The Ghost Map & 5GW: The answer is blowing in the wind

John Robb has an interesting post in which two astute points are made, and flowing from these, an important question is raised. The answer to his question depends on our thinking across disciplines, to see a very similar structure in a problem that was solved in Victorian London. A comparative analysis of the differences and similarities of John’s question to the problem in Victorian London provides a clear path forward, showing us how to address John’s question. First, his post starts:

Friday, December 08, 2006

As the debate over the value of the Iraq study group’s report rumbles on, it’s important to reflect on larger frame within which this debate is taking place. This frame, little discussed, encapsulates nature of the threat we face in Iraq and will be increasingly likely to face in the future. With Iraq, we can catch a glimpse of a the new class of threat that will increasingly define our future (and given that even a glimpse is enough to stump the establishment should be a dire warning). This new class of threat is characterized by its bottoms up pattern of growth rather than the familiar competition between nation-states. It percolates upwards through catalyzed organic growth until it overwhelms our ability to respond to it. These new threats include (not exhaustive):

  • Global guerrillas: Open source warfare and systems disruption. Fragmentation and chaos that can swallow states and regions. In the mid-term: super-empowered actors that can wield bio-weapons.
  • Peak oil and resource depletion: The acceleration of resource consumption due to the mainlining of China and India at the very point these resources are reaching capacity limits.
  • Global warming: Not the slow change discussed, but rather a cascading change in weather patterns and ocean flows that drastically change continental climates. Ditto the mainlining of China and India as a driver here too.
  • Pandemics: Bird flu and other forms of infectious disease that can sweep the world in the matter of days. Have infection, will travel.

The two points implied here are that: (1) sustainability and the response to the 5GW war are linked, (a theme of several posts I have made here at enigma foundry, as well as several comments I have made over at Global Guerillas) and (2) bio-weapons are the pre-eminent threat and weapon of choice for those who want to cause modern western states to fail.

Now the very important (in fact crucial) item we see here is the contention of the extremely small scale structure (the global guerilla) with with the large scale structure (the world’s last remaining super-power). Any time there is contention between items of very different scales, it is a sure sign that the equilibrium of the system is being disturbed. (This will be explored in future post I will write about Persistent Networks)

At the end of his post, John asks the question:

The only solution for these problems isn’t something that gains much currency from the current decision makers. There isn’t any built-in audience ready with money and support to make them happen (at least, not yet). The reason is that systemic resilience is hard…. How do we make it easier to get from here to there before it is forced upon us?

Now the parallels with the problem John has described, and the problem that Steven Johnson writes about in his book The Ghost Map struck me as interesting. Note that even John’s choice of language (“bottoms-up pattern of growth” “percolates upward”) describes the Global Guerilla as an organic process, and there are, in fact, many similarities, (but one critical difference)

& I N T E R M I S S I O N ——————>


Long post should always have an intermission, and here’s the program for the intermission: go over to Science Friday and listen to the podcast interview of Steven Johnson about his new book the Ghost Map, at this link.

E N D I N T E R M I S S I O N ————>

There are three lessons regarding methodologies from this wonderful podcast, and one conclusion to make from the substance of the materials which had been presented.

First, the three lessons about methodologies:

1. The importance of cross-disciplinary thinking.

2. The importance of engaging persistent networks (in this case it was the Priest, who used his social connections which were established through the Church’s persistent network)

3. The role of public discussion, and the role of information in the public debate. The presentation of the information must use multiple types of intelligence in its exposition. The map was, in effect a public relations success because it simply encapsulated a message, derived from verifiable information.

Now the observation that is of interest to me is Steve Johnson’s statement that the cholera bacteria, one of the smallest forms of life, was in contention with the city, one of the largest agglomerations of life on the planet. So there was a structural similarity between the GG vs. the last Superpower confrontation and the cholera vs. city confrontation.

The equilibrium was out of balance, and it had to be restored through through an adjustment to the infrastructure. (In this sense, we must understand infrastructure as the rules based system that mediates relations between large and small scale elements.) Similarly, we will have to adjust our infrastructure, for this new threat to the city (and it should be clear that the most dangerous of the current crop of global guerillas are those whose target is urbanisation itself)

As Steve Johnson noted however, there were several cholera epidemics in London which raised awareness of the populace and the civic authorities of the necessities of taking action. It is entirely conceivable (perhaps, in fact, probable) that AQ will coordinate its use of biological weapons to create maximum damage, so as to prevent organization of a response to this threat, and hence that learning curve, afforded us by cholera, will not be a part of AQ’s game plan. (The fact that they called off the gas attack in the New York subway should be a really loud wake-up call to those who may still harbor doubts as to AQ’s intentions re: use of bi0l0gical weapons.) But that very necessity of co-ordination suggests a way to disrupt AQ.

