Thursday, September 09, 2004

Who needs symmetry?

What does it mean to say that something doesn’t work – as in the assumption of symmetry? It means presumably that if you use that principle to conduct your analysis and understanding of the situation, then you end up not being able to control or influence the situation in the way that you would like. What doesn’t work is the attempt to explain and interact.

If we assume that war is between nation states (and of course in international law it is) then we find we are at war with Al Qaeda then we find we are a bit hamstrung, by our assumptions, by our linguistic framework, by our laws, by our governance mechanisms and their rules. Probably it is worse than that, and our desire to find someone to be at war with as if by proxy will cause all sorts of extra problems.

These problems exist because of the attempt to use frameworks, like lines on a map in Africa, for things that they cannot support. When we try to keep our conceptual map tidy by forcing observations into the existing frame, we will have lots of confusion like this.

Trust works inside out however. The trusting disposition as a basis for the development of collaboration and shared perception is as old as man. As a basis it does not know about frameworks but is designed to allow the exploration of commonality and difference. When Gen Powell insists on national action in a situation where nation doesn’t support that, the first things he does is to create the shared perception amongst non-American interested parties that Americans come from another planet and cannot be trusted to understand.

Where trust development is the purpose, the symmetry of trust must be created. That is, the power of the more powerful party must be placed in a context where the amount of skin in the game is roughly equal. This is why terrorists can negotiate with the US government, because they can find a context in which their power in the moment is balanced with that of the superpower. Where there is good will and humility, the positive rather than the negative game can be played. The positive game can develop useful conceptual tools and frameworks that are of the moment and the issue, not some relic of a previous set of problems.