06 September 2019

so long suckers! i rev up my motorcylce and create a huge cloud of smoke. when the cloud dissipates im lying completely dead on the pavement

Strategic theorist John Boyd’s greatest gift is his curse. The popular Coram biography of Boyd, while stirring public interest in his biography and ideas, attracts a crowd of people that are mostly interested in the former and not the latter. It’s obvious why. Boyd = uncompromising maverick that beat the odds. Inasmuch as people love to think about themselves as mavericks, they’ll be drawn to Boyd. Moreover, naive interpretations of the Observe-Orient-Decide Act (OODA) Loop justify romantic ideas about doing lots of crazy things faster than the other man. It goes without saying, though we nonetheless have to say it anyway, that this is a distortion of what Boyd actually wrote and presented. In many circumstances, going faster and faster just means that you end up running faster off the cliff. And while you fall, there’s no proverbial moment where you – like a cartoon character – realize that you’ve stopped moving horizontally and are now plunging vertically down towards the Earth. You only realize what’s up right before you go splat.

Granted, there is some truth to the idea that if you iterate faster than an opponent you can outplay him. This is what startups mean when they say “move fast and break things.” But the key assumption here is that any mistakes are potentially reversible. This doesn’t always hold, to put it mildly. As Alex Harrowell said, there’s obvious differences (which Boyd recognized) between actions that can be easily reversed and those that cannot. It makes sense to take greater risks when you can easily recover from any failure, and it makes sense to be more cautious when any wrong move could cost you dearly. Likewise, some kinds of tactics are designed to minimize one’s energy expenditure through inaction while forcing the opponent to expend energy through action. Most importantly, the OODA Loop is concurrent rather than sequential and the most important part is Orientation – the pre-existing set of influences (personal, biological, genetic, social, etc) that influence the action or nonaction to be taken. But what’s the point of saying this? I must have typed variations on that last paragraph hundreds of times over the years. It’s not a big secret!

Fundamentally, what drives people to this particular cartoon of Boyd is better described by the writings of French theorist Paul Virilio than anything Boyd wrote. There’s an inherent link between revolutionary movements and obsessions with speed or acceleration. “A bunch of Nazis hopped up on meth chasing French people around” is a reductive but fair summary of blitzkrieg. Similarly, the Bush II administration developed a military strategy rooted around the delusion that it was forever making its own reality and forcing everyone else to reactively study and adapt to it. The aesthetic and ideological attachment to speed has only indirect ties to the Boydian canon, even though there’s plenty in Boyd’s life story and friends that lends credibility to it. And that’s the problem. It’s hard to get anything out of Boyd when you just skip over vast amounts and focus only on the parts that fit your personality.

When all you measure is one metric, it is easy to think that people that are just, well, really good at starting shit are invulnerable. Their ability to confound what we feel to be ordinary rules of the universe makes them seem terrifying and all-powerful. True whether they have meme magic or fast moving forces that encircle and swallow entire armies before intelligence analysts finish eating breakfast back at headquarters. But, for example, Napoleon could only enjoy mastery of his particular synthesis of 18th century ancien regime warfare and the new regime’s revolutionary mobilization for so long before his opponents adapted. And when Napoleon scaled up to problems such as the invasion of Russia, it proved too great a task for even his singular talents. And there are countless examples of armies, social movements, and organizations run almost exclusively on personal charisma and passionate ardor that nonetheless forget very important little things like “logistics” or “budgeting.” These are boring things that are left for the peons to handle, but end up being all-important when it is too late to fix them.

Still, this is not really the biggest disconnect between Boyd and his admirers. So what’s the big issue here? Given that Boyd was obsessed with loops of varying sorts, its natural that he would eventually discover the larger issues of self-reference, incompleteness, and map-territory gaps that plague areas of study surrounding complex systems. As it would take 10-20 doctorates in multiple sciences to fully summarize what these are, I’m not going to even try. But I will for a moment seek to relate what parts of it might be interesting to Boyd. The skinny of it is that you perceive everything outside of your own conscious self-awareness (not exactly something reliable enough to bet your life on) as a black box. You interact with that box, and you create meaning from its inputs and outputs. At the same time, anything that comes out of that box is an input to YOU, so it is influencing your perception and behavior at the same time as you manipulate the box. And any meaning, pattern, etc you impose on the box’s observed behavior is not guaranteed to hold for another observer – or even your own observation at a future point in time.

This is getting too abstract so here’s a concrete example. In the early 20th century, a mathematics teacher by the name of Wilhelm von Osten convinced himself that he had trained his horse Hans to perform arithmetic. No such thing had occurred. Rather, Hans had trained von Osten to give him treats in return for doing certain arithmetic operations for which von Osten already knew the answer. Hans’ real achievement was not his math skills, but his ability to read even microscopic signals from facial expressions to anticipate how close he was to getting snacks. If he could not look at the examiner, and if the examiner did not know the answer to the math problem ahead of time, Hans got stumped. Even those who were aware the horse could read faces were unable to prevent themselves from giving off subtle clues that Hans could exploit.

In the so-called “Clever Hans” affair we can see two fundamental illustrations of the nuances of Boydian strategic thinking. It does not take great intelligence to win a battle of wits. A horse can do it! And here we can see some echoes of arguments about whether President Donald J. Trump is in fact winning via superior OODA looping. One does not need to make assumptions about how self-aware or intelligent the President may be to observe that he has adapted well to a particular environment that favors his style of personalized and theatrical politics. And, like Hans and von Osten, Trump has repeatedly made fools out of people that believe themselves to be his intellectual superiors.

But Hans’s behavior was narrow and fixed; he could not generalize in situations when the conditions were slightly altered. Hans saw the world a certain way and could not ultimately free himself from this inner model. And why would he? If you are a horse that has spent most of your life as a captive of strange bipedal creatures that give you food for behaving, you see the world from the perspective of how to get them to give you more food. And von Osten – the trainer – wasn’t all that much better than his horse. Von Osten went into the whole damn silly thing believing he could teach a horse to do math, and quite naturally everything that happened afterwards ended up superficially confirming that initial belief. Some philosophers call this “inscription error.” But you could just as easily say that there’s a sucker born every minute. It’s easy to get fooled, just like at Tinder these days.

What isn’t easy is discarding a prior model of the world and building a new one, especially in competitive situations. And reading Boyd – he obsessed with this problem – will teach you just enough to know that it is a problem but not enough to know how to solve it. After all, if Boyd knew how to solve it he would probably would have become filthy stinking rich and kept his mouth shut. He would have died without publishing anything – not even notes and slides – and taken that secret with him to the grave. Ideological fanatics aren’t likely to succeed where Boyd knew he failed. These are people who can publish reams of nonsense about their open-mindedness and innovativeness while spending their entire lives inside rancid and rigid political cults. Anyone can mash buttons or let off a full clip. Very few – if any – people can actually manage the task of repeatedly discarding and recreating their orientation towards the world.

Cargo-cult imitations of Boyd are not going to help you do it either. And the idea that a machine could do so, which is a non-ironic assumption of current Pentagon doctrine, is an even more absurd assumption that is left for a later post to unpack.