By John Boyd
This is the third review in a series going over briefings by John Boyd.
The Strategic Game of ? and ?
Boyd gets playful in this slide deck, teasing us. What could the question marks represent? I can only imagine how much this stratagem lightened what have been described as "grueling" briefing sessions presented on an overhead projector.
But I digress. After teasing the question marks (Slide 1), Boyd opens with the question: what is strategy (Slide 2). He describes the approach as
Why this approach? He uses a illustration that has since become famous. First, he asks us to imagine we are in different situations: skiing on a slope; riding on a motorboat; riding a bicycle; looking at a child's toy tank (Slide 6). Now, he says, imagine that we retain only pieces from each situation: the skis, the outboard motor, the bicycle handles, the tank treads (Slide 7). Put these together and what do you get? "Snowmobile" (Slide 9).
- Make a general survey
- Condense to essential elements
- Place in strategic perspective
- Implementation (Slide 4)
Boyd wants us to apply this kind of analytic-synthetic thinking to strategy:
We will use this scheme of pulling things apart (analysis) and putting them back together (synthesis) in new combinations to find how apparently unrelated ideas and actions can be related to one another. (Slide 10).
So he begins with a general survey of disciplines that address complexity. He begins by arguing that human nature leads us to "Survive, survive on own terms, or improve our capacity for independent action," and since that often means competing for limited resources, it requires that we "Diminish adversary’s capacity for independent action, or deny him the opportunity to survive on his terms, or make it impossible for him to survive at all" (Slide 14).
To think through this issue, he first surveys, drawing snippets from contemporary newspaper articles and books on complexity as well as fables and classics on military strategy.
Next, he condenses, concluding that these all point to our need to interact with our environment: "Interaction permits vitality and growth while isolation leads to decay and disintegration" (Slide 29, my emphasis).
And now we can place these in strategic perspective, for the bold terms are what lay under the question marks:
The strategic game is one of interaction and isolationHe discusses three aspects: Moral, Mental, and Physical (Slide 34). In terms of isolation:
A game in which we must be able to diminish adversary’s ability to communicate or interact with his environment while sustaining or improving ours. (Slide 33)
• Physical isolationWhereas interaction entails the opposite (Slide 37). How do we exploit these ideas? Synthesizing Gödel, Heisenberg, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, he argues that
occurs when we fail to gain support in the form of matter-energy information from others outside ourselves.
• Mental isolation
occurs when we fail to discern, perceive, or make sense out of what’s going on around ourselves.
• Moral isolation
occurs when we fail to abide by codes of conduct or standards of behavior in a manner deemed acceptable or essential by others outside ourselves. (Slide 36)
One cannot determine the character or nature of a system within itself. Moreover, attempts to do so lead to confusion and disorder. (Slide 41)And he adds the lesson from his previous studies of aerial attack:
The ability to shift or transition from one maneuver to another more rapidly than an adversary enables one to win in air-to-air combat. (Slide 42)His proposed synthesis is that
The ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep-up with what’s going on. He will become disoriented or confused... leading to disorientation, disruption, overloading, and collapse (in that order) (Slide 44).
He argues that to do this effectively, we (recall that he's speaking to military officers) must gather from other disciplines and activities in order to surface new repertoires that can fold our adversaries inside themselves while avoiding the same fate for ourselves (Slide 45). That is, by interacting more broadly, and by developing broader repertoires, we can avoid becoming isolated and we can induce isolation in adversaries.
Next, he applies this insight back to the physical, mental, and moral aspects discussed earlier.
- Physically, he argues, we should isolate adversaries by cutting off external and internal communications. Externally, we can do this through diplomatic and psychological means; internally, we can penetrate systems unpredictably.
- Mentally, he says, we can "isolate our adversaries by presenting them with ambiguous, deceptive, or novel situations" and by getting inside their OODA loops in terms of rhythm and tempo.
- Morally, he says, we can induce adversaries to violate their own codes of conduct or those of their allies. Notice that this is the same key advice Saul Alinsky gives in Rules for Radicals. (Slide 47)
The expected results of isolation: "Disintegration and collapse, unless adversaries change their behavior patterns to conform to what is deemed acceptable by others outside themselves" (Slide 48).
He also applies the scheme to interaction, essentially getting the flip side of the above (Slides 49-50).
Interestingly, in terms of application, he focuses on the moral argument. And again, he sounds like Alinsky, arguing that we must "Preserve or build-up our moral authority while compromising that of our adversaries’" (Slide 54; he adds details in Slides 55-57). Let's be more accurate: On attack, he sounds like Alinsky. If I recall correctly, Alinsky did not expend effort in defense. Whereas Alinsky dedicated his book to the first radical—Lucifer—Boyd ends his slide deck with definitions of evil and corruption and the clear dictum to avoid them (Slide 59).
So there's the summary. Now some thoughts.
First, I wondered in my review of Patterns of Conflict to what degree we could see Boyd's viewpoint as dialectical. That question continues here, although Boyd is certainly not describing dialectical materialism. Interaction is still central, and one induces contradictions (in activity theory's terminology) by cutting off the adversary's interaction.
Second, one issue I had with the OODA loop is that it leaves too much underdefined. Specifically: Yes, one must Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. But to do any of these at any sort of tempo, one must restrict the flow of information. As I tell my students in my field methods class, we can potentially Observe far more than we can track or analyze, and we can similarly spend a lot of time Orienting toward any observation if we haven't selected a method that restricts our choices. To march through the process, we inevitably have to (a) restrict information at each step in order to process it, (b) store that information in a "lossy"/encoded format; and (c) rely on theoretical and methodological assumptions to make up the difference.
For example, suppose that I'm walking through my neighborhood.
- I can potentially Observe many things: temperature, brightness, the state of clouds in the sky, the animals on the street, the length of the grass, the number of pebbles in the asphalt... but I can't actually Observe them all, even if I took a year to walk a block.
- Similarly, if I were to Orient to one observation, I would likely do it through some cultural tool—for instance, counting the number of potholes (which requires criteria: what counts as a pothole?).
- Based on the above, I must Decide what to do. Again, this will be hard to do unless I have some ready-made decision possibilities at hand (such as calling 311 to report the pothole or drawing figures around it).
- Finally, I must Act, which involves additional skills and decisions.
Boyd glancingly refers to this problem in this slide deck, mentioning that we must draw "repertoires" from other fields (Slide 45). But where in the loop do we make decisions about how we select, encode, analyze, and so forth? A metaloop is needed, preferably one that (a) adjusts periodically, even without warning signs, and (b) integrates new repertoires with the existing ones. This problem is either ignored or largely left to the readers.
Perhaps that issue stems from the fact that in a fighter jet's cockpit, OODA's inspiration, the fighter has access to a comparatively restricted set of information and a comparatively limited number of decisions. The strategic level seems more complex to me.
One way to chip away at this issue would be to put it in dialogue with Boisot, who examines information in terms of codification, abstraction, and diffusion—and how, if you make these three dimensions the axes of a cube, a social learning cycle tends to result in an S-curve. One might similarly detect a periodic inflation and deflation of information throughout a specific OODA loop.
In any case, this is what I like about reading these briefings: Boyd's ideas are eclectic, but smart enough that they pose problems that I end up addressing by reaching across other readings. I hope you are enjoying reading these reviews as much as I enjoy writing them, dear reader.