Paul Fernhout: Open Letter to the Intelligence Advanced Programs Research Agency (IARPA)

10 Security, 11 Society, Advanced Cyber/IO, Blog Wisdom, Cultural Intelligence, Government
Paul FernhoutE

EDIT 4 Sep 2011: Link and misc. fixed.

Dear IARPA staff-

The greatest threat facing the USA is the irony inherent in our current defense posture, like for example planning to use nuclear energy embodied in missiles to fight over oil fields that nuclear energy could replace. This irony arises in part because the USA’s current security logic is still based on essentially 19th century and earlier (second millennium) thinking that becomes inappropriate applied to 21st century (third millennium) technological threats and opportunities. That situation represents a systematic intelligence failure of the highest magnitude. There remains time to correct this failure, but time grows short as various exponential trends continue.

To address that pervasive threat from unrecognized irony, it would help to re-envision the CIA as a non-ironic post-scarcity institution. Then the CIA could help others (including in the White House) make more informed decisions to move past this irony as well.

A first step towards that could be for IARPA to support better free software tools for “crowdsourced” public intelligence work involving using a social semantic desktop for sensemaking about open source data and building related open public action plans from that data to make local communities healthier, happier, more intrinsically secure, and also more mutually secure. Secure, healthy, prosperous, and happy local (and virtual) communities then can form together a secure, healthy, prosperous, and happy nation and planet in a non-ironic way. Details on that idea are publicly posted by me here in the form of a Proposal Abstract to the IARPA Incisive Analysis solicitation: “Social Semantic Desktop for Sensemaking on Threats and Opportunities

And, as will be mentioned below, the greatest threat facing specific CIA staff is heart disease and cancer. These two threats, global and personal, are actually connected in an odd sort of way, both reflecting past adaptive behavior which is no longer very adaptive under new conditions resulting from technological change. The current economic crisis the USA is facing also results from unrecognized underlying exponential trends.

I supply this document as mainly food for thought as people at IARPA contemplate the future of US defense intelligence and “incisive analysis”.

But this document is a sort of “meta” incisiveness, because it is about the CIA itself and related institutions and their difficulties dealing with this phase change in our society (as the late James P. Hogan mentioned in his 1982 novel “Voyage From Yesteryear”).

This note is also indirectly connected to this essay by Scott Helfstein published yesterday:

To Defeat Terrorists, Do a Little Research in the Library

Robert Steele has been saying the same thing for decades as Scott Helfstein’s essay about “open source” intelligence.

The late Tom Armour also worked in that direction in parts of Genoa II, as I mentioned here.

=== Irony? How can unrecognized irony be dangerous?


“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker. (Albert Einstein)”

I explain about the irony of the US defense posture in more detail here.

“Military robots like drones are ironic because they are created essentially to force humans to work like robots in an industrialized social order. Why not just create industrial robots to do the work instead?

Nuclear weapons are ironic because they are about using space age systems to fight over oil and land. Why not just use advanced materials as found in nuclear missiles to make renewable energy sources (like windmills or solar panels) to replace oil, or why not use rocketry to move into space by building space habitats for more land?

Biological weapons like genetically-engineered plagues are ironic because they are about using advanced life-altering biotechnology to fight over which old-fashioned humans get to occupy the planet. Why not just use advanced biotech to let people pick their skin color, or to create living arkologies and agricultural abundance for everyone everywhere?

These militaristic socio-economic ironies would be hilarious if they were not so deadly serious. …

Likewise, even United States three-letter agencies like the NSA and the CIA, as well as their foreign counterparts, are becoming ironic institutions in many ways. Despite probably having more computing power per square foot than any other place in the world, they seem not to have thought much about the implications of all that computer power and organized information to transform the world into a place of abundance for all. Cheap computing makes possible just about cheap everything else, as does the ability to make better designs through shared computing. …

There is a fundamental mismatch between 21st century reality and 20th century security thinking. Those “security” agencies are using those tools of abundance, cooperation, and sharing mainly from a mindset of scarcity, competition, and secrecy. Given the power of 21st century technology as an amplifier (including as weapons of mass destruction), a scarcity-based approach to using such technology ultimately is just making us all insecure. Such powerful technologies of abundance, designed, organized, and used from a mindset of scarcity could well ironically doom us all whether through military robots, nukes, plagues, propaganda, or whatever else…

Or alternatively, as Bucky Fuller and others have suggested, we could use such technologies to build a world that is abundant and secure for all.

