Reality Mining for Population-Centric Computational Counterinsurgency; Or, Feedback Loops Meet Hermeneutic Circles

Drizzled between the gun battles were occasional accounts of villages stabilized and town elders met. But, written as random notes, the accounts were hard to insert into a database. There was nothing consistent, nothing you could plot as a trend over time.

‘These were intelligence reports, not measurable data,’ the source says. ‘The population-centric information wasn’t to be found there.’

So the team widened their search, without much luck. The most reliable data they could find was weekly fruit prices from Jalalabad, a city in northeastern Afghanistan. At least those could be measured over time.

“One assumed there was some secret mound of data to be exploited. But it’s just not true,” the source adds.

Noah Shachtman, ‘Inside Darpa’s Secret Afghan Spy Machine’

Albright has noted that Iran has material to build only 12,000-15,000 centrifuges, and if 1,000 to 2,000 were destroyed, this would hasten the demise of its stockpile. But his and other organizations have also noted that after the centrifuges were replaced, Iran stepped up its enrichment program and its overall production of uranium had actually increased in 2010, despite any effects Stuxnet may have had.

Stuxnet required an enormous amount of resources to produce, but its cost-benefit ratio is still in question. While it may have helped set Iran’s program back to a degree, it also altered the landscape of cyberattacks…In the end, Stuxnet’s creators invested years and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attack that was derailed by a single rebooting PC, a trio of naive researchers who knew nothing about centrifuges, and a brash-talking German who didn’t even have an internet connection at home.

Kim Zetter, ‘How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History’

These domestic images must be more than simply one more form of distancing, one more way to remove oneself from the grisly reality behind the words; ordinary abstraction is adequate to that task. Something else, something very peculiar, is going on here. Calling the pattern in which bombs fall a ‘footprint’ almost seems a wilful distorting process, a playful, perverse refusal of accountability – because to be accountable is to be unable to do this work.

These words also serve to domesticate, to tame the wild and uncontrollable forces…The metaphors minimize; they are a way to make phenomena that are beyond what the mind can encompass smaller and safer, and thus they are a way of gaining mastery over the unmasterable. The fire-breathing dragon under the bed, the one who threatens to incinerate your family, your town, your planet, becomes a bet you can pat.

Carol Cohn, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’ (1987)

The ways of thinking embodied in institutions govern the way the members of the societies studied by the social scientist behave. The idea of war, for instance, was not simply invented by people who wanted to explain what happens when societies come into armed conflict. It is an idea that provides the criteria of what is appropriate in the behaviour of members of the conflicting societies. Because my country is at war there are certain things which I must do and certain things which I must not do. My behaviour is governed, one could say, by my concept of myself as a member of a belligerent country. The concept of war belongs essentially to my behaviour. But the concept of gravity does not belong essentially to the behaviour of a falling apple in the same way: it belongs rather to the physicist’s explanation of the apple’s behaviour. To recognise this has nothing to do with a belief in ghosts behind the phenomena.

Peter Winch, The Idea Of A Social Science And Its Relation to Philosophy (1958)


7 thoughts on “Reality Mining for Population-Centric Computational Counterinsurgency; Or, Feedback Loops Meet Hermeneutic Circles

    • *smiles mysteriously*

      Well, what fun would it be if I did all the work for you?

      It’s an incidental follow-up to the two posts on Network-Centric Warfare. The quotes before PKD are from two recent Wired articles which I read soon after writing those posts. Both are worth checking out: long, full of detail and solid journalistic story-telling. Both suggested to me further examples of one of the themes in my split-review, which is that the exponential march of progress in terms of data-mining, algorithms, and technological superiority still keeps coming up against the politics of unintended consequences (in the Stuxnet example) and, more crucially, the weird character of human behaviour (in the ‘reality-mining’ example).

      Which is what the quotes below the fold were intended to illustrate, along with the ethical questions raised by the distancing language employed in technowar. Hence feedback loops meeting hermeneutic circles. The language of ‘reality-mining’ and ‘population-centric computational counterinsurgency’ are from statements by a designer of the system in the Shachtman article.


      • Okay I tried looking up technowar and landed up googling ‘technowart’ instead (laughed myself silly), then read up the definition of hermeneutics and tried to piece together what you just wrote and then gave up. I read it AT LEAST twice though. Tried.


      • Ha, OK, sorries. *jargon-heavy shame*.

        Technowar: a byword for the fusion of technology and war. Usually meaning the growing role of new, expensive, complicated and geeky ways of delivering death (drones, instant-reaction computers, high-cost additions to regular military kit) over the older forms (lots of soldiers with minimal equipment, tanks, human intelligence gathering). In this particular example, I mean the idea that gathering loads and loads of data and then analysing it will tell you something new and meaningful about the people you’re trying to kill/control/persuade. The wager of some of the technowar types in the Shachtman piece is that by coding and monitoring masses of human interactions on a previously inconceivable scale (the prices of certain goods, the movements of all cars in a territory, the times of day that people travel from one place to another) you can extrapolate something about their likely next moves and so pre-empt them or adjust your strategy in light of whatever truth the information provides you.

        Hermeneutics: the practice of interpretation. Human actions have meaning, and meaning is historically and socially contingent. In the most gauche example from counter-insurgency, this reduces to the different ways we understand gesture. So soldiers are told not to show Iraqis the soles of their feet, or to only shake with a particular hand, or not to pull away from hugs, or whatever. Because those gestures are held to have a specific significance in context that they would not have outside it. This is stuff that cannot be so easily mapped, because you need a human mind somehow within the system of meaning to know what’s appropriate and what’s not. As the quote from Winch suggests, even something as permanent in human history as ‘war’ is like this. It doesn’t have a single meaning over time. You can’t just pop in abstracted data and get a meaningful picture of war since year dot. Some forms of collective killing count to their participants as ‘war’; others don’t. This is because ‘war’ is a contingent and shifting term for a whole set of overlapping things which are given meaning by the people involved in them, not by any of their ‘objective’ qualities. So, broadly, hermeneutics is a type of interpretivism, which means that it stresses the role of a close familiarity with the lives and experiences and humanness of the people you’re studying over a neatly arranged list of their attributes or height or amount of facial hair, or whatever. The ‘hermeneutic circle’ is the idea that you have to move between the parts and the whole of a particular phenomenon to properly grasp it. In its textual variant, this is the fairly common-sense notion that you can’t really understand what someone like Shakespeare was doing when he wrote Hamlet (to use a hackneyed example) without knowing quite a lot about the context (the political history, the other plays that were on at the time, the social conventions that applied at the time, the intended audience). Without that, your neat mathematical mapping of the frequency of particular terms, or your formal analysis of how the character inter-relate, won’t help much.

        So: the idea here, raised in those two previous posts here and here), is that the grand promises of massive computational power and highly complex mathematical data analysis are failing to materialise because of a very basic misunderstanding about how to make sense of human interactions.

        Of course, it’s not that simple, and you can build very advanced cases for both sorts of methods. But the contrast is what I was after. A bit better?


    • I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition.

      As I said, mainly intended as a quick footnote to a previous discussion (file under: ‘Found Objects’ and ‘Posted Without Comment’), which I think established the parameters of what there is to arrive at: namely, the significant tension between these two ways of approaching social behaviour, and the very real possibility that millions or billions will continue to be spent on data-mining without necessarily producing any increased traction on actual events and, moreover, will promote a language of technical distance that gives the illusion of control and lets us off certain ethical hooks.


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