The destruction of meaning

“That” slide, which has now featured most recently in the NY Times, is a creature of a major consultancy firm. The slide obfuscates and confuses, and the Generals are right to wonder what it means.

Does the presentation of information such as this rest on critical thinking, with an evidence base; is it a conceptual model, without empirical importance; is it a sophisticated ‘guess’? In the end, it represents the thinking of a room full of people who designed this and thought it made sense.

The condensation of content onto the PowerPoint slide is bad enough. The mind-mapping software that they used to create this thing is also to be faulted, as such models lead to the suggestion of deep meaning; the authors have suitably coded the slide with colours, linking arrows, and a key explaining what the two little lines mean over an arrow — all this suggests meaning, but that meaning depends on how individuals make sense of it themselves; it does not emerge naturally from the slide itself.

I’ve loaded the whole image and you just need to click it to see all of it. Note the slide is from a working draft, v3, and calling it that is consultancy code so they can easily change it. That way they can avoid having to stand behind their conclusions. Note also it is page 22; I wonder what the preceding 21 pages looked like — maybe they were PowerPoint slides, too. What was the next slide? “…and in conclusion, General, this slide shows four bullet points summarising the key actions for the Afghan strategy…?”

The arrows bother me; there is some suggestion that they imply causality, a sort of ‘if/then’ for instance: IF ISR/Open Source Ops THEN Coalition Knowledge and Understanding of Social Structures.  Note too that the latter is also negatively affected by “Duration of Operation”.

This is the type of technocratic thinking McNamara’s ‘boys’ thought was helpful during the Vietnam war. To be fair, the situation is complex and dynamic, but we know that, and complex issues are often presented in this way.

What I want to know is this: if this is the answer, what was the question?

How to Muddy Water