So, while in the past, we had “nothing to fear but fear itself”, the thing to fear these days is ironically … irony. :-)

We the people need to redefine security in a sustainable and resilient way. Much current US military doctrine is based around unilateral security (“I’m safe because you are nervous”) and extrinsic security (“I’m safe despite long supply lines because I have a bunch of soldiers to defend them”), which both lead to expensive arms races. We need as a society to move to other paradigms like Morton Deutsch’s mutual security (“We’re all looking out for each other’s safety”) and Amory Lovin’s intrinsic security (“Our redundant decentralized local systems can take a lot of pounding whether from storm, earthquake, or bombs and would still would keep working”). …

Still, we must accept that there is nothing wrong with wanting some security. The issue is how we go about it in a non-ironic way that works for everyone. The people serving the USA in uniform are some of the most idealistic, brave, and altruistic people around; they just unfortunately are often misled for reasons of profit and power that Major General Butler outlined very clearly in War is a Racket decades ago. We need to build a better world where our trusting young people (and the people who give them orders) have more options for helping build a world that works for everyone than “war play”. We need to build a better world where some of our most hopeful and trusting citizens are not coming home with PTSD as shattered people (or worse, coming home in body bags) because they were asked to kill and die for an unrecognized irony of using the tools of abundance to create artificial scarcity.”

So, the unrecognized irony that is so dangerous to the USA involves a military focus on pursuing unilateral extrinsic security in relation to perceived scarcity by using advanced technologies (like computing or nanotech) in competitive ways intended to fight over resources, when the same technologies if used in cooperative ways could potentially produce global abundance and alleviate many local and global tensions that might otherwise increase through advanced technology arms races.

This “guns or butter” issue has been around for centuries, but it grows ever larger as our technologies become more capable and our “guns” more powerful. Each year, the planet stays the same size, but our technological capacity to destroy much of it (as far as humans are concerned) grows exponentially. Eventually, something has to give — either we will blow the planet up and/or plague it down, or we will move into space, or we will find better ways to live together cooperatively. The third option is the best available in the short term (though the second is a possibility in the longer term). Much progress has been made on that option of cooperation in the sense of mutual security, but much progress remains to be made.

The rest of this explores that broad theme as a meta-analysis of the CIA and its mission relative to 21st century technological trends and makes a specific suggestion for an IARPA project to address that generally unrecognized irony.

=== Terrorism is a symptom of irony

Terrorism is just one of many problems that can flow out of that unrecognized irony. In that sense, terrorism with WMDs is a symptom of irony, not the actual disease itself. Terrorism is only truly scary on a national level these days because of things like suitcase nukes or mass-produced engineered plagues, but those very technologies of nuclear science and bioengineering could produce a great future for everyone if people used them more constructively. One challenge then is to get would-be terrorists to think differently about their options as to how they use advanced technology. Even simple explosives could be used as a weapon in an IED or to produce wealth through mining.

Similarly, another symptom of this deeper disease is the widespread ironic misinformation such as people suggesting that the answer to “why they hate us” is “because we are free” rather than probably more likely in many cases being ironically instead “because we fund their oppressors”. But such flawed messages are easily amplified these days, as in this current controversy: “Coloring Books Sparks Outrage from Muslim Group.”

Why does a supposedly democratic state fund the oppressors of people in other countries? An aspect of that is an unrecognized irony stemming from scarcity fears by the US leadership, who end up creating the very scarcity and conflict they fear using the tools that could have alleviated the scarcity. We in the USA have recently incurred trillions of dollars of expenses for ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan when a tenth of that spent differently could have brought the USA a tremendous amount of goodwill in those regions and truly reduced the risk of global terrorism, like by airdropping mesh-networked solar-powered laptop computers instead of cruise missiles.

=== The curses of incisive meta-analysis

The above point on irony is my own attempt at “incisive” analysis after years of personal reflection on major issues confronting the USA and the rest of the planet and using public sources of information. I provide it now directly to IARPA even at a personal risk of invoking all three ancient Chinese curses on myself at once (as the joke goes):

“May you live in interesting times…

May you come to the attention of those in authority…

May you find what you are looking for…”

And it is not the first time I’ve risked those curses, like with an prescient observation in 1999, building on earlier stuff I wrote about in the 1980s, that unfortunately foreshadowed the tragedy of 9/11/2001:

DARPA Program Manager Position on Self-Replicating technology

“We of course need to minimize military tensions around the world through arms control, international aid, and setting a good example. This delays the culmination of these other trend to war, but in my opinion will not prevent them because of ever-present potential for a small group of unstable people to use weapons of mass destruction. … I also don’t think we have a significant choice. Such self-replicating and self-repairing systems will be developed eventually anyway, if only from commercial competitive pressures. The only thing we can do is slow down their development. Yet that has its own risks of our current infrastructure being overwhelmed by current weapons of mass destruction or sophisticated terrorism. Also, should such self-replicating technology be developed first clandestinely by an oppressive regime, the consequences for the United States could be disastrous.”

