On the referendum #24B: Whistleblowers, ‘outing’, the ECHR

Below is a section of yesterday’s blog that has been changed and changed again in odd circumstances. It will be convenient to put it into a separate blog so people can follow easier…

EDITED SECTION OF YESTERDAY BLOG…

I didn’t know anything about the personal relationships between Wylie/Shahmir/SP until a few days ago but here is Stephen Parkinson’s (SP) statement:

‘I was not introduced to Shahmir Sanni or Darren Grimes by Chris Wylie as he is claiming, but by a mutual friend from university. Shahmir became an occasional volunteer for Vote Leave and other leave campaigns, and we began a personal relationship. We subsequently dated for 18 months, splitting up – I thought amicably – in September 2017. That is the capacity in which I gave Shahmir advice and encouragement, and I can understand if the lines became blurred for him, but I am clear that I did not direct the activities of any separate campaign groups. I had no responsibility for digital campaigning or donations during the referendum, and am confident that Vote Leave acted entirely within the law and strict spending rules at all times.’


[Added the next day… The statement above was originally on this blog yesterday. Then I got requests on behalf of Shahmir to remove it on the grounds that relatives in Pakistan might get killed. Then Shahmir put out his own statement admitting the relationship and attacking Parkinson for ‘outing’ him. So I have restored the statement above and left the below here, so people can see the weird context. 1) Given the nature of Shahmir’s accusations against the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary, no reasonable person would have thought Parkinson could explain all this to the PM and media while hiding the fact of their relationship. 2) Shahmir’s behaviour is not consistent with someone prioritising relatives ‘at serious risk’ in Pakistan, to say the least. 3) Shahmir is unquestionably telling lies about BeLeave — either he was lying to VL’s board member in charge of compliance, who has detailed written notes taken after talking to Shahmir in 2016 about the independence of BeLeave (when Shahmir said it was all ethical and legal), or he is lying now. There’s no third alternative. Given all the other evidence about this, a reasonable person will conclude he’s probably lying now. Maybe it’s connected to his relationship (used in a general sense) with Wylie, maybe not. 4) Wylie literally has described himself as ‘a smear merchant’. Are the media going to report seriously allegations from someone like this? 5) An interesting side issue is that the legal point Shahmir’s lawyers used to try to gag the media yesterday is an ECHR point. It is absurd in principle and this case is a good example of why: person X makes accusations publicly about person Y then gets lawyers to tell Y ‘you can’t answer these accusations in a way that reveals anything about my sex life even if it’s directly relevant to the accusations’. The ECHR creates these legal problems all the time. The media should have had more courage to defend the public interest yesterday and ignored this argument. If I get involved in politics again, then a referendum on the ECHR should be high on the agenda — and bear in mind most people probably think we’re already leaving it because of the 2016 referendum, so imagine how mad they’ll be when they realise we’re still in it.]

[XXX NB. I have removed this statement. I have been sent a letter apparently from lawyers saying people might get killed as a consequence and asking me to remove it for their safety. Despite this being entirely the Observer’s/C4’s fault, I obviously won’t take any risk that people are physically attacked. I will take steps to discover if Bindmans are acting in good faith, whom for, and so on. If I think communications from Bindmans or subsequent coverage by CC/C4 reveal a lack of good faith, and seek to use my removal of this statement to claim, in any way shape or form that I have admitted fault/liability etc about anything, or make dishonest claims about the relationships of specific people because they think they can keep certain details secret using legal threats, then I will put it back up immediately as they will have revealed they were lying about physical dangers for political advantage. It is in your hands, CC/C4 and whistleblowers — I’m cutting you a break you don’t deserve. Journalists please note that I’m unclear what is happening and I’m just assuming this email is genuine given the scale of the issue. Also NB. the legal issue at stake concerns an aspect of the ECHR — and this reminds me that another project we need to get going is a referendum on that, much easier to win than the EU, we’ll win 65-35…]

On the referendum #24: Global conspiracies and a Scooby Doo ending?

‘My feeling about Brexit was not anger at anybody else, it was anger at myself for not realising what was going on. I thought that all those Ukip people and those National Fronty people were in a little bubble. Then I thought: “Fuck, it was us, we were in the bubble, we didn’t notice it.” There was a revolution brewing and we didn’t spot it.’ Brian Eno, with more self-awareness than Blair, Cameron, Osborne, Mandelson et al.

Carole Cadwalladr (CC) and Channel 4 (C4) have sent me and others involved in Vote Leave (VL) a list of questions concerning the referendum and allegations from Wylie and other ‘whistleblowers’. CC’s letter is attached below verbatim with only some names and libellous details about others deleted.

This is part of a long-running attempt by the Observer to claim that 1) VL was involved with Cambridge Analytica (CA) in a global conspiracy involving a nine-month long fight for the designation as the official campaign, covered intensely by the media, that was ‘really’ the most elaborate cover story since the D-Day deception operation, and 2) VL acted illegally in making donations to BeLeave (BL) and other campaign groups.

Because of Facebook’s incompetence in dealing with it (itself an interesting issue given it is so effective in other ways), this story has, ludicrously in most ways, gone global. Having mostly ignored it for 18 months, and now getting a string of hysterical emails from the media, I might as well try to explain some background to this nonsense then explore some details, including some details about the supposed whistleblowers including Wylie, who, I (re)discovered yesterday, tried to flog me the same crap he’s attacking CA for doing. I’ve also put in some links to serious work on some of the issues such as fake news and the effects of marketing and put in some names for journalists to call if they want details.

You’ll see some of this play out in the papers and on TV over the next few days. But at the end of it we’ll still be leaving the EU, CA will still be charlatans, and the media still (mostly) won’t explain data and (digital) marketing well.

The overall conspiracy — hedge funds and secret superpowers

Many powerful people, and journalists at the Guardian/Observer, got a horrible shock on the night of 23 June 2016. Rather than face reality many of them have created a fantasy and sold it hard. In doing this they are, ironically, mirroring those they say they hate.

Their fantasy involves a general argument that they lost the referendum as a local consequence of a global phenomenon — the world has been swept by a ‘new age of unreason’ as Osborne puts it. Yes, Osborne — the yacht-party drinking buddy of Putin’s oligarch sidekick Deripaska, the famously honest and scientific Osborne. Fake news and Facebook posts conned millions of ignorant people who don’t understand how the world really works, which we do, so they think. In this fantasy they are joined by legions of mainstream economists for whom it is obvious that Brexit is a disaster and those who voted for it are idiots or fantasists. These economists bounce from day to day convincing themselves that it was always obvious that what just happened was bound to happen — they must be constantly puzzled as to why they aren’t trillionaires.

This fantasy is much more convenient to believe than it is to face the fact that their campaign managed to lose despite having practically every force with power and money in the world on their side. How much easier is it on the psyche for Blair et al to avoid reflecting on why people didn’t trust them personally (e.g WMD/45 minutes) and didn’t believe their arguments (e.g remember the ‘immediate recession’ almost the entire economics profession predicted?), and didn’t trust their motives (e.g notice how all these powerful people from whichever party get rich and defend thieves who steal from the public?). How much easier is it to ignore the policy and management errors of those in charge from all parties (e.g Blair and Cameron simultaneously losing control of immigration AND not building public service infrastructure) that have led millions to conclude governments are run by incompetent crooks. How much easier is it to wallow in the feeling that they are heroic guardians of the truth fighting a malign global force. The relatively rich and privileged political-media world that almost entirely missed Brexit and the reasons for it has largely swallowed this comforting meme and spent two years talking, as usual, mainly to themselves.

This is the background psychology.  

How wonderful, then, for there to pop up a story combining: Trump, Putin, Bannon, hedge fund billionaire and AI researcher Robert Mercer, an ominous sounding digital company, Cambridge Analytica, led by a gobby Etonian, then smash it together with Vote Leave, Farage, and the battle to control the referendum (best described by Shipman in All Out War). It feeds the psychology perfectly. A conspiracy of baddies (Putin, Trump, Farage, hedge funds), dangerous sounding technology (that approximately nobody in politics/media actually understands), awesome superpowers wielded by secret forces (often a powerful meme historically) and so on — the perfect conditions for ‘unreason’ to flourish.

Add on top of this a media-obsessed clown, Arron Banks, who having lost the designation battle to Vote Leave was desperate to claim any sort of role in the referendum so decided to brag after the vote about working with Cambridge Analytica ‘using AI’, before realising he had opened himself up to charges of illegality (viz reporting expenditure) and therefore quickly reverse-ferreted to say that everything he’d claimed had been to ‘wind up’ journalists. Having claimed CA was super-cool, he now claims he always realised they were charlatans. Of course, he couldn’t admit the truth — pure self-aggrandisement — and still can’t, caught between two incompatible lines of bullshit. Banks fits the bill perfectly for CC to fit a specific global conspiracy into the underlying psychology. ‘Evidence! Facebook! AI! Admitted!’

Ironically, the main reason for so much bad blood before the referendum campaign started was that a powerful network of MPs, donors, peers, and assorted ‘campaigners’ bought Banks’ bullshit about building a ‘digital army’. Powered by invincible ignorance, this network maintained that Banks was a digital guru who had hired a brilliant company to ‘do digital’ and Vote Leave should merge with them and let Banks control all data/digital elements of the campaign. Over and over again I would have meetings explaining ‘Facebook doesn’t work like that, Banks is spinning you crap, if he could do what he and CA claim then they’d be trillionaires, not hustling you for a few grand’ and on and on. Even though his supposed digital army consisted largely of Wigmore publishing offensive things they had to retract and apologise for, few in SW1 cottoned on at the time that he was a grade A bullshitter. A depressing time.

I and the other key people who ran Vote Leave told this network, which at one point extended dangerously into our own Board — ‘no way, they aren’t competent to run anything and they aren’t fit to have any role in the referendum, we will not work with them in any way’. Hence the war and Banks throwing everything he had not at Cameron and the Remain campaign but to replace me. VL’s relationship with Leave.EU was best described by Banks when he told the Times that he viewed Vote Leave as ‘the real enemy’.

It is doubly ironic, therefore, that the Guardian/Observer has tried to wrap VL and its staff into the CA story claiming, literally, that the entire fight over designation, and the coup to replace me, was really a deep cover charade designed to hide the fact that we were all secretly working together: ‘covert coordination’ as CC describes it in one of her stories. The author of the most authoritative book on the campaign, Tim Shipman, was asked about the probability that this deep conspiracy is true and replied — ‘zero percent’. The reason CC’s stories stayed in the ghetto of the Observer for 18 months until they escaped, like a virus a week ago to infect the global news system, is that approximately zero political journalists in the UK could buy this tale. Read Shipman’s account of the coup to remove me and subsequent events, think of all those involved, and ask yourself how likely it is that we acted all this out in an unprecedented political theatre. If I could do that, I’d be a trillionaire.

Another problem with CC’s theory is it requires that you believe simultaneously that a) Mercer/Putin et al are so brilliant and powerful they could orchestrate this global conspiracy AND b) it fell apart because they’re so dumb they entrusted the Brexit arm of it to Banks and Wigmore who promptly blabbed the whole dastardly scheme on the record to CC by mistake. For this story to be true would be like finding out that Trump ran for President as part of a secret plot with Obama. Could you prove it didn’t happen? Technically no but what would you bet on a theory like that being true?

CC’s bit of ‘evidence’ for this conspiracy? That a company which did digital execution for us, AIQ, once built some software for SCL in 2014. This is used to justify the claim that AIQ is legally obliged to hand over data from every client they ever have to SCL/CA. Of course, this is ludicrous. a) Such a contract would be illegal and unenforceable. b) AIQ was specifically bound by their contract with us not to share any data with anybody and to obey English law. c) AIQ has made clear that they never shared any of our data with anybody directly or indirectly. AIQ behaved professionally, they were careful about personal data, and I have no reason to think they were lying to VL and risking the destruction of their business and criminal prosecutions. [Added shortly after publication: NB. This ‘evidence’ was published by the Observer months ago — it isn’t new.]

Up against tough competition, the whole story is the most loony accusation I’ve ever faced in 20 years in politics. In normal times, such a loony story would get no play but these aren’t normal times. A powerful set of people will do anything to try to shift public opinion in order that they can overturn the referendum.

Leave aside the conspiracy: does what CA does work?! Does CA have superpowers to change minds, denied to other mortals?

Well one part of what they claim to have been doing definitely works. This week Nix was filmed in a sting operation on C4. On TV he was selling CA not on the basis of ‘super-sophisticated AI’ but on a very old trick — using super-hot Ukrainian girls to blow politicians up. When I lived in Moscow I met some girls who worked on KGB honey traps and I’ve got a lot more confidence in their methodology than I do in CA’s ‘psychographics’, though unfortunately for Nix, the Moscow approach ‘doesn’t scale’ as they say in the Valley. There’s not that many Milla Jovovich lookalikes with the right skill set.

These old school games are not what Nix was selling publicly. What about this ‘psychographic’ stuff?

I won’t go into any detail on this but just make some obvious points largely ignored.

The first thing to realise is that it is very hard to show that ANYTHING done in political campaigns / advertising works reliably.

Of course sometimes memes take off and some commercial advertising campaigns are a great success. But nobody has found a way to turn this into a method for reliably influencing politics.

Much of the political science world is dominated by bullshit ‘research’ and their claims cannot be relied on. One of the few reliable and interesting scholars in this field is David Broockman at Stanford. He recently published a big and interesting study including randomised control trials to detect campaign effects: The Minimal Persuasive Effects of Campaign Contact in General Elections: Evidence from 49 Field Experiments, Stoockman et al 2017. The conclusion? Almost everything campaigns do in America has no discernible effect when tested with RCTs. (NB. this finding was for US party elections — referendums are different.)

This broad conclusion holds for digital marketing. Almost all claims you read are bullshit, particularly if they involve CA’s magic potion of Big 5 personality type marketing. Is everything rubbish? No. Is there a method demonstrated to have reliable big effects? No. Does CA have Jedi powers? According to the experts, no chance.

It is hard to change people’s minds. We are evolved creatures. If we were all dopey dupes we wouldn’t be here, our ancestors would have all been killed. You’re reading this because your ancestors survived a brutal competition of sexual politics, this involves deceit and perceiving deceit, and this makes it an extremely non-trivial task to change minds at scale reliably in a competitive landscape. If it were a trivial task, our entire world would be unrecognisably different. People are always selling the idea that they have a magic bullet of persuasion. You won’t get poor by shorting such promises.

Do some companies have great power? Yes but only in limited ways. Facebook is in many ways a great company and Insider sneering at Zuckerberg is largely jealousy. (Their current problem is a consequence of senior people there not understanding rapidly changing political dynamics but they’ll learn about politics faster than the politicians learn about engineering.) But Facebook cannot program fashion and opinions. Neither can marketing companies — almost all they do fails. Nobody can in free societies (Communist/fascist countries are obviously a different argument.) It’s too complex. Facebook, like great politicians, surfs waves that it very rarely (if ever) creates. CA is a normal company in its field in my experience — it exploits the ignorance about marketing, data science, and psychology to sell snake oil to gullible people who almost never have the technical education to question them scientifically. That’s normal. What’s abnormal is that a large section of the media takes snake oil so seriously and suspends their usually hyper-critical faculties. The reason is that politics is melting their brains.

What about CC’s latest attempt to wrap all this up together?

CC has published a string of stories on all this, culminating last weekend with the whistleblower story on CA. This story had no relevance to Brexit. The core of the story is: an academic sucked data out of FB (using an API) for research (legal) then shared it with various people including CA (against the terms of his agreement with FB, possibly illegal). The combination of a ‘whistleblower’ with pink hair, a huge botched job by FB, quite clever coordination with the New York Times which has a very strong incentive to blame Facebook for Trump (rather than their own coverage of Hillary’s emails and so on, which dwarfed all ‘fake news’ social media in impact — cf. physicist Duncan Watts for detail), and the desire of many established players to screw Silicon Valley tech companies gave the story more legs than her previous ones.

