Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism

–So much of what we hear and read about major policy issues sounds like short-termism. Why aren’t more people taking the long-term seriously? Where’s the widespread recognition that temporizing doesn’t address—nor can any short-termism address—the fundamental issues driving these crises, be it global climate change (GCC), global financial meltdowns, pandemics, income inequality, others?

A starting typology. Consider a 2 x 2 typology. One dimension is your ready-made about short-termism versus long-termism.

The other dimension captures two distinct features of the long-term that characterize crises: the long-term conceptualized as the concatenation of discrete or punctuated short-terms versus the long-term as continuously unfolding trends and interactions segmented into (short-term) periods.

Rather than label each, representative statements for each cell are summarized:

Key typology implications for long-terms and short-terms. Foremost, what differentiates “time” is not the “long term versus short term.” It’s better to say some crises are pegged to more than one “short/long” cell.

For example, take the healthcare crisis in Cell 2 (basically, “Increases in healthcare costs are unsustainable”) and now rescript it through the other three cells: “The problem in healthcare is that we can’t predict the kind of innovations necessary for adapting to the multiple futures we face here and today” (Cell 1); “Healthcare continues to be characterized by just a series of hardware and digital upheavals, one after another” (Cell 3); and “It’s not if the next pandemic of an unknown virus will happen but only when” (Cell 4).

Time is always more complicated in crisis scenarios than long-term v. short-term. In the topology, time varies for two primary reasons: because, as we just saw, the same crisis can reflect multiple short/long preoccupations and because the matching of crises to different cells is a major way the passage of time emerges and is tracked.

Different timelines, in effect, track different trajectories of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty. The latter look very different if, e.g., that “second surge” of COVID-19 is conceptualized in Cell 2 or in Cell 3 terms. In Cell 2, we have learned something by the time the second surge takes off; in Cell 3, so much may have worsened as a result of COVID-19 and so changed are the initial conditions that any “second surge” may well imply starting to learn all over again.

Even then, a Cell 3 focus—one US secretary of state called foreign policy one damn thing after another—has the great virtue (and I believe it is a virtue) of reminding people that there are cases where predicting the future is difficult precisely for the same reasons learning from the past is: Both require low environmental instability, stability in organizational goals and objectives, and institutional memory, among other factors.

–To some the absence of these preconditions is negative; to me, even where negative, these highlight the many other policy areas where the preconditions do exist to varying degrees of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty.

For example, some regional climate change modeling is of such a high resolution today that model results can be and are in some cases disaggregated in ways that cross several of the above cells. It’s now possible to project estimates for rising sea-levels, storm surges and inland flooding in, say, 20-year increments to better reflect already existing near- and longer-term cycles for region-based infrastructure equipment/plant depreciation and longer term investments, among others. These cycles may overlap but by no means necessarily coincide.

Does this mean uncertainty about climate change impacts is reduced in this case? Of course not. The point is that model disaggregation increases the confidence of decision-making by helping to triangulate (no guarantees here!) on what has already been planned using fewer factors and methods.

The typology’s very major implication for short-termism. Another feature of the typology is subtler but more important for rethinking any complaint about short-termism in crisis response: In all cells, the future is a hypothesis we have yet to finish with.

The Cell 1 hypothesis is that the crisis comes about because we know we can’t predict the future; Cell 4 hypothesizes its crisis is due precisely because we know and can predict the future. Cell 2 conjectures that because we know the present we know the future will differ significantly; while Cell 3 puts forward that we already know that present and future will be alike and importantly so.

But why, “hypothesis”?

A core issue moves to the fore when we focus on the nature of the present in any of the four cells. Where, specifically, in discussing the long and short terms does “not knowing the present” come into play? (Go back to the typology’s four cells and ask of each: “What are the implications of not knowing the present stipulated in this cell?”).

–Whatever your answer, one implication is very clear: Not knowing the short-term we’re in scarcely constitutes short-termism. In fact, conventional short-termism—the present matters more than the future, period—requires more certainty and confidence than warrantable by the respective hypotheses. Our challenge remains “to foresee the present,” as Turgot, the 18th century French economist and statesman, put it long ago. Trying to foresee the present—to track how control room decisions play out over time–is not short-termism.

Major implication for theory and practice. One example of the major implications for theory and practice at the same time will have to suffice. Any number of theories predict very major disasters are headed our way, which haven’t yet appeared because it hasn’t been long enough for them to do so.

Nuclear power plant explosions will eventually be normal occurrences because their irremediable technological tight coupling and complex interactivity makes disaster unavoidable. We haven’t seen enough of them to realize that. Global financial meltdowns and market contagions lead to herd behavior and mob violence, eventually bringing the system down. That there haven’t been more of this shouldn’t dissuade us from seeing what’s coming.

–Long enough, you tell us, and all of this will be abundantly clear—UNLESS, you underscore, we act now to prevent their occurrence.

Well, ok; sure.

But, humor me: Just what cells are you talking about?

Are you saying that nuclear plant explosions and market meltdowns are inevitable because of the long-run trends (Cell 2)? Or are you saying that since these disasters could happen in any of the four cells, they are “more likely” to happen? (No need, you say, for anything like a χ2 test for our 2 x 2 to know that!) Or are you saying something else with respect to your preferred cells and how to parcelize them?

