P5: Within the Shell of the Old

A multi-colored (blue, brown, and white) spiral sea shell.
An Old Shell

One of the oldest ways of thinking about large scale change in a complex adaptive system is, “Build the new within the shell of the old”. It recognizes the need for change without requiring us to embrace either of the macro revolutionary strategies (change through total governance or breaking down governance and starting from scratch). It also requires us to genuinely struggle with how we use the current system as we move forward.

But building the new within the shell of the old is tough if we are to avoid the horrors of building from scratch or trying to force the existing governing levers to embrace radically new values. We have to balance what we are trying to create, with all it’s fits and starts, with the necessity of our continuing, if evolving, dependence on the current system for our everyday existence. Nowhere is this necessity clearer than it is for the disability community.

The current reality will undermine our ability to change largely through forcing us to repeat habits acquired over long periods of time.

To avoid these barriers, we need to have social networks committed to change, and we need to embrace a new set of assumptions about how change is possible.

Part 5: What Do We Do Next?

A bunch of dice with many different geometries and colors, like the ones for D&D.
The RPG of Disability Resistance

I imagine the outlines of what I think would be a useful approach to the dilemma that our disability community faces are fairly obvious. But it is easy to say that we need to create something new when our fears and habits are telling us constantly that we need to use the same old tired practices to stop this new threat.

If we are to create a genuinely new response, we will have to begin it locally, and the response will have to be conditioned by what we find locally, not by some larger political vision. If we don’t create what we need locally, using values that represent the best we can build, we will continue to thrash around “solving” for the short term only to have it bite us on the ass down the line.

Additionally, we don’t have the option of simply ignoring the current system, for all its problems. Like the freeway system, we have to keep using it until we actually have a viable replacement operating. We have to fade our dependence on the existing system through building our vision.

So our response to the question of what we do next does not have an answer that is either universal or easily predicted. But we can point to overarching ways of thinking about what we do, that can provide guidance as we wrestle with making our new path.

(P4): Delivering the Counterstroke

Black and white picture of troops landing at Normandy moving out of a landing craft toward the beach.

In the same way that the original insurgency was a surprise, so too must the counterstroke be unexpected.

The counterstroke must be many places at once and in many forms since one of its strengths is that the insurgent is overcommitted to their plan of success and has lost flexibility, resources, and creativity as a result.

Each part of the counterstroke must be able to adjust its actions on the basis of what it finds in reality and not according to some uber-plan, like the one of the insurgent. It is the growing and unavoidable commitment of the insurgent to their preconceived plan and its evolving flaws and weaknesses that increase the possibility of the success of the counterstroke.

After a long resisted insurgency effort, the insurgent loses redundancy, becoming increasingly brittle and subject to catastrophic failure in places if hit hard enough.

The pressure of the counterstroke must be continued until all parts of the insurgent plan assumptions have been countered.

(P4): Preparing the Counterstroke

A picture of the Trinity Atomic Explosion, very early after initiation of the explosion when it was still a complex bubble.

Success in preparing a counterstroke requires a great deal:

  • Giving up the notion that you can restore what was.
  • The carving out of some space that is hidden to create the counterstroke. Why it is “hidden” doesn’t matter. It can be (and often is) that the insurgent simply doesn’t believe that you are capable of preparing a counterstroke.
  • Creating a genuinely new and disruptive complex system for your counterstroke. As an ongoing real-world example, women are on the ascendance everywhere in the world, regardless of political disagreements across communities of women, because they are coherently creating something new together. Men, on the other hand, are on the decline, because they are trying to defend what they have. All else being equal, creating something new will outlast and eventually replace the current reality, no matter how much effort, even successful effort, is put into the defense.
  • Never allowing fear to trigger a premature counterstroke.
  • Waiting for the maximum feasible disintegration of the insurgent before launching the counterstroke.

Note how foundational patience is in the success of all this.