=== A systematic intelligence failure, including about Moore’s law and other technological and socio-economic trends

I feel what I outlined to DARPA in 1999 about the potential perils and benefits of self-replicating technology remains a big long-term issue (and a short-term one already with cyber-malware). But, an even more pressing issues is just the underlying widespread global intelligence failure to take in account Moore’s law and similar exponential trends in policy decision making just about more basic technology like computers, solar panels, biotechnology, or nutritional science.

Especially in conjunction with an exponential Moore’s law, it feels like there has been a systematic global intelligence failure to connect the dots about exponential change and present that information to decision makers in a persuasive way. Some people have tried, like the Club of Rome decades ago, but they ignored the fact that in the same way that problems can grow exponentially, solutions can grow exponentially as well. So, the Club of Rome’s “Peak Oil” and similar results were too pessimistic, and that widely amplified error itself has caused some bad policy and bad defense strategy based on scarcity fears. Consider how PV solar energy has been growing exponentially all that time, and if that rate continues, would supply all our power in twenty years or so. How does that square with worries about resource constraints, when with enough energy essentially almost everything is recyclable? Related on the exponential growth of solar energy:

Sub-Saharan Renewables Poised for Exponential Growth

Exponential Growth of Solar

While it is said in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War that “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”, how do you accomplish that when both you and your presumed enemy are changing identities exponentially, or even blending identities exponentially? Such a situation requires a new way of thinking. Not making that shift is likely to then bring in to play the rest of the quote: “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

If this failure of intelligence related to exponential technological trends is not addressed in some way, we will just see more disasters that seem to come out of nowhere but represent the culmination of longstanding trends. Many people, including in the intelligence community, recognize that problem in a hazy way (one reason for a project like Genoa II or the decades earlier Smalltalk-based Analyst and SRI Augment projects). But overall this issue of exponential growth is something effecting all areas of our society. And the problems themselves can feel like they just expand exponentially, to what unknown or unknowable kind of convergence based on what kind of values and practices, especially in the absence of some healthy humane vision? Related, by me from 2000:
[unrev-II] Singularity in twenty to forty years?

That problem of widespread intelligence failure across the political spectrum has also allowed short-term self-serving misinformation to proliferate. That misinformation has ranged included nonsense like 30 years of supply-side “voodoo” economics leading to 30 years of flat real wages despite a doubling or tripling of productivity during that time. The wealth from extra productivity was loaned to workers instead of given as wages, which ultimately leading to the recent economic collapse as credit limits were reached related to using rising home valuations to pull out cash through the banking system. So, this represents another failure to consider the ongoing consequences of exponential technological trends, with mainstream economists and politicians still predicting things will get back to a 20th century normal any year now.

Worse, that intelligence failure has led to the systematic ignoring of externalities in the marketplace including the defense costs of oil and natural gas pipelines (leading to the worst sort of socialism — socializing costs while privatizing profits). Ref (with caveats): “The True Cost of Oil

The failure to account for the true costs of fossil fuels up-front has also tragically lead to tens of thousands of our brave and self-sacrificing men and women in uniform being wounded or killed in vain in overseas oil lands. Or even worse than dying in vain, our soldiers have been ordered to act in ways to carry out policies that have contributed to an increase in hatred towards the USA provoked by misadventures abroad with ill-conceived wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on by multiple administrations and related problematical leadership. Additionally, this failure has also lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians which will no doubt spawn an entire generation of terrorists.

Yet, why are we even worried about oil these days when GE predicts solar power will likely be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2015? Ref: Solar Power Cheaper than Fossil Fuel in Five Years

And once that tipping point is reached, given that now as much money is already going into solar R&D in two years as the last thirty-five years, what will happen when that investment really gets going in earnest once many companies see short-term benefits to such investments? Ref: Will Crystalline Solar Kill Thin Film?

The occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan also has happened when by some estimates it would take only one half of one year’s US defense budget to make the USA energy independent through a variety of means (energy efficiency, renewables, and/or advanced nuclear, etc.). And this sort of fact has been known for *decades*. It is hard to overstate that as probably the greatest US intelligence failure of the 20th century. Ref, as one example of an alternative, but there are many others: Solar Grand Plan.

Ironically, to “save” money, Congress is now planning on cutting solar subsidies at the end of this year — which completely ignores the externality of defense costs to defend essentially indefensible long oil and gas supply lines.