FB has undoubtedly behaved incompetently over this and given a clear impression they do not care about users’ privacy, though almost everything you read about ‘Facebook selling your data’ in the context of this story is also rubbish. If you want to understand the complex facts, talk to someone like Benedict Evans (Andreessen Horowitz, one of the handful of the Valley’s top VC firms) or Antonio Garcia Martinez (former FB employee) who really understand FB’s business and the real details of their advertising model.

This story going global is a great example of how little facts matter and how much context matters when looking at news. Facebook’s screwup has been in the public domain for two years. Everybody ignored it. (From FB’s perspective, it’s a commercial equivalent of Obama’s campaign in 2007/8 ignoring Reverend Wright until it blew up in their faces — when it happens everyone says ‘how could we have ignored this?’). Add a few spicy elements to the coverage (Whistleblower), some intrigue (Nix’s car crash undercover filming), and a different political context (post-Brexit and Trump) and the same media and political people behave very differently. (Duncan Watts wrote a great paper about the role of randomness in social life and what makes ‘hits’ in Science, HERE, and this story is a good example.)

What about CC and her motives? Cadwalladr is a passionate supporter of Remain. She’s said that ‘the ideology of Brexit strikes against the idea of ourselves as a people in the most intimate way possible’. A quick glance of her tweets and you will find stuff like ‘Brexit STINKS’. In articles right after the vote she described Leave voters as ‘canon fodder… Lied to and manipulated and deceived’. She also claims ‘where was the counter-argument [to Vote Leave]? Nowhere’ ignoring the fact that Remain dominated TV news for a year with the exception of about 10 days. After the 2017 election she also insinuated that Vote Leave shared data with the Tories — again alleging criminal behaviour completely without any foundation. You get the picture. It’s OK to hate the result. Unlike many on the other side I have no reflexive dislike of people who voted differently to me. I never regarded the other other side as fools or evil the way Insiders do about Leave voters — which is one of the reasons they lost, as this mindset blinded them to reality beyond London. But it is very clear she regards herself as a campaigner and is in no sense an objective journalist dealing with both sides fairly.

Facts on BeLeave

BeLeave was set up up by Darren Grimes, a student, independent of VL. He was introduced to VL by people who had worked with him on Liberal Democrat campaigns — though not by Chris Wylie, as he is now claiming. Other VL staff were impressed by what became BeLeave around Christmas 2015 when they noticed Darren using a #Beleave hashtag on twitter and campaigning online. Some VL staff gradually got to know them as they did many other independent groups. They visited our offices. We helped them in various ways, which was legal. Inevitably people became friends and met socially, which was legal (for American readers / NYT the laws are nothing like those for PACS).

Our relationship changed a few weeks before the vote. In the later stages of the campaign, the Electoral Commission was under pressure over Government conduct. For example, Cameron had done an event at the British Museum. This would mean counting the expense (many thousands) against Remain’s ‘controlled expenditure’ if it counted as a Remain event. Remain claimed it was a ‘government event’ and there was no ‘coordination’ therefore no need for them to register any expenditure as theirs. If in fact it was ‘coordinated’ between No10 and Remain then it would count as ‘controlled expenditure’. If No10 and Remain lied about coordination, that would be illegal. The EC accepted government assurances. There were many such incidents for both sides.

Suddenly in May, at the height of the disputes described in the paragraph above, the EC told us that we could make donations to other campaigns. The idea that campaigns could donate to each other AND such a donation would not have to count as part of our expenditure, AND would not be regarded a priori as ‘coordination’ was a surprise to me and others. So we sought clarification from the EC and got it. We then made donations to BeLeave and others. Having struggled to raise money since we started a year earlier, at this point (roughly a month before the vote) we had the opposite problem: money was suddenly flooding in as donors thought we might actually win (almost nobody thought it possible before). So we gave some of it to other independent campaigns as the EC said we could.  Everything was properly recorded and declared.

To be fair, this does prima facie seem weird. Why? Because campaigns are not supposed to ‘coordinate’ — if they do, then their expenditure must be combined. Given this, it would be reasonable to think that donations are a priori excluded. But the EC told us the law says they aren’t. (See details and documents below.)

The law defines ‘coordination’ as incurring controlled expenditure pursuant to a plan or other arrangement. Nobody really knows what this means including the EC. To give an example… In his book Unleashing Demons, Craig Oliver describes a daily call he ran with various Remain groups: ‘I join a 7.30 a.m. cross-party call chaired by Will Straw. It’s designed to catch up with what the In campaigns for the various political parties are doing that day. I want to get across a blunt message: this matters. We failed on immigration yesterday, hardly anyone stuck to our line that we accept it’s a problem, but Leave’s solution of trashing the economy is no way to deal with it.’

Many have construed this as illegal particularly given the EC also states that ‘In our view, you are very likely to be working together if … you coordinate your regulated campaign activity with another campaigner – for example, if you agree that you should each cover particular areas, arguments or voters’ (emphasis added). The EC says the above example doesn’t fall within this definition — so you can see just how hard it is to interpret what they will say about anything. VL had a meeting with groups (though more like fortnightly and did not discuss media lines) because we were also under an obligation as the official campaign to discuss the campaign with other leave groups. This was one of the reasons that the EC gave VL the designation — because we were talking to the disparate leave groups and therefore best represented the whole coalition. The two official campaigns were, therefore, effectively obliged both to ‘coordinate’ others by the EC’s designation criteria, in one sense of the word, and we were also forbidden to ‘coordinate’ in the legal sense of the word, though nobody including the EC itself could define clearly what this meant and where the boundaries were (and they still can’t).

Another example was the Remain campaign’s Ryanair event with Cable, Balls and Osborne. We were told repeatedly that if we did a joint event with X and X spent money on say the setting (arranging vehicles etc) then we would have to assume responsibility for the cost. But when the Government did an event with a huge airplane emblazoned with the Remain campaign’s slogan and we said ‘err, surely this is a joint event’, the EC again said ‘no, this is fine’. The event was counted as a Government event and so none of the cost was declared by StrongerIn, even though it was attended and spoken at by opposition politicians. It should also be noted that Ryanair did not register as a permitted participant (despite admitting on the record to spending more than the legal threshold of £10,000 in advertising) and generally broke the rules in umpteen ways. The Electoral Commission refused to investigate Ryanair despite their admissions.

This is an example of what I said more than a year ago — that the system was cobbled together by Blair then Cameron for what they thought was their own political advantage and Parliament has not taken the legal framework for our elections seriously, leaving many such gaps, confusions and so on. During the referendum nobody in power cared that EU citizens were voting illegally and posting the evidence on social media — ‘there’s no evidence’, the EC claimed when we presented them with evidence. Those in power passed rules which exempted the Government from the controls which applied to all others during the campaign, with the exception only of ‘purdah’ which applied only in the last four weeks and was routinely broken by the Government (e.g. Cameron’s plainly unlawful but now forgotten speech on the steps of Downing Street two days before the referendum). Another oddity is the loophole in the financing rules that Blair left so that Sinn Fein could raise money in America without having to declare the donors. This rule allowed the DUP to raise and spend money without declaring the source. Again, since the vote the Establishment has raged about this but BLAIR created these rules, not Vote Leave.

For a year, CC and others (such as @jolyon the lawyer) have waged a campaign claiming that our funding of BeLeave and other organisations was illegal. Jolyon has brought a Judicial Review of the EC decision. The Observer and CC are planning a new ‘scoop’ this weekend which seems to be a rehash of everything CC has been saying for 18 months.

1/ They’ve claimed repeatedly that my account above is false and that the EC provided no such guidance to VL. CC has written stories claiming I’d fabricated the whole story. Jolyon claimed the same on on twitter for months. A few days ago at the High Court, VL provided the court with documents proving that what I said was correct and CC and Jolyon have been talking rubbish for a year (document at bottom of blog). Of course, no trace of their errors appear in any of CC’s letters to us and they have made no admission that their accusations were false. They’ve just ignored the fact that their central allegation was false and thrown a load more allegations. What else has the Observer botched? Jolyon now admits the assurance was given by the EC but now is arguing it was unlawful for the EC to do this and is asking the court to declare that in giving it the EC failed in their duty to regulate the referendum. The Divisional Court today found at paragraphs [42]-[43] of its judgment that ‘in asserting that it had never given advice that Vote Leave could lawfully make the donation it did, the Commission was making a statement which, though literally true, was misleading. The court found as a matter of fact that Vote Leave had been given the assurance that donating to other campaigns without coordination was lawful.’ CC and others should revisit their claims but they’ll just keep throwing arguments at the courts hoping something sticks enough to discredit VL and derail Brexit.

2/ In the letters (below) they make a string of claims that are factually wrong, hopelessly confused, or nonsensical — e.g they’ve copied and pasted the wrong bits of emails into emails to different people, rendering some allegations gibberish as they refer to the wrong person. It’s impossible to respond sensibly to a question about ‘your’ criminal act when it is obviously sent to the wrong person (which is one of the reasons why nobody is replying to these letters — upgrade your lawyers, Observer/C4). Some of these claims are supposedly supported by ‘whistleblowers’. The one named, Shahmir, was an occasional volunteer with no access to accounts and data which he claims he had. See below for Stephen Parkinson’s statement on this matter. For example:

  • They claim that BL was registered as a separate company. It was never registered as a separate company.
  • Their whistleblower claims ‘BeLeave was literally set up by Vote Leave’s lawyers. This was, allegedly, cheating on a grand scale.’ False. It was not ‘set up by Vote Leave’s lawyers’. Given there was no separate company, there was nothing for lawyers to ‘set up’. Darren Grimes actually registered himself personally with the EC rather than BeLeave — a mistake which was clearly not advised by any lawyer.
  • They are factually wrong on details like who set up what website and legally wrong on the implications. They claim that the BeLeave website was ‘apparently paid for’ by a member of VL staff. False. It was set up by DG and documents prove it.
  • They claim that VL suggested BeLeave could ‘receive a donation to spend on their own advertisement and projects if they set up their own campaign’, again getting the chronology wrong. BL was set up many months before any donation was a possible issue, and at a time when VL didn’t have nearly enough money to do the things we wanted, let alone make donations to others (we were almost insolvent in spring 2016).
  • A ‘whistleblower’ claims that BeLeave volunteers had ‘no control over expenditure, or authority to spend even very small sums’. False. Darren Grimes himself paid for various things.
  • They falsely claim that people who were actually locked out of VL’s system in 2016 or early 2017 had access to Vote Leave’s files and data in 2018.
  • Wylie makes other claims about conversations he supposedly had. I won’t go into details as I understand there is legal action over this underway. Wylie’s account is strongly disputed.
  • They have accused over a dozen different individuals of the same crimes in different letters — a classic fishing expedition hoping that, in the absence of proper evidence, different people will give contradictory answers and provide ‘evidence’ of a ‘coverup’. E.g They have accused multiple people of arranging the donation to BeLeave and accused multiple people of directing where that money eventually went. They accuse multiple people of still being the administrators for the Vote Leave data drive, when none of them are, and so on.

3/ They claim that members of VL who had left VL employment in 2016, who had moved onto other jobs, and who had been removed from any control of any VL data were responsible for ‘deleting’ emails/documents/records as part of a criminal conspiracy. This is factually wrong. It is part of a pattern of false accusations concerning data. For example, last year CC claimed that VL’s deletion of its database was part of an illegal coverup. This was a huge misunderstanding. In fact, VL had told the ICO that in order to protect the personal data of millions of people we would delete it as soon as possible. The Board authorised staff to do this (I was in the room when it was discussed several times and have notes). VL staff acted ethically, responsibly, and legally in deleting this and other personal data. But the Observer’s hysteria means this was transformed into more supposed ‘evidence’ of a criminal conspiracy. There are other similar examples.

4/ The lawyer Jolyon, who has worked with CC on this story, also claimed that I had accidentally admitted breaking the law (in my report on the campaign when I posted rough spending amounts). On 30 September last year Jolyon tweeted in his usual style: ‘Here is Vote Leave’s Campaign Director *admitting* they spent £3.3 m[illion] more than permitted. Yet still [the EC] wont act.’ After bluster and threats from this charlatan, who was trying to raise money off the back of his claim (interesting QCs are allowed to raise cash off the back of false/incompetent claims without consequence), he then deleted his tweet and apologised. (Salaries don’t count for ‘controlled expenditure’ so, not understanding the law, this QC ‘expert’ had added up the wrong numbers.) Within minutes he was back to throwing new allegations around social media and has carried on.

5/ The EC has now completed two separate investigations into BeLeave and found that we’d done nothing wrong. Jolyon and others brought a JR against the EC in response to which the EC has opened a third investigation which is still underway. Today, the Divisional Court granted permission to Jolyon to bring his claim on one ground, and refused it on a further three. Jolyon argues that referendum expenses and donations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If this is right, there would be perverse consequences for all campaigners. As the Divisional Court recognised at paragraph [29] of its judgment, ‘if making a donation of the kind described in paragraph 2(1)(c) of Schedule 15 also involves incurring a referendum expense, then only permitted participants could make such donations exceeding £10,000, and only the designation organisation could make such donations exceeding £700,000, without contravening the rules restricting campaign spending.’ In other words, this could have major implications for Remain campaign donors, such as Lord Sainsbury, who never registered as permitted participants but gave hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations. No one at the time thought this was against the law, and the court has not said that it is, only that Jolyon’s claim (in one respect only) meets the low threshold of being ‘arguable’ in a full judicial review.

6/ Throughout this process, the Observer has persecuted the young student, Darren Grimes, who set up BeLeave. They have had no compunction about making his life miserable, undermining his job prospects and so on, in order to try to pressure him into saying something they can use as part of their campaign against VL.

They are also happy to spread completely false stories about Victoria Woodcock, the Operations Director of Vote Leave. Not only was Vics the most important factor in our victory, she was also someone of extraordinary integrity. CC and C4 are trying to destroy her reputation with unfounded claims.

Who is the whistleblower?

Shahmir was a young graduate who volunteered to help VL and BL. He didn’t live in London, so only came into VL’s offices (as many volunteers who helped other campaigns did) occasionally. I have a vague memory I spoke to him in a corridor and may have been introduced. In 2016, Shahmir told VL’s director of compliance, who took detailed contemporaneous notes, that VL behaved legally and properly and Shahmir gave an account of what happened that is completely different to what he is now saying. I’ve no idea why he has decided to change his story, what his relationship with Wylie is, or anything else about the social lives of the whistleblowers and how this affected, if it has, what they are now saying. But journalists should ask him why he has changed his story. And did he tell the Observer/C4 about his previous account and the legal implications?

Until yesterday I had forgotten that Wylie came to pitch me for VL business in January 2016, selling data/digital services with a UK citizen and an ?American/Canadian (can’t remember). I did a search of my records for Wylie and up popped this email.

Screenshot of Wylie email

Screenshot 2018-03-23 12.45.55

So I then searched further and found a Wylie reply to a reply from me:

Screenshot 2018-03-23 12.46.48

I can’t remember much about my thought process other than a vague thought of ‘another charlatan’. Also by this time I already knew that I wasn’t interested in ‘psychographics’.

It is interesting however that Wylie was pitching to me to do ‘social data harvesting’ for VL after he left CA. This is the activity that he now claims is ‘grossly unethical’.

In his pitch doc (vote-leave-campaign-pilot-memo-FINAL PDF) he said that if we hired them ‘Several online panels would be set up to target a cross section of voters… We would try to further increase the sample by accessing the social networks of the panel respondents. We would also harvest online and social data. He claimed that he would use ‘psychological methods … to predict personality and psychological traits of individual voters‘. Has Wylie shown his new media friends this document? When did he decide selling this stuff is evil? Presumably he’s now happy I turned him down.  

A lot of people pitched me similar stuff but I never thought that the people concerned really knew what they were talking about and they never had convincing evidence. As far as I know I’ve never spoken with Wylie apart from this occasion — we certainly did not hire him in any capacity. Nor have I knowingly spoken to anybody from CA. Once I knew CA was involved with Arron, I deliberately tried to avoid any contact of any description with them.