That is the critical difference between cholera and the GG; the GG requires some element of co-ordination. First, the immediate near term priority of disrupting the AQ communications, with noise, false signals, network disruption to hamper this co-ordination as much as possible is clear. Secondly there is the possibility of eavesdropping on these coordinating elements in order gain prior knowledge of their efforts, and in so doing get inside the GG OODA loop. These observations, of course are not revelations and they were known before this discussion certainly. These are in fact near term priorities that buy us just a little time before the next transformation of our infrastructure. And that is the conclusion I would draw from Steven Johnson’s book: that only a transformation of the infrastructure (i.e., the way that things of large scale and small scale relate to each other) can adapt society to the cholera epidemic. In that particular case, it ended up being the installation of sewers systems in cities. However, the fact that we may not have the learning curve with bio-attacks which we had with the advent of cholera in cities suggests an urgency of the transformation of the network, an urgency several orders of magnitude greater today than in the 1800’s.

The next step is of course the transformation of the infrastructure. It is notable, I think that the sustainability imperative creates a fundamentally different infrastructure than that created by the present economy. In response to the hurricane s Katrina and Rita the New Orleans Principles were developed, to guide the future development of New Orleans, post Katrina. Read them and think about how each one makes us more resilient to GG attack by: developing persistent networks, and structuring human social economic structures to mirror those in the nature. Every single one of this points, adapts us better to the global guerilla and to global warming. Some of them do sound like knee-jerk liberal platitudes, but the deeper you dig in each principle, the more you discover they provide resistance to both the global guerilla and global warming. This is not accidental; for as our society responds to nature it adopts more of nature’s structures, and as nature is deeply resilient and adaptable, so to our society becomes resilient and adaptable.

We have an excellent teacher in the hurricanes of Katrina and Rita: all we have to do is: LISTEN, the answer is blowing in the wind.

The New Orleans Principles

1 • Respect the rights of all citizens of New Orleans
Displaced citizens who wish to return to New Orleans should be afforded the opportunity to return to healthy, livable, safe, and secure neighborhoods of choice.

2 • Restore natural protections of the greater New Orleans region
Sustain and restore the coastal and floodplain ecosystems and urban forests that support and protect the environment, economy, communities, and culture of southern Louisiana, and that contribute greatly to the economy and well-being of the nation.

3 • Implement an inclusive planning process
Build a community-centered planning process that uses local talent and makes sure that the voices of all New Orleanians are heard. This process should be an agent of change and renewal for New Orleans.

4 • Value diversity in New Orleans
Build on the traditional strength of New Orleans neighborhoods, encourage mixed uses and diverse housing options, and foster communities of varied incomes, mixed age groups, and a racial diversity. Celebrate the unique culture of New Orleans, including its food, music, and art.

5• Protect the city of New Orleans
Expand or build a flood protection infrastructure that serves multiple uses. Value, restore, and expand the urban forests, wetlands, and natural systems of the New Orleans region that protect the city from wind and storms.

6 • Embrace smart redevelopment
Maintain and strengthen the New Orleans tradition of compact, connected, mixed-use communities. Provide residents and visitors with multiple transportation options. Look to schools for jumpstarting neighborhood redevelopment and for rebuilding strong communities in the city.

7 • Honor the past; build for the future
In the rebuilding of New Orleans, honor the history of the city while creating 21st century buildings that are durable, affordable, inexpensive to operate, and healthy to live in. Through codes and other measures, ensure that all new buildings are built to high standards of energy, structural, environmental, and human health performance.

8 • Provide for passive survivability
Homes, schools, public buildings, and neighborhoods should be designed and built or rebuilt to serve as livable refuges in the event of crisis or breakdown of energy, water, and sewer systems.

9 • Foster locally owned, sustainable businesses
Support existing and new local businesses built on a platform of sustainability that will contribute to a stronger and more diverse local economy.

10 • Focus on the long term
All measures related to rebuilding and ecological restoration, even short-term efforts, must be undertaken with explicit attention to the long-term solutions.