Some conspiracy theorists have asked: “Was 9/11 an inside job?” Well, as I point out to some of them, who cares about that distracting question, when an intelligence failure of this magnitude related to US national security policy and energy has been staring us in the face since the 1970s or before? And when we had so many known alternatives in the 1970s (including passive solar and wind and solar thermal and thorium power) but have not pursued them because the intelligence community has failed to make a persuasive case about them as national security issues, and so there was also a planning failure and execution failure? Why worry about the possibility of secret conspiracies when such a generally agreed truth has stared us in the face in the USA for so long? And even ignoring that that ignored truth is the reason the USA propped up Saudi Arabia status-quo (the origin of most 9/11/2001 hijackers) for so long anyway?

Not that wrestling with energy issues is always an easy case to make. President Jimmy Carter discovered the same when he was not re-elected — even as he was, unfortunately, also all too prescient when he said this:

“We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure. All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.”

Well, it’s thirty years later, but it is still not too late to backtrack and to take the path Jimmy Carter outlined. But to do so, we need to move past this massive systematic intelligence failure, whatever its origins in either not connecting the dots or not presenting the conclusions well enough to lead to action.

=== Inspiration from the troops

Despite my feelings about the foolish tragedy of those recent wars, or that many young US lives were wasted through terrible political leadership, I can still be inspired by our troops’ brave example of self-sacrifice for a belief in something larger then themselves, like the sense of community and cooperation and collective security the US flag ultimately stands for when seen at its best.

Personally, I am not happy to be sticking my neck out about these issues. Still, I can find in our troops' brave examples of courage and camaraderie some inspiration to take on some small risk myself by comparison to what they had chosen to endure for their faith in their country — a country that has sadly failed them all too often. So, in that sense, perhaps those valiant people have not entirely suffered in vain if they can inspire others? Even if those troops were misled and misused out of either ignorance, foolishness, or greed by the people they trusted? Related: Post-Scarcity Princeton, or Reading Between the Lines — Recruiting in an Emerging Post-Scarcity World.

=== How the problem will get worse if we don’t do anything to address it

Essentially, these advanced technologies we have been developing are becoming too powerful to fight with on a small planet (or even to have a world where many people feel left out but inevitably have access to some of this technology they can improvise into WMDs).

In James P. Carse’s terminology, we increasing run the risks of our finite-oriented military games ending the infinite enduring game of global civilization. But at the same time, these technologies can eliminate most of the resource scarcities that have justified past conflicts, if we use the resources differently. That is the irony of our choice.

Others have seen this irony before. Albert Einstein same some of this back in the 1940s related to nuclear energy (as in the quote above), even as I now can generalize his remarks to most forms of advanced technology including nanotech, biotech, networks, robotics, AI, and more. Bucky Fuller saw the irony too and wrote about livingry versus weaponry.

A failure to realize this irony will produce ever greater problems down the road as we develop ever greater technologies that can become ever greater amplifiers of destructive impulses (including self-replicating nanotech and biotech) or ever greater inhibitors of constructive impulses (like pervasive surveillance to enforce arbitrary unhealthy norms as a “war on the unexpected”). Ref: The War on the Unexpected

So, how can we have an intelligence community in the 21st century that is truly worthy of the name? How can we have an intelligence community that truly helps prevent misadventures that waste trillions of US dollars while millions of US children grow up in poverty and tens of millions of US citizens lack access to health care or even adequate nutritious food?

=== Local examples of the consequences of national intelligence failures

A little over a week ago, just down the road from me, a man strangled his wife and then shot himself, leaving behind two distraught children, his bereaved parents (also down the road, but in the other direction), and a larger community still reeling from the shock of it all. It was a tough thing to explain to my own child. [I used the metaphor of people as like trees with roots but challenged by storms, where the deeper and stronger our roots are through friends, neighbors, family, community, nutrition, sunlight, exercise, spirituality, hobbies, nature, history, and so on, the less likely we are to be blown over in life's storms. And as Mr. Fred Rogers suggested parents do in such times, I also reassured my own child there would always be relatives around, like grandparents and aunts and uncles, to provide care even if parents were not, given children's first worry is often about themselves.] One of the bereaved parents of the man is the volunteer vice president of a historical society I’m a trustee of, and I’m sure that huge loss will ring around the community in various other ways. [It's a tragedy that most people can't relate to directly; I mentioned to the family the Compassionate Friends and the Karla Smith Foundation as places to begin to look for support by others who have suffered similar losses and will have a better understanding of related feelings.]

While human behavior is very complex, these difficult economic times have been linked to increasing domestic violence rates. So, in trying to understand this local tragedy in a global context, with an eye to preventing more such tragedies in the future, could that tragedy have been made a bit less likely if the USA had somehow focused more on improving its intrinsic domestic security through stronger communities that were better able to make sense of their own local stories and better able to create the conditions for growing stronger healthier families and stronger local economies? We’ll never know.

