This post is inspired by the memorials, performed yesterday, for the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Some readers will say that the appropriate thing to do on this occasion is to honor the memory of people who lost their lives. I respect this view. I believe this might also be an occasion for addressing the causes of terrorist attacks. It turns out, the two issues are connected.
One place anthropologists can make themselves useful is military intelligence. (That most don’t want to, that’s another question.) They can be particularly helpful with what Secretary Rumsfeld calls the “unknown unknowns.”
Unknown unknowns, these are factors we don’t know we don’t know. They are the Achilles heal of any decision making system, military or managerial. We can’t factor what we can’t fathom. We must fear things excluded from the problem set.
Sometimes, perhaps most perilously, the unknown unknowns are the assumptions with which we think. We don’t see these assumptions because, well, we’re assuming them.
That’s where anthropology comes into it: most of what the anthropologists wants to know are the cultural assumptions in the respondent’s head…hence a certainly disciplinary skill in finding these out.
Invisible assumptions, the most pernicious unknown unknown, are trap doors an enemy may use at their discretion, a place of weakness that will never be defended against because it literally cannot be seen. Invisible assumptions played their part in the terrorist attack of 9/11. Douglas Porch and James Wirtz note that the bin Laden terrorists had discovered an invisible assumption, an unknown unknown.
[T]he notion of "suicide bombing" is so alien to the American —indeed the Western—outlook, that we find it difficult to fathom the mindset of enemies prepared to conceive of an operation of such horrific proportions, one in which they are prepared to immolate themselves…
The 9/11 attack was hard to defend against because it violated an assumption of the American outlook. It made combatant self sacrifice a systematic part of the attack. Wedded as we are to the value of the individual, it was almost impossible to imagine this and other threats.
Military intelligence cannot see some of the assumptions it entertains. Consider the report that said some flight students were concentrating on take-off instructions and ignoring landing instructions.
When the analyst is “crunching” vast bodies of data, each particular finding must respond almost immediately to scrutiny. (Blink!) The more it springs from alien assumptions, the more probably it will read as noise. To capture the significance of the "flight student" report, the analyst would have to perform a kind of intellectual self surgery. He or she has find and then replace the one assumption that prevents him or her from seeing the significance of the datum at hand. And again, this has to be done in the real time race through the data that is every analyst’s necessary modus operandi.
But this of course formidably difficult. Chances are flight students who appear more interested in take off than landing does not “compute.” As long as we assume the value of the individual, this datum is odd, counter intuitive, and probably noise. The moment we make the unknown known (more exactly, the unthinkable thinkable), this piece of intelligence can now “ring a bell.” Now, the defense community is in a position to factor in, and to begin to scan for, the possibility that planes might be used as bombs.
An American, and extra-American, point of view values the individual extraordinarily. This was clear yesterday. Every victim of the 9/11 attacks was acknowledged individually and by name. Roughly one in five of them were acknowledged publicly, nationally, and by a member of their family. This may be taken as a measure of the essential decency of the American approach. But it is also the very thing that so confirms certain of our assumptions that they become unknown unknown. (Clearly, no criticism of the memorial is intended. This is a simple relationship: the more we use certain assumptions, the more we assume them.)
Most of what we know about invisible assumptions tells us that they are almost always impossible to identify and correct on an ad hoc, on the fly, basis. Very, very, very smart people can do this (“Santa Fe Institute smart,” probably), but the rest of us cannot capture and swap out troublesome assumptions to correct the unknown unknown problem, especially not on the fly.
The only systematic way we can deal with this problem (and I guess we can assume the Pentagon is working on this) is to task a team of people and to train them to “think like the enemy.” It is only by routing out certain assumptions and replacing them with new ones that we can make ourselves the equal of the challenge and escape the real problem of unknown unknowns. The anthropological task begins be decoding the enemy, discovery the assumptions he makes, building these into the skunk works team, and then recording what the team delivers as new threats that must be defended against.
I leave for another time the dynamic version of this system, and the more daunting challenge: the system that is capable of finding and mocking up assumptions, as they shift in real time.
Porch, Douglas and James J. Wirtz. 2002. Surprise and Intelligence failure. Strategic Insights. I (7 September) here.