I didn’t know anything about the personal relationships between Wylie/Shahmir/SP until a few days ago but here is Stephen Parkinson’s (SP) statement:

‘I was not introduced to Shahmir Sanni or Darren Grimes by Chris Wylie as he is claiming, but by a mutual friend from university. Shahmir became an occasional volunteer for Vote Leave and other leave campaigns, and we began a personal relationship. We subsequently dated for 18 months, splitting up – I thought amicably – in September 2017. That is the capacity in which I gave Shahmir advice and encouragement, and I can understand if the lines became blurred for him, but I am clear that I did not direct the activities of any separate campaign groups. I had no responsibility for digital campaigning or donations during the referendum, and am confident that Vote Leave acted entirely within the law and strict spending rules at all times.’


[Added the next day… The statement above was originally on this blog yesterday. Then I got requests on behalf of Shahmir to remove it on the grounds that relatives in Pakistan might get killed. Then Shahmir put out his own statement admitting the relationship and attacking Parkinson for ‘outing’ him. So I have restored the statement above and left the below here, so people can see the weird context. 1) Given the nature of Shahmir’s accusations against the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary, no reasonable person would have thought Parkinson could explain all this to the PM and media while hiding the fact of their relationship. 2) Shahmir’s behaviour is not consistent with someone prioritising relatives ‘at serious risk’ in Pakistan, to say the least. 3) Shahmir is unquestionably telling lies about BeLeave — either he was lying to VL’s board member in charge of compliance, who has detailed written notes taken after talking to Shahmir in 2016 about the independence of BeLeave (when Shahmir said it was all ethical and legal), or he is lying now. There’s no third alternative. Given all the other evidence about this, a reasonable person will conclude he’s probably lying now. Maybe it’s connected to his relationship (used in a general sense) with Wylie, maybe not. 4) Wylie literally has described himself as ‘a smear merchant’. Are the media going to report seriously allegations from someone like this? 5) An interesting side issue is that the legal point Shahmir’s lawyers used to try to gag the media yesterday is an ECHR point. It is absurd in principle and this case is a good example of why: person X makes accusations publicly about person Y then gets lawyers to tell Y ‘you can’t answer these accusations in a way that reveals anything about my sex life even if it’s directly relevant to the accusations’. The ECHR creates these legal problems all the time. The media should have had more courage to defend the public interest yesterday and ignored this argument. If I get involved in politics again, then a referendum on the ECHR should be high on the agenda — and bear in mind most people probably think we’re already leaving it because of the 2016 referendum, so imagine how mad they’ll be when they realise we’re still in it.]

[XXX NB. I have removed this statement. I have been sent a letter apparently from lawyers saying people might get killed as a consequence and asking me to remove it for their safety. Despite this being entirely the Observer’s/C4’s fault, I obviously won’t take any risk that people are physically attacked. I will take steps to discover if Bindmans are acting in good faith, whom for, and so on. If I think communications from Bindmans or subsequent coverage by CC/C4 reveal a lack of good faith, and seek to use my removal of this statement to claim, in any way shape or form that I have admitted fault/liability etc about anything, or make dishonest claims about the relationships of specific people because they think they can keep certain details secret using legal threats, then I will put it back up immediately as they will have revealed they were lying about physical dangers for political advantage. It is in your hands, CC/C4 and whistleblowers — I’m cutting you a break you don’t deserve. Journalists please note that I’m unclear what is happening and I’m just assuming this email is genuine given the scale of the issue. Also NB. the legal issue at stake concerns an aspect of the ECHR — and this reminds me that another project we need to get going is a referendum on that, much easier to win than the EU, we’ll win 65-35…]


What will happen next?

The Observer and C4 will publish another load of factually wrong claims about the ‘illegality’ of our donation to BeLeave. They’ll show interviews with ‘whistleblowers’ who were peripheral making invented claims about things they didn’t see. They’ll probably take their inventions about the destruction of documents to the ICO and police and demand that all our computers are seized to ‘stop us destroying evidence of the coverup’, in the hope that a subsequent trawl will expose something and justify their accusations. They’ll publish details of ‘secret social media groups’, and the papers will print salacious details of relationships. And so on.

Then diehard Remain MPs and their media cheerleaders will scream hysterically about how this ‘amazing story’ shows ‘a dangerous network of extremists’ stretching ‘from the Kremlin to Silicon Valley’ has ‘undermined democracy’ and ‘cheated the referendum’. And, most importantly, they’ll argue that this justifies cancelling the last vote and fighting for a rematch. The main objective is to delegitimise VL’s victory and try to cancel the referendum result.

One of the many bad effects of Trump has been the growth of the paranoid mindset in which people latch onto fragments and spin grotesque fabrications. CC’s claims about VL, CA and Brexit are very much in the Trump tradition. This is ironic but as Nietzsche warned, those who fight against dragons must beware lest they become a dragon, and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss shall gaze into thee…

On Sunday there will be a mini SW1 frenzy but it will pass. In a year, we leave the EU. This nonsense from corners of the media will likely soon not even be a footnote of a footnote in history. And if the current process collapses and MPs cancel the referendum and vote for another one, Vote Leave II will win by more than 52-48 — and there will be profound consequences for all parties and MPs.

To all you whistleblowers, as Vote Leave used to say, ‘We wish you well’.

ENDS

Some documents below. I’d like to publish the C4 document but it’s so full of libellous claims I can’t do it in a way that renders it comprehensible.

LETTER FROM CC TO ME THIS WEEK (multiple copies of this have been sent with wrong sentences pasted from this master version)

Dear Dom,

The Guardian & Observer news team is considering publishing articles that will report that the Vote Leave campaign established the BeLeave campaign as an independent entity with the aim of using it to channel extra spending on the Brexit referendum.

We understand that this was illegal under UK electoral law as BeLeave had no control over the money nominally donated to them, and because the two ‘campaigns’ had been working together before BeLeave was formally established as an allegedly independent entity, and key individuals continued to work together, coordinating their plans even after the separation.

We also understand that when an investigation began into the donation from Vote Leave to BeLeave, key individuals attempted to destroy what might be considered to be evidence of coordination between Vote Leave and BeLeave.

We have the following understanding of the underlying factual situation, which we would propose to reflect in any article that may be published.

1. Members of BeLeave worked out of Vote Leave offices and with their guidance and support before they were an independent campaign. They continued to work out of the Vote Leave offices after they formally became independent.

2. Many of their activities were coordinated by or discussed with Vote Leave. This included messaging and documents stored on the shared ‘BeLeave’ drive.

3. Vote Leave set up this drive to co-ordinate BeLeave’s activities with Vote Leave. The settings of the BeLeave drive sent automatic notifications of changes to members of VoteLeave, but not to BeLeave staff.

4. Vote Leave members were part of a closed BeLeave Facebook group.

5. The staff of BeLeave were volunteers, but all expenses were apparently paid for by Vote Leave.

6. BeLeave website was coordinated and apparently paid for by XXX.

7. Vote Leave directors suggested to BeLeave volunteers they would receive a donation to spend on their own advertisements and projects if they set up their own campaign. We have been told you were the architect of this plan.

8. We understand that you arranged a donation of £625,000 from Vote Leave (where you worked as a campaign director) and a further £50,000 from XXX to the group BeLeave.

9. A volunteer has described in detail the relationship with Vote Leave. They said: “BeLeave was literally set up by Vote Leave’s lawyers. This was cheating on a grand scale.”   

10. Vote Leave lawyers drew up the legal documents that formally made BeLeave a separate company and campaign. This was at your direction.

11. The Vote Leave legal director told members of BeLeave to set up a bank account. However no money was ever deposited in it and that they never had even nominal control of money. Again, this was at your direction.

12. The money never went to BeLeave’s account. Instead it was passed straight to a Canadian company called Aggregate IQ (AIQ) for spending purposes decided by Vote Leave. This was at your direction.

13. The  volunteer claims BeLeave had no control of expenditure, or authority to spend even very small sums. Ultimately, you, as campaign director for Vote Leave directed this.

14. The BeLeave team were not warned of potential implications or told to take legal advice. This was at your direction.

15. The legal documents and formalities establishing the separate campaign were handled by the Vote Leave head of compliance.

16. AIQ directors and employees were in the same building as Vote Leave and BeLeave in London. In some cases at desks a few metres away from each other. This was at your direction.

17. When the connection between the two campaigns came under scrutiny,  a director of Vote Leave wrote the press response for BeLeave.

18. On March 17 2018 – almost two weeks after the Information Commissioner’s Office announced an inquiry into how personal data was used during the referendum campaign and shortly after the Electoral Commission announced irt was looking again into the donation – references to you were deleted from files on the shared Vote Leave and BeLeave drive by [XXX I have deleted name as this is factually wrong and libellous. The date 2018 is presumably a typo].

19. DUP, Veterans for Britain also used the services of AIQ. It is understood you directed them to do so.

If you have any comments on any of the above, please let us know. In addition we’d like to ask you the following questions:

20.  References to not just yourself but also XXX and XXX [I’ve deleted others names as this is wrong and libellous] were deleted from the shared drive. Did you have prior knowledge of this? When did you learn about it? Did you direct XXX to do so?

21. Who introduced Vote Leave to Aggregate IQ?

22. What due diligence did Vote Leave do prior to the selection of AIQ.

23. What were the deciding factors behind Vote Leaves choice of AIQ?  

24. You said previously that XXX did your data modelling, but returns show only invoices for “polling analysis services” and “advertising”. No split spending is declared for any expenditure before the regulated period. Further, directors of Vote Leave made reference to having signed up “a group of West Coast American academics to do data”. Can you explain further?

25. Do you have any further comment to make on your claim previously that you received written notice from the Electoral Commission giving you permission to make this donation? [Ignoring the fact that what I said was proved right in Court.]

If you dispute any of the information or above or have any points to make about these and other matters, please let me know.

We would be grateful if you could respond by 4pm on 21 March.

Carole Cadwalladr

EMAIL FROM ELECTORAL COMMISSION TO VOTE LEAVE REVEALED IN COURT, 1 OF THE DOCS DISPROVING CC/JOLYON ACCUSATIONS

From: XXX​ <XXX@electoralcommission.org.uk>

Date: Fri, May 20, 2016 at 3:40 PM

Subject: RE: Some questions in relation to campaign expenditure

To: XXX [VOTE LEAVE]

Cc: XXX

Dear XXX,

Thanks for your email and apologies for the delay in our response.

Before addressing your specific queries, I thought it would be helpful to set out the Commission’s general position on apportioning overheads in relation to referendum spending.

Campaigners are only required to report a relevant proportion of overheads that are incurred in respect of the list of referendum campaign activities set out in in our guidance (p. 6) and which are summarised from the list of regulated matters in schedule 13 of PPERA. With regards to general overheads and running costs, we consider that only an appropriate proportion of the rental costs of an office (to the extent that the space is being used to plan, coordinate or carry out referendum activities), electricity and telephone/internet costs are sufficiently connected with spending on these listed referendum activities to count against the spending limit and require reporting.

When considering your overheads and running costs, you should make a reasonable assessment based on the facts in each particular case as to whether they have been incurred in respect of these referendum activities. It is appropriate for campaigners to split the costs of overheads where they have been used both before and during the regulated period, or where the overhead covers both referendum and non-referendum specific activities. You are not required to report the costs of overheads that are incidental to referendum activities.

Turning to your specific questions:

  1. As described above, the costs of premises and equipment – where they have been incurred in respect of regulated referendum campaign activities – will constitute referendum spending. You should make an honest assessment of the amount you have spent based on the facts. Your assessment should consider the extent to which the premises and equipment have been used in respect of referendum campaign activities during the regulated period. For audit purposes, we recommend that you keep a record of how you made your Assessment.
  2. If you are supplying material to other campaigners without having a co-ordinated plan or agreement then the material is likely to be a donation from you to the other campaigner. If the donation is over £500 it will reportable by the other campaigner. You would not need to report the cost of the material in your spending return unless you use the material yourself.
  3. Only costs that are incurred in respect of referendum activities will count against your spending limit and require reporting after the referendum. We agree that in most cases the costs you refer to as being related to ‘governance’ (such as HR support for your staff, accountancy fees and legal advice in respect of compliance with PPERA) will not constitute referendum expenditure as they are not being incurred in respect of regulated referendum activities.
  4. If the events are intended to, or are otherwise in connection with, promoting or bringing about a particular outcome in the referendum then the full cost of the event would be reportable.
  5. When you are uploading invoices and receipts to PEF Online you can only upload PDFs.

I hope the above is helpful to you. If you do have any further questions, please let me know.

Kind regards,

XXX

Guidance Adviser

Party and Election Finance

The Electoral Commission

3 Bunhill Row

London EC1Y 8YZ

Review of Allison’s book on US/China & nuclear destruction, and some connected thoughts on technology, the EU, and space

‘The combination of physics and politics could render the surface of the earth uninhabitable… [Technological progress] gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we have known them, cannot continue.’ John von Neumann, one of the 20th Century’s most important mathematicians, one of the two most responsible for developing digital computers, central to Manhattan Project etc.

‘Politics is always like visiting a country one does not know with people whom one does not know and whose reactions one cannot predict. When one person puts a hand in his pocket, the other person is already drawing his gun, and when he pulls the trigger the first one fires and it is too late then to ask whether the requirements of common law with regard to self-defence apply, and since common law is not effective in politics people are very, very quick to adopt an aggressive defence.’ Bismarck, 1879.

*

Below is a review of Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?. Allison’s book is particularly interesting given what is happening with North Korea and Trump. It is partly about the most urgent question: whether and how humanity can survive the collision between science and politics.

Beneath the review are a few other thoughts on the book and its themes. I will also post some notes on stuff connecting ideas about advanced technology and strategy (conventional and nuclear) including notes from the single best book on nuclear strategy, Payne’s The Great American Gamble: deterrence theory and practice from the Cold War to the twenty-first century. If you want to devote your life to a cause with maximum impact, then studying this book is a good start and it also connects to debates on other potential existential threats such as biological engineering and AI.

Payne’s book connects directly to Allison’s. Allison focuses a lot on the circumstances in which crises could spin out of control and end in US-China war. Payne’s book is the definitive account of nuclear strategy and its intellectual and practical problems. Payne’s book in a nutshell: 1) politicians and most senior officials operate with the belief that there is a dependable ‘rational’ basis for successful deterrence in which ‘rational’ US opponents will respond prudently and cautiously to US nuclear deterrence threats; 2) the re-evaluation of nuclear strategy in expert circles since the Cold War exposes the deep flaws of Cold War thinking in general and the concept of ‘rational’ deterrence in particular (partly because strategy was dangerously influenced by ideas about rationality from economics). Expert debate has not permeated to most of those responsible or the media. Trump’s language over North Korea and the media debate about it are stuck in the language of Cold War deterrence.

I would bet that no UK Defence Secretary has read Payne’s book. (Have the MoD PermSecs? The era of Michael Quinlan has long gone as the Iraq inquiries revealed.) What emerges from UK Ministers suggests they are operating with Cold War illusions. If you think I’m probably too pessimistic, then ponder this comment by Professor Allison who has spent half a century in these circles: ‘Over the past decade, I have yet to meet a senior member of the US national security team who had so much as read the official national security strategies’ (emphasis added). NB. he is referring to reading the official strategies, not the explanations of why they are partly flawed!

This of course relates to the theme of much I have written: the dangers created by the collision of science and markets with dysfunctional individuals and political institutions, and the way the political-media system actively suppresses thinking about, and focus on, what’s important.

Priorities are fundamental to politics because of inevitable information bottlenecks: these bottlenecks can be transformed by rare good organisation but they cannot be eradicated. People are always asking ‘how could the politicians let X happen with Y?’ where Y is something important. People find it hard to believe that Y is not the focus of  serious attention and therefore things like X are bound to happen all the time. People like Osborne and Clegg are focused on some magazine profile, not Y. The subject of nuclear command and control ought to make people realise that their mental models for politics are deeply wrong. It is beyond doubt that politicians do not even take the question of accidental nuclear war seriously, so a fortiori there is no reason to have confidence in their general approach to priorities.