“Actually. WHAT are you predicting?”

Principal source: This is a much augmented, revised section from my “Licking the sharp edge of the sword,” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (2018) 27(1): 1–7.

Betterment (continued)


Henry David Thoreau put it in his Journals, “I do not know that knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise, or a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called knowledge before. . .”

Assume this is so and go on to ask, How can a politics, policy and management infused through and through with not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience be effective?

Effectiveness means those occasions for rethinking (recasting, redescribing, recalibrating, redefining) categories of politics, policy and management lived and worked by, including “regulation,” “failed states,” “politics,” “economic growth and progress,” and “betterment” itself. This happens when you (plural) realize how much depends on advancing to the decision point of “Yes but” and “Yes and.” As betterment pushes complex truths further, I call that good-enough.


Earlier definitions of betterment figured in versions of the 18th century European Enlightenment. The term was used interchangeably with “improvement” or “progress,” though from time to time singled out as its own unit of analysis (most famously in economist Adam Smith’s “the great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition”).

The variety of Enlightenment thinkers, however, made it inevitable that not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience would be touched upon specifically. Voltaire discusses not-knowing in the entry “On the Limits of the Human Mind” of his Philosophical Dictionary; David Hume, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, grappled with the acknowledged idea of “not-knowing as the key to the contented life,” according to one commentator; in the view of another, Adam Smith expressed “an open skepticism about the possibility of knowing definitively what it is we are really doing;” while Immanuel Kant notably wrote about “the unknowability of things-in-themselves.” “Full recognition of the importance of uncertainty and the unknowable in analysing economic processes is an eighteenth-century heritage. . .which cannot be emphasized too often. . .” writes a third observer.

As for difficulty, historian Jonathan Israel sketches its central role in the Radical Enlightenment: “Theories of progress, however, contrary to what many have assumed, were usually tempered by a strong streak of pessimism, a sense of the dangers and challenges to which the human condition is subject. The notion, still widespread today, that Enlightenment thinkers nurtured a naive belief in man’s perfectibility seems to be a complete myth conjured up by early twentieth-century scholars unsympathetic to its claims. In reality, Enlightenment progress breathed a vivid awareness of the great difficulty of spreading toleration, curbing religious fanaticism, and otherwise ameliorating human organization, orderliness, and the general state of health was always impressively empirically based.”

Nor was the role of inexperience remote to versions of the Enlightenment: “In the light of the triumph of Newtonian science, the men of the Enlightenment argued that experience and experiment, not a priori reason, were the keys to true knowledge,” writes historian, Roy Porter, where inexperience ironically became a touchstone for criticizing French Enlighteners: “Above all, critics complained, in politics the philosophes lacked the quality they pretended to value most: experience.” Yet, the almost universal priority given to education by Enlightenment advocates across a wide spectrum reflected their acknowledgement that more education meant, acutely, more experience.


These earlier nods toward not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience take us to today’s “and-yet” betterment of yes-but and yes-and. For their growing centrality has brought useful complications to Yes versus No when it comes to a good-versus-bad politics and policymaking.

The ethnographer and writer, Michel Leiris, writes about the need “to merge the yes and the no.” “Between yes and no” is the title of an early essay by Camus. Nietzsche “said no to life as long as it was easy, but yes when it took on the form of the impossible”. The work of Elizabeth Bishop was “perhaps more a quiet no than a great big yes,” according to another poet. More severe, “Herman Melville praised Nathaniel Hawthorne: ‘He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie’”, records the critic, Christopher Ricks, who then asks: “But what about saying, ‘Yes, but…?’”

Ricks is spot-on. In the same way as dark energy and dark matter are said to make up the vast portion of the universe, politics, policy and management are grasped only because of—not in spite of—the not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience, all around and in between.


This betterment is not possible unless you (plural again) recognize how exaggerated many stopping points are in decisionmaking. For example: To govern is to choose. But choose between an irresistible-Yes and an unmovable-No? Better to say, as many have before: No one governs innocently.

Kant’s Enlightenment exhortation—Dare to know! (Sapere aude!)—is taken from the Roman poet, Horace: “Dimidium facti qui coepi, habet: sapere aude: Incipe ( “To have begun is to be half done; dare to know; start!”). Some highlight not only the dare-to-know, but the charge in the word, “Incipe,” as in: “Get started now!” My eye, though, gravitates to that first clause,“To have begun is to be half done”. Far too much of our truth-telling stops short of the indispensable push ahead.


And what is that indispensable push ahead? It is from stopping short at progress and economic growth and pushing further to that good-enough betterment.

If you will, we have over-invested in economic growth on the premise that the knowledge acquired in this way takes us further than we could otherwise go. But good-enough betterment discussed here goes further than economic growth. Instead of insisting practical good enough falls short of true progress, it would be truer to say that progress and economic growth are overdeveloped versions of good-enough betterment.

The 19th century French poet, Lamartine, wrote “Utopias are often just premature truths”—which is precisely the shortcoming I have in mind: Stopping short at progress is premature. How then is betterment better? More than anything else, it has the maturity of a yes-but and yes-and grounded in complexity.