Yet a related sort of problem was outlined in a memorandum delivered to President Johnson in 1964:

“As machines take over production from men, they absorb an increasing proportion of resources while the men who are displaced become dependent on minimal and unrelated government measures — unemployment insurance, social security, welfare payments. These measures are less and less able to disguise a historic paradox: That a substantial proportion of the population is subsisting on minimal incomes, often below the poverty line, at a time when sufficient productive potential is available to supply the needs of everyone in the U.S.”

Down the road the other way, a young man dies of cancer. Again, could the USA have prevented that by collective intelligence for medical sensemaking to prevent and treat cancer? Again, we’ll never know.

Sure, one may say, the CIA does not have a mission to prevent domestic violence or cancer. Fine. But what do we really have to show for all our investment in centralized “intelligence” when the true killers and injurers of most Americans remain often preventable things like cancer, heart disease, depression, and domestic violence? One can ask why there is comparatively little investment spent on making sense of those real killers of over a million Americans a year in preference to pouring vast amounts to worrying about hypothetical human killers living in caves and such? Even as the costs to try to pick up the pieces of shattered lives and disrupted communities can be very high. [And even as there are less resources to deal with those problems as a direct result of the CIA's own failures to connect the dots and persuasively present findings about things like the non-existent WMDs in Iraq or many other crucial issues. Everyone has their limits. Everyone makes mistakes. But hopefully we can learn from mistakes and do better in the future in appropriate ways.]

Academics do try to understand these issues in isolation. But they don’t have access to the kind of collaborative tools for sensemaking that the intelligence community dreams about.

So, with all the billions of dollars a years spent on “intelligence”, why not at least try to produce some freely-available “dual use” intelligence tools to help civilian American citizens make sense of the real things that are killing most real Americans by the hundreds of thousands every year?

NASA does it, and celebrates it. Ref: NASA TTO

Unlike hardware innovations, software innovations can be easily released as free and modifiable software because copying programs is so easy relative to hardware (although hardware continues to fall in duplication cost, too). I helped my wife develop aspects of some software funded by the US government (Genoa II) and by the Singapore government (RAHS). But like most such projects, the end results became proprietary and effectively inaccessible to most taxpayers.

There are other ways to think about the requirements for such software investments involving public tax dollars, as I outline here: “An Open Letter to All Grantmakers and Donors On Copyright And Patent Policy In a Post-Scarcity Society

=== Meditating on the CIA’s mission and how it relates to “open source” domestic issues

Here is the mission of the CIA from its website:

“Mission: We are the nation's first line of defense. We accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go. We carry out our mission by:

* Collecting information that reveals the plans, intentions and capabilities of our adversaries and provides the basis for decision and action.

* Producing timely analysis that provides insight, warning and opportunity to the President and decisionmakers charged with protecting and advancing America's interests.

* Conducting covert action at the direction of the President to preempt threats or achieve US policy objectives.”

I focus here on the second point — producing timely analysis about protecting and advancing America’s interest to all decisionmakers (which IMHO includes every US citizen). What could be of greater value from that point of view than keeping US citizens from dying untimely deaths from whatever avoidable problems caused by misinformation or lack of social connection or bad planning or just out-right profit-taking in relation to addicting people to unhealthy stuff? Related: Addiction, Junk Food and Violence.

While the CIA focuses often on sensemaking about foreign terrorists killing Americans, consider this quote by Marcia Angell:

“The problems I’ve discussed are not limited to psychiatry, although they reach their most florid form there. Similar conflicts of interest and biases exist in virtually every field of medicine, particularly those that rely heavily on drugs or devices. It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine. (Marcia Angell)”

Who are the aggressors here, apparently making profits when killing US citizens through misleading information? See for example:

Spine Experts Repudiate Medtronic Studies

“In an extraordinary move, a group of spine specialists are publicly repudiating the research of other experts that has backed the widespread use of a … bone growth product. In a series of reports published in a medical journal on Tuesday, the specialists called the research misleading and biased. … “It harms patients to have biased and corrupted research published,” five doctors wrote in a joint editorial that accompanied the reports. “It harms patients to have unaccountable special interests permeate medical research.” ”

Would software that was designed to help figure out, say, money laundering social networks have helped US citizens in figuring that bias out sooner?