If you think of politics as ‘serious people focusing seriously on the most important questions’, which is the default mode of most educated people and the media (but not the less-educated public which has better instincts), then your model of reality is badly wrong. A more accurate model is: politics is a system that 1) selects against skills needed for rigorous thinking and for qualities such as groupthink and confirmation bias, 2) incentivises a badly selected set of people to consider their career not the public interest, 3) drops them into dysfunctional institutions with no relevant training and poor tools, 4) centralises vast amounts of power in the hands of these people and institutions in ways we know are bound to cause huge errors, and 5) provides very weak (and often damaging) feedback so facing reality is rare, learning is practically impossible, and system reform is seen as a hostile act by political parties and civil services worldwide.

I meant to publish this a few days ago on ‘Petrov day’, the anniversary of 26 September 1983 when Petrov saw US nuclear missiles heading for Russia on his screen but in a snap decision without consultation he decided not to inform his superiors, guessing it was some sort of technical error and not wanting to risk catastrophic escalation. (Petrov died a few weeks ago.) I forgot to post but my point is: we will not keep getting lucky like that, and our odds worsen with every week that the political system works as it does. The cumulative probability of disaster grows alarmingly even if you assume a small chance of disaster. For example, a 1% chance of wipeout per year means the probability of wipeout is about 20% within 20 years, about 50% within 70 years, and about two-thirds within a century. Given what we now know it’s reasonable to plan on the basis that the chance of a nuclear accident of some sort leading to mass destruction is at least 1% per year. A 1:30 chance per year means a ~97% chance of wipeout in a century…

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Review of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, by Graham Allison

Every day on his way to work at Harvard, Professor Allison wondered how the reconstruction of the bridge over Boston’s Charles River could take years while in China bigger bridges are replaced in days. His book tells the extraordinary story of China’s transformation since Deng abandoned Mao’s catastrophic Stalinism, and considers whether the story will end in war between China and America.

China erects skyscrapers in weeks while Parliament delays Heathrow expansion for over a decade. The EU discusses dumb rules made 60 years ago while China produces a Greece-sized economy every 16 weeks. China’s economy doubles roughly every seven years; it is already the size of America’s and will likely dwarf it in 20 years. More serious than Europe, it invests this growth in education and technology from genetic engineering to artificial intelligence.

Allison analyses the formidable President Xi, who has known real suffering and is very different to western leaders obsessed with the frivolous spin cycles of domestic politics. Xi’s goal is to ensure that China’s renaissance returns it to its position as the richest, strongest and most advanced culture on earth. Allison asks: will the US-China relationship repeat the dynamics between Athens and Sparta that led to war in 431 bc or might it resemble the story of the British-American alliance in the 20th century?

In Thucydides’ history the dynamic growth of Athens caused such fear that, amid confusing signals in an escalating crisis, Sparta gambled on preventive war. Similarly, after Bismarck unified Germany in 1870-71, Europe’s balance of power was upended. In summer 1914, the leaderships of all Great Powers were overwhelmed by confusing signals amid a rapidly escalating crisis. The prime minister doodled love letters to his girlfriend as the cabinet discussed Ireland, and European civilisation tottered over the brink.

Allison discusses how America, China and Taiwan [or Korea] might play the roles of Britain, Germany and Belgium. China has invested in weapons with powerful asymmetric advantages: cheap missiles can sink an aircraft carrier costing billions, and cyber weapons could negate America’s powerful space and communication infrastructure. American war-games often involve bombing Chinese coastal installations. How far might it escalate?

Nuclear weapons increase destructive power a million-fold and give a leader just minutes to decide whether a (possibly false) warning justifies firing weapons that would destroy civilisation, while relying on the same sort of hierarchical decision-making processes that failed in the much slower 1914 crisis.

Terrifying near misses have already happened, and we have been saved by individuals’ snap judgments. They have occurred, luckily, during episodes of relative calm. Similar incidents during an intense crisis could spark catastrophe. The Pentagon hoped that technology would bring ‘information dominance’: instead, technology accelerates crises and overwhelms decisions. Real and virtual robots will fight battles and influence minds faster than traditional institutions can follow.

Allison hopes Washington will rediscover its 1940s seriousness, when it built a strategy and institutions to contain Stalin. He suggests abandoning ‘containment’, which is unlikely to work in the same way against capitalist China as it did against Soviet Russia. It could drop security guarantees to Taiwan to lower escalation risks. It could promote new institutions to tackle destructive technology and terrorism. Since China will upend post-1945 institutions anyway, why not try to shape what comes next together? Perhaps, channelling Sun Tzu, the West could avoid defeat by not trying to ‘win’.

It is hard to see how the necessary leadership might emerge.

We need government teams capable of the rare high performance we see in George Mueller’s Nasa, which put man on the moon; or in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs such as Sam Altman and Patrick Collison. This means senior politicians and officials of singular ability and with different education, training and experience. It means extremely adaptive institutions and state-of-the-art tools, not the cabinet processes that failed in 1914. It means breaking the power of self-absorbed parties and bureaucracies that evolved before nuclear physics and the internet.

New leaders must build institutions for global cooperation that can transcend Thucydides’ dynamics. For example, the plan of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, to build a permanent moon base in which countries work together to harness the resources of the solar system is the sort of project that could create an alternative focus to nationalist antagonism.

The scale of change seems impossible, yet technology gives us no choice — we must try to escape our evolutionary origins, since we cannot survive repeated roulette with advanced technology. Churchill wrote how in 1914 governments drifted into ‘fathomless catastrophe’ in ‘a kind of dull cataleptic trance’. Western leaders are in another such trance. Unless new forces evolve outside closed political systems and force change we will suffer greater catastrophe; it’s just a matter of when.

I hope people like Jeff Bezos read this timely book and resolve to build the political forces we need.

(Originally appeared in The Spectator.)

*

A few other thoughts

I’ve got some quibbles, such as interpretations of Thucydides, but I won’t go into those.

There are many issues in it I did not have time to mention in a short review…

1. Nuclear crises / accidents

In the context of US-China crises, it is very instructive to consider some of the most dangerous episodes of the Cold War that remained secret at the time.

Here are some of the near misses that have been declassified (see this timeline from Future of Life Institute).

  • 24 January 1961. A US bomber broke up and dropped two hydrogen bombs on North Carolina. Five of six safety devices failed. ‘By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted’ (Defence Secretary Robert McNamara).
  • 25 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A sabotage alarm was triggered at a US base. Faulty wiring meant that the alarm triggered the take-off of nuclear armed US planes. Fortunately they made contact with the ground and were stood down. The alarm had been triggered by a bear — yes, a bear, like in a Simpsons episode — pottering around outside the base. This was one of many incidents during this crisis, including one base where missiles and codes were mishandled such that a single person could have launched.
  • 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Soviet submarine was armed with nuclear weapons. It was cornered by US ships which dropped depth charges. It had no contact with Moscow for days and had no idea if war had already broken out. Malfunctioning systems meant carbon dioxide poisoning and crew were fainting. In panic the captain ordered a nuclear missile fired. Orders said that three officers had to agree. Only two did. Vasili Arkhipov said No. It was not known until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that there were also tactical nuclear missiles deployed to Cuba and, for the only time, under direct authority of field commanders who could fire without further authority from Moscow, so if the US had decided to attack Cuba, as many urged JFK to do, there is a reasonable chance that local commanders would have begun a nuclear exchange. Castro wanted these missiles, unknown to America, transferred to Cuban control. Fortunately, Mikoyan, the Soviet in charge on the ground, witnessed Castro’s unstable character and decided not to transfer these missiles to his control. The missiles were secretly returned to Russia shortly after.
  • 1 August 1974. A warning of the danger of allowing one person to give a catastrophic order: Nixon was depressed, drinking heavily, and unstable so Defense Secretary Schlesinger told the Joint Chiefs to come to him in the event of any order to fire nuclear weapons.
  • 9 November 1979. NORAD thought there was a large-scale Soviet nuclear attack. Planes were scrambled and ICBM crews put on highest alert. The National Security Adviser was called at home. He looked at his wife asleep and decided not to wake her as they would shortly both be dead and he turned his mind to calling President Carter about plans for massive retaliation before he died. After 6 minutes no satellite data confirmed launches. Decisions were delayed. It turned out that a technician had accidentally input a training program which played through the computer system as if it were a real attack. (There were other similar incidents.)
  • 26 September 1983. A month after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean passenger jet and at a time of international tension, a Soviet satellite showed America had launched five nuclear missiles. The data suggested the satellite was working properly but the officer on duty, Stanilov Petrov, decided to report it to his superiors as a false alarm without knowing if it was true. It turned out to be an odd effect of sun glinting off clouds that fooled the system.
  • 2-11 November 1983. NATO ran a large wargame with a simulation of DEFCON 1 and coordinated attack on the Soviet Union. The war-game was so realistic that Soviet intelligence thought it was a cover for a real attack and Soviet missiles were placed on high alert. On 11 November the Soviets intercepted a message saying US missiles had launched. Fortunately, incidents such as 26 September 1983 did not randomly occur during this 10 days.
  • 25 January 1995. The Russian system detected the launch of a missile off the coast of Norway that was thought to be a US submarine launch. The warning went to Yeltsin who activated his ‘nuclear football’ and retrieved launch codes. There was no corroboration from satellites. Norway had actually reached a scientific rocket and somehow this was not notified properly in Russia.
  • 29-30 August 2007. Six US nuclear weapons were accidentally loaded into a B52 which was left unguarded overnight, flown to another base where it was left unguarded for another nine hours before ground crew realised what they were looking at. For 36 hours nobody realised the missiles were missing.
  • 23 October 2010. The US command and control system responsible for detecting and stopping unauthorised launches lost all control of 50 ICBMs for an hour because of communication failure caused by a dodgy component.
  • A 2013 monitoring exercise found the US nuclear command and control system generally shambolic. Staff were found to be on drugs and otherwise unsuitable, the system was deemed unfit to cope with a major hack, and the commander of the ICBM force was compromised by a classic KGB ‘honey trap’ (when I lived in Moscow I met some of the women who worked on such operations and I’d bet >90% of male UK Ministers/PermSecs would throw themselves at them faster than you can say ‘honey trap’).

This is just a sample. The full list still understates the scale of luck we have had in at least two ways. First, the data is mostly from America because America is a more open society. The most sensible assumption is that there have been more incidents in Russia than we know about. Second, there is a selection bias towards older incidents that have been declassified.

Right now there are hundreds of missiles on ‘hair-trigger’ alert for launch within minutes. Decisions about how reliable a warning is and whether to fire must all be taken within minutes. This makes the whole world vulnerable to accidents, unauthorised use, unhinged leaders, and false alarms. This situation could get worse. China’s missiles are not on hair-trigger alert but the Chinese military is pushing to change this. Adding a third country operating like this would make the system even more unstable. It also seems very likely that proliferation will continue to spread. The West preaches non-proliferation at non-nuclear countries but this unsurprisingly is not persuasive.

2. China’s weaknesses, including the tension between informational openness needed for growth and its political dangers

During the Cold War, many people from different political perspectives were agreed on one thing: that the Soviet Union was much stronger than it later turned out to have been. This view was so powerful that people like Andy Marshall, the founder and multi-decade head of the Office of Net Assessment, struggled to find support for his argument that the CIA and Pentagon were systematically overstating the strength of the Soviet economy and understating the burden of defence spending. They had, of course, strong bureaucratic reasons to do so: a more dangerous enemy was the best argument for more funding. It is important to keep in mind this potential error viz China.

1929 and 2008 each had profound effects on US politics. China, interestingly, was not as badly hit by 2008 as the West. What is the probability that it will continue to avoid an economic crisis somewhere between a serious recession and a 1929/2008-style event over the next say 20 years? If it does experience such a shock, how effective will its political institutions be in coping relative to those of America’s and Britain’s over the long-term? Might debt and bad financial institutions create a political crisis serious enough to threaten the legitimacy of the regime? Might other problems such as secession movements (perhaps combined with terrorism) cause an equivalently serious political crisis? After all, historically the country has fallen apart repeatedly and this is the great fear of its leaders.

China also has serious resource vulnerabilities. It has to import most of its energy. It has serious water shortages. It has serious ecological crises. It has serious corruption problems. It has a rapidly ageing population. Although it, unlike the EU, has built brilliant private companies to rival Google et al, its state-owned enterprises (with special phones on CEO desks for Communist Party instructions) control gigantic resources and are not run as well as Google or Alibaba. There has been significant emigration of educated Chinese particularly to America where they buy houses and educate their children (Xi himself quietly sent a daughter to Harvard). Many of these tensions result in occasional public outcries that the regime carefully appeases. These problems are not trivial to solve even for very competent people who don’t have to worry about elections.

In terms of the risks of war and escalation over flashpoints like Korea or Taiwan, major internal crises like a financial crash might easily make it more likely that an external crisis escalates out of control. When regimes face crises of legitimacy they often, for obvious evolutionary reasons, resort to picking fights with out-groups to divert people. Much of Germany’s military-industrial elite saw nationalist diversions as crucial to escape the terrifying spread of socialism before 1914.

I’m ignorant about all these dynamics in China but if forced to bet I would bet that Allison underplays these weaknesses and I would bet against another 20 years of straight line growth. In the spirit of Tetlock, I’ll put a number on it and say a 80% probability of a bad recession or some other internal crisis within 20 years that is bad enough to be considered ‘the worst domestic crisis for the leadership since Tiananmen and a prelude to major political change’ and which results in either a Tiananmen-style clampdown or big political change. (I have not formulated this well, suggestions from Superforecasters welcome in comments.)

Part of my reason for thinking China will not be able to avoid such crises is a fundamental dynamic that Fukuyama discussed in his much-misunderstood ‘The End of History’: economic development requires openness and the protection of individual rights in various dimensions, and this creates an inescapable tension between an elite desire for economic dynamism and technological progress viz competitor Powers, and an elite fear of openness and what it brings politically/culturally.

The KGB and Soviet military realised this in the late 1970s as they watched the microelectronics revolution in America but they could never develop a response that worked: they were very successful at stealing stuff but they could not develop domestic companies because of the political constraints, as Marshall Ogarkov admitted (off-the-record!) to the New York Times in 1983. China watched the Soviet Union implode and chose a different path: economic liberalisation combined with greater economic and information rights, but no Gorbachev-style political opening up. This caution has worked so far but does not solve the problem.

Singapore and China could not develop economically as they have without also allowing much greater individual freedom in some domains than Soviet Russia. Developing hi-tech businesses cannot be done without a degree of openness to the rest of the world that is politically risky for China. If there is too much arbitrary seizure of property, as in the KGB-mafia state of Russia, then people will focus on theft and moving assets offshore rather than building long-term value. Chinese entrepreneurs have to be able to download software, read scientific and technical papers, and access most of the internet if they are not to be seriously disadvantaged. China knows that its path to greatness must include continued growth and greater productivity. If it does not, then like other oligarchies it will rapidly lose legitimacy and risks collapse. This is inconsistent with all-out repression. It will therefore have to tread a fine line of allowing social unhappiness to be expressed and adapting to it without letting it spin out of control. Given social movements are inherently complex and nonlinear, plus social media already seethes with unhappiness in China, there will be a constant danger that this dynamic tension breaks free of centralised control.

