Monday, September 2, 2013

109. Conspiracy, incompetence and system tragedy

Internet is rife with conspiracy theories. A classic one concerns the assassination of Kennedy, and a more recent, salient one concerns 9/11. In an extreme form, conspiracy theorists blame every mishap on an evil state that with fiendish competence aims to exploit and oppress ‘the people’. The truth is hidden because the media conspire and whistleblowers are scared off or eliminated.

In more moderate forms, there is an eye for facts and arguments that do not rhyme well with official accounts, and the recognition that sometimes state conspiracies are indeed proven. There are awkward facts concerning 9/11: why airspace happened to be undefended precisely on that day, the odd way in which the towers collapsed upon themselves, including a third tower not hit by the planes, apparently falsified identities of the highjackers, suspicious streams of finance, and more. Suspicious also are the exploitation of the disaster to justify severe security measures and a diffuse ‘war on terror’, and business interests connected to the policy makers involved. And yes: it is widely accepted now that entry into the war in Iraq was based on lies and conspiracy. So, evidently conspiracies do occur.

Conspiracy theorists claim that they are dismissed as cranks because people are psychologically unable to face the fact that the state is against them. That would yield on intolerable feeling of insecurity.

So, what is going on? I do not doubt that there is bad intent among bankers, politicians, managers, traders, etc. in the form of cupidity, egotism, thirst for power, urge to win at all costs, and that critical scrutiny and countervailing power are needed to constrain them.

But more than from pervasive, widespread, and well planned conspiracy I think we suffer from incompetence, in an inability to identify problems correctly, to find good solutions, implement them, and to foresee and control all relevant consequences.

Perhaps most important, in our increasingly complex, interconnected world, is what I would call system tragedy. Well-intentioned ideas and actions are laced together in a system of cross-overs and mutations that could not be foreseen and that nobody wanted, let alone intended. Political decision-making is like bumper cars on a fancy fair. This is mingled with personal and institutional interests. Political and institutional logics of consensus and protection of vested interests and positions shove aside more substantive logics about the good and the true. And there is cowardice, in not daring to rock the boat and in the need to maintain social conformism. I have experienced all this myself in a conceptual battle concerning innovation policy where I succumbed miserably.

I also offer a psychological argument, here against conspiracy theorists. It is even more frightening to face the facts of incompetence and system tragedy than to assume evil intent in conspiracies. Conspirators can be replaced by tapping from the ‘good people’, and measures of control can be adopted. The really frightening thing is that this also mostly fails in system tragedy. The problem lies not only in ‘them the state’ but also in ‘we the people’.