There are probably few things the CIA could do that would save more US lives annually than helping US citizens make sense of and take action on issues like this (according to Dr. Joel Fuhrman):

“Interventional cardiology and cardiovascular surgery is basically a scam based on a misunderstanding of the nature of heart disease. Searching for and treating obstructive plaque does not address the areas of the coronary vascular tree most likely to rupture and cause heart attacks. If there was never another CABG or angioplasty performed or stent placed, patients with heart disease would be better off. Doctors would be forced to educate our citizens that their heart disease risk is determined by what they place on their forks. Millions of lives would be dramatically extended. To abandon the theory of stretching and cutting out areas with plaque would shut down interventional cardiology, nearly all cardiovascular surgery, and many suppliers of the biotechnology. In many cases, interventional cardiology is the major income generator to hospitals. The ending of this ill-conceived, out-dated and ineffective technology would dramatically downsize hospitals in the United States and free up over $100 billion annually in medical care costs. Besides being ineffective, interventional cardiology places the responsibility in the hands of the doctor and not the patients. When patients finally realize they must take control of their heart problems with aggressive dietary modifications (and when needed medications for temporary periods) we will essentially solve the health crisis in America.”

Disclaimer: about a decade ago, my father died of a heart attack about six months after having a stent put in — a very common occurrence it turns out. So I have personal feelings about this issue.

OK, so the CIA may claim it is not concerned directly about the health of US citizens or sensemaking about that? Really? Not its department? Even with heart disease probably the number one killer of CIA staff?

“Number of deaths for leading causes of death:

* Heart disease: 616,067

* Cancer: 562,875 …”

If the CIA truly wants to “seek and speak the truth — to our colleagues and to our customers” as a value, forget about Valerie Plame-gate as far as damaging the CIA’s operational capacity; it’s the refined grain products and processed animal products that are probably really taking a toll on CIA staff (along with vegetable deficiency disease and vitamin D deficiency diseases).

Yet, in some ways this local threat to CIA staff and this global threat of an ironic defense posture are connected, because both result from an evolutionary psychology issue of trying to use mental strategies adapted to scarcity for dealing with abundance. Related books and articles:

Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose” by Deirdre Barrett

The Pleasure Trap” by Douglas J. Lisle and Alan Goldhamer

But nonetheless, let’s assume the CIA’s mission-based limits can not extend to health sensemaking even for its own staff. And let’s even ignore the relation between physical health and high-quality thinking (even if that might give the CIA’s analysts a significant boost in effectiveness at next to no cost).

Still, why could not most of the same technologies the CIA would like to have for itself be made available to civilians of any nation to think through these sorts of issues as the low-hanging fruit of national security, which ultimately rests on things like the health of a nation’s people and the laughter of a nation’s children? Then, whatever citizens discover and make public through using such tools would be available to the CIA in its own operations if for no other reason than general cultural propagation.

Consider that one of the biggest problems facing the US military is finding non-obese recruits, as a classmate from Princeton points out here: “First Lady Michelle Obama Visits Fort Jackson

Or from 1920: “The Nation’s health, Volume 2 By John Augustus Lapp

“The war provided an unprecedented stimulus and opportunity in many branches of science and industry none received a greater share of this stimulus than medicine none was offered greater opportunity to demonstrate its true value as a national asset The fact that a nation’s strength depends basically on the physical and mental fitness of her citizens was brought to a state of clear and definite realization.”

This health issue is just one of many, many examples of how national security issues are interwoven in complex ways with all sorts of basic issues and can not be solved in isolation or, in general, in secret.

And even just health itself is a many factored thing. Even when one wants to eat better and knows how to do it (Dr. Joel Fuhrman is a good touchstone), one needs a supportive community, a broader set of positive lifestyle factors, and many other factors to really make it possible, like also discussed in the Blue Zones project or by Dr. Andrew Weil in his more holistic books. In that sense health is not an easily purchasable good. You have to earn it by a lifestyle which includes living in a health-promoting community.

From another angle, consider that NASA has gotten a lot of good press by all its spinoffs to make everyday life better. That’s a major way NASA justifies its mission. Considering how the CIA can not talk about most of its successes, it would seem that the more the CIA and IARPA can contribute obvious things to be used by US citizens, the more appreciated it might nationally and globally from a PR perspective.

The current US economy is also collapsing in part from not recognizing similar trends related to scarcity thinking in the face of abundance. Mainstream economists seem to be in denial that their beautiful elegant equations are suffering from divide-by-zero errors as annual incremental demand goes towards zero and productivity grows exponentially and wealth concentrates into a “casino economy” detached from the physical economy. Related by me:

And here is an appeal by others:

“The authors of this appeal are deeply concerned that more than three years since the outbreak of the financial and macroeconomic crisis that highlighted the pitfalls, limitations, dangers and responsibilities of main-stream thought in economics, finance and management, the quasi-monopolistic position of such thought within the academic world nevertheless remains largely unchallenged.”

Could better dual-use discussion and economic modelling and simulation tools help with that?