This is, obviously, one of the many reasons why the leadership is so interested in advanced technology and particularly AI. Such tools may help the leadership tread this tightrope without tumbling off, though maintaining a culture at the edge-of-the-art in technologies like AI simultaneously exacerbates the very turbulence that the AI needs to monitor — there are many tricky feedback loops to navigate and many reasons to suspect that eventually the centralised leadership will blunder, be overwhelmed, collapse internally and so on. Can China’s leaders maintain this dynamic tension for another 20 years? As Andy Grove always said, only the paranoid survive…

3. Contrast between the EU and China

High-tech breakthroughs are increasingly focused in North East America (around Harvard), West Coast America (around Stanford), and coastal China (e.g Shenzhen). When the UK leaves the EU, the EU will have zero universities in the global top 20. EU politicians are much more interested in vindictive legal action against Silicon Valley giants than asking themselves why Europe cannot match America or China. On issues such as CRISPR and genetic engineering the EU is regulating itself out of the competition and many businesspeople are unaware that this will get much worse once the ECJ starts using the Charter of Fundamental Rights to seize control of such regulation for itself, which will mean not just more anti-science regulation but also damaging uncertainty as scientists and companies face the ECJ suddenly pulling a human rights ‘top trump’ out of the deck whenever they fancy (one of the many arguments Vote Leave made during the referendum that we could not get the media to report, partly because of persistent confusion between the COFR and the ECHR). Organisations like YCombinator provide a welcoming environment for talented and dynamic young Europeans in California while the EU’s regulatory structure is dominated by massive incumbent multinationals like Goldman Sachs that use the Single Market to crush startup competitors.

If you watch this documentary on Shenzhen, you will see parts of China with the same or even greater dynamism than Silicon Valley and far, far beyond the EU. The contrast between the reality of Shenzhen and the rhetoric of blowhards like Macron is one of the reasons why many massive institutional investors do not share CBI-style conventional wisdom on Brexit. The young vote with their feet. If they want to be involved in world-leading projects, they head to coastal China or coastal America, few go to Paris, Rome, or Berlin. The Commission publishes figures on this but never faces the logic.

Chart: notice how irrelevant the EU is

Screenshot 2017-09-28 16.42.08

We are escaping the Single Market / ECJ / Charter of Fundamental Rights quagmire that will deepen the EU’s stagnation (despite Whitehall’s best efforts to scupper the referendum). The UK should now be thinking about how we provide the most dynamic environment in Europe for scientists and entrepreneurs. After 50 years of wasting time in dusty meeting rooms failing to ‘influence’ the EU to ditch its Monnet-Delors plan, we could start building things with real value and thereby acquire real, rather than the Foreign Office’s chimerical, influence. Let Macron et al continue with the same antiquated rhetoric: we know what will happen, we’ve seen it since all the pro-euro forces in the UK babbled about the ‘Lisbon Agenda’ in 2000 — rhetoric about ‘reform’ always turns into just more centralisation in Brussels institutions, it does not produce dynamic forces that create breakthroughs and real value. Economic, technological, and political power will continue to shift away from an EU that cannot and will not adapt to the forces changing the world: its legal model of Single Market plus ECJ make fast adaptation impossible. We will soon be out of Monnet’s house and Whitehall’s comfortable delusions (‘special relationship’, ‘punching above our weight’) will fade. Contra the EU’s logic, in a world increasingly defined by information and computation the winning asset is not size — it is institutional adaptability.

Those on the pro-EU side who disagree with this analysis have to face a fact: people like Mandelson, Adair Turner, the FT, and the Economist have been repeatedly wrong in their predictions for 20 years about ‘EU reform’, and people like me who have made the same arguments for 20 years, and called bullshit on ‘EU reform’, have been repeatedly vindicated by actual EU Treaties, growth rates, unemployment trends, euro crises and so on. (The Commission itself doesn’t even produce fake reports showing big gains from the Single Market, the gains it claims are relatively trivial even if you believe them.) What is happening in the EU now to suggest to reasonable observers that this will change over the next 20 years? Every sign from Juncker to Macron is that yet again Brussels will double down on Monnet’s mid-20th Century vision and the entire institutional weight of the Commission and legal system exerts an inescapable gravitational pull that way.

4. ‘Anti-access / area denial’ (A2/AD)

One aspect of China’s huge conventional buildup is what is known as A2/AD: i.e building forces to prevent America intervening near China, using missiles, submarines, cyber, anti-space and other weapons. The US response is known as ‘AirSea Battle’.

I won’t go into this here but it is an interesting topic that is also relevant to UK defence debates. The transformation of US forces goes back to a mid-1970s DARPA project known as Assault Breaker that began a series of breakthroughs in ‘precision strike’ where computerised command and control combined with sensors, radar, GPS and so on to provide the capability for precise conventional strike. The first public demo of all this was the famous films in the first Gulf War of bombs dropping down chimneys. This development was central to the last phase of the Cold War and the intolerable pressure put on Soviet defence expenditure. Soviets led the thinking but could not build the technology.

One of the consequences of these developments is that aircraft carriers are no longer safe from cheap missiles. I started making these arguments in 2004 when it was already clear that the UK Ministry of Defence carrier project was a disaster. Since then it has been a multi-billion pound case study in Whitehall incompetence, the MoD’s appalling ‘planning’ system and corrupt procurement, and Westminster’s systemic inability to think about complex long-term issues. Talking to someone at the MoD last year they said that in NATO wargames the UK carriers immediately bug out for the edge of the game to avoid being sunk. Of course they do. Carriers cannot be deployed against top tier forces because of the vast and increasing asymmetry between their cost and vulnerability to cheap sinking. Soon they will not be deployable even against Third World forces because of the combination of cheap cruise missiles and exponential price collapse and performance improvement of guidance systems (piggybacking the commercial drone industry). Soon an intelligent terrorist with a cruise missile and some off-the-shelf kit will be able to sink a carrier using their iPhone: see this blog for details. The MoD has lied and bluffed about all this for 20 years, this Government will continue the trend, and the appalling BAE will continue to scam billions from taxpayers unbothered by MPs.

5. Strategy, Sun Tzu and Bismarck: Great Powers and ‘the passions of sheep stealers’

China is the home of Sun Tzu. His most famous advice was that ‘winning without fighting is the highest form of warfare’ — advice often quoted but rarely internalised by those responsible for vital decisions in conflicts. This requires what Sun Tzu called ‘Cheng/Ch’i’ operations. You pull the opponent off balance with a series of disorienting moves, feints, bluffs, carrots, and sticks (e.g ‘where strong appear weak’). You disorient them with speed so they make blunders that undermine their own moral credibility with potential allies. You try to make the opponent look like an unreasonable aggressor. You isolate them, you break their alliances and morale. Where possible you collapse their strategy and will to fight instead of wasting resources on an actual battle. And so on…

Looking at the US-China relationship through the lens of ‘winning without fighting’ and nuclear risk suggests that the way for America to ‘win’ this Thucydidean struggle is: ‘don’t try to win in a conventional sense, but instead redefine winning’. Given the unlimited downside of nuclear war and what we now know about the near-disasters of Cold War brinkmanship, it certainly suggests focus on the goal of avoiding escalating crises involving nuclear weapons, and this goal has vast consequences for America’s whole approach to China.

Allison’s ideas about how the US might change strategy are interesting though I think his ‘academic’ approach is too rigid. Allison suggests distinct strategies as distinct choices. If one looks at the world champion of politics and diplomacy in the modern world, Bismarck, his approach was the opposite of ‘pick a strategy’ in the sense Allison means. Over 27 years he was close to and hostile to all the other Powers at different times, sometimes in such rapid succession that his opponents felt badly disoriented as though they were dealing with ‘the devil himself’, as many said.

Bismarck contained an extremely tyrannical ego and an even more extreme epistemological caution about the unpredictability of a complex world and a demonic practical adaptability. He knew events could suddenly throw his calculations into chaos. He was always ready to ditch his own ideas and commitments that suddenly seemed shaky. He was interested in winning, not consistency. He had a small number of fundamental goals — such as strengthening the monarchy’s power against Parliament and strengthening Prussia as a serious Great Power — which he pursued with constantly changing tactics. He was always feinting and fluid, pushing one line openly and others privately, pushing and pulling the other Powers in endless different combinations. He was the Grand Master of Cheng/Ch’i operations.

I think that if Bismarck read Allison’s book, he would not ‘pick a strategy’. He would use many of the different elements Allison sketches (and invent others) at the same time while watching China’s evolution and the success of different individuals/factions in the governing elite. For example, he would both suggest a bargain over dropping security guarantees for Taiwan and launch a covert (apparently domestic) cyber campaign to spread details of the Chinese leadership’s wealth and corruption all over the internet inside ‘the Great Firewall’. Carrot and stick, threaten and cajole, pull the opponent off balance.

I think that Bismarck’s advice would be: get what you can from dropping the Taiwanese guarantees and do not create nuclear tripwires in Korea. He was contemptuous of any argument that he ought to care about the Balkans for its own sake and repeatedly stressed that Germany should not fight for Austrian interests in the Balkans despite their alliance. He often repeated variations on his famous line — that the whole of the Balkans was not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. Great Powers, he warned, should not let their fates be tied to ‘the passions of sheep stealers’. On another occasion: ‘All Turkey, including the various people who live there, is not worth so much that civilised European peoples should destroy themselves in great wars for its sake.’ At the Congress of Berlin, he made clear his priority: ‘We are not here to consider the happiness of the Bulgarians but to secure the peace of Europe.’ A decade later he warned other Powers not to ‘play Pericles beyond the confines of the area allocated by God’ and said clearly: ‘Bulgaria … is far from being an object of adequate importance … for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought.’

In order to avoid a Great Power war he stressed the need to stay friendly with Russia, and the importance of being able to play Russia and Austria off against each other, France, and Britain: ‘The security of our relations with the Austro-Hungarian state depends to a great extent on our being able, should Austria make unreasonable demands on us, to come to terms with Russia as well.’ This was the logic behind his infamous secret Reinsurance Treaty in which, unknown to Austria with which he already had an alliance, Germany and Russia made promises to each other about their conduct in the event of war breaking out in different scenarios, the heart of which was Bismarck promising to stay out of a Russia-Austria war if Austria was the aggressor. In 1887 when military factions rumbled about a preventive war against Russia to help Austria in the Balkans he squashed the notion flat: ‘They want to urge me into war and I want peace. It would be frivolous to start a new war; we are not a pirate state which makes war because it suits a few.’ Preventive war, he said, was an egg from which very dangerous chicks would hatch.

His successors ditched his approach, ditched the Reinsurance Treaty, pushed Russia towards France, and made growing commitments to support Austria in the Balkans. This series of errors (combined with Wilhelm II’s appalling combination of vanity, aggression, and indolence which is echoed in a frightening proportion of leading politicians today) exploded in summer 1914.

Would Bismarck tie the probability of nuclear holocaust to the possibilities for extremely fast-moving crises in the South China Seas and ‘the passions of sheep stealers’ in places like North Korea? No chance.

Instead of taking the lead on Korea, I suspect Bismarck’s approach would be to go quiet publicly other than to suggest that China has a clear responsibility for Kim’s behaviour while perhaps leaking a ‘secret’ study on the consequences of Japan going nuclear, to focus minds in Beijing. Regardless of whose ‘fault’ it is, if the situation spirals out of control and ends with North Korea, perhaps because of collapsed command and control empowering some mentally ill / on drugs local commander (America has had plenty of those in charge of nukes) killing millions of Koreans and America destroying North Korea, who thinks this would be seen as a ‘win’ for America? Trump’s threats are straight out of the Cold War playbook but we know that playbook was dodgy even against the relative ‘rationality’ of people like Brezhnev and Andropov, never mind nutjobs like Kim…

So: avoid nuclear crises. Therefore do not give local security ties to Taiwan and Korea that could trigger disaster. What positive agenda can be pushed?

America should seek cooperation in areas of deep significance and moral force where institutions can be shaped that align orientation over decades. Three obvious areas are: disaster response in Asia (naval cooperation), WMD terrorism (intel cooperation), and space. China already has an aggressive space program. It has demonstrated edge-of-the-art capabilities in developing a satellite-based quantum communication network, a revolutionary goal with even deeper effects than GPS. It will go to the moon. The Cold War got humans onto the moon then perceived superiority ended American politicians’ ambition. Instead of rebooting a Cold War style rivalry, it would be better to try to do things together. One of the most important projects humans can pursue is — as Jeff Bezos has argued and committed billions to — to use the resources of space (which are approximately ALL resources in the solar system) to alleviate earth’s problems, and the logic of energy and population growth is to shift towards heavy manufacturing in space while Earth is ‘zoned residential and light industrial’. Building the infrastructure to allow such ambition for humanity is inherently a project of great moral force that encourages international friendship and provides an invaluable perspective: a tiny blue dot friendly to life surrounded by vast indifferent blackness. People can be proud of their nation’s contributions and proud of a global effort. (As I have said before, contributing to this should be one of the UK’s priorities post-Brexit — how much more real value we could create with this than we have in 50 years with the EU, and developing the basic and applied research for robotics would have crossover applications both with commercial autonomous vehicles and the military sphere.)

Of course, there must be limits to friendly cooperation. What if China takes this as weakness and increasingly exerts more and more power, direct and indirect, over her neighbours? This is obviously possible. But I think the Bismarck/Sun Tzu response would be: if that is how she will behave driven by internal dynamics, then let her behave like that, as that will do more than anything you can do to persuade those neighbours to try to contain China. Trying to contain China now won’t work and would be seen not just in China but elsewhere as classic aggression from an imperial power. China is neither like Hitler’s Germany nor Stalin’s Soviet Union and treating it as such is bound to provoke intense and dangerous resentment among a billion people who suffered appallingly for decades under Mao. But if America backs off and makes clear that she prefers cooperation to containment, and then over time China seeks to threaten and dominate Japan, Australia and others, then that is the time to start building alliances because that is when you will have moral authority with local forces — the vital element.

A Bismarckian approach would also, obviously, involve ensuring that America remains technologically ahead of China, though this is a much more formidable task than it was with Russia and that was seen for a while (after Sputnik) as an existential challenge (and famous economists like Paul Samuelson continued to predict wrongly that the Soviet economy would overtake America’s). Attempting to escape Thucydides means trying to build institutions and feelings of cooperation but it also requires that militaristic Chinese don’t come to see America as vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes. As AI, biological engineering, digital fabrication and so on accelerate, there may soon be non-nuclear dangers at least as frightening as nuclear dangers.

Finally, there is an interesting question of self-awareness. American leaders have a tendency to talk about American interests as if they are self-evidently humanity’s interests. Others find this amusing or enraging. Its leaders need a different language for discussing China if they are to avoid Thucydides.

Talented political leaders sometimes show an odd empathy for the psychology of opposing out-groups. Perhaps it’s a product of a sort of ‘complementarity’ ability, an ability to hold contradictory ideas in one’s head simultaneously. It is often a shock for students when they read in Pericles’s speech that he confronted the plague-struck Athenians with the sort of uncomfortable truth that democratic politicians rarely speak:

‘You have an empire to lose, and there is the danger to which the hatred of your imperial rule has exposed you… For by this time your empire has become a tyranny which in the opinion of mankind may have been unjustly gained, but which cannot be safely surrendered… To be hateful and offensive has ever been the fate of those who have aspired to empire.’ Thucydides, 2.63-4, emphasis added.

Bismarck too didn’t fool himself about how others saw him, his political allies, and his country. He much preferred boozing with revolutionary communists than reactionaries on his own side. When various commercial interests tried to get him to support them in China, he told the English Ambassador crossly:

‘These blackguard Hamburg and Lubeck merchants have no other idea of policy in China but to, what they call ‘shoot down those damned niggers of Chinese’ for six months and then dictate peace to them etc. Now, I believe those Chinese are better Christians than our vile mercantile snobs and wish for peace with us and are not thinking of war, and I’ll see the merchants and their Yankee and French allies damned before I consent to go to war with China to fill their pockets with money.’

There are powerful interests urging Washington to aggression against China. The nexus of commercial and military interests is always dangerous, as Eisenhower famously warned in his Farewell Speech. They will be more dangerous as jobs continue to shift East driven by markets and technology regardless of Trump’s promises. The Pentagon will overhype Chinese aggression to justify their budgets, as they did with Russia.

Bismarck was a monster and the world would have been better if one of the assassination attempts had succeeded (see HERE for other branching histories) but he also understood fundamental questions better than others. Those responsible for policy on China should study his advice. They should also study summer 1914 and ponder how those responsible for war and peace still make these decisions in much the same way as then, while the crises are 1,000 times faster and a million times more potentially destructive.

