The Road Not Taken, No Not That One, You Know, The Other One

1961. Robert McNamara, the recently installed Secretary of Defense in President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s cabinet, sits in his Pentagon office at a nine-foot-long mahogany desk, polished to a mirrorlike shine. He is wearing a dark suit, his thick brown hair slicked back on his head and parted in the middle, old fashioned wire-rim spectacles framing his mirthless eyes, his jaw clenched tight, a severe expression on his face, looking very much the Presbyterian elder he is.

The door opens, and Edward Lansdale, career spy and counterinsurgency specialist, enters. He has handsome, movie star good looks and a neat moustache. A look of determination is on his face, with a hint of a maverick smile, and he is carrying a box of what seem to be weapons and camping gear, caked with mud and even blood.

MCNAMARA is making notes on some graph paper.

MCNAMARA: [Stiffly] Colonel Lansdale, good to see you.

LANSDALE: Good morning, Mr Secretary.

MCNAMARA: Lansdale, we’re doing a systems analysis on our policy in South Vietnam. I understand you’ve just returned from a trip there and I need your report on the situation. You have nine and a half minutes for this briefing.

LANSDALE strides over to the desk and upends the content of the box. Out spill handmade pistols and knives, old French rifles, and bamboo punji sticks, all over the desk with a clatter, with a few falling on the floor.

LANSDALE: The enemy in Vietnam uses these weapons – and they were using them just a little bit ago before I got them. Many of them are barefoot or wear sandals. They wear black pajamas, usually, with tatters or holes in them. I don’t think you’d recognize any of them as soldiers, but they think of themselves that way. The people that are fighting there, on our side, are being supplied with our weapons and uniforms and shoes and all of the best that we have; and we’re training them. Yet, the enemy is licking our side. Always keep in mind about Vietnam, that the struggle goes far beyond the material things of life. It doesn’t take weapons and uniforms and lots of food to win. It takes something else, ideas and ideals, and these guys are using that something else. Let’s at least learn that lesson.

MCNAMARA stares at his soiled desk, blinking.

MCNAMARA: I see. [Stands up.] Colonel Lansdale, you can’t substitute emotions for reason.

LANSDALE: [Chuckles] It substituted just fine when we made those Marxists on Luzon think their villages were attacked by vampires.

MCNAMARA, somewhat fussily, fishes out his graph paper and pencil from under the weapons and other junk now on his desk. He walks to a clearer part of the desk and places it down.

MCNAMARA: Lansdale. As I said before, we are performing an extensive systems analysis on the situation in South and North Vietnam, and very much need to capture all the factors at play. I’m not sure if you are familiar with systems analysis. This is a process we used when I was an executive at Ford Motors. I have a list of seventy three factors our staff have so far found, including food supply, ammunition, rice production, oil imports, and so on. We’ll crunch the numbers, and once the analysis is complete, the output of the model will give us a clear path to victory.

LANSDALE glances at the list.

LANSDALE: Mr Secretary, your list is incomplete. You’ve left out the most important factor of all.

MCNAMARA: What is it?

LANSDALE: Well, it’s the human factor. You can put it down as the X factor.

MCNAMARA writes down “X Factor” on the graph paper.

MCNAMARA: What does it consist of?

LANSDALE: What the people out on the battlefield really feel; which side they want to see win and which side they’re for at the moment. That’s the only way you’re going to ever have this war decided.

MCNAMARA: Ah. Good point, but we’ve got that actually. Over here, see: “Volunteer signups”, “Ho Chi Minh “uncle-ization” ratio”, “Negative reviews on Saigon embassy facebook page”, “Mao Zedong cat pun frequency”, “GI sales of Conrad short stories”.

LANSDALE: I see. Well, what about the V factor?

MCNAMARA writes down “V Factor” on the graph paper.

MCNAMARA: What does it consist of?

LANSDALE: Vampires.

MCNAMARA: Ok. Ah, we’ll make sure to give that, uh, the appropriate weighting.

LANSDALE: Mr Secretary, there’s no mathematical formula for the human spirit.

MCNAMARA: That’s true. Some of those smart IBM boys we seconded from Cambridge found that a fifteen dimension vector including poetry writing and fish sauce consumption was a passable proxy in the Indochinese context, though.

LANSDALE: Oh, ok. Well that sounds just dandy. Don’t forget there are three brands of fish sauce popular in the south though – you should really track the lot.

MCNAMARA: Interesting. I’ll put those IBM boys onto it.

LANSDALE: Good.

MCNAMARA: Good. This has been really useful, but I’ve got something else to do now. Oh, by the way, the intern you put on the Saigon embassy Twitter account is going great. The analytics are through the roof!

LANSDALE: [Snaps fingers, points back to MCNAMARA and smiles winningly.] I’ll pass it on.

MCNAMARA: Thanks Ed.

LANSDALE: Thanks Bob.