=== Moving forward to a post-scarcity intelligence paradigm

Part of a way forward may be to re-envision the US CIA as a post-scarcity institution focusing more on promoting crowdsourced public intelligence connecting the dots to truly understand 21st century security needs in a broad way.

I wrote about that idea here:

“This approximately 60 page document is a ramble about ways to ensure the CIA (as well as other big organizations) remains (or becomes) accountable to human needs and the needs of healthy, prosperous, joyful, secure, educated communities. The primarily suggestion is to encourage a paradigm shift away from scarcity thinking & competition thinking towards abundance thinking & cooperation thinking within the CIA and other organizations. I suggest that shift could be encouraged in part by providing publicly accessible free “intelligence” tools and other publicly accessible free information that all people (including in the CIA and elsewhere) can, if they want, use to better connect the dots about global issues and see those issues from multiple perspectives, to provide a better context for providing broad policy advice. It links that effort to bigger efforts to transform our global society into a place that works well for (almost) everyone that millio
ns of people are engaged in. A central Haudenosaunee story-related theme is the transformation of Tadodaho through the efforts of the Peacemaker from someone who was evil and hurtful to someone who was good and helpful. …”

But I don’t expect anyone to listen to me specifically about that (or even read all that or my other writings, though it was useful for me to write them). People will have to find their own way to that by connecting the dots for themselves. Almost anyone reading this in 2011 will likely react by saying that scarcity is a given and we need to be ready to fight to get our share of scarce resources (like declining oil supplies) and so we need to be willing to pour much of our investment capital into various types of armaments including intelligence-related ones or stuff like the self-replicating Stuxnet. Still, I hope that someday what I am writing now may seem obvious to most people, but I can accept that right now it may seem like lunacy to many.

If one was going to entertain the heretical thought for a moment though, anyway, it would seem that to connect the dots better, following Scott Helfstein’s suggestion, we need better digital libraries and better digital tools for using those digital libraries for sensemaking. That is something Doug Engelbart has talked about for decades, of course (as have others). Ref: Doug Engelbart Vision Highlights.

The next step beyond the semantic web is the social semantic desktop, as discussed here:

“We all are now much more connected, and in turn face new resulting problems: information overload caused by insufficient support for information organization and collaboration. For example, sending a single file to a mailing list multiplies the cognitive processing effort of filtering and organizing this file times the number of recipients — leading to more and more of peoples’ time going into information filtering and information management activities. There is a need for smarter and more fine-grained computer support for personal and networked information that has to blend the boundaries between personal and group data, while simultaneously safeguarding privacy and establishing and deploying trust among collaborators.”

Yet, despite the promise of information technology, the CIA is probably the worst equipped institution in the USA to deal with information or to do related sensemaking, for this reason, if Wikipedia on this is a reliable source:

“All of this has the effect of making it hard for DI analysts to interact even with the classified outside world. The CIA view is that there are risks to connecting CIA systems even to classified systems elsewhere. Mitigating those risks sends implicit messages to analysts: that technology is a threat, not a benefit; that the CIA does not put a high priority on analysts using IT easily or creatively; and, worst of all, that data outside the CIA’s own network are secondary to the intelligence mission.”

So, here is a specific first step I proposed in that direction written in the form of a proposal abstract to IARPA related to incisive analysis to help people everywhere, including at the CIA, “connect the dots” about an emerging post-scarcity society:

“Summary: As a legacy from the 20th century, there are currently broad institutional barriers in the US intelligence community that make it difficult for intelligence analysts to gain 21st century insights into 21st century issues using 21st century technology and 21st century public data sources. To address the need to move beyond those institutional barriers, we propose a proof-of-concept project called “Twirlip” as a free and open source software (GPL) Public Intelligence desktop platform for the general public. It would use Java/JVM desktop technologies and CouchDB [or other similar software] as a backend relay server and indexed archive. It would be built around the idea of a social semantic desktop. The public can then use this system to process open source data to crowdsource sensemaking and analysis about global socioeconomic, technical, and geopolitical trends, with a special emphasis on understanding the likely global consequences of Moore's law. The global community can also expand this platform in various ways by adding new freely licensed modules. The US intelligence community can then build on this public software and public content in its own internal sensemaking and analysis. Supporting this system by IARPA may create both a strategic first mover advantage and a public relations advantage for the US intelligence community. Whether the software is of any use to the US intelligence community directly is not as important as whether the community gets new ideas from seeing what the public does with such tools or seeing how such tools are expanded.”

