Sunday, October 29, 2006

A number of worthy bloggers were kind enough to link to my post on super empowered individuals, comment or send in some thoughts via email which I would like to highlight. Much thanks to everyone who took the time to comment, your ideas sometimes send me off in new directions.


Dave at the Glittering Eye has Napoleonic commentary on super empowered individuals.

Dan of tdaxp launches a systempunkt on the concept of systempunkt.

John Robb is pleased.


From Dr. Von:

"This post is one of the natural extensions of what we have been discussing. I don't think there is any doubt that it is inevitable. I suppose the 'when' depends on what system is perturbed/attacked. It will be done as our understanding of network theory and complexity advance; to have, say, an individual do tremendous damage, that person will need the means of mapping out and understanding the levels of connectivity inherent to the system, whether that system is social, electronic, environmental, industrial, etc. Even with a lack of understanding of the system's multi-dimensional topology in whatever relevant phase space, I can imagine someone developing and using one of these newer adaptive genetic computer algorithms...this type of program can 'learn' as it crunches data, and can adapt itself to the system. It is along the lines of the programming being tried for intelligent robots, etc. That is probably the scariest scenario to me"

From Fabius Maximus of DNI:

"I'll stake out an extreme position on this (there is a first time for everything). Not much time, so I'll sketch out some thoughts on this, however incoherent and ill-supported.

1. I disagree with the foundation assumption of Robb's, the instability that result from modern systems higher levels of dynamic interconnectivity. In general, modern systems are more -- far more -- stable than pre-networked systems.

There is a large body of expert discussion on this, in various fields. No room in the margin here to prove this (or even discuss with the depth it serves). In fact, no proof is possible, we'll just have to see.

The accompanying disadvantage of modern systems is that, although they have greater stability and adaptability, they often fail catastrophically -- instead of degrading gracefully (service declines, or fails locally).

Also -- as you note -- we are working to make our essential systems more resilient. Including the human element. Note the boom in first aid and disaster prep courses and organizations.

2. American culture has possibly lost its balance between the needs/focus on the individual and the group. Note the focus in comic books and movies on individual action -- as opposed to groups. X-files shows this taken to the logical extreme, the isolated individual -- who is of course powerless.

The overemphasis on the individual actor is a snare, a significant but delusional belief resulting from overdevelopment of one aspect of American culture -- built on a false assumption.

Strength, the ability to create the future (the past and present being, of course, frozen), come from groups.

There are two concepts here. Leaders of deep and wide movements -- like the NAZI party are distinct from individual actors -- like the mythical super scientist who saves the world, ie. Archimedes and the mirrors.

The first are important. But would the movements occur without the leader? This is the great man of history debate.

The second is in my opinion a topic most suitable for fiction. Individuals can destroy dozens, hundreds, thousands -- perhaps millions ... but nothing of significance from a historical perspective. "

From T.M. Lutas:

"It would seem to me that global guerrillas, in the sense that they are different than regular old guerrillas are a more primitive form of super empowered individuals. The damage that a national army used to be needed for is down-sized these days according to Barnett. Eventually you down-size right down to the individual level and thus alienated super empowered individuals become a new threat. In between, you get global guerrillas.

But if two or more super empowered individuals act in concert, does that mean they cease to be super empowered? If a global guerrilla acts alone, does that make him a super empowered individual?

So the Barnettian identification of the grand movement of downsizing violence is affirmed and two instantiations of the phenomena are global guerrillas and super empowered individuals.

Now most super empowered individuals remain only potentially dangerous. Bill Gates or Oprah are very unlikely to morph into Spectre type villains. This is a separate question from whether they can. I think it's pretty obvious that they could if they wanted to.

Similarly, the number of potential global guerrilla groups out there is vastly larger than the actual number in active operations. One of the things that make's John Robb's vision much less scary is the simple fact that the operation of global guerrillas are likely to activate other potential groups dedicated to neutralizing the first bad actors. The GG phenomena is thus much less likely to bring bad results to the entire system as these groups will not operate all from the same playbook. In Iraq the great Sunni insurgency is breaking up on the rocks of the Shia and Kurd death squadswho are not global guerrillas only by virtue of the simple fact that they gain nothing by adopting those systempunkt tactics."

From Lexington Green:

"A second theme is that due to globalization the complicated economic and technical machinery we are increasingly vulnerable to attacks on "vital nodes" which can cause cascading failure -- hence creating juicy targets for 4GW warriors and our putative nuke-armed Ted Bundy.

I find this second idea unconvincing. The essence of a market driven, networked, non-centrally-planned economy is the diffusion of skills and knowledge, redundancy, the capacity for work-arounds. The model I have in mind is the German economy in World War II. It was able to respond to devastating levels of attack and keep on going. And that was without cell phones, computers, the internet, etc. Just telephones, radios, and paper files and manual typewriters. Even if, as the Rand study posited, there were a nuke attack on the Long Beach container port, and it took $1 trillion off the top, it would not be fatal. We'd do workarounds. It would totally suck. No doubt. But we'd survive.

In other words, we are resilient, and we have the capacity to become much, much more so when the incentives shift to make us want to be more so."

From Shloky:

"This will only still work while there are locks on knowledge/tech. Like Lexington touches on technology and information always move towards freedom. Including nuclear tech/knowledge. Give it another couple decades and the whole game changes."

From Eddie:

"Reading the post, I think in the end you focus on those who would undertake action with malicious intent, but the other side is more disturbing IMHO, those who undertake action without realizing the extent or consequences of their actions."

From Purpleslog:

"Bill Gates will nudge more toward 5GW territory as he will devote his time and his vast money (soon to be with a big chunk of Warren Buffet's money too) to making changes to the world. George Soros has also been edging this way"

As per the question raised by Curtis, I think Gates certainly commands the resources required to effect super empowered strategems. Soros has definitely tried to do so, in a number of countries, including in the last U.S. presidential election, but he has not acheived very much in proportion to his expenditures, perhaps because he is not flying below the radar. Oprah - well, I know a little bit about her through an acquaintance who was once very high up at Harpo - let's say I don't see her succeeding on any issues outside of her natural comfort zone and audience which is basically apolitical, middle and upper-middle class, American boomer women. The potential is there however.

Re: George Soros

Instability is good for currency traders.
"Instability is good for currency traders."

Good point.

V interesting post...

From the range of your interests, you may find this site useful if you don't already use it...


It links a lot of cross-disciplinary stuff from pure science / complexity / war / evolution / brain / AI etc...

The link to Fab Max at DNI doesn't work for me - have I gone blind?

Dominic C.
Hi Dom,

Try this:

Fabius is an occasional contributor to DNI -here's an example of one of his pieces:

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