The New Orleans Principles are available here for download:

The intent of the post was to show why lessons gained from the sustainability imperative are directly applicable to the GG-superpower confrontation. It is much more important to understand why this linkage exists than to understand that there is the linkage because a whole set of dependencies come to light, that give measure to issues of speed, scale, and topology of the necessary resiliency, a resiliency which arises out of the nature of the persistent networks embedded with human society. The essential urgency of transforming our present infrastructure is therefore highlighted, and the directions developed to respond to the sustainability imperative are the path forward in our response to 5GW.

Note: the italicized text was added or revised 10 December 2006.

Post updated 21 March 2007

The Ghost Map & 5GW: The answer is blowing in the wind

4 thoughts on “The Ghost Map & 5GW: The answer is blowing in the wind

  1. (This is my first post on your site.) I am also very much interested in some of the same issues: sustainable design, public health, new paradigms of warfare, and so on, though I’m a telephone systems engineer rather than an architect (a number of my clients are architects, some of whom you have probably heard of). (I’ve also done a certain amount of design for sustainable infrastructure, about which more some other time…)

    Your point about disruption of AQ communications makes obvious sense, though I have lost confidence in the ability of the present Administration to conduct successful military and intel strategy. For example how many times have you heard them say, “we are picking up terrorist chatter…”? That’s an obvious reference to SIGINT, and sure enough, over the years, AQ has stopped using electronic communications in favor of hand-delivered messages and face-to-face meetings. The Admin needs to either really listen to the military and intel communities, or get out of their way, and since neither is likely, we end up waiting for either an impeachment or two more agonizingly vulnerable years until 2009 when the next Administration will be sworn in.

    I wonder about whether infrastructure & community resilience improvements are sufficient to minimize the impact of a bioweapons attack. Agreed, resilient and self-sufficient buildings would be valuable in the event that the BW agent has a short interval between the time an infected person becomes contagious and the time of symptom onset: there would be sufficient warning to enable peole to self-quarantine in place. However consider a hypothetical BW agent that has a period of contagion of even a few days before overt symptoms occur. Existing models of pandemic transmission show that immediate self-quarantine of infected persons is necessary otherwise geometric spread of disease occurs. You can see where this leads…

    No matter what infrastructure and social structure improvements are made, cities have the inherent vulnerability of large numbers of visitors at all times. Unlike small towns, “strangers” don’t stand out and hostile strangers who are placed under scrutiny can get political traction by claiming ethnic targeting i.e. “you stopped me because I look Middle Eastern.” So long as terrs exist and have access to BW agents and means of travel, we remain at risk.

    The New Orleans principles certainly provide resilience against conventional, chemical, and nuclear attacks. If a BW attack occurs, sustainable design will help cities that have not yet become infectious hot spots. However, I can’t find a way around the conclusion that any city that is directly targeted for BW attack would under the best of circumstances still take a serious hit. I’d be interested in any counter-arguements you might have about these points, and I’d appreciate any opportunity to discuss these issues in more detail (feel free to email, my address is attached).

  2. The New Orleans principles certainly provide resilience against conventional, chemical, and nuclear attacks. If a BW attack occurs, sustainable design will help cities that have not yet become infectious hot spots. However, I can’t find a way around the conclusion that any city that is directly targeted for BW attack would under the best of circumstances still take a serious hit.

    The resilence that sustainability provides is deep and systemic, and will provide benefits to any society that adopts sustainability as a priority.

    Two examples:

    1. Power: if I get my power from a wind farm, and an epidemic stops oil from the Middle East, I will still have power.

    2. Market Infrastructure: If I buy my food from a farmers market, like Soulards in Saint Louis, there is no middle man, canning factory, container ship or refrigerated warehouse between me and the food I need to buy. Sustainable networks are persistant and resilient, and the canning factory, container ship & refrigerated warehouse are all examples of things that will stop working in the event of a thoughtfully conceived and well-executed biological attack.

    So becoming Sustainable is the best way to make our society deeply resilient to 5GW attacks. Sustainability provides defense in depth, as opposed to our present efforts, which are essential stop-gaps, perimeter defenses, and as such are easily breached.

    Unlike small towns, “strangers” don’t stand out and hostile strangers…

    This point is addressed in my post: Cities are from Mars, Neighborhoods are from Venus

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