Such problems require embedding lessons from effective institutions into our systematically flawed political institutions. I describe in detail the systems management approach to complex projects developed in the 1950s and 1960s that is far more advanced than anything in Whitehall today and which is part of necessary reforms (see HERE, p.26ff for summary of lessons). I will blog on other ideas. Unless we find a way to build political institutions that produce much more reliable decisions from the raw material of unreliable humans the law of averages means we are sure to fall off our tightrope, and unlike in 1918 or 1945 we won’t have anything to clamber back on to…

The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #3: lessons on ‘capturing the heavens’ from the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet & PC

Below is a short summary of some basic principles of the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet and the personal computer. I wrote it originally as part of an anniversary blog on the referendum but it is also really part of this series on effective action.

One of the most interesting aspects of this project, like Mueller’s reforms of NASA, is the contrast between 1) extreme effectiveness, changing the world in a profound way, and 2) the general reaction to the methods was not only a failure to learn but a widespread hostility inside established bureaucracies (public and private) to the successful approach: NASA dropped Mueller’s approach when he left and has never been the same, and XEROX closed PARC and fired Bob Taylor. Changing the world in a profound and beneficial way is not enough to put a dint in bureaucracies which operate on their own dynamics.

Warren Buffet explained decades ago how institutions actively fight against learning and fight to stay in a closed and vicious feedback loop:

‘My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative”. In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligence, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned the hard way that isn’t so. Instead rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

‘For example, 1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law, any institution will resist any change in its current direction. 2) … Corporate projects will materialise to soak up available funds. 3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will quickly be supported by … his troops. 4) The behaviour of peer companies … will be mindlessly imitated.’

Many of the principles behind ARPA/PARC could be applied to politics and government but they will not be learned from ‘naturally’ inside the system. Dramatic improvements will only happen if a group of people force ‘system’ changes on how government works so it is open to learning.

I have modified the below very slightly and added some references.

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ARPA/PARC and ‘capturing the heavens’: The best way to predict the future is to invent it

The panic over Sputnik brought many good things such as a huge increase in science funding. America also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, which later added ‘Defense’ and became DARPA). Its job was to fund high risk / high payoff technology development. In the 1960s and 1970s, a combination of unusual people and unusually wise funding from ARPA created a community that in turn invented the internet, or ‘the intergalactic network’ as Licklider originally called it, and the personal computer. One of the elements of this community was PARC, a research centre working for Xerox. As Bill Gates said, he and Steve Jobs essentially broke into PARC, stole their ideas, and created Microsoft and Apple.

The ARPA/PARC project is an example of how if something is set up properly then a tiny number of people can do extraordinary things.

  • PARC had about 25 people and about $12 million per year in today’s money.
  • The breakthroughs from the ARPA/PARC project  created over 35 TRILLION DOLLARS of value for society and counting.
  • The internet architecture they built, based on decentralisation and distributed control, has scaled up over ten orders of magnitude (1010) without ever breaking and without ever being taken down for maintenance since 1969.

The whole story is fascinating in many ways. I won’t go into the technological aspects. I just want to say something about the process.

What does a process that produces ideas that change the world look like?

One of the central figures was Alan Kay. One of the most interesting things about the project is that not only has almost nobody tried to repeat this sort of research but the business world has even gone out of its way to spread mis-information about it because it was seen as so threatening to business-as-usual.

I will sketch a few lessons from one of Kay’s pieces but I urge you to read the whole thing.

‘This is what I call “The power of the context” or “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points”. Science and engineering themselves are famous examples, but there are even more striking processes within these large disciplines. One of the greatest works of art from that fruitful period of ARPA/PARC research in the 60s and 70s was the almost invisible context and community that catalysed so many researchers to be incredibly better dreamers and thinkers. That it was a great work of art is confirmed by the world-changing results that appeared so swiftly, and almost easily. That it was almost invisible, in spite of its tremendous success, is revealed by the disheartening fact today that, as far as I’m aware, no governments and no companies do edge-of-the-art research using these principles.’

‘[W]hen I think of ARPA/PARC, I think first of good will, even before brilliant people… Good will and great interest in graduate students as “world-class researchers who didn’t have PhDs yet” was the general rule across the ARPA community.

‘[I]t is no exaggeration to say that ARPA/PARC had “visions rather than goals” and “funded people, not projects”. The vision was “interactive computing as a complementary intellectual partner for people pervasively networked world-wide”. By not trying to derive specific goals from this at the funding side, ARPA/PARC was able to fund rather different and sometimes opposing points of view.

‘The pursuit of Art always sets off plans and goals, but plans and goals don’t always give rise to Art. If “visions not goals” opens the heavens, it is important to find artistic people to conceive the projects.

‘Thus the “people not projects” principle was the other cornerstone of ARPA/PARC’s success. Because of the normal distribution of talents and drive in the world, a depressingly large percentage of organizational processes have been designed to deal with people of moderate ability, motivation, and trust. We can easily see this in most walks of life today, but also astoundingly in corporate, university, and government research. ARPA/PARC had two main thresholds: self-motivation and ability. They cultivated people who “had to do, paid or not” and “whose doings were likely to be highly interesting and important”. Thus conventional oversight was not only not needed, but was not really possible. “Peer review” wasn’t easily done even with actual peers. The situation was “out of control”, yet extremely productive and not at all anarchic.

‘”Out of control” because artists have to do what they have to do. “Extremely productive” because a great vision acts like a magnetic field from the future that aligns all the little iron particle artists to point to “North” without having to see it. They then make their own paths to the future. Xerox often was shocked at the PARC process and declared it out of control, but they didn’t understand that the context was so powerful and compelling and the good will so abundant, that the artists worked happily at their version of the vision. The results were an enormous collection of breakthroughs.

‘Our game is more like art and sports than accounting, in that high percentages of failure are quite OK as long as enough larger processes succeed… [I]n most processes today — and sadly in most important areas of technology research — the administrators seem to prefer to be completely in control of mediocre processes to being “out of control” with superproductive processes. They are trying to “avoid failure” rather than trying to “capture the heavens”.

‘All of these principles came together a little over 30 years ago to eventually give rise to 1500 Altos, Ethernetworked to: each other, Laserprinters, file servers and the ARPAnet, distributed to many kinds of end-users to be heavily used in real situations. This anticipated the commercial availability of this genre by 10-15 years. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

‘[W]e should realize that many of the most important ARPA/PARC ideas haven’t yet been adopted by the mainstream. For example, it is amazing to me that most of Doug Engelbart’s big ideas about “augmenting the collective intelligence of groups working together” have still not taken hold in commercial systems. What looked like a real revolution twice for end-users, first with spreadsheets and then with Hypercard, didn’t evolve into what will be commonplace 25 years from now, even though it could have. Most things done by most people today are still “automating paper, records and film” rather than “simulating the future”. More discouraging is that most computing is still aimed at adults in business, and that aimed at nonbusiness and children is mainly for entertainment and apes the worst of television. We see almost no use in education of what is great and unique about computer modeling and computer thinking. These are not technological problems but a lack of perspective. Must we hope that the open-source software movements will put things right?

‘The ARPA/PARC history shows that a combination of vision, a modest amount of funding, with a felicitous context and process can almost magically give rise to new technologies that not only amplify civilization, but also produce tremendous wealth for the society. Isn’t it time to do this again by Reason, even with no Cold War to use as an excuse? How about helping children of the world grow up to think much better than most adults do today? This would truly create “The Power of the Context”.’

Note how this story runs contrary to how free market think tanks and pundits describe technological development. The impetus for most of this development came from government funding, not markets.

Also note that every attempt since the 1950s to copy ARPA and JASON (the semi-classified group that partly gave ARPA its direction) in the UK has been blocked by Whitehall. The latest attempt was in 2014 when the Cabinet Office swatted aside the idea. Hilariously its argument was ‘DARPA has had a lot of failures’ thus demonstrating extreme ignorance about the basic idea — the whole point is you must have failures and if you don’t have lots of failures then you are failing!

People later claimed that while PARC may have changed the world it never made any money for XEROX. This is ‘absolute bullshit’ (Kay). It made billions from the laser printer alone and overall Xerox made 250 times what they invested in PARC before they went bust. In 1983 they fired Bob Taylor, the manager of PARC and the guy who made it all happen.

‘They hated [Taylor] for the very reason that most companies hate people who are doing something different, because it makes middle and upper management extremely uncomfortable. The last thing they want to do is make trillions, they want to make a few millions in a comfortable way’ (Kay).

Someone finally listened to Kay recently. ‘YC Research’, the research arm of the world’s most successful (by far) technology incubator, is starting to fund people in this way. I am not aware of any similar UK projects though I know that a small network of people are thinking again about how something like this could be done here. If you can help them, take a risk and help them! Someone talk to science minister Jo Johnson but be prepared for the Treasury’s usual ignorant bullshit — ‘what are we buying for our money, and how can we put in place appropriate oversight and compliance?’ they will say!

*

As we ponder the future of the UK-EU relationship shaped amid the farce of modern Whitehall, we should think hard about the ARPA/PARC example: how a small group of people can make a huge breakthrough with little money but the right structure, the right ways of thinking, and the right motives.

Those of us outside the political system thinking ‘we know we can do so much better than this but HOW can we break through the bullshit?’ need to change our perspective and gain 80 IQ points.

This real picture is a metaphor for the political culture: ad hoc solutions that are either bad or don’t scale.

Screenshot 2017-06-14 16.58.14.png

ARPA said ‘Let’s get rid of all the wires’. How do we ‘get rid of all the wires’ and build something different that breaks open the closed and failing political cultures? Winning the referendum was just one step that helps clear away dead wood but we now need to build new things.

The ARPA vision that aligned the artists ‘like little iron filings’ was:

‘Computers are destined to become interactive intellectual amplifiers for everyone in the world universally networked worldwide’ (Licklider).

We need a motivating vision aimed not at tomorrow but at changing the basic wiring of  the whole system, a vision that can align ‘the little iron filings’, and then start building for the long-term.

I will go into what I think this vision could be and how to do it another day. I think it is possible to create something new that could scale very fast and enable us to do politics and government extremely differently, as different to today as the internet and PC were to the post-war mainframes. This would enable us to build huge long-term value for humanity in a relatively short time (less than 20 years). To create it we need a process as well suited to the goal as the ARPA/PARC project was and incorporating many of its principles.

We must try to escape the current system with its periodic meltdowns and international crises. These crises move 500-1,000 times faster than that of summer 1914. Our destructive potential is at least a million-fold greater than it was in 1914. Yet we have essentially the same hierarchical command-and-control decision-making systems in place now that could not even cope with 1914 technology and pace. We have dodged nuclear wars by fluke because individuals made snap judgements in minutes. Nobody who reads the history of these episodes can think that this is viable long-term, and we will soon have another wave of innovation to worry about with autonomous robots and genetic engineering. Technology gives us no option but to try to overcome evolved instincts like destroying out-group competitors.

Watch Alan Kay explain how to invent the future HERE and HERE.

This link has these seminal papers:

  • Man-Computer Symbiosis, Licklider (1960)
  • The computer as a communications device, Licklider & Taylor (1968)

Part I of this series is HERE.

Part II on the emergence of ‘systems management’, how George Mueller used it to put man on the moon, and a checklist of how successful management of complex projects is systematically different to how Whitehall (and other state bureaucracies) work HERE.


Ps. Kay also points out that the real computer revolution won’t happen until people fulfil the original vision of enabling children to use this powerful way of thinking:

‘The real printing revolution was a qualitative change in thought and argument that lagged the hardware inventions by almost two centuries. The special quality of computers is their ability to rapidly simulate arbitrary descriptions, and the real computer revolution won’t happen until children can learn to read, write, argue and think in this powerful new way. We should all try to make this happen much sooner than 200 or even 20 more years!’

Almost nobody in education policy is aware of the educational context for the ARPA/PARC project which also speaks volumes about the abysmal field of ‘education research/policy’. People rightly say ‘education tech has largely failed’ but very few are aware that many of the original ideas from Licklider, Engelbart et al have never been tried and the Apple and MS versions are not the original vision.

 

On the referendum #23, a year after victory: ‘a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points’ & ‘how to capture the heavens’

‘Just like all British governments, they will act more or less in a hand to mouth way on the spur of the moment, but they will not think out and adopt a steady policy.’ Earl Cromer, 1896.

Fascinating that the same problems recur time after time, in almost every program, and that the management of the program, whether it happened to be government or industry, continues to avoid reality.’ George Mueller, pioneer of systems management and head of the Apollo programme to put man on the moon.

Traditional cultures, those that all humans lived in until quite recently and which still survive in pockets, don’t realise that they are living inside a particular perspective. They think that what they see is ‘reality’. It is, obviously, not their fault. It is not because they are stupid. It is a historical accident that they did/do not have access to mental models that help more accurate thinking about reality.

Westminster and the other political cultures dotted around the world are similar to these traditional cultures. They think they they are living in ‘reality’. The MPs and pundits get up, read each other, tweet at each other, give speeches, send press releases, have dinner, attack, fuck or fight each other, do the same tomorrow and think ‘this is reality’. Like traditional cultures they are wrong. They are living inside a particular perspective that enormously distorts reality. 

They are trapped in thinking about today and their careers. They are trapped in thinking about incremental improvements. Almost nobody has ever been part of a high performance team responsible for a complex project. The speciality is a hot take to explain post facto what one cannot predict. They mostly don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t understand the decentralised information processing that allows markets to enable complex coordination. They don’t understand how scientific research works and they don’t value it. Their daily activity is massively constrained by the party and state bureaucracies that incentivise behaviour very different to what humanity needs to create long-term value. As Michael Nielsen (author of Reinventing Science) writes:

‘[M]uch of our intellectual elite who think they have “the solutions” have actually cut themselves off from understanding the basis for much of the most important human progress.’

Unlike traditional cultures, our modern political cultures don’t have the excuse of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We could do better. But it is very very hard to escape the core imperatives that make big bureaucracies — public companies as well as state bureaucracies — so bad at learning. Warren Buffet explained decades ago how institutions actively fight against learning and fight to stay in a closed and vicious feedback loop:

‘My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative”. In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligence, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned the hard way that isn’t so. Instead rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

‘For example, 1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law, any institution will resist any change in its current direction. 2) … Corporate projects will materialise to soak up available funds. 3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will quickly be supported by … his troops. 4) The behaviour of peer companies … will be mindlessly imitated.’

Almost nobody really learns from the world’s most successful investor about investing and how to run a successful business with good corporate governance. (People read what he writes but almost no investors choose to operate long-term like him, I think it is still true that not a single public company has copied his innovations with corporate governance like ‘no pay for company directors’, and governments have consistently rejected his and Munger’s advice about controlling the looting of public companies by management.) Almost nobody really learns how to do things better from the experience of dealing with this ‘institutional imperative’. We fail over and over again in the same way, trusting in institutions that are programmed to fail.

It is very very hard for humans to lift our eyes from today and to go out into the future and think about what could be done to bring the future back to the present. Like ants crawling around on the leaf, we political people only know our leaf.

Science has shown us a different way. Newton looked up from his leaf, looked far away from today, and created a new perspective — a new model of reality. It took an extreme genius to discover something like calculus but once discovered billions of people who are far from being geniuses can use this new perspective. Science advances by turning new ideas into standard ideas so each generation builds on the last.

Politics does the equivalent of constantly trying to reinvent children’s arithmetic and botching it. It does not build reliable foundations of knowledge. Archimedes is no longer cutting edge. Thucydides and Sun Tzu are still cutting edge. Even though Tetlock and others have shown how to start making similar progress with politics, our political cultures fiercely resist learning and fight ferociously to stay in closed and failing feedback loops.

