Monday, January 7, 2008

On wars and focus

Just read a very interesting article in Wired about how the situation in Iraq can be traced back in neglecting certain aspects of the war and over-emphasizing others. What the author says is that US developed and deployed an extremely good technical solution for efficient killing only to find out that killing the opponent is the easy part of that particular war.

So why is that article, filed under politics slash security in Wired, important in this context? It is actually relevant in two ways.

Firstly, it illustrates very nicely how very different social networks work and how important they are. Apparently, westerners whose social networks have been rapidly transforming in the last ten years, are almost incapable of grasping the society that relies heavily on the concept of belonging to the exactly right branch of the right religion, belonging to a tribe, village etc.

Secondly, what US Army did is something that happens frequently everywhere all over the world. Companies and groups of people focus on a small part of the problem as opposed to the whole issue at hand. They do so because
  • Other aspects of the problem are surrounded by the SEP-Field. Getting a volleyball net to a village can't possibly be the job of the Army, can it? Whether or not the software we build actually fits the real business process and functional concepts can't be a problem for an engineer, can it? This, of course, does not mean one should be running around sticking their nose into other people's business. Just gently notifying that you see a problem is usually OK
  • People love to deal with stuff they know well and tend to subconsciously push back stuff they are not sure how to handle. This is the reason there are a ton of good ideas out there that are either implemented in a horrible way, lack any marketing or are not productized in any way: engineers come up with an impossibly cool technical solution but forget there is more to a good product than just a slinky way of sending packets around
  • People are static. If the world has worked a certain way "for ever" there is no reason it should be behaving oterwise all of the sudden. It really does not work this way. The game has moved on and the stuff that used to take care of the problem just fine (i.e. killing off all the people who do not comply) now addresses only one aspect of the issue. The problem has grown arms and legs.

The same phenomenon of dangerously narrow focus is related to the TMP-mentality (Technology-Money-People) that states that every problem can be solved by throwing either technology, more money or more people at it. The core problem, of course, does not go anywhere. Only in that case the focus is so narrow it does not even exist. "No, We Need a Neural Network" is a prime example of this.

Of course, going too far the other way and attempt to stop all disease to fix your aching throat but that is also dangerous. So you need to be very careful in defining what exactly is the problem that needs to be fixed.

Are we doomed? Can nothing be done? Relax, all is not lost. As long as somebody (it could be you!) keeps these tendencies in mind, tries to look at the thing as a whole and is able to voice the concerns in a way that gets the point across there is still hope.