Other related similar suggestions by me in other contexts are here: sensemaking

With all the resources the US defense establishment has at its command, no doubt IARPA could do a great job at creating such tools if you tried. Or at least, IARPA could get a snowball rolling that would someday likely be hundreds of times the scale of what Wikipedia is now (ultimately involving millions of person-years worth of effort to create and maintain). Such a project might help justify all the expense that has gone before, just like in some sense the success of the internet alone as a tool for thinking about security issues justifies all the DARPA spending through all the decades.

As an example, consider the national benefit from the creation of the internet in making it possible for anyone to easily download and discuss the book “Brittle Power” by Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins:

Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security is a 1982 book by Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, prepared originally as a Pentagon study, and re-released in 2001 following the September 11 attacks. The book argues that U.S. domestic energy infrastructure is very vulnerable to disruption, by accident or malice, often even more so than imported oil. According to the authors, a resilient energy system is feasible, costs less, works better, is favoured in the market, but is rejected by U.S. policy. In the preface to the 2001 edition, Lovins explains that these themes are still very current.”

But that Brittle Power study was done by just two people. What could thousands of people working together with modern internet-mediated tools like structured dialogs, narrative sensemaking processes, visualization toolkits, and agent-based simulations accomplish? Maybe we’d even have more breakthroughs to improve the USA’s intrinsic security like the recent announcement about an (theorized) alloy of Gallium Nitride and Antimony being useful for producing hydrogen from water in the presence of sunlight, or many other innovations in energy ranging from various sorts of fusion to new types of superconducter-based wind turbines?

Of course, a big problem there is that intelligence failures of all sorts are probably profitable to some few people, as this decorated Major General essentially pointed out in a lecture.

So, you all have a tough job at IARPA, caught in the middle of all that. Your oath is to the country, but how can one resist powerful local forces to compromise about that?

=== Wishing IARPA well in trying to do the right thing despite internal tensions and endless bureaucratic constraints

To conclude, I hope you all at IARPA are getting your vitamin D, omega 3s, and lots of veggies to maximize your physical and mental health so that you can ensure that the USA has the best intrinsic security and mutual security possible, made possible by high quality intelligence (as applied to upholding core national values like Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms“. Sadly, the intelligence community lost a great champion for better tools with the loss of Tom Armour from brain cancer — which might have been preventable had more people knows about the relation between nutrition and health — so, another broad intelligence failure in that medical sense. And a tremendous loss to the US intelligence community.

Here are some relevant links on health themes (filtered from thousands of related documents I’ve read), although again, such links represent the synthesis of data by mainly one or a few people, not crowds, and so no doubt could be improved:

This knowledge such as Dr. Joel Fuhrman has synthesized can work wonders. I lost about 50 excess lbs and about 20 points of blood pressure, and I feel a lot better in general, following this sort of advice. And I generally don’t feel “deprived” when eating more fruits, vegetables, and beans (and some nuts, seeds, and whole grains) because my tastes have changed.

We need you all at IARPA to do the truly best job possible at supporting high quality intelligence, even as the results may lead in unexpected directions sometimes, as above.

All the best in that mission to the extent it upholds core humane values in a participatory democratic society. I hope, if nothing else, this email gives you a laugh that anyone could be so silly as to send something like it.

Feel free to consider this note as under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license for redistribution purposes.

–Paul “Twirlip” Fernhout


The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the irony of technologies of abundance in the hands of those thinking in terms of scarcity.

Phi Beta Iota: A cynic would suggest that the dysfunctional intelligence and defense and homeland security communities are actually doing exactly what they are intended to do…transferring taxpayer income as quickly as possible to the banks, often with legalized criminal protocols such as have been common on Wall Street and in the mortgage and credit card businesses. Until the public demands a government with both intelligence and integrity, no change in the dysfunctionality of any element of the government should be expected. In the meantime, IARPA would do well to revisit and then accomplish the simple goals established in the 1985-1989:

Worth a Look: 1989 All-Source Fusion Analytic Workstation — The Four Requirements Documents

See Also:


1987 Thesis: National Security C3I3H3 — Command, Communications, & Computing, Inter-Agency, Inter-Disciplinary, Inter-Operability, Heuristics of the Community Intelligence Cycle

1989 General Al Gray on Global Intelligence Challenges

1992 Reference: USMC C4I Campaign Plan

1992 Information Concepts & Doctrine for the Future

1992 E3i: Ethics, Ecology, Evolution, & intelligence (An Alternative Paradigm)

2008 World Brain as EarthGame

2008: Creating a Smart Nation

2009 Fixing the White House & National Intelligence

2009 Human Intelligence: All Humans, All Minds, All the Time

2009 Intelligence for the President — AND Everyone Else

2009 Perhaps We Should Have Shouted: A Twenty-Year Restrospective

2009 Re-Inventing Intelligence to Re-Engineer Earth


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