In many ways our political culture has regressed as it has become more and more audio-visual and less and less literate. (Only 31% of US college graduates can read at a basic level. I’d guess it’s similar here. See end.) I’ve experimented with the way Jeff Bezos runs meetings at Amazon: i.e start the meeting with giving people a 5-10 page memo to read. Impossible in Westminster, nobody will sit and read like that! Officials have tried and failed for a year to get senior ministers to engage with complex written material about the EU negotiations. TV news dominates politics and is extremely low-bandwidth: it contains a few hundred words and rarely uses graphics properly. Evan Davis illustrates a comment about ‘going down the plughole’ with a picture of water down a plughole and Nick Robinson illustrates a comment about ‘the economy taking off’ with a picture of a plane taking off. The constant flow of bullshit from the likes of Robert Peston and Jon Snow dominates the medium because competition has been impossible until recently. BUT, although technology is making these charlatans less relevant (good) it also creates new problems and will not necessarily improve the culture.

Watching political news makes you dumber — switch it off and read books! If you work in it, either QUIT or go on holiday and come back determined to subvert it. How? Start with a previous blog which has some ideas, like tracking properly which people have a record of getting things right and wrong. Every editor I’ve suggested this to winces and says ‘impossible’. Insiders fear accountability and competition.

Today, the anniversary of the referendum, is a good day to forget the babble in the bubble and think about lessons from another project that changed the world, the famous ARPA/PARC team of the 1960s and 1970s.

*

ARPA/PARC and ‘capturing the heavens’: The best way to predict the future is to invent it

The panic over Sputnik brought many good things such as a huge increase in science funding. America also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, which later added ‘Defense’ and became DARPA). Its job was to fund high risk / high payoff technology development. In the 1960s and 1970s, a combination of unusual people and unusually wise funding from ARPA created a community that in turn invented the internet, or ‘the intergalactic network’ as Licklider originally called it, and the personal computer. One of the elements of this community was PARC, a research centre working for Xerox. As Bill Gates said, he and Steve Jobs essentially broke into PARC, stole their ideas, and created Microsoft and Apple.

The ARPA/PARC project has created over 35 TRILLION DOLLARS of value for society and counting.

The whole story is fascinating in many ways. I won’t go into the technological aspects. I just want to say something about the process.

What does a process that produces ideas that change the world look like?

One of the central figures was Alan Kay. One of the most interesting things about the project is that not only has almost nobody tried to repeat this sort of research but the business world has even gone out of its way to spread mis-information about it because it was seen as so threatening to business-as-usual.

I will sketch a few lessons from one of Kay’s pieces but I urge you to read the whole thing.

‘This is what I call “The power of the context” or “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points”. Science and engineering themselves are famous examples, but there are even more striking processes within these large disciplines. One of the greatest works of art from that fruitful period of ARPA/PARC research in the 60s and 70s was the almost invisible context and community that catalysed so many researchers to be incredibly better dreamers and thinkers. That it was a great work of art is confirmed by the world-changing results that appeared so swiftly, and almost easily. That it was almost invisible, in spite of its tremendous success, is revealed by the disheartening fact today that, as far as I’m aware, no governments and no companies do edge-of-the-art research using these principles.’

‘[W]hen I think of ARPA/PARC, I think first of good will, even before brilliant people… Good will and great interest in graduate students as “world-class researchers who didn’t have PhDs yet” was the general rule across the ARPA community.

‘[I]t is no exaggeration to say that ARPA/PARC had “visions rather than goals” and “funded people, not projects”. The vision was “interactive computing as a complementary intellectual partner for people pervasively networked world-wide”. By not trying to derive specific goals from this at the funding side, ARPA/PARC was able to fund rather different and sometimes opposing points of view.

‘The pursuit of Art always sets off plans and goals, but plans and goals don’t always give rise to Art. If “visions not goals” opens the heavens, it is important to find artistic people to conceive the projects.

‘Thus the “people not projects” principle was the other cornerstone of ARPA/PARC’s success. Because of the normal distribution of talents and drive in the world, a depressingly large percentage of organizational processes have been designed to deal with people of moderate ability, motivation, and trust. We can easily see this in most walks of life today, but also astoundingly in corporate, university, and government research. ARPA/PARC had two main thresholds: self-motivation and ability. They cultivated people who “had to do, paid or not” and “whose doings were likely to be highly interesting and important”. Thus conventional oversight was not only not needed, but was not really possible. “Peer review” wasn’t easily done even with actual peers. The situation was “out of control”, yet extremely productive and not at all anarchic.

‘”Out of control” because artists have to do what they have to do. “Extremely productive” because a great vision acts like a magnetic field from the future that aligns all the little iron particle artists to point to “North” without having to see it. They then make their own paths to the future. Xerox often was shocked at the PARC process and declared it out of control, but they didn’t understand that the context was so powerful and compelling and the good will so abundant, that the artists worked happily at their version of the vision. The results were an enormous collection of breakthroughs.

‘Our game is more like art and sports than accounting, in that high percentages of failure are quite OK as long as enough larger processes succeed… [I]n most processes today — and sadly in most important areas of technology research — the administrators seem to prefer to be completely in control of mediocre processes to being “out of control” with superproductive processes. They are trying to “avoid failure” rather than trying to “capture the heavens”.

‘All of these principles came together a little over 30 years ago to eventually give rise to 1500 Altos, Ethernetworked to: each other, Laserprinters, file servers and the ARPAnet, distributed to many kinds of end-users to be heavily used in real situations. This anticipated the commercial availability of this genre by 10-15 years. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

‘[W]e should realize that many of the most important ARPA/PARC ideas haven’t yet been adopted by the mainstream. For example, it is amazing to me that most of Doug Engelbart’s big ideas about “augmenting the collective intelligence of groups working together” have still not taken hold in commercial systems. What looked like a real revolution twice for end-users, first with spreadsheets and then with Hypercard, didn’t evolve into what will be commonplace 25 years from now, even though it could have. Most things done by most people today are still “automating paper, records and film” rather than “simulating the future”. More discouraging is that most computing is still aimed at adults in business, and that aimed at nonbusiness and children is mainly for entertainment and apes the worst of television. We see almost no use in education of what is great and unique about computer modeling and computer thinking. These are not technological problems but a lack of perspective. Must we hope that the open-source software movements will put things right?

‘The ARPA/PARC history shows that a combination of vision, a modest amount of funding, with a felicitous context and process can almost magically give rise to new technologies that not only amplify civilization, but also produce tremendous wealth for the society. Isn’t it time to do this again by Reason, even with no Cold War to use as an excuse? How about helping children of the world grow up to think much better than most adults do today? This would truly create “The Power of the Context”.’

Note how this story runs contrary to how free market think tanks and pundits describe technological development. The impetus for most of this development came from government funding, not markets.

Also note that every attempt since the 1950s to copy ARPA and JASON (the semi-classified group that partly gave ARPA its direction) in the UK has been blocked by Whitehall. The latest attempt was in 2014 when the Cabinet Office swatted aside the idea. Hilariously its argument was ‘DARPA has had a lot of failures’ thus demonstrating extreme ignorance about the basic idea — the whole point is you must have failures and if you don’t have lots of failures then you are failing!

People later claimed that while PARC may have changed the world it never made any money for XEROX. This is ‘absolute bullshit’ (Kay). It made billions from the laser printer alone and overall Xerox made 250 times what they invested in PARC before they went bust. In 1983 they fired Bob Taylor, the manager of PARC and the guy who made it all happen.

‘They hated [Taylor] for the very reason that most companies hate people who are doing something different, because it makes middle and upper management extremely uncomfortable. The last thing they want to do is make trillions, they want to make a few millions in a comfortable way’ (Kay).

Someone finally listened to Kay recently. ‘YC Research’, the research arm of the world’s most successful (by far) technology incubator, is starting to fund people in this way. I am not aware of any similar UK projects though I know that a small network of people are thinking again about how something like this could be done here. If you can help them, take a risk and help them! Someone talk to science minister Jo Johnson but be prepared for the Treasury’s usual ignorant bullshit — ‘what are we buying for our money, and how can we put in place appropriate oversight and compliance?’ they will say!

Why is this relevant to the referendum?

As we ponder the future of the UK-EU relationship shaped amid the farce of modern Whitehall, we should think hard about the ARPA/PARC example: how a small group of people can make a huge breakthrough with little money but the right structure, the right ways of thinking, and the right motives.

Those of us outside the political system thinking ‘we know we can do so much better than this but HOW can we break through the bullshit?’ need to change our perspective and gain 80 IQ points.

This real picture is a metaphor for the political culture: ad hoc solutions that are either bad or don’t scale.

Screenshot 2017-06-14 16.58.14.png

ARPA said ‘Let’s get rid of all the wires’. How do we ‘get rid of all the wires’ and build something different that breaks open the closed and failing political cultures? Winning the referendum was just one step that helps clear away dead wood but we now need to build new things.

The ARPA vision that aligned the artists ‘like little iron filings’ was:

‘Computers are destined to become interactive intellectual amplifiers for everyone in the world universally networked worldwide’ (Licklider).

We need a motivating vision aimed not at tomorrow but at changing the basic wiring of  the whole system, a vision that can align ‘the little iron filings’, and then start building for the long-term.

I will go into what I think this vision could be and how to do it another day. I think it is possible to create something new that could scale very fast and enable us to do politics and government extremely differently, as different to today as the internet and PC were to the post-war mainframes. This would enable us to build huge long-term value for humanity in a relatively short time (less than 20 years). To create it we need a process as well suited to the goal as the ARPA/PARC project was and incorporating many of its principles.

We must try to escape the current system with its periodic meltdowns and international crises. These crises move 500-1,000 times faster than that of summer 1914. Our destructive potential is at least a million-fold greater than it was in 1914. Yet we have essentially the same hierarchical command-and-control decision-making systems in place now that could not even cope with 1914 technology and pace. We have dodged nuclear wars by fluke because individuals made snap judgements in minutes. Nobody who reads the history of these episodes can think that this is viable long-term, and we will soon have another wave of innovation to worry about with autonomous robots and genetic engineering. Technology gives us no option but to try to overcome evolved instincts like destroying out-group competitors.

In a previous blog I outlined how the ‘systems management’ approach used to put man on the moon provides principles for a new approach.

*

Ironically, one of the very few people in politics who understood the sort of thinking needed was … Jean Monnet, the architect of the EEC/EU! Monnet understood how to step back from today and build institutions. He worked operationally to prepare the future:

‘If there was stiff competition round the centres of power, there was practically none in the area where I wanted to work – preparing the future.’

Monnet was one of the few people in modern politics who really deserve the label ‘genius’. The story of how he wangled the creation of his institutions through the daily chaos of post-war politics is a lesson to anybody who wants to get things done.

But the institutions he created are in many ways the opposite of what the world needs. Their core operating principle is perpetual centralisation of power in the hands of an all powerful bureaucracy (Commission) and Court (ECJ). Nothing that works well in the world works like this!

Thanks to the prominence of Farage the dominant story among educated people is that those who got us out of the EU want to take us back to the pre-1914 era of hostile competing nation states. Nothing could be further from the truth. The key people in Vote Leave wanted and want not just what is best for Britain but what is best for all humanity. We want more international cooperation, not less. The problem with the EU is not that it is about international cooperation but that it is so bad at it and actually undermines it.

Britain leaving forces those with power to ask: how can all European countries trade freely and cooperate without subscribing to Monnet’s bureaucratic centralism? This will help Europe in the long-term. To those who favour this bureaucratic centralism and uniformity, reflect on the different trajectories of Europe and China post-Renaissance. In Europe, regulatory competition (so Columbus could chase funding in Spain after rejection in Portugal) brought immense gains. In China, centrally directed uniformity led to centuries of stagnation. America’s model of competitive federalism created by the founding fathers has been a far more effective engine of civilisation, growth, and new knowledge than the Monnet-Delors Single Market model.

If Britain were to focus on science and education with huge resources and a new-found seriousness, then this regulatory diversity would help not just Britain but all Europe and the global science community. We could make Britain the best place in the world to be for those who can invent the future. Like Alan Kay and his colleagues, we could create whole new industries. We could call Jeff Bezos and say, ‘Ok Jeff, you want a permanent international manned moon base, let’s talk about who does what, but not with that old rocket technology.’ No country on earth funds science as well as we already know how it could be done — that is something for Britain to do that would create real long-term value for humanity, instead of the ‘punching above our weight’ and ‘special relationship’ bullshit that passes for strategy in London. How we change our domestic institutions is within our power and will have much much greater influence on our long-term future than whatever deal is botched together with Brussels. We have the resources. But can we break the system open? If we don’t then we’re likely to go down the path we were already going down inside the EU, like the deluded Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard claiming ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.’

*

Vote Leave and ‘good will’

Although Vote Leave was enmeshed in a sort of collective lunacy we managed, barely, to fend it off from the inner working of the campaign. Much of my job (sadly) was just trying to maintain a cordon around the core team so they could deliver the campaign with as little disruption as possible. We managed this because among the core people we had great good will. The stories of the campaign focus on the lunacy, but the people who really made it work remember the goodwill.

A year ago tonight I was sitting alone in a room thinking ‘we’ve won, now…’ when the walls started rumbling. At first I couldn’t make it out then, as Tim Shipman tells the story in his definitive book on the campaign, I heard ‘Dom, Dom, DOM’ — the team had declared victory. I went next door…

Thanks to everybody who sacrificed something. As I said that night and as I said in my long blog on the campaign, I’ve been given credit I don’t deserve and which rightly belongs to others — Cleo Watson, Richard ‘Ricardo’ Howell, Brother Starkie, Oliver Lewis, Lord Suart et al. Now, let’s think about what should come next…

 

Watch Alan Kay explain how to invent the future HERE and HERE.


Ps. Kay also points out that the real computer revolution won’t happen until people fulfil the original vision of enabling children to use this powerful way of thinking:

‘The real printing revolution was a qualitative change in thought and argument that lagged the hardware inventions by almost two centuries. The special quality of computers is their ability to rapidly simulate arbitrary descriptions, and the real computer revolution won’t happen until children can learn to read, write, argue and think in this powerful new way. We should all try to make this happen much sooner than 200 or even 20 more years!’

Almost nobody in education policy is aware of the educational context for the ARPA/PARC project which also speaks volumes about the abysmal field of ‘education research/policy’.

* Re the US literacy statistic, cf. A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century, National Assessment of Adult Literacy, U.S. Dept of Education, NCES 2006.

 

 

 

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2(b): the Apollo programme, the Tory train wreck, and advice to spads starting work today

A few months ago I put a paper on my blog: The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’ — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’.

It examined the history of the classified programme to build ICBMs and the way in which George Mueller turned the failing NASA bureaucracy into an organisation that could put man on the moon. The heart of the paper is about the principles behind effective management of complex projects. These principles are relevant to Government, politics, and campaigns.

The paper is long as I thought it worthwhile to tell some of the detailed story. At the suggestion of various spads, ministers, hacks and so on I have cut and pasted the conclusion below particularly for those starting new jobs today. This is in the form of a crude checklist that compares a) the principles of Mueller’s systems management and b) how Whitehall actually works.

You will see that Whitehall operates on exactly opposite principles to those organisations where high performance creates real value. You will also soon see that you are now in a culture in which almost nobody is aware of this and anybody who suggests it sinks their career. In your new department, failure is so normal it is not defined as ‘failure’. Officials lose millions and get a gong. There is little spirit of public service or culture of responsibility. The most political people are promoted and the most competent people, like Victoria Woodcock, leave. The very worst officials are often put in charge of training the next generation. For most powerful officials, the most important thing is preserving the system, closed and impregnable. Unlike for ministers, the TV blaring with DISASTER is of no concern – provided it is the Minister in the firing line not them – and the responsible officials will happily amble to the tube at 4pm while political careers hang in the balance and you draft statements taking ‘full responsibility’ for things you knew nothing about and would have been prohibited from fixing if you had.

For all those spads in particular who are moving into new jobs, it is worth reflecting on the deep principles that actually determine why things work and do not work. Nobody will explain these to you or talk to you about them. Sadly, few MPs these days understand the crucial role of management – they tend to think of it like science as a rather lowly skill beneath their Olympian status – so you will also probably have to cope with the fact that your minister is more interested in keeping one step ahead of Simon Walters (they won’t). The thing that officials will try hardest to do is convey to you that you have no role in personnel decisions and/or management.