Dining on gin and consommé

Thornton really got started. “One of the first things the new university president did was to establish the All Campus Organizing Council. All-COC—which it is not—has many mandates. For my part, I chaired The Interdisciplinary Team milked for an interdisciplinary seminar here, a cross-disciplinary conference there, you know what I mean.

“Now, it was my turn on behalf of TIT to attend an event we funded. Peter, you remember the oldest unit on campus? Well, the seminar series I’m talking about took place in there in the College of Agriculture, Resources and the Environment. CARE, which it did not, has produced, among other distinctions, the stay-soft (all-mush) peach, the BetterLife (Bet-her-life!) household insect sprays, and the workerless irrigation technologies (WITless to critics).

“If we are to believe the College, a dollar of their research leads to more than two dollars return on investment in terms of increased agricultural productivity and blah, blah, blah. What the research actually has done is immiserate farmworkers, help obliterate family farms, and concentrate wealth into corporate infamies. The media eventually sniffed some of this out and went into its Brownian motion, the legislature hemmed, a court case was decided, and CARE found itself having to.

“What were one day CARE’s long-standing departments of insecticides, farm technology, industrial forestry, and crop production become the Department of Life Sciences. Programs were ‘rebranded’ environmental. Sotto voce cries of ‘we want evolution, not revolution!’ were heard from faculty. Meetings found their social scientists hectoring insecticide faculty, ‘Well, at least our research doesn’t kill farmworkers!’ The economists, ever their own, shouted back, ‘When was the last time you lot published in Mathematica?!’

“Time passes, the College publicized its ever-so socially and environmentally responsible initiatives, including—no joke here—its Smallholder Land Access Program (SLAP). With these diddles as the front-door, the College repositioned itself to continue its back-door research in genetic engineering, agricultural biotechnology, pharming and the like. A win-win for College banditti. . .”

“Thornton. . .,” Dick cautioned. “My dear boys, believe me, you can’t make this up! So,” Thornton pressed, “TIT was asked to come through the front-door and sponsor the Dean’s Seminar Series: “What are natural resources?” The idea was a simple one, as you might expect. Ask members of the College’s departments to answer from their own discipline’s perspective.

“Whatever, they expected us to fund the Series, and we did. No, Peter, I brook no criticism. None. You two had to have been there. The sight of any kind of money, well, it was like shining deer at night.

“Now, I found myself at their seminar, ‘What are natural resources? The perspective of a humane biotechnologist.’ Acedia thickens. Four people in the room. I ask the perfectly obvious question, absolutely no malice intended, so I put forward, with the obligatory preamble of not being a scientist, correct me if I’m wrong, etcetera: ‘. . .but let me ask you this, just what is natural about agricultural biotechnology?’ I mean, it is the title of the seminar. The presenter was gobsmacked—had I cursed?—and responded: ‘But. . .what’s more natural than a gene?’

“I was unnerved. Enough said. I knew then and there these people needed surveilling.

“So, when out of nowhere, the university president taps me to chair a very hush-hush committee on the scandal involving CARE’s new dean, I accepted posthaste. The president needed, how to say, a man of singular disposition to make sense of the unholy mess into which the dean had gotten himself and the College.

“I now introduce CARE’s Dean Pitt Maxwell. You may have met him when you were there, Peter. He was a senior faculty member—from one of those prairies that still calls itself a state. Before becoming dean he had held The University Walters’ Grapefruit Chair in Anti-Communist Political Economy.”

Peter snapped his fingers: “Not the Max?” “The very one.” Peter rushed on, “His first proposal as dean—right?—was to privatize the College’s entire agricultural extension faculty into ‘the second generation e-business solution’ at—omigod—we_CARE2.edu?”

Distaste flashed across Thornton. “Where to start? During CARE’s reorganization wars, the earlier dean tried to create a new Department of Social Studies by merging College faculty for park and nutritional sociology with CARE’s existing department of economics. It had only been Maxwell’s abrasiveness that saved the latter. ‘You can’t do that,’ he stormed. ‘They’re economists, for Christ’s sake, not social scientists. . .’”

Thornton paused. “Actually, one of his award-winning articles argues that the solution to the lack of government transparency is to auction off government’s right to tax. That way, there’d be little left for government to be transparent about. To this man, it is transparency this, transparency that—Maxwell said it so often it was the surest sign that here was one, very bored man. I mean, I do have my own defects, but his transparency, this bubble of thin consommé and straight gin? Never!”

To be continued as it hasn’t ended

In praise of new bottles for old wine

–At some point in their careers, people are struck by the same-old same-old. New problems turn out to be the old ones for which new terms—jargon? fads?—have been (re)invented.

The point I make below is that even if new bottles for old wine, that bottling is necessary for those pushing complex policy, management and politics further. What is jargon, after all, but terms that prematurely cease to go far enough, at least for you?

–My perspective on being a policy analyst and researcher is, I believe, unexceptional in three ways that hold for other careers as well:

  • I work from within pre-existing structures (language, organizations, networks, the hardwired brain, my profession. . .) that I did not create;
  • My perspective on these structures, however, is not wholly determined by them, since I and others are also products of contingencies (accidents, luck, happenstance, conjunctures, chance); and
  • Our perspectives do matter, but differently. Some bear witness to that which they cannot change; some criticize and critique conditions that must be changed; some provide longer-term alternatives to work toward, even if shorter-term interventions prove infeasible.