(P4): Blunting the Insurgency

A slide entitled

  • Brittle systems experience rapid performance collapses, or failures, when events challenge boundaries- David D. Woods
  • “Even if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” –Yogi Berra
  • No plan survives contact with a disaster-in-the-making.- General Law
  • “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”. -Mike Tyson

The first response of a community to an insurgency is to resist. This resistance has the effect of blunting the insurgency.  In this context, blunting means stuff like the following:

  • Forcing the insurgent to alter their plan in small ways.
  • Making them expend resources and energy correcting their mistakes.
  • Wearing out the people who actually conduct the insurgency.
  • Forcing them to reveal their plans prematurely.
  • Forcing large-scale changes in plans that no longer are consistent with available resources or skills.
  • Forcing them to use equipment and approaches that are generally maladaptive.

Successful resistance has the same effect as all chronic stress. As the stress continues, it provokes a chronic maladaptive response pattern from the insurgent. The longer the stress continues, the more maladaptive the response.

But this doesn’t mean much if blunting is all that happens. It is an illusion that resistance can actually restore what was before if the original insurgency was significant.

(P4): Phases in a Strategic Defense

A diagram of phase states and changes. For illustrative purposes only.

  • You have to know what you stand for, not just what you stand against.
    Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.
    Frédéric Bastiat
  • The best defense against sarcasm is to take it literally.
    Vijay Fafat

Because the Strategic Defense is only “chosen” with partial knowledge of its implications, the choice can always be thought of as involving great uncertainty. It is usually only “chosen” because there is no real choice.

There are three phases in a successful Strategic Defense:

1. Blunting the surprise, the invasion, overwhelming force, or whatever constitutes the initial assault.

2. Preparing the counterstroke.

3. Delivering the counterstroke.

(P4): The Strategic Defense

A map of Operation Barbarossa, the German Invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941

I believe that our disability community needs to engage for the indefinite future in what is called militarily a Strategic Defense.

The Strategic Defense is usually dictated by circumstances. The specimen example is the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German Army in World War II. The Soviet Army was entirely surprised by the invasion. For the next 18 months, the Soviets could do essentially nothing but defend and try to slow down the German Army, make the Germans use up their war materials, soldiers and equipment, and slowly prepare a counter-offensive. This counter-offensive was successful and began the long retreat of the German Army to its eventual defeat. A similar pattern had occurred when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and is chronicled in fascinating detail in “War and Peace”. There is no better tribute to ruling class delusion than this novel.

There are other more complex examples. In the American Civil War, the Confederacy deliberately chose a Strategic Defense (basically because they had no culturally acceptable alternative). In the American War in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese chose an especially complex, drawn-out, costly, and dangerous version of the Strategic Defense, ultimately successful, but at a very heavy price.

(P4): Problems with Assessing Future Risk and Uncertainty

A swampy marsh with a fog making it hard to see any distance.

  • There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. -Donald Rumsfeld

Human beings are notoriously poor at estimating risk in the real world. We are bad at it even when we are not affected by bias.  But, we are all affected by bias:

  • Confusing Uncertainty and Risk: We often assume that the risk of uncertain events can be calculated or intuited. That isn’t true in most of the real world. And, to the extent that we use risk calculation to make decisions when dealing with uncertainty, we will make bad decisions. Think Fukushima.
  • Eliminating versus Mitigating Risk: Especially in nonprofit and public organizations, there is a belief that by eliminating the possibility of risk through an HR policy or some threshold limit, that we have actually protected ourselves or the organization. For-profit organizations tend to look for ways to mitigate rather than eliminate risk since they have a better appreciation of how difficult a challenge any uncertainty actually is.
  • Bias in Driven Behavior: Assessing risk and uncertainty when the person or organization is using driven behavior (sex, drugs, and rock and roll for people, hyper-focus in organizations (or cults) as a way to deny uncertainty, fear of liability or some other unseen threat) is guaranteed to give you a false sense of actual uncertainty.
  • Prospect Theory: This is the name for the bias that increases commitment to an already losing strategy. Endless examples……
  • Behaving as though the nonlinear world is actually linear. Examples are the belief in single causes, that effort is proportional to an outcome, that starting points that are close to one another should have closely linked outcomes. There are many more.

Knowing that risk and uncertainty are not the same and that we tend to bias our estimates of them is not enough to prevent the problems mentioned above. We have to actually build our ability to overcome the bias and reflect on our inability to estimate uncertainty in our strategy and our planning.