If you accept that, you are accepting at the start that you will achieve very little. The reason why Gove’s team got much more done than ANY insider thought was possible – including Cameron and the Perm Sec – was because we bent or broke the rules and focused very hard on a) replacing rubbish officials and bringing in people from outside and b) project management.

You cannot reform the way the civil service works. Only a PM can do that and there is no chance of May doing it – she blew her chance and her reward is to be pushed around by Heywood and Sue Gray until her colleagues pull the plug and start the leadership campaign. You should assume that won’t be long so focus, manage a few priorities with daily and weekly timetables, and use embarrassing errors to negotiate secret deals with the Perm Sec to move rubbish officials out of your priority areas – trust me, Perm Secs understand this game and will do deals with alacrity to make their lives easier. Officials are less politically biased than you probably have been told – they are much more concerned with avoiding hard work and protecting the system than in resisting specific policies, and you can exploit this. Make alliances with the good officials who still have hope and have not been broken by the system, there are surprisingly many who will pop up if they think you actually care about the public rather than party interests.

You will also notice that fundamental issues of organisational culture described below explain the shambles of CCHQ over the past 8 weeks: the lack of information sharing, the lack of orientation, the culture of blaming juniors for the failures of overpaid senior people, bottlenecks preventing fast decisions, endless small errors compounding into a broken organisation because nobody knows who is responsible for what and so on. Every failing organisation has the same stories, people find it very hard to learn from the most successful organisations and people.

To the extent Vote Leave was successful, it was partly because I consciously tried to copy Mueller in various ways, though given my own severe limitations this was patchy. If you ever get the chance to exercise leadership, try to copy people like Mueller who tried to make the world better and build an organisation that people were proud to serve.

Finally, consider the basic condition that allows Westminster and Whitehall to be so rubbish and get away with it: they are not just monopolies, they set the rules of the game, and both the civil service and the parties make it almost impossible for outsiders to influence anything. But a) the combination of the 2008 crisis, Brexit, and extreme unhappiness about politics as usual provides a potentially powerful fuel for an insurgency, and b) technology provides opportunities for startups to catch public imagination and scale extremely fast. I’ve always been sceptical of the idea of a new UK party of any sort but I increasingly think there is a chance that a handful of entrepreneurs could start a sort of anti-party to exploit the broken system and create something which confounds the right/centre/left broken mental model that dominates SW1 and which combines Mueller’s principles with Silicon Valley technology.

If the Tory Party does not make some profound changes fast, then it faces being blamed for the disintegration of Brexit talks and the election of Corbyn after which it is possible that, rather than attempting a coup to take them over, entrepreneurs may decide it is more rational to build something that ploughs them into the earth next to Corbyn.

I said since last summer that if the Tory Party tried to carry on with Brexit and government using the same broken Downing Street operation, which spends its time on crap spin and has almost no capacity for serious management, and the same broken political operation, dominated by people who have failed to persuade the country convincingly for many years, then they would blow up. They failed to change Downing Street and they ran yet another fundamentally misconceived campaign that blew massive structural advantages. Kaboom.

[[Within minutes of publishing this blog I got the following email from someone I haven’t met but who I know was inside CCHQ with the para above highlighted and these words: ‘This is exactly my depressing experience – shit show run by people who don’t care about anything other than their jobs.’]]

MPs of all parties need to realise that the referendum makes it impossible to carry on with your usual bullshit – it forces changes upon you even though you want to carry on with the old games. The first set of MPs that realise this and change their operating principles will quickly overwhelm the others: there is a huge first-mover advantage especially in a field characterised by institutional incompetence that is susceptible to external shocks (terror, financial collapse) and which is opening up to technological disruption. And you will only get on top of Brexit if you realise that leaving the EU is a systems problem requiring a systems response and this means a radically different organisation of the UK negotiating team. The challenge is not far short of the political equivalent of the Apollo program and it needs similarly imaginative management.

For those who do want to do something better, the below will be useful. I encourage you to read the whole history HERE but for those rushing through a sandwich on Day 1 this summary will help you think of the big picture. If you want a detailed tutorial on how the civil service works then read The Hollow Men HERE

[Added later… It is also very instructive that despite the triumph of Mueller’s methods, NASA itself abandoned them after he left and has never recovered. Even spectacular success on a world-changing project is not enough to beat bureaucratic inertia. Also, the US Government passed so many laws that Mueller himself said in later life it would be impossible to repeat Apollo without making it a classified ‘black’ project to evade the regulations. JSOC, US classified special forces, has to run a lot of its standard procurement via ‘black’ procurement processes just to get anything done. The abysmal procurement rules imposed under the Single Market are just one of the good reasons for us to get out of the SM as well as the EU. I had to deal with them a lot in the DfE and had to find ways to cheat them a lot to get things done faster and cheaper. They add billions to costs every year and Whitehall refused for years even to assess this huge area to avoid undermining support for the EU.]

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Excerpt from The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2 (p.28ff) 

Core lessons [of Mueller’s systems management] for politics?

Finally, I will summarise some of the core lessons of systems management that could be applied to re-engineering political institutions such as Downing Street.  Mueller’s approach meant an extreme focus on some core principles:

  • Organisation-wide orientation. Everybody in a large organisation must understand as much about the goals and plans as possible. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: I doubt a single department has proper orientation across most of the organisation (few will have it even across the top 10 people), never mind a whole government. This is partly because most ministers fail at the first hurdle — developing coherent goals — so effective orientation is inherently impossible.
  • Integration. There must be an overall approach in which the most important elements fit together, including in policy, management, and communications. Failures in complex projects, from renovating your house to designing a new welfare system, often occur at interfaces between parts. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: for example, Cameron and Osborne approached important policy on immigration/welfare in the opposite way by 1) promising to reduce immigration to less than 100,000 while simultaneously 2) having no legal tools to do this (and even worse promising to change this then failing in the EU renegotiation) and 3) having welfare policies that incentivised more immigration then 4) announcing a new living wage thus increasing incentives further for immigration. They emphasised each element as part of short-term political games and got themselves into a long-term inescapable mess.
  • Extreme transparency and communication, horizontally as well as hierarchically. More, richer, deeper communication so that ‘all of us understand what was going on throughout the program… [C]ommunications on a level that is free and easy and not constrained by the fact that you’re the boss… [This was] the secret of the success of the program, because so many programs fail because everybody doesn’t know what it is they are supposed to do’ (Mueller). Break information and management silos — a denser network of information and commands is necessary and much of it must be decentralised and distributed between different teams, but with leadership having fast and clear information flow at the centre so problems are seen and tackled fast (a virtuous circle). There is very little that needs to be kept secret in government and different processes can easily be developed for that very small number of things. As McChrystal says of special forces operations generally the advantages of communication hugely outweigh the dangers of leaks. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it keeps information secret that does not need to be secret in order to hide its own internal processes from scrutiny, thus adding to its own management failures and distrust (a vicious circle).
  • ‘Configuration management’. There must be a process whereby huge efforts go into the initial design of a complex system then there is a process whereby changes are made in a disciplined way such that a) interdependencies are tested where possible by relevant people before a change is agreed and b) then everybody relevant knows about the change. This ties together design, engineering, management, scheduling, cost, contracts, and allows the coordination of interdisciplinary teams. Test, learn, communicate results, change where needed, communicate… Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it does not put enough effort into the initial design then makes haphazard changes then fails to communicate changes effectively.
  • Physical and information structures should reinforce open communication. From Mueller’s NASA to JSOC, organisations that have coped well with complexity have built novel control centres to reinforce extreme communication. Spend money and time on new technologies and processes to help spread orientation and learning through the organisation. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: e.g. its antiquated committee structure and ‘red box’ system are ludicrously inefficient regarding management but are kept because they give officials huge control over ministers.
  • Long-term budgets. Long-term budgets save money. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: normal government budget processes do not value speed and savings from doing things fast. They are focused on what Parliament thinks this year. This makes it very hard to plan wisely and wastes money in the long-term (see below).
  • You need a complex mix of centralisation and decentralisation. While overall vision, goals, and strategy usually comes from the top, it is vital that extreme decentralisation dominates operationally so that decisions are fast and unbureaucratic. Information must be shared centrally and horizontally across the organisation — it is not either/or. Big complex projects must empower people throughout the network and cannot rely on issuing orders through a hierarchy. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it is a centralising ratchet. E.g. Budgets and spending reviews are the exact opposite of Mueller’s approach. 1) They are short-term with almost no long-term elements. 2) They do not balance off priorities in any serious way. 3) They involve totally fake numbers — every department lies to the Treasury and provides fake numbers. Treasury officials dig into these. There are rounds of these games. Officials never stop lying. To maintain the charade the Chancellor never says to the SoS ‘stop your officials lying to us’ — candour would break the system. 4) The Treasury does not have the expertise to evaluate most of what they are looking at. The idea it is a department staffed by brilliant whiz kids is a joke. I saw DfE officials with very modest abilities routinely cheat the Treasury.
  • Extreme focus on errors. Schriever had ‘Black Saturdays’ and Mueller had similar meetings focused not on ‘reporting progress’ but making clear the problems. Simple as it sounds this is very unusual. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: routinely nobody is held responsible for errors and most management works on the basis of ‘give me good news not bad news’. Neither the culture nor incentives focus effort on eliminating errors. Most don’t care and you see those responsible for disaster ambling to the tube at 4pm or going on holiday amid meltdown.
  • Spending on redundancy to improve resilience. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it tends to treat redundancy as ‘waste’ and its short-term budget processes reinforce decisions that mean out-of-control long-term budgets. By the time the long-term happens, the responsible people have all moved on to better paid jobs and nobody is accountable.
  • Important knowledge is discovered but then the innovation is standardised and codified so it can be easily learned and used by others. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: for example, in the Department for Education officials systematically destroyed its own library. The DfE operated with almost no institutional memory. By the time I left in 2014, after David Cameron banned me from entering any department officials would ask to meet me outside to find out why decisions had been taken in 2011 because three years later almost everybody had moved on to other things. The Foreign Office similarly destroyed its own library.
  • Systems management means lots of process and documentation but at its best it is fluid and purposeful — it is not process for ass-covering. The crucial ‘Gillette Procedures’ swept away red tape and Schriever battled the system to maintain freedom from normal government processes. When asked how he would do a similar programme to Apollo now (1990s) Mueller responded that the only way to do it would be as a classified ‘black’ project to escape the law on issues like procurement. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: its obsession is bullshit process for buck-passing and it fights with all its might against simplification and focus.
  • Saving time saves money. Schriever and Mueller focused on speed and saving time. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: its default mode is to go slower and those who advocate speed are denounced as reckless. Repeatedly in the DfE I was told it was ‘impossible’ to do things in the period I demanded — often less than half what senior officials wanted — yet we often achieved this and there was practically no example of failure that came because my time demands were inherently unreasonable. The system naturally pushes for the longest periods they can get away with to give themselves what they think of as a chance to beat ‘expectations’ but then they often fail on absurdly long timetables. In the DfE we often had a better record of hitting timetables that were ‘impossibly’ short than on those that were traditionally long. Also in many areas there is no downside to pushing fast — the worst that happens is minor and irrelevant embarrassment while the cumulative gains from trying to go fast are huge.
  • The ‘systems’ approach is inherently interdisciplinary ‘because its function is to integrate the specialized separate pieces of a complex of apparatus and people — the system — into a harmonious ensemble that optimally achieves the desired end’ (Ramo). Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it is hopeless at assembling interdisciplinary teams and elevates legal advice over everything in relation to practically any problem, causing huge delays and cost overruns.
  • The ‘matrix management’ system allowed coordination across different departments and different projects.  Whitehall now works on opposite principles. It is stuck with antiquated departments, an antiquated Cabinet Office system, and antiquated project management. Anything ‘cross-government’ is an immediate clue to the savvy that it is doomed and rarely worth wasting time on. A ‘matrix’ approach could and should be applied to break existing hierarchies and speed everything up.
  • People and ideas were more important than technology. Computers and other technologies can help but the main ideas came in the 1950s before personal computers. JSOC applied all sorts of technologies but Colonel Boyd’s dictum holds: people, ideas, technology — in that order. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: for example, the former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, recently blamed a ‘lack of investment’ in IT and a shortage of staff for a huge range of Whitehall blunders. This is really deluded. The central problem is known to all experts and is shown in almost every inquiry: IT projects fail repeatedly in the same ways because of failures of management, not ‘lack of investment’, and adding people to flawed projects is not a solution.

Ministers have little grip of departments and little power to change their direction. They can’t hire or fire and they can’t set incentives. They are almost never in a job long enough to acquire much useful knowledge and they almost never have the sort of management skills that provide alternative value to specific knowledge. They have little chance to change anything and officials ensure this little chance becomes almost no chance.

This story shows how to do things much better than normal. It shows that the principles underlying Mueller’s success are naturally in extreme competition with the principles of management that dominate all normal bureaucracies, public or private. People have been able to read about these principles for decades yet today in Whitehall almost everything runs on exactly the opposite principles: incentives operate to suppress learning. The institutional and policy changes inherent in leaving the EU are a systems problem requiring a systems response. Implementing Mueller’s principles would mean changes to most of the antiquated and failing foundations of Whitehall and bring big improvements and cost savings. Such changes are likely to be resisted by most MPs as well as Whitehall given few of them understand or have experience in high performance teams and would regard Mueller’s approach as a threat to their career prospects.

Because Whitehall is a system failure in which different failures are entangled, its inhabitants tend to potter around in an uncomprehending fog of confusion without understanding why things fail every day and therefore they do not support changes that could improve things even though these changes would be personally advantageous particularly for the first mover.

What is the minimum needed to break bureaucratic resistance and spark a virtuous circle?

How can people outside the system affect mission critical political institutions protected from market competition and resistant to major reforms?

How can we replace many traditional centralised bureaucracies with institutions that mimic successful biological systems such as the immune system that a) use distributed information processing to identify useful structure in the environment, b) find ‘good enough’ solutions in a vast search space of possibilities, and c) move at least ten times faster than existing systems?

[If you find this interesting and/or useful, then the PDF of the whole story is here. It involves some of the cleverest people of the 20th Century, such as John von Neumann.]

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems’ thinking — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’

This is the second in a series: click this link 201702-effective-action-2-systems-engineering-to-systems-politics. The first is HERE.

This paper concerns a very interesting story combining politics, management, institutions, science and technology. When high technology projects passed a threshold of complexity post-1945 amid the extreme pressure of the early Cold War, new management ideas emerged. These ideas were known as ‘systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’. These ideas were particularly connected to the classified program to build the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in the 1950s and successful ideas were transplanted into a failing NASA by George Mueller and others from 1963 leading to the successful moon landing in 1969.

These ideas were then applied in other mission critical teams and could be used to improve government performance. Urgently needed projects to lower the probability of catastrophes for humanity will benefit from considering why Mueller’s approach was 1) so successful and 2) so un-influential in politics. Could we develop a ‘systems politics’ that applies the unrecognised simplicities of effective action?

For those interested, it also looks briefly at an interesting element of the story – the role of John von Neumann, the brilliant mathematician who was deeply involved in the Manhattan Project, the project to build ICBMs, the first digital computers, and subjects like artificial intelligence, artificial life, possibilities for self-replicating machines made from unreliable components, and the basic problem that technological progress ‘gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we have known them, cannot continue.’

An obvious project with huge inherent advantages for humanity is the development of an international manned lunar base as part of developing space for commerce and science. It is the sort of thing that might change political dynamics on earth and could generate enormous support across international boundaries. After 23 June 2016, the UK has to reorient national policy on many dimensions. Developing basic science is one of the most important dimensions (for example, as I have long argued we urgently need a civilian version of DARPA similarly operating outside normal government bureaucratic systems including procurement and HR). Supporting such an international project would be a great focus for UK efforts and far more productive than our largely wasted decades of focus on the dysfunctional bureaucracy in Brussels that is dominated by institutions that fail the most important test – the capacity for error-correction the importance of which has been demonstrated over long periods and through many problems by the Anglo-American political system and its common law.

Please leave comments or email dmc2.cummings at gmail.com