That no one avoids his or her times and contingencies would be a banal observation, were it not each generation having to discover the fact as its own.

–What bothers me, though, is the dismissiveness typically attached to that term, “new bottles.” In contrast, my experience has been that new terminology and concepts are essential when it comes to some of the unidentified perspectives in the third bullet. Unlike those listed there, my field aims for far more effective short-term interventions to what looks intractable now.

New bottles for the old wine are essential in at least two ways. First, common terms are useful when taking on new or more nuanced meaning(s): When I use “risk,” I am not subscribing to the ISO 31000 definition; when I use “contingency,” I do not mean the way, say, Louis Althusser positioned it; when I call for “humility,” I mean to include a vigilance others do not single out; by “ignorance” I mean not just an engineer’s unstudied conditions, but also a philosopher’s unstudiable ones.

Second and far more significant, new or more nuanced terms specify a greater level of detail with respect to what matters, now. I use “policy palimpsest” instead of its seeming synonyms—“language games,” “discourse systems,” or “dispositif”—because a policy palimpsest is always with respect to a specific policy or management issue or complex of issues, e.g., failed states, and at a level of granularity and detail that matter for changing the issue(s) now, and not just later.

Of course, the other strategies of bearing witness, permanent critique, and long-term planning remain valid. (Like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, we wheedle Those-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed: “How was the Assembly today, dear? Anything/in the minutes about Peace?”) The point is that such are not the only ways. Even when classic theories—Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist, more—get us a good distance along, they fall short of where policymakers and practitioners are to go: case by case, pros ton kairon (“as the occasion merits”), Aristotle would have it.

Principal source
Aristophanes (1969). Lysistrata. Trans. Douglass Parker in Aristophanes’ Four Comedies, edited by William Arrowsmith. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

America’s and Trump’s

We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians. Massimo D’Azeglio at the dawn of Italian unification, 1860

The artist as the created; Mona Lisa’s Leonardo, Beatrice’s Dante. Curious concept. Guy Davenport in a letter to Hugh Kenner, 1963

America’s Americans? Trump’s Trump?

“Satan’s Milton” prompted William Blake, poet and illustrator, to write that John Milton was of the Devil’s party anyway, irrespective of his Satan in Paradise Lost. Many people are so used to thinking of the Devil as a systematically misleading expression—a noun with no literal referent—that we forget the “Devil’s party” exists in the same way “America’s” or “Trump’s” exist as a network of narratives or, better yet, a networked palimpsest of overwritten narratives for those who take their purchase from them.

If I talk about “Gatsby’s F. Scott Fitzgerald,” I could be saying Fitzgerald’s creation is based in good part on Fitzgerald himself. Or, if I talk about “the fairytale’s teller,” I might be noting how the shared structure of fairytales sets the course for their telling.

Or, if I am talking about Satan’s Milton, I might hypothesize that the poet worked out his own theology in greater detail by having to think about and dictate that Satan into Paradise Lost. In fact, it is unexceptional to argue that context makes the person and the person the context: Join a bullshitting organization and you become a reinforcing bullshitter. Take active part in a bullshitting nation and, surprise, not only are its leaders bullshitters.

All of that, again, is known or tacitly appreciated. What I want to explore is something more complicated and accordingly more open-ended.

To what extent has our composite creation, this networked palimpsest called “America,” or for that matter our composite narrative called “Trump,” ended up creating openings for those who identify as Americans or as Trump to rewrite themselves in more specific terms?

Just as the point of “an average man’s man” is that it’s not just men being talking about and that no individual ever matches a demographic mean, so too America’s Americans and Trump’s Trump are more ideographic because the overarching narratives and palimpsest are more complex than assumed.

How so? Undertake a thought experiment (the idea for which comes from another letter of Davenport’s to Kenner).

Imagine two parallel worlds so alike that they would have been the same, were it not for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. One world has the line, “I am thy father’s spirit;” the other instead has, “Ich bin dein Papas Spook.” The former world does not know of the latter; nor does the latter world know the former’s line. Both readings and their respective commentaries, however, lurk as possible, because Hamlet is complex enough as a text to accommodate both—and more for that matter.

By extension, to say we live in a world of “Papa’s Spook” than of “spirit” is true only as far as it goes. It’s only good enough when we push our re-readings further.

For example, it is little recorded that some early English colonists to America either ran away to live with Native Americans or refused to return from captivity when given the chance. As one early writer put it, reluctant colonists enjoyed the “most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail upon us”. Native American practices were also adopted by other colonists who remained firmly in the Western tradition. Famously, an early French Jesuit found Native American customs “afforded me illumination the more easily to understand and explain several matters found in ancient authors”.

