding world we are a part of, live in, and feed upon. (Slide 4)(And yes, that is a partial quote from even more text on a single slide.)
He adds in the next slide that "by examining the practice of science/engineering and the pursuit of technology, we can evolve a conceptual spiral for comprehending, shaping, and adapting to that world" (Slide 5).
Boyd goes on to discuss science, engineering, and technology in terms of the conceptual spiral. Based on historical examples, he concludes:
People using theories or systems evolved from a variety of information will find it increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to interact with and comprehend phenomena or systems that move increasingly beyond and away from that variety—that is, they will become more and more isolated from that which they are trying to observe or deal with—unless they exploit the new variety to modify their theories/systems or create new theories/systems. (Slide 14)And he asks: "what does all this have to do with our ability to thrive and grow in such a world that is seemingly orderly and predictable yet disorderly and unpredictable?" (Slide 17) He answers by positing that "Science, engineering, and technology produce change via novelty" (Slide 20, his emphasis). Novelty emerges from "an analytical/synthetic feedback loop for comprehending, shaping, and adapting to that world" (Slide 21). More specifically, novelty emerges from mismatches between our expectations and our feedback (Slide 23). That is, we learn and innovate when we see discrepancies between what we think should happen and what actually happens. (One paradigmatic example: we might expect heavier weights to fall more rapidly than lighter ones; when this turned out not to be true, Galileo had to develop a theory to explain that fact.) Boyd argues:
Without the interplay of analyses and synthesis, we have no basis for the practice of science/engineering and the pursuit of technology — because novelty, mismatches, and reorientation as the life blood ingredients that naturally arise out of such practice and pursuit can no longer do so. (Slide 25)What does this have to do with winning and losing? Boyd explains that novelty is produced continually through our own innovations, through nature, through thinking and doing, and it is "produced continuously, if somewhat erratically or haphazardly." Thriving in such a world means continuously orienting to such novelties. But orientation is typically constrained by previous experiences, and thus "introduces mismatches that confuse or disorient us." We must engage in the analytic/synthetic process to "we can rematch [and] thereby reorient our thinking and action with that
novelty" (Slide 28).
Part of the previous experiences is systematic theory: "the various theories, systems, processes, etc. that we employ to make sense of that world contain features that generate mismatches that, in turn, keep such a world uncertain, ever-changing, and unpredictable" (Slide 31). (Activity theorists will note that these mismatches are roughly analogous to contradictions, which introduce problems but are also engines of change.) Boyd counsels that we should embrace the conceptual spiral, recognizing its positive results: insight, imagination, and initiative (Slide 34). In fact, we can't survive without the conceptual spiral; it is "A Paradigm for Survival and Growth" (Slide 37).
This presentation lays the foundation for the later discussion of the OODA loop. But it also defines the broader theme of interaction (dialectic?) that Boyd discusses throughout—as we'll see later in this series.