I’m currently reading ‘The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival“. At roughly the half way point the author goes on a bit of a diversion from the main narrative to explain his method for attempting to understand the motive of the tiger and how that may overlap or conflict with various humans in his story. To do that he brings us to a brief discussion of Jakob von Uexkull and the concept of Umwelt. As I was reading it I thought there might be some interesting applications for intelligence analysis. So, first let me take some quotes from the text to set my own background….
When talking about understanding animal behavior, Uexkull recommended imagining “a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar…is transformed.”
That bubble is referred to as the Umwelt which is different (but inseparable from) the Umgebung. The Umgebung is the objective world or reality which none of us really see/experience because we can only access it from behind the hazy view of our soap bubble Umwelt.
Back to the book:
In the umgebung of a city sidewalk, for example, a dog owner’s umwelt would differ greatly from that of her dog’s in that, while she might be keenly aware of a SALE sign in a window, a policeman coming toward her, or a broken bottle in her path, the dog would focus on the gust of cooked meat emanating from a restaurant’s exhaust fan, the urine on a fire hydrant, and the doughnut crumbs next to the broken bottle. Objectively, these two creatures inhabit the same umgebung, but their individual umwelten give them racially different experiences of it.
Our Umwelt (if you’d like a more scientific analogy) might be thought of like your DNA. Not only is every species different but there are also differences between individuals in a species. One would expect that the umwelt of two people (regardless of their upbringing, ideology, etc.) would be much similar than that between a person and a bird, for example.
One of the challenges we have in intelligence analysis is correctly identifying the interests, priorities and motives of opponents. There are techniques like ‘devil’s advocacy’ or ‘red teaming’ that can have real value but also are susceptible to biases like mirror imaging if the practicioners don’t have sufficient traning and experience in them. This, in turn, can lead to false levels of confidence and poor decision making.
It may be possible to use the concept of Umwelt to reduce the risk of such failings, even though that wasn’t the original intent of this process. Again, back to the author:
One way to envision the differences between these overlapping umwelten is to mentally color-code each creature’s objects of interest as it moves through space; the graphic potential is vast…and it can be fine-tuned by the intensity of a given color, the same way an infrared camera indicates temperature differences. For example, both dog and mistress would notice the restaurant exhaust fan, but the dog would attach a ‘hotter’ significance to it-unless mistress happened to be hungry too.
And this was the point I thought about the conflict in Syria and Iraq. In that conflict we have literally dozens of interested parties; nation states (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, United States, etc., etc.,) and non state actors (ISIS, al-Nusra, FSA, various Kurdish factions, ExxonMobil, various business interests, etc.), each with their own umwelt. It’s simply not possible to hold all the various perspectives and motivations of all the players (or, I suspect, even the ‘major’ players) in ones head. I think even a written document (the form we see many intelligence documents come in) can adequatly give the consumer a suitable perspective to take into account the moving parts necessary to craft good decisions.
Usually what happens is that we simplify the problem to a ‘managable’ level of actors and then proceed. Provided this reduced number of actors are the ones who have the ability to dominate events that’s probably ‘good enough’. It does not, however, take into account the possibility that ‘insignificant’ actors occasionally have an outsized influece under special circumstances. Essentially what you’re doing is trading the risk of surprise for simplicity. This may be a good deal…but if we don’t decide on that tradeoff early on we can forget that we’re even taking the risk.
Here’s one example of the sort of product you’ll see. They certainly get more complex to cover more nuance and include more actors but I’m not convinced that lends itself to more understanding or better decision making.
There may be a graphic product, however, that captures the varied interests of the players as well as the (estimated) intensity of those interests. From that point, it should be easier to both estimate future decisions of each actor as well as assist in making more effective decisions ourselves. And we needn’t confine this to only the extremely complex cases like we see in the Middle East now. While probably too complex and time consuming for every case you could certainly apply it to long standing criminal organizations as well as terrorist ones.
Here’s one graphic product that hints at what I’m talking about but it’s only looking at behavior (conflict/support) and doesn’t even get into the ‘why’ question or intensity of interaction.
I dont’ have a fully formed idea of what this product would look like yet but give me some time…