Just imagine the entire lot of colonists ran away to live with Native Americans, once realizing that better practices had already been found and that colonization was a ghastly prospect by comparison. Now that’s a counterfactual worth more re-readings![1]

[1] Note that major counterfactuals are often scandalous and remain so, not least because the way things remain a scandal in the extreme. Here is a different counterfactual–this of the 18th century Enlightener, Denis Diderot, prior to the French Revolution–with which to parse our own scandalous times:

What if the virgin Mary had been the mother of pleasure, or even the mother of god, what if it had been had her beautiful eyes, her beautiful breasts, her beautiful buttocks which had attracted the Holy Spirit [on]to her and if this had been written in the book about her history. What if the angel Gabriel were extolled there for his handsome shoulders, what if the Magdalene had had some affair with Christ; what if at the marriage of Cana, Christ between two wines, a bit nonconformist, had caressed the breasts of one of the bridesmaids and the buttocks of Saint John, uncertain whether he would remain faithful or not to the apostle whose chin was hidden by a slight down; what would then have happened to our poets and our sculptors. With what spirit would we have described the charms which play so great and marvelous a role in the history of our religion and our God, and with what an eye we would we would regard the beauty to which we owe the birth, incarnation of our Saviour and the grace of our redemption.

Principal sources

Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. Edited by Edward M. Burns, 2 volumes (Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA; 2018).

Spicer, A. (2020). “Playing the bullshit game: How empty and misleading communication takes over organizations.” Organization Theory 1: 1-26.

Government regulation

–Here’s my starting point on government regulation (from our 2016 Reliability and Risk):

. . .as long as infrastructure regulation is equated with what regulators do, society will have a very myopic understanding of how regulation functions for critical infrastructures. The regulation of infrastructures is not just what the regulators do; it is also what the infrastructures do in ways that their regulator of record could never do on its own.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not a criticism of regulators to say they never have the same timely information as do those operating the critical infrastructures being regulated. It’s a statement of the obvious cast as a negative. Restate the obvious, but now as a positive: those who have the real- time information must fulfill regulatory functions that the official regulator cannot fulfill. How well they are fulfilling the regulatory functions depends on (1) the skills in real-time risk management of their reliability professionals and (2) where those professionals are located, which for our purposes means the infrastructure control rooms and their respective support units.

From our perspective, it makes little sense for critics to conclude that regulators are failing because formal regulations are not being complied with, if the infrastructures are managing in a highly reliable fashion and would not be doing so if they followed those regulations to the letter.

To summarize, of course regulations, once published, need to be altered in light of emerging better practice; otherwise, they’d be a wheelbarrow without handles, hardly fit for purpose.

–A handful of inter-related points follow, I believe:

  • The regulator of record ideally searches for those (emerging) practices that enable infrastructure control rooms to avoid moving into their respective precursor zones of potential failure or, if already there, exiting these zones quickly and safely. In this way, regulators of record are the guardians of real-time operational redesign and learning from setbacks in control room reliability management. The specific mandate of the regulator of record here would be to mitigate the need for prolonged just-for-now performance of the regulated infrastructure.
  • The twofold nature of regulating for high reliability becomes clearer from the perspective of the regulated infrastructure: (1) To what extent does regulation by the regulator increase control operator options and reduce volatility for the critical infrastructure and (2) to what extent is any regulation of that regulator, which inadvertently reduces operational options or increases real-time volatility for the control rooms, corrected by the regulator of record as soon as possible
  • There is, however, a serious asymmetry in the current design orientation for regulating infrastructure reliability (including safety) and the practice orientation of reliability professionals in and around control centers for the infrastructure. When reliability professionals express discomfort over a design orientation, regulators and others insist that this has to be expressed in terms of formal analysis, where the burden of proof is on the reliability professional to show what in this design orientation is not reliable. Yet the same regulators will assert the reliability of the system that they are designing for is based on operational experience, i.e., their design orientation, including technology, have worked in the past, so the same will or will work in the future. A retrospective orientation of regulators can well be in conflict with the prospective orientation that the system is no more reliable than the system failure ahead.
  • There is not just the risk of regulatory non-compliance by the infrastructure, there is also the infrastructure’s risk of compliance with defective regulations. That importance of time from discovery to correction of error reinforces a process of dispersed regulatory functions: Unless otherwise proven, the shorter the better. A shorter time to error discovery has the advantage of discovering errors that would have propagated into much larger ones if left uncorrected.
  • The longer the time to correcting regulator error, the longer reliability professional are compelled to operate at the limits of their competence, if not beyond in unstudied conditions. In effect, operators are asked to use their best judgment precisely in those situations and under those conditions in which judgment is least reliable and learning most difficult.
  • In all the talk about the need for systemic risk regulation (e.g., macroprudential regulation of the financial services sector), few seem to have understood that the larger and more complex the critical infrastructure to be regulated, the less the management of known or expected risk will take center attention in that regulation. Management attention will unavoidably be consumed by trying to address the new surprises and unknown unknowns well outside frequency distributions and worst-case scenarios that come with increased system complexity. Indeed, to equate system uncertainties with “systemic risk” is a disaster to forestall rather than inadvertently hasten by the regulator of record.
  • Inter-regulatory activities might be better directed to identifying and ensuring the efficacy of better practices and regulations that prevent cross-infrastructure failure cascades, especially in cases where (1) each infrastructure’s reliability management cannot prevent being pulled into its respective precursor zone of potential failure, but where (2) the infrastructures must manage together so as not to be pulled across their respective edges into joint, interconnected conditions of few options and high task volatility. (No one should doubt, however, that the more interconnected the systems to be cross-regulated and the more complex each system and its own regulations are, the more inter-regulatory oversight will have to be given to latent interconnections, risks and the transition thresholds where they shift from latent to manifest.)