Rather loosely adapted from Chapter 22 of Max Boot’s recent biography of Lansdale, The Road Not Taken.

References

Boot – The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the America Tragedy In Vietnam
Brecher, Ames – War Nerd Podcast Episode 39
McNamara – In Retrospect
Wintermute, Boot – Max Boot interview on The Road Not Taken

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Industrializing The Noosphere

Control Environment

We are not practicing Continuous Delivery. I know this because Jez Humble has given a very clear test. If you are not checking your code into trunk at least once every day, says Jez, you are not doing Continuous Integration, and that is a prerequisite for Continuous Delivery. I don’t do this; no one on my team does it; no one is likely to do it any time soon, except by an accident of fortuitous timing. Nevertheless, his book is one of the most useful books on software development I have read. We have used it as a playbook for improvement, with the result being highly effective software delivery. Our experience is one small example of an interesting historical process, which I’d like to sketch in somewhat theoretical terms. Software is a psychologically intimate technology. Much as described by Gilbert Simondon’s work on technical objects, building software has evolved from a distractingly abstract high modernist endeavour to something more dynamic, concrete and useful.

The term software was co-opted, in a computing context, around 1953, and had time to grow only into an awkward adolescence before being declared, fifteen years later, as in crisis. Barely had we become aware of software’s existence before we found it to be a frightening, unmanageable thing, upsetting our expected future of faster rockets and neatly ordered suburbs. Many have noted that informational artifacts have storage and manufacturing costs approaching zero. I remember David Carrington, in one of my first university classes on computing, noting that as a consequence of this, software maintenance is fundamentally a misnomer. What we speak of as maintenance in physical artifacts, the replacement of entropy-afflicted parts with equivalents within the same design, is a nonsense in software. The closest analogue might be system administrative activities like bouncing processes and archiving logfiles. What we call (or once called) maintenance is revising our understanding of the problem space.

Software has an elastic fragility to it, pliable, yet prone to the discontinuities and unsympathetic precision of logic. Lacking an intuition of digital inertia, we want to change programs about as often as we change our minds, and get frustrated when we cannot. In their book Continuous Delivery, Humble and Farley say we can change programs like that, or at least be changing live software very many times a day, such that software development is not the bottleneck in product development.

With this approach, we see a rotation and miniaturisation of mid-twentieth century models of software development. The waterfall is turned on its side.

Continue reading

Seeing Like A Facebook

The insistence on a single, unique, legal identity by Facebook and Google continues a historical pattern of expansion of power through control of the information environment. Consider the historical introduction of surnames:

Customary naming practices are enormously rich. Among some peoples, it is not uncommon to have different names during different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and in some cases after death; added to those are names used for joking, rituals, and mourning and names used for interactions with same-sex friends or with in-laws. […]  To the question “What is your name?” which has a more unambiguous answer in the contemporary West, the only plausible answer is “It depends”.
For the insider who grows up using these naming practices, they are both legible and clarifying.
 — James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State

It’s all rather reminiscent of the namespace of open internets since they emerged in the 80s, including BBS, blogs, IRC, message boards, slashcode, newsgroups and even extending the lineage to the pseudonym-friendly Twitter. You can tell Twitter has this heredity by the joke and impersonating accounts, sometimes created in ill-spirit, but mostly in a slyly mocking one. CheeseburgerBrown’s autobiography of his pseudonyms captures the spirit of it.

Practically any structured scheme you might use to capture this richness of possible real world names will fail, as  Patrick McKenzie amusingly demonstrates in his list of falsehoods programmers believe about names.

Scott goes on to show how the consistent surnames made information on people much easier to access and organize for the state – more legible. This in turn made efficient taxation, conscription and corvee labour possible for the feudal state, as well as fine grained legal title to land. It establishes an information environment on which later institutions such as the stock market, income tax and the welfare state (medical, unemployment cover, universal education) rely. Indeed the idea of a uniquely identifiable citizen, who votes once, is relied on by mass democracy. Exceptions,  where they exist, are limited in their design impact due to their rarity. Even then, the introduction of national ID cards and car registration plates is part of that same legibility project, by enforcing unique identifiers. For more commercial reasons but with much the same effect, public transport smartcards, mobile phones  and number plates, when combined with modern computing, make mass surveillance within technical reach. 