Note the issue here is about the regulator knowing specifics about the real-time systemwide management by the infrastructure regulated. The truism that the regulator of record can never be on top of all that the regulated infrastructure does is, as a criticism, rather wide of the mark.

–All that said, an open question remains: What are the jointly shared standards of reliability, if any, to be managed to (and regulated for) when it comes to shared control variables?

It is easy enough to imagine one infrastructure’s precluded events standard conflicting with another infrastructure’s avoided event’s standard, both of which are interconnected in real time by shared control variables: Emergency water releases from dams in order to prevent their breaching (a precluded event) threaten reliability mandates downriver for levees, water supplies, hydropower, and waterway shipping, which can only seek to better avoid consequences of releases it can’t prevent. High reliability management with respect to shared, interinfrastructural control variables remains a very important research topic for regulators as well.

While that question cannot be answered a priori and must be settled case-by-case, our framework suggests it would be better that joint field inspections (by infrastructures and by their regulators) be directed, as a matter of priority, to those sites where the chokepoints of individual infrastructures are collocated.

The irony of it all

–I can’t quote them because Heidegger was a Nazi, Pound a Fascist, Sartre a Maoist, Eliot an anti-Semite. I don’t read Foucault because he didn’t care if he infected guys and I don’t read that mystery writer because she’s a convicted killer. I don’t go to baseball games because of the players’ strike way back when and I refuse to watch that man’s films because he’s said to have messed with his own kid.

I don’t buy Nike because of the sweatshops, listen to Wagner because he was a Jew-hater, or have a TV because it makes children violent. I can’t eat tofu because of genetically modified soybeans or cheese because of genetically modified bacteria. I don’t listen to Sinatra because he was a nasty little man or Swarzkopf because she was a collaborator. The U.S. government’s been screwed since Johnson and the Great Society (no, since FDR and the welfare state (no, since Lincoln and the Civil War (no, since Jackson and the Trail of Tears (no, since Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase (no, since Washington and his plantation slaves…)))).

I don’t trust Freud because he didn’t understand women, Klein because she couldn’t get along with her own daughter, Bettelheim because he’s said to have hit kids, or Laing because he too wasn’t nice. I think we were never further away from nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis (only afterwards did Brezhnev insist on nuclear parity). Plus it’s a good thing Japan has lost decades of economic growth or they’d’ve been re-armed by now. I do wish Jodie had come out like Martina did. (Do you really think Jesus worried about who licked what where?)

From time to time, I’ve wondered if Socrates could go to heaven. Speaking of which, why is Adam painted with a belly button, where in the Bible is the turkey that keeps showing up in those pictures of Eden and at Noah’s Ark, and for that matter why do shadows first show up in early Western art only? Dying means my total annihilation into endless nothingness: Too bad for eternity, I say—it doesn’t know what it’s missing. Even when dead, I always will have been. Still, little gives me quite the exquisite pleasure as knowing my secrets and shadow die with me.

Which makes me wonder: Other than the streets, where do squirrels go to die? And whatever happened to pineapple upside down cake and Saturday drives? I also have to wonder, did Wittgenstein read Rabelais: “Utterances are meaningful not by their nature, but by choice”? Can there be anything more mind-numbing than a sentence beginning, “In hunting-and-gathering societies. . .”? And just who did say, Freedom is the recognition of necessity (Hegel, Engels, Lenin, who)? E Pluribus Unum: Isn’t that Latin for “Follow the dollar”?

Whatever, every morning I wake up and thank heaven I wasn’t born a minority in this country. If I had a magic wand, I’d solve America’s race problem by giving everybody a master’s degree. I’d also make sure they’d be white, married, professionally employed, and own their homes. (BTW, every person in China should have a car; with all that ingenuity they’d have to come up with a solution to vehicle pollution.) But then again, I’m quite willing to say that the entire point of human evolution is there hasn’t been any worth speaking of. As for the rest, I suppurate with unease. It’s probably—possibly, plausibly?—wise not to think too much about these things. . .

Don’t you think?

–If you do think about it, irony is not what we know. It’s more a knowingness than knowledge. Or, if you want, irony is the side of unknowledge we think we see. As when people are more wont to quote Wittgenstein’s point that death is not an event in life than they are to quote Rilke about death being the part of life turned away from us.

To-do’s in the Anthropocene

–Let’s insist the Anthropocene’s rotten core is modernity—international capital, American consumerism, global urbanization, The Enlightenment Project—while in the same breadth insist all this is best described in the very terms of modernity: Anything and everything is at risk; all thinkable risks are premonitory; any can be catastrophic. Ensure this free-floating anxiety has no closure, nothing prevents the proliferation of worst-case scenarios, the dose makes the poison, how then to plan…

Oops, did I write, “plan”? Since when are epochs a planning horizon for anything? And here you thought policy and management in the Holocene were difficult!

–Economists will have to give up their discounting the future into present value terms, as the future is Anthropocene shockSHOCKs. Engineers and ecologists push resilience and adaptive capacity, as if bouncing back or forward is optimal over a longue durée that by definition can’t be optimized. Our predictions—and we do insist on previsioning!—will be as effective as predicting the next poem from the poet’s body of work.

We’ll look back at “progress” relegated to the scare quotes of always-late capitalism as the easiest thing humans did in the Anthropocene. At the same time, a slurry of alarmism fills the vacuum left behind by lack of remedy-and-implementation at a level of granularity that global and planetary explications of cause-and-effect do not have. Consequently, unfold any old postlapsarian analogy, write ad lib, and then declare or confirm a crisis.

–The crux is this: The long-term and the planetary are deployed so as to nail home the centrality of interconnectivity. Everything is connected with everything else—without however acknowledging this must also mean nothing is completely reducible to anything else. Relations stop nowhere, novelist Henry James put it, but they are still discernible relations. We can’t ignore irreducible particularity just as we cannot ignore interrelatedness. The burden of proof, however, is on the universal interconnectionists to detail why and how and in what forms this messy, vernacular particularity—and its allied notions of “case” and “context”—arise and endure.

It’s truer for you to say that in this complex of particularity and interconnectivity the only point at which you really know you’re in a crisis is at the end. Is this too late? Not when—remember complexity?—many major decisions can’t help but take a long time coming and then end up made only suddenly at that.

–What to do at sea in the Anthropocene? We recast how we think about the complexities.

First, we need to de-dramatize the untraceably-thin disaster-mongering going on, call out the chop-logic of global crises scripted solely through analogy, rake away the catchpenny phrases and inlay rhetoric, and resist the cretinism and outright weirdery that come with. . .what? Believing the truly valid way forward is planetary over an epoch?

In other words, specifics matter more than ever.

Below I consolidate points made elsewhere in this blog on the blast-power that comes with a more granular focus on real-time operations of key critical infrastructures within a regional context—especially if your concern is as environmental as those that drive the Anthropocene:

  • Granular because risk and uncertainty are always with-respect-to specific failure or accident scenarios—and the devil is in the details of the scenarios;
  • Real-time operations because the measure of effectiveness is to manage effectively now, not over the Anthropocene;
  • Operations of key infrastructures because the reliability and safety of these large socio-technical systems—think critical energy and water supplies—are not only vital to society, right now as you read these words, but are often based in ecosystem services mandated for restoration or sustainability; and
  • Within a regional context because Global Climate Change modeling and other types of environmental modeling accept the region, as the unit of analysis for near-term planning and risk management. (High-resolution models using LIDAR data and other GIS approaches already exist that provide climate-related flooding and wildfire information useful for critical infrastructures when it comes to their nearer-term cycles, e.g., for investment and depreciation purposes.)

To conclude, we make ourselves ridiculous when doing otherwise, and being ridiculous is radically beside the point in the Anthropocene.

Keeping it complex….

–It’s easy to see why “Keep it simple!” and “Keep it complex!” are taken to be opposites. That said, there is less a gradient between the two than a considerable overlap. “Keep it simple!” and “Keep it complex!” are both admonitions; both are more complicated than they first appear. While they actually have the same caveats, hedges and qualifications, “Keep it complex!” has one saving virtue: It more easily accommodates, reflects and answers to the complications.

–Both admonitions prove more ambiguous, equivocal and murkier and we have a noun for such properties, that being obliquity. Michael Wood, literary and film critic, helps us with the implications.

His chapter, “Seven types of obliquity” is a prism through which “Keep it simple!” and other admonitions can be parsed into less straightforward warrants for action. Indeed, the entire point is that something important that looks like a direct affirmation, instruction or query, isn’t—and in respects that matter. I crib unabashedly from Wood:

  • When someone commends, “Keep it simple!,” you might respond by taking it more as sounding out about what you think than affirming you don’t have to think much further. Just what is the “it” and how “simple” is simple, you ask? You may feel your admonisher is on the whole more right than wrong, or at least not wrong enough to avoid your taking “Keep it simple!” seriously.
  • “Keep it simple!” is also one of those instructions that seems to know us without having to know each of us. In reality, our instructor is guessing about each of us by deferring to a matter of general knowledge. Sadly and in Wood’s words, s/he ends up “ask[ing] so much work of us, and scarcely tell us where to start”. “Keep it simple!” becomes the demand to decide without knowing if it is decidable.
  • “Keep it simple!” by transforming into “Keep it simple?” ends up looking more like speculation than an affirmation or instruction. Or to put it in preceding terms, “Keep it simple!” is active only when generalization is sought or general knowledge appealed to; the second we differentiate the exclamation point, “!,” is the second it becomes a case-by-case “?”.
  • None of these caveats will, however, stop those others insisting an unadorned “Keep it simple!” is the right view to take when starting to analyze a complex issue. I’m thinking here of some engineers and economists with whom I’ve worked.

But even these occasions are opportunities “to test the view not only against its chances of being true but against the whole structure of personality which would need to hold such a view, and against a time and a place in which the view might seem banal or original, striking or even desperate”.