The transition to simplified names was not self-emerging or gentle but was aggressively pursued by premodern and colonial states. In the course of a wide survey Scott gives a striking example from the Philippines:

Filipinos were instructed by the decree of November 21, 1849, to take on permanent Hispanic surnames. The author of the decree was Governor (and Lieutenant General) Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, a meticulous administrator as determined to rationalise names as he had been determined to rationalise existing law, provincial boundaries, and the calendar. He had observed, as his decree states, that Filipinos generally lacked individual surnames, which might “distinguish them by families,” and that their practice of adopting baptismal names from a small group of saints’ names resulted in great “confusion”. The remedy was the catalogo, a compendium not only of personal names but also of nouns and adjectives drawn from flora, fauna, minerals, geography and the arts and intended to be used by the authorities in assigning permanent, inherited surnames. […] In practice, each town was given a number of pages from an alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames of the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise are still perfectly visible across the landscape.
[…]
For a utilitarian state builder of Claveria’s temper, however, the ultimate goal was a complete and legible list of subjects and taxpayers. […] Schoolteachers were ordered to forbid thier students to address or even know one another by any other name except the officially inscribed family name. More efficacious, perhaps, given the minuscule school enrolment, was the proviso that forbade priests and military and civil officials from accepting any document, application, petition or deed that did not use the official surnames.

The ultimate consequences of these simplification projects can be good or bad, but they are all expansions of centralized power, often unnecessary, and dangerous without counterbalancing elements. Mass democracy could eventually use the mechanism of citizen registration to empower individuals and restrain the government, but this was in some sense historically reactive: it came after the expansion of the state at the expense of more local interests.

The existence of Farmville aside, Google and Facebook probably don’t intend to press people into involuntary labour. People are still choosing to click that cow no matter how much gamification gets them there. The interest in unique identities is for selling a maximally valued demographic bundle to advertisers. Even with multitudes of names and identities, we usually funnel back to one shared income and set of assets backed by a legal name.

Any power grab of this nature will encounter resistance. This might be placing oneself outside the system of control (deleting accounts), or it might be finding ways to use the system without ceding everything it asks for, like Jamais Cascio lying to Facebook.

The great target of Scott’s book is not historical states so much as the high modernist mega-projects so characteristic of the twentieth century, and their ongoing intellectual temptations today. He is particularly devastating when describing the comprehensive miseries possible when high modernist central planning combines with the unconstrained political power in a totalitarian state.

Again, it would be incorrect and unfair to describe any of the big software players today as being high modernist, let alone totalitarian. IBM in its mainframe and KLOC heyday was part of that high modernist moment, but today even the restrictive and aesthetically austere Apple has succeeded mainly by fostering creative uses of its platform by its users. The pressures of consumer capitalism being what they are, though, the motivation to forcibly simplify identity to a single point is hard for a state or a corporation to resist. Centralization has a self-perpetuating momentum to it, which good technocratic intentions tend to reinforce, even when these firms have a philosophical background in open systems. With the combined marvels of smartphones, clouds, electronic billing and social networks, I am reminded of Le Corbusier’s words. These software platforms are becoming machines for living.

Scribed On Demand

Two opposite poles of art creation in Paul Clark’s acclaimed art history of the Cultural Revolution, the slightly misleadingly titled The Cultural Revolution: A History, illustrate his thesis marvellously. Clark argues, with voluminous examples, that the Cultural Revolution was an artistically productive time, even if it was also a politically terrifying one. He takes aim particularly at the received wisdom in a common joke; 800 million people watching 8 performances (八亿人看八个系).

方海珍(李丽芳饰)是《海港》里的女主角; Fang Haizhen (played by Li Lifang) from The Harbour

The first pole of art creation is the model operas (样板戏). These were highly professional productions closely supervised by the cultural leadership including Jiang Qing (江青). These have a reputation as clumsy kitsch. Clark points out, with their production values, long lead time, and close executive supervision they are actually the very pinnacle of high kitsch. They made a number of technical innovations that moved Chinese opera smack in the middle of the twentieth century. Their focus on clearly delineated roles, modern settings, post-war language and ideological agenda – arias about revolutionaries and Mao Zedong are commonplace – make them distinctively modernist projects. Also, far from cultural troupes being entirely disbanded, certain parts of the culture industry were kept very busy on large productions of this kind. The striking film still above is from one of these model operas, 《海港》 (The Harbour).

To me, the Antarctic counter-pole to the model operas are the hand-published books. Amongst metropolitan youth sent into the countryside when schools and universities closed, there developed a subculture of letters, poems and entire novels written by hand, copied by transcript or mimeograph, and distributed by being passed from person to person. 《第二次握手》(The Second Handshake) was the most successful of these, eventually landing its author in jail for two years, followed by being published and filmed in the eighties. Works written in this fashion were enhanced and edited by their readers and transcribers, in a cultural movement part schoolroom note, part monastic rescribe and part wikipedia collective publication.

Clark was a student in Beijing at the end of the seventies, so he’s able to add personal anecdote to careful scholarly description in a tone reminiscent of antiquarian journal Arts of Asia. Though a fair number of pictures are included, it’s best annotated by Google to get a fuller impression of the many works he mentions.

Finally a minor quibble – why do academic books on China, written in English, use (non diacritical) pinyin rather than Chinese character translations? I doubt much of the audience is able to use the pinyin that is not able to use the characters themselves, which are also far less ambiguous. Is it a printing cost limitation? It seems archaic in a time of Unicode and print on demand PDFs.