This means testing “Keep it simple!” as one view within its wider contexts, recognizing of course that “Test!” is as subject to caveats. An infinite regress threatens (the context of the context of…), but that is the methodological point: “Keep it simple!” doesn’t even begin to approximate a closed argument, if only because we keep reopening what others want closed.

  • There is also a sense in which we respond to “Keep it simple!” as if it were a parable about how to act. Responding to the interjection, we try to think of first-hand scenarios in which it would hold for the kind of events we know and worlds we occupy. We often “find ourselves wanting to apply [a parable], and not just interpret it,” as Wood puts it. “Keep it simple!” makes seeking out exemplars irresistible.

–Of course, the very same bulleted reservations about “Keep it simple!” can be made for “Keep it complex!” Over-complexifying a mess is just as worrisome as its over-simplification. But what sets “Keep it complex!” apart is the performative nature of undertaking and thinking through the practical caveats, hedges and qualifications. In so doing, what is complex becomes more granular and open to differentiated scenarios so that they matter even more.

To sum up: “Keep it simple!” acts as if it wants to win the argument without further ado; “Keep it complex. . .” knows the long game is about finding complex arguments that stick, at least for a while even if indirectly.

–With that in mind, let me end with a passage from the economist, John Kay’s 2010 book named—surprise!—Obliquity:

It is hard to overstate the damage recently done by leaders who thought they knew more about the world than they really did. The managers and financiers who destroyed great businesses in the unsuccessful pursuit of shareholder value. The architects and planners who believed that cities could be designed from first principles, that vibrant cities could be drawn on a blank sheet of paper and that expressways should be driven through the hearts of communities. Acknowledging the complexity of the systems for which they were responsible and the multiple needs of the individuals who operated these systems would have avoided these errors.

Principal sources

Kay, J. (2010). Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. New York: Penguin Books

Stirling, A. (2010). ‘Keep It Complex!’, Nature Comment, 23/30 December, 468: 1029-1031

Wood, M. (2005). “Seven Types of Obliquity”. In Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (The Empson Lectures, pp. 95-127). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Related blog entries: “Keep it simple!,” “Complexity is the enemy of intractable,” “It’s better between the James Brothers”

Where distrust and dread are positive societal values

–Although typically not thought of as such, critical infrastructures are a key institutional mechanism for the distinguishing and dispersing social values.

Critical infrastructures instantiate social values not abstractly but as differences taken into account when societal reliability and security matter now. This differences—more properly, differentiated knowledge bases about and orientations to reliability at the event and system levels—are reconciled by infrastructure control rooms (where they exist) in real time and in the name of ensuring high reliability (including safety), then and there.

Trust is a good example of how a social value is specified and differentiated by infrastructures. Trust, it is common to say, grows at the rate of a coconut tree and falls at the rate of a coconut. Were it only that!

Those in and those depending on the infrastructure must trust control room operators and their real-time instructions. Broader discussions about “trust requires shared values” miss the fact that team situation awareness of control operators is much more about knowledge management, distributed cognition, and keeping a shared bubble of system understanding than it is about “trust” as a singularly important social value. For that matter, distrust is as core as trust. One reason operators are reliable is that they actively distrust the future will be stable or reliable in the absence of the system’s vigilant real-time management.

There has been much less discussion of this positive function of distrust as a social value. In contrast, “distrust” often takes the adjective, “polarizing.”

–So too for “dread.” Widespread social dread—as in the societal dread that drives the reliability management of very hazardous infrastructures—is almost always taken to be negative. Here too, though, dread has a positive function.

Every day, nuclear explosions, airline crashes, financial meltdowns, massive water-supply collapse—and more—are avoided that would have happened had not operators and managers in these large systems prevented their occurrence. Why? Because societal dread is so intense that these events must be precluded from happening on an active basis. (It might be better to say that we don’t know “societal dread” unless we observe how knowledgeable professionals operate and manage complex critical infrastructures.)

There is such fear of what would happen if large interconnected electricity, telecommunications, water, transportation, financial services and like did fail that it is better to manage them than not have them. We’ve structured our lives to depend on these systems, at least for right now. Certainly, the reliability professionals in the control centers of society’s critical infrastructures would be the last people to defang dread and fear or de-dramatize system failure.

(Thus the misleading nature of the exhortation, “Failure is not an option!” Failure, big-time, is always an ever-present reality; in fact, if it weren’t dread of such failures, we wouldn’t be managing the infrastructures as reliably as we already do in real time.)

We of course must wonder at the perversity of this. But that is the function of this dread, isn’t it? Namely: to push us further in probing what it means to privilege social and individual reliability and safety over other values and desires. We are meant to ask: What would it look like in world where such reliability and safety are not so privileged? What would flying look like if aviation rules weren’t written in blood?

For the answer to that question is altogether too evident: Most of the planet already lives in that world of unreliability and little safety. We’re meant to ask precisely because the answer is that clear. Hunting and gathering societies may be the most sustainable, but I do not remember any hunter-gatherer I met in Botswana in the early 1970s who didn’t want to quit that that way of life for something more safe and reliable. Their life was exciting enough, thank you very much (“In the war between safety and excitement”—note it’s a war—“reliability is somewhat a mixed blessing